FINISHING THE BOOK: MOTIVATING WITH SMALL MILESTONES

“The days are long but the years are short.” –Gretchen Rubin

Not bragging, but in high school I scored a role as one of the lusty muleteers in The Man of La Mancha. For those of you who know me, this is totally out of character. For those of you who don’t know me . . . er . . . take my word for it. But I was so good in auditions that I got to throw Aldonza over my shoulder and haul her kicking and screaming from the stage for every one of our shows, musicals and the one-act play. It was great fun, discounting the make-up and tight pants.

 

Aldonza and Muleteers

(I’m not in this photo.)

 

I have one, not-so-fun memory about that production though. I was supposed to play a song on the lute and sing a solo with it. I had a lute. (Dad.) And a decent voice. (Mom.)

But every time I looked at the sheet music and thought about bar chords, time signatures, and picking, I got intimidated. With two weeks to spare, I confessed to my drama teacher that I wasn’t going to be able to play and sing at the same time. She was mildly disappointed, but shrugged and said we could use the pit orchestra, and that everything would be fine. No big deal.

But that moment stuck with me. It wasn’t talent or time that beat me. It was intimidation. This is a lesson I keep learning—one that keeps coming back to me for second helpings.

Earlier this year I told a potential agent that I’d have a rewritten novel manuscript to him by mid-March. It’s taken a lot of work to make it this far, certainly enough to have a little confidence. But every time I looked at the extensive edits required, I felt myself crumbling under the enormity. I’ll never be able to do all that, let alone before March. I kept comparing the few spare hours I have each week with the enormity of project and coming up emotionally short, unwilling to start on a project that “will never be finished.”

Our brains are wired for quick pay-offs. If you don’t believe it, check out the research by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, here or here. En bref, the quick reward of finishing something today is more important today than the promised reward of finishing something large and meaningful several weeks down the road. For the less ambitious, Tim Urban does a funny Ted talk about what happens in the mind of a chronic procrastinator.

When I was complaining about my lack of motivation, my wife suggested, “Why don’t you make a paper chain link for every hour’s worth of work you think it will take. Then you can cut off a link every time you do an hour of work and measure your progress?”  I was dubious about the motivational power of paper chains, but with cheap sub-contracting (my son), I got a chain suspended in my office in no time. It started at 178 links or 178 hours. A bit of depression sets in when you realize your 10th draft needs more than 40 hours a week for four straight weeks. (Obviously, I’d need more than four weeks to make up the time if I was to keep my regular bread-and-butter job and have a family.) But the kids keep begging to cut links for me, and now I have to scramble to keep up with them.

But in another sense, the exercise was very therapeutic: it wasn’t Mount McKinley on the horizon anymore. It was 178 day hikes spread out across as many days as needed to do it right. The real value didn’t come from the begging children, as cute as they are. It came from chunking out the work, parsing it into one-hour units. It came from breaking down the problem into constituent, achievable units and identifying which pieces could be done anywhere with a red pen and a shade tree, and which pieces need two or three quiet hours in front of a computer screen.

Suddenly it was much easier to do a few pages each day, and seeing the redlines materialize on the printed page gave me the small kick of accomplishment I needed to do a little more.

I still haven’t learned to play that Man of La Mancha song on my lute, but I’ve made some serious progress on the manuscript . . .

What are tricks do you use to get motivated on challenging projects?

 

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Writing: Shaving Pains

“We edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
—Arthur Plotnik

IMG_7097

Last week, I started building a metaphor between writing and shaving. In my example metaphor, I had irregular hair patterns after knee surgery that kept drawing the wrong sort of attention in public.

In fiction, anything that calls undue attention to itself is a problem. The secret to a captivating story isn’t just artistic words and phrases, but the camaraderie that exists between them. Every time a reader comes across a misfit word—even a beautiful one—their suspension of disbelief risks being damaged. I tried to read The Fellowship of the Rings in second grade, but I spent more time in the dictionary than in the story. Granted, I probably should have been reading something else at that age, but . . .

One priority for fantasy and science fiction authors is transporting us from our reality into an alternate reality. Words that break that magic, by being inauthentic, confusing, or awkward, should be cut. Even a gentle reader will become a critic if they get bumped from a story one too many times.

Here are a few issues I see often in the manuscripts I read:

Overly Dramatic Adjectives
Overt attributions of emotion/drama (e.g. merciless army, breathtaking vista, furious opponent) should not be used in place of more descriptive narrative.  A reader should feel these things through the actions taken by characters, rather than by getting beaten over the head with the word itself.

Example: “The merciless army advanced upon our breathtaking city.”

A reader can tell if an army is “merciless” independent of the word if the author has already shown (1) the body count, (2) a city in ruins, and (3) a parent so desperate to protect her daughter as to consider killing the child in advance of the army’s arrival. All of these things do a better job of casting an invading army as “merciless” than the word itself.

Smart words
Sesquipedalian. Pontificate. Prognisticate. It’s fun to show people how smart you are, but words like these score way more points on a Scrabble board than they do in a manuscript. There are exceptions—a character that uses big words to annoy your protagonist (and readers), perhaps?—but generally, if it isn’t an everyday sort of word, think carefully about using it.

Example:  “As he ran, Vance cursed himself for not being more perspicacious.”

One of my beta readers marked this word out in bold red strokes and replaced it with the more pedestrian word “clever.” This alters the meaning slightly, but works better for commercial fiction.

Awkward Expressions
These are expressions that get in the way of the story. They often stem from an author’s desire to be poetic, or say things in a new way, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth to the average reader. If the average reader has to spend too much time decoding a book of idiosyncratic (unusual) expressions they’ll get irritated. (And editors have an even lower tolerance for awkwardness.) It’s okay to use conventional language.

Example: “The stillness halted his feet with fear.”

This is an awkward way to say, “He stopped walking when he noticed the eerie quiet,” or “He halted, suddenly apprehensive in the unnatural silence.” Feet don’t feel fear and stillness won’t halt them . . .

🙂

Obviously there’s more to revising than just shaving out these little indiscretions, but if you find beta readers, agents, and editors looking at your manuscript funny, it might be time to go hunting for dramatic adjectives, smart words, and awkward expressions. And if you are getting weird looks, pat yourself on the back. It’s a sign of progress. It means you have a knee worth shaving.

 

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Big Week

I feel a bit like I’ve been riding in two saddles all week long: working the day job, writing at night, and finding time for family. Here are some of the highlights. Check out the interview if you can. 🙂

1) SWORDS hit 28,000 words, triple the length of DARTS.
2) I gave my first interview.
3) My kids played well at their soccer games, and then a friend gave us Dynamo Tickets.
4) Claire signed on for the translation of RINGS. (Les Anneaux)
5) I stayed up too late. Again.

horse4 Sunrise

Hope all of you had a great week too.

Oversharing hurts writers, too.

Maid and Butler

Humans like to share. We like sharing our money, our time, or our ice cream, but we like sharing our ideas and advice even more. It makes us feel cool and important.  It’s why we build libraries, publishing houses, and PTAs.

But based on the number of blank stares I get when I offer unsolicited advice, people don’t like receiving information nearly as much as they enjoy giving it. When the catchphrase around the house becomes “Why are you telling me this?” perhaps things have gone a bit far. Or perhaps not. . . Maybe we just need to be more clever about how we do it.

This is certainly true of fiction. I burned through The Hobbit as a second grader and put The Fellowship of the Rings down after 30 pages. The first novel trickles information to the reader as part of the action, while the second forgoes action in favor of large passages of infodump  and side-helpings of scenery.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, especially after a brutal revision of Plague Runners. (This is the same manuscript I took to New York in March.)  I had to cut roughly 30,000 words from the manuscript (length of DARTS+RINGS) to correct pacing problems and make room for plot essentials. I had to stripthe story of unnecessary backstory and scenes that were cute but didn’t tie in with the larger plot.

Fortunately, I got some good advice from an agent and a professional editor, and Plague Runners has improved dramatically.

It’s been helpful for me to think about over-sharing in terms described by Howard Taylor on the podcast Writing Excuses 10.20: How Do I Write a Story, Not an Encyclopedia? They defined four skill-levels for sharing information, and I tried to calculate (in excel) how each of those play out for me:

Infodump Skill Level Chart

Every skill-level has its purpose, but new writers tend to rely more heavily on Level 1 and Level 2. Level 4 has the characteristics of 3 but also includes layers of utility: not only does it move the plot along and provide info to protagonist and reader, but will also illuminate aspects of a character’s personality, provide amusement, foreshadow future conflicts, tie back to subplots, and possibly build emotional connections with the reader.

It’s tempting as a writer to over-share.  So much work has been put into the creation of a world. To combat this, I keep a scrapyard document. It’s a lot easier for me to move a lovely, but uneeded, paragraph to the scrapyard doc than it is to delete it completely. For the really good stuff that still needs to go, I consider using it in sequel, or making a standalone novella. For Plague Runners, I have a whole novella planned, if the content I cut doesn’t end up in the sequel. De-cluttering is a lot easier when you can loosen your grip on it in stages.

What have I learned in this process? I’ve learned that the kind of story you tell depends on how you relay information. For those you with a little more time, stick around and enjoy some opening lines of the same story, written at the varying skill levels. Then tell me (here or on facebook) which you like best.

If you’ve gotten too much information already, don’t hesitate to bow out. Everybody has a threshold, and romantic mystery really isn’t my strong point. . .Cheers!

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Level 1 – Describe-and-Snooze
Mr. Suffolk was born where the greenest fields in all of England begin at white cliffs and roll inland for miles until they are cut short by the autoroute to London.  The grass on the downs mimic the waves beneath the cliffs, a green mirror to the blue beneath, and the servants had been amply informed that Mr. Suffolk wanted to be buried there.

To the servants this was good news. The Suffolk Estate had prospered under his care, and as Mr. Suffolk wasn’t exactly old yet, his commitment to the location meant a good many years of meaningful service and a modest pension for the servants. To the butler, Robert, this was exceptionally good news. He didn’t  fancy finding new employment as his age, though he was exactly old either, and Robert felt at home among the other servants. Mark and Mary had both been trained in the finest kitchens. Bill kept the estate trimmed to the last blade of grass, and the sound of the Bently’s wheels on gravel as Godfrey pulled up to return Mr. Suffolk to his home after a long day usually brought a smile to Robert’s face.

Robert particularly liked Anna, the maid, and her soft manner of speaking, with the sort of affection that lives unspoken in the heart, when it might better be served to speak it aloud and let fortune play its hand.

In fact, only two things bothered Robert about his current job: Mr. Suffolk’s gun collection (because guns were patently dangerous) and it’s curator,  Mr. Jasper, who had a nasty habit of bringing up old grievances—the pay raise that everyone else had gotten, for instance—and picking at them until the entire serving staff felt like the cells of a festering old wound that couldn’t get a spot of antiseptic. Some days Bob wondered who would be the first to reach for Suffolk’s prized Sig Sauer, and put an end to all the complaining. Or worse.

The worst, Bob admitted though, was Tuesday. On Tuesdays Jasper disassembled a few guns from the collection, cleaned them, and reassembled them. Then he loaded them and fired a few hundred rounds to be sure each was in fine working order. As the shooting range was adjacent to both the main house and the servants quarters, with no proper sound proofing, there was no escape from the noise.

There was never any escape from Jasper.

Level 2 – Maid-and-Butler: The Unnatural Dialogue
On Tuesday morning, Bob was sitting at the common breakfast table in the servants quarters, trying to get his last cufflink hitched  when Ann walked in, looking tired and old.

“Ann,” he said, barely nodding. Her presence was comfortable, like a well-worn coat, one that has hung around for so long that you almost don’t notice anymore.

“Bob,” she replied back, pouring herself a cup of coffee, eyeing him coolly.

Bob was tempted to forego the cufflink entirely. Mr Suffolk never entertained important guests on Tuesdays, and so it’s necessity was questionable. “It isn’t like Mr. Suffolk would demand it,” he muttered to himself.”

He noticed that Ann was still staring at him. “Everything alright?”

“No, Bob, everything is not all right. As you know, it’s Tuesday.”

Bob gave up on the cuff-link. “It is, Ann. It’s the day that Jasper cleans and tests Suffolk’s enormous gun collection. The Winchesters. The Sig Sauers.” Bob waved his hand to indicate all the others.

“Cleaning, and shooting, and cleaning!” Ann complained, gesturing a bit wildly with her coffee. “It makes no sense to have a shooting range next to our quarters. It’s as if Suffolk wants us to suffer on Tuesdays. And to think of Jasper over there, glowering, and aiming, and glowering again. It makes everything so much worse.”

Bob snorted. “Suffolk never should have denied Jasper that pay raise. Ever since then, things seem to be so much louder around here. . .”

Level 3: Interwoven Details
“Do you ever feel like you’re repeating yourself?” Anna asked when Bob entered the servant’s breakfast area on Tuesday morning.

Bob’s finger slipped on the crisp sleeve, dropping the mother-of-pearl cufflink onto the tile floor, cursing his unusually sweaty palms. He stooped to pick it up, but dropped it again, startled by the sudden discharge of a Winchester next door.

Crack!

Jasper always started with the Winchester. Mr. Suffolk always wanted on display. Then Jasper would move on to the Sig Sauers, and then the Beretta. By the time he got to the Colts, Mr. Suffolk would be in the shooting range too, looking over Jasper’s shoulder and telling him which guns to prep for the display the following week.

“Yes,” Bob said, fitting the cufflink finally in place. “Every Tuesday morning feels that way.”

“Every Tuesday morning,” Anna agreed, pouring him a cup of coffee and adding creamer and sugar. Bob wasn’t quite sure how she knew his exact preference. He couldn’t recall ever telling her, but they’d worked together for many years already. Perhaps he’d told her once before.

It was a ritual they’d enjoyed since the beginning, the maid and the butler starting the day by sharing coffee together, trying to ignore the Tuesday morning gunfire. Today though, the gunfire felt particularly irate, as if Jasper had left the range’s doors open again.

Anna seemed to notice it too. “Perhaps you should talk to Mr. Suffolk about Jasper’s  raise again?”

She raised her eyebrow gently.

“I will.” He promised. “I’ll do it at lunch.”

Level 4 – Transparent Worldbuilding
Bob awoke in a cold sweat, throwing off his covers in a frantic leap from his bed. Somebody was going to murder Suffolk.

Bob listened to the thunder of his heart and felt the grain of the hardwood floor beneath his feet. He suddenly wished he’d taken better care of himself over the last few years. His blood pressure was too high to be leaping about like this.

“It’s just a dream, Bob,” he muttered.

Around him, evidence of his nightly struggle with the nightmare assailed him. Alcohol bottles. Sleeping pills. Abandoned self-help books. His sheets were twisted around the blankets and thoroughly soaked. His pillows and bolster had fallen at the foot of the bed, and one ponderous black sock hung on the head board. God, what a night! He could still smell the shot-gun smoke from his dream, and see the blood pooling on the marble floor of the main house.

Bob blinked his eyes and drove the image away.  “Just  a dream, Bob” he said again for emphasis. He took a deep breath and counted to five before exhaling, and then limped into his morning routine, though it was still too early to do so.

Later, at the breakfast table, Anna looked at him from beneath tired eyelids and layers of makeup that didn’t hide the fact that she hadn’t been sleeping well, either.

“Are you feeling okay, Anna?”

“Robert.”  Her gentle voice caught, and she pushed back a strand of fading brown curl.

There had been a time when he thought he’d loved her, when he thought he might ask Mr. Suffolk for one of the larger suites reserved for the married staff. During those months, she’d almost never called him “Bob,” and her shy smile at the breakfast table had been the highlight of every day.

“Anna. Are you feeling okay?” He repeated the question earnestly. Her utterance of “Robert,” and his accidental expression of caring had shattered the meaningless veneer of morning banter.

“Bob,” she corrected herself, trying to recover. “It’s nothing.”

He put down the rebellious cufflink. “Anna. I know that look. What is it?”

Anna wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Something awful is going to happen today. I can feel it.”

Bob’s scalp prickled and his recurring nightmare came back full force. “You had the dream!”

“Suffolk,” she whispered and they locked eyes. “Jasper’s going to kill Suffolk.”

They were reaching for the French doors when the first shots of the morning rang out.

TO BE CONTINUED. . .(MAYBE)

Which story version do you like best? 1,2,3, or 4?

Maid and Butler 2