Another year, another book to burn.

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Last year, I burned one of my own unpublished books to close out the year. It was meant as a way to put the book behind me and move forward. A way to force myself not mope or wallow in self-pity at an accomplishment that revealed itself to be a failure. This year, I’ve decided to do the same, and for much the same reasons. What I didn’t expect was that it was a bit more painful the second time around. No, I didn’t burn myself, and it’s not that it’s exactly hard to burn a bit of paper, after all, it’s just wood-pulp and people have been burning shit like that for a million years or something. Hell, people are so good at burning stuff, we do it accidentally all the time. In any case, as difficult as it was to close out this year’s writing efforts, I expect closing out 2018 will be worse yet, but I’ve got an entire year to fret over it.

The good news for 2017 was that I managed to finish full drafts of two books and write about half of a third. It’s a pretty good showing, considering my first book took over ten years to finish. What I learned with my first book and second books, however, was that once done you have two options, revise/edit/publish or don’t. And to call them options is a little more than generous. In general, most of us get stuck in the revise/edit stage and never make it beyond. A writer could revise a book for their entire whole life and never get it to the point where a publisher will never take it and self-publishing just seems silly. Hell, a ton of authors do just that – churn away to no end. And this is why I’ve started to burn them.

This fall, at the writer’s conference, an author was asked for some general advice for writers, without a breath of hesitation she said, in a South African drawl, “Write the damn book.”  (Yes, it’s a direct quote, she even put that shit on SWAG pens.) Then she elaborated, saying something to the effect that if you’ve been working on a book for longer than a year, put it in a box and shove it under your bed or just burn the damn thing. This is hard advice to swallow when you look at people like JK Rowling who reportedly took 6 years to write Harry Potter, and don’t even get me started on the long awaited books from Rothfuss and Martin, but those folks are a sort of magic writing unicorn the rest of us aren’t. The rest of us have to keep moving and improving and trying new things, if we don’t then we remain stuck in a rut retreading the same old ground for years, burning countless hours of creativity and time on a project that is clearly struggling.

Even though I hadn’t yet heard this advice, that was what I was thinking when I burned Wine Bottles last year. It was very much on my mind this year, as I burned Deep Space Helpdesk … And yes, that was the one I got very positive feedback from an agent on. However, I’ve spent the past month and a half revising the first quarter of the book and I’m still not satisfied. Honestly, I think I’ve lost the thread of the story. The soul went out of it some time ago. I could have burned Dark Queen of Darkness too, it was the other book I finished this year and after the trashing I got from an agent, I probably should have done. Fear not, Hexe will get her chance on the flames next year, no doubt, and if I work very hard I might get to burn two next year.

If you’ve even read this far, you may be thinking: “Dave, you’re giving up, don’t give up, I thought you were more stubborn than that?”

It does feel like giving up. We make these things and want them to go on, be re-told and enjoyed. And I’d be lying if I said that this whole thing didn’t make me upset. The reality is that it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Either the concept works and you go with it or it doesn’t and you move on.

In this case, all I can say is that I’m not giving up as much as I’m moving on. There are other stories that will not be written or seen if I continue spending my few precious writing hours banging away on a book that simply fails to pull together a coherent theme and compelling plot. Perhaps, someday, I’ll return to the concept and give it another go, time will have passed and maybe I can re-imagine the concept into something that does work, but I know that the time is not now.

So, going into 2018, without Deep Space Helpdesk around my neck, I’ve got just the one book to revise and that leaves me mental and creative freedom to move forward with new projects. Maybe I’ll even get that break out novel, whatever it is, finished this year. Who knows? But I’m going to find out.

Happy new year, and happy writing, friends.

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Existential crisis of a writer

At the Alaska Writer’s Guild annual conference, I heard a lot of things. So many of those things stuck with me as really good and legitimately helpful advice. I will go on about that quite a bit over the next few weeks in part because I’m still digesting what I heard and writing it out like this helps me to understand it. That said, one of the things that hit me, and is still hitting me, is this question:

Why do we write?

If you’d asked me that question before last week, I’d have selected one of the following clichés:

– Because I love doing it, and I want to keep doing it,

– Because I want to be a professional writer when I grow up,

– Because it legitimizes my wearing of socks and sandals in a way nothing else can.

Okay, I made that last one up, that’s being a programmer. Being a programmer does that. So the real answer, and one I’m embarrassed to say someone had to tell me, is that we write to be read. Wow. Okay. That distills it down to the very heart of the matter, doesn’t it? I think that ought to be enough for me to just carry on and keep writing. After all, it’s not exactly an earth shattering revelation. Yet, it still nags me, because I can’t get past the second why. This is the why that hangs out with a but just at the end of the to be read.

Why? It’s the ultimate existential question isn’t it? You can why anything to death. I keep wanting to come back round to the why I do this, but here’s the kicker, it’s not about me at all. If I make it about me, then I’m missing the point. I’d like to think what I write is humorous. Perhaps not outright funny, but silly in a slightly better than slapstick way. Attempting to be humorous adds something to my work for sure. When I started doing that, the quality of my writing increased dramatically. Even I like it better and I’m extremely hard on myself. I’ve even gotten a few compliments, and compliments feel good. For me, the best compliment is “I’m really enjoying this.” I’m not really looking for anything more than that. There it is again, that me thing, but that’s why I do it, we’re talking the second why, not the first one.

To get back to the first ‘why’ in ‘why do we write’, it’s a two way street isn’t it? I get satisfaction from hearing the words “I’m enjoying this.” and the reader has clearly gotten something from it. They’ve gotten what I was hoping they would get out of it. The problem here is that it’s all too easy to focus exclusively on the ‘me’ portion of the equation and not the reader portion. I’m not saying it’s all about working out exactly what an audience wants to see, because quite often they don’t know what they want, that’s why creative people exist, to make up the new things that people didn’t know they wanted until they have it in front of them.

In any case, this is something for me to ponder and think about as I work through the difficult process of getting enough pre-orders to publish Wine Bottles and Broomsticks on Inkshares, and moving forward too into other projects that will need to find the readers that need them.

Major massive milestone

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Ten years.

That’s kind of a long time. Over the course of the past decade, aside from the usual 8-5 job and various successes there, I’ve built most of a house, added a workshop, duck-house, chicken-coop, took up woodworking (I managed to sell a few pieces of furniture), fiddled with bonsai, learned much about the art of home-brewing, and, not least significantly, had three children (okay, I didn’t, my wife did, but I was present). In short, a lot has happened. I’m sure at this point you must be thinking: This guy is a smug and self-important bastard isn’t he? If you’re not, perhaps you should be -I would be. The thing is I’m not. In fact, if you think I’m calling these ‘accomplishments,’ you’re wrong*. These are the daily distractions of my life, all of which I have chosen, for the past several years, but don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this.

When our first son was born, I had my trusty notebook with me for the hospital stay, where I was treated to three nights on a too-short couch and the absolute panic associated with being a new parent. The story I was working on is the very same I’m working on now. It started as two separate sci-fi novels that morphed and merged into a single fantasy series that dropped all of the sci-fi elements**. Back then, I was mostly focused on background and constructed language development. I’d be a lying jerk if I tried to claim I had anything like a plot, and the characters were sketches of people, without any sort of personality.

Now, for the milestone bit: I finally, after a decade, have a full first draft.

Holy crap, it took you ten years to write 90,000 words? What’s wrong with you?

Hey! – I got it done, and bits of it are fairly well polished and have even been through beta-readers. It happened last night. I hit the end of a sentence and spent a few minutes trying to think of where I might go next with it and realized the remainder of the ‘story’ was superfluous. Nothing more needed to be said.

Wait! You dodged the question about what the hell took you so long!

Alright! Jeez. It may be that it took me a decade, but in all of that random stuff I was spending time on, I wasn’t necessarily spending much energy on writing. In fact, there were stretches of months, maybe even as long as a year, where I didn’t spend any time thinking about writing at all. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I once again dusted off my notebook and started working on my story. I made some serious progress. Over the course of a few months I ran through what’s now the first five or six chapters of the book, as well as a few other chapters sprinkled in throughout later parts of the book. Then, I sort of shelved it again. We had some family stress and I just didn’t work on it.

An interesting side note here, I had only confided in my wife about this project while working on it, that is until last spring. I started thinking about it again and decided to confide in a friend and co-worker what I was doing. I’m not sure why, but I did.

Anyhow, sometime last summer, I had a shit or get off the pot moment. I don’t remember it exactly, and neither does my wife, though she assures me that’s what happened. The bottom line is that I said (probably after a few beers), I’m going to finish this book dammit!

Are you going to get to the point or just ramble on?

I’m just about to get there, stop interrupting.

What I think I realized is that I had been waiting for some sort of inspiration to strike me. (Emily Russell wrote a good article related to this, if for some reason you’re reading this and haven’t seen that, just stop and read that first – but come back here!). Inspiration isn’t going to finish a book. It’s not the sort of thing that just hits you while you’re driving down the street thinking about the trees*** It happens while you are trying to write, while you are actively thinking about your story. Sure good creative ideas do seem to strike in a flash of brilliance, but the truth of the matter is that you were thinking about it. It’s even better if you’ve written something down. Of course, I’ve had those moments where something strikes me as funny or odd, and I scribble down a note for later. Perhaps that’s a bit of inspiration, but inspiration doesn’t make a book. Writing does. Work does. Effort does. Like it or not, sacrifice does.

Possibly one of my favorite inspiration stories is the J.K. Rowling story about Harry Potter. She was on a train and the boy who lived just sort of walked into the train car with her. Isn’t that lovely? Boom – A multi-million dollar franchise was born! Bullshit. After that bit of inspiration, Rowling worked her ass off on back-story, setting, character development, plotting, and themes. It took years and loads of work (and quite a bit of luck too, but I’m not going there). For all practical purposes, ALL of the story comes from hard work and focus.

So. There it is. Lesson learned. If you want to finish, you have to focus and not make excuses about having too many other responsibilities. One paragraph per night? Good enough. You’ll get there, just keep on it.

* Except for the day-job stuff. I really am pretty full of myself there, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

** Someday I will blog about the circumstances leading to this, but not today.

*** I do this, don’t laugh. My family all thinks I’m a freak because I’ll fawn over the trees on any sort of hike. I will actually stop on a trail, grab a leaf and pontificate about a particular type of tree.