Tag Archives: editing

Reblog: Pantsers vs. Plotters

Once upon a time, the stories poured from my fingertips.

Back in the early days of my Quest for Publication, I was equipped with naught but a trusty Pilot pen, a five-subject Mead notebook, and a plethora of ideas. Eventually, I upgraded to a keyboard and computer.

After transcribing tome after tome of intertwining fantasy storylines from my neat (read: girly) handwriting to single-spaced Times New Roman, I typed up additional supplemental materials. I sketched out maps, chronicled centuries of history, invented religions, drafted character profiles, and crafted the very rules of the universe.

I was world building, damn it, and every fantasy author worth his sword needs to know his setting inside out.

I wrote this blog post for nyareads.com. Read the entire post here.



Filed under Writing

Living (and writing) the dream

Hi, my name is David. Remember me? I used to write articles about writing on this website.

I’ll spare you the clichéd “Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while, but I’ve been busy” post. (Snore.) I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t woefully short on time or an author who boasted copious opportunities to type the hours away. Why should my situation be any different?

When a guy’s calendar sports more words per page than his manuscript, he has to prioritize. So even though I acknowledge that marketing is important, at the end of the day, I’m a fiction writer. If I’m going to produce a novel amidst real life’s diversions and obligations, fiction must come first.

Therefore, I make no apologies for my long absence here…though I’m hopeful there will be fewer in the future.

While I haven’t lost (much) sleep over a dearth of blog posts recently, I have succumbed to some tossing and turning due to a general lack of productivity—specifically, the slow rate of progress on the rewrite of my current novel, If Sin Dwells Deep.

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the “hour here, hour there” approach hasn’t been working too well. Yes, I know that some time—any time—is better than none and that the mark of a professional is being able to “turn it on” whenever the chance to write arises.

And maybe there are those out there who’d say I’m lucky to have had regular, if sparse, pockets of time allocated for writing each week. Indeed, some authors say spending a little time writing every day is the best approach.

Not for this writer…

At the risk of sounding ungrateful, the starting and stopping—or, rather, having to stop just when I was getting in the groove and then having to retrace my mental steps a few days later—was a recipe for frustration.

The Dreamer by Halfdan Egedius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Dreamer by Halfdan Egedius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Part of the problem, I realize, is the nature of my current manuscript. A lover of mind games, I tend to write books with complex plots, and the main focus of the rewrite of this particular novel is a redistribution of revelations. Even after an extensive period of planning and organization (in the form of an incredibly comprehensive scene-by-scene outline), it has proven difficult to keep track of what plot points have been shared when—and what new surprises should be sprinkled in next.

My story about dream drifters was becoming something of a nightmare.

Fortunately, my tale has a very happy ending. As of this week, I have taken on a new role at the website and marketing agency where I work, and my new schedule includes one day away from the office each week. So instead of seven one-hour stints, I’ll now have that same span all in one session to focus exclusively on my fiction (i.e., plowing through as much writing and editing as humanly possible).

The new schedule also afford me some additional pockets of time for fiction-related activities, such as industry research and, yes, blog updates. As if things couldn’t get any better, my new role at the agency focuses more on content: copywriting and editing, along with creative concepts, website population, search engine optimization, and website analytics.

No pinching, please. I don’t want to wake up!

Tuesday was my first “fiction-only” session, and I edited two and a half chapters—the equivalent of about half of a months’ work under the old stop-and-start paradigm. My original (self-imposed) deadline for getting If Sin Dwells Deep to my agent was December 31, 2015. I expect I’ll be able to do much better than that now.

Improving my pace not only moves up the timeline for finishing If Sin Dwells Deep, but also means I’ll be able to tackle other objectives sooner, including exploring the option of self-publishing The Renegade Chronicles, investing more time in marketing, and imagining new stories to tell.

New stories? Imagine that! I’ve been working on the first two books of the Soul Sleep Cycle, on and off, for nearly a decade. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around pursuing a new plot—difficult but delightful.

And, of course, I’m eager for the day I can use this blog to announce that Book 1 of the Soul Sleep Cycle (whichever novel turns out to be Book 1), has evolved from a pipe dream to a finished product available for purchase.


Filed under Writing

The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical

Giving grammar short shrift is a surefire way to get shot down.

Recently, I was invited to enter an online writing contest, one in which the competitors posted partial or completed stories on a website. Contestants and the public alike could then read and rate each piece of fiction.

I confess I didn’t make it past the synopses of most entries. Awkward sentence structures, misplaced punctuation and more clichés than I could shake a red pen at — such obstacles prevented me from taking a chance on stories that clearly scrimped on the fundamentals of strong writing.

For instance, if you are not 100 percent sure you know how to use a semicolon, please don’t use one!

I couldn’t bring myself to submit to the contest. It just screamed “amateur hour.”

Maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, grammar is the one aspect of writing that has always come easy for me. Just about every job I’ve had since college included proofing among its duties. This scientific, rules-based side of the craft appeals to my left-brain proclivities.

There are many, many ways to screw up a story, and I admit I have my share of weaknesses. But since every writer has the same set of guidelines when it comes to parts of speech, punctuation, and so forth, I can’t wrap my mind around why so many of us slack off when it comes to grammar. This should be low-hanging fruit!

Or maybe every writer doesn’t need to be a whiz when it comes to grammar. I’m certain some of the best authors depend heavily on editors to take a great story and make it even better by removing errors of all kinds. But because we live in a DIY era of publishing, I sometimes worry that self-published writers don’t realize the poor impression they make when their dialogue is marred by missing commas or when misplaced modifiers confound the semantics of sentences.

Maybe the average reader is more forgiving than I give them credit for — or, at least, more forgiving than I am — but I have to believe grammar and usage matter. If nothing else, it adds polish to any given plot.

For me, fixing sentences is like a game, but since proofing isn’t every writer’s idea of fun, I’ve been kicking around the concept for a grammar-based video game as far back as March 7, 2012. I envision the app would help writers of all kinds could become more comfortable with punctuation in particular.

The odds that I’ll ever find the time (and the developer talent) to create this game are admittedly slim, but I thought I’d share these early notes. Reading on probably won’t make you a better proofreader, but it might make you smile.


Cowboy on a horse

Lawlessness didn’t necessarily work out so well in the Wild West. Y’all better tame your syntax. | John C. H. Grabill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who is the target audience?

I’m reluctant to make it too childish because I think a lot of adults could benefit from a brush up on their punctuation. But I also believe that an adult (whether a writer or some other kind of professional) will be more likely to try out a grammar tutorial if it’s clever and fun. So, off the top of my head, I’d say this game is aimed at middle schoolers on up.

What is the genre?

I want to keep this simple, in no small part because I’ve never designed a video game. Also, if this is going to be an app, it has to be small enough to download to a smart phone. That means a crazy, comprehensive game that blends/bends several genres isn’t going to work. Also, I don’t want there to have to be much, if any, typing because it’s a pain in the butt to type for any significant amount of time on a tablet or smart phone.

The first thing that comes to mind is a story-based shooter (e.g., blasting away improper punctuation and then selecting the character, if any, that belongs in the slot). But I’m not sold on that.

What is the tone/theme?

Due to the small scope of the project, I want to dive into a pre-established trope, thus avoiding needless explanation/development. Plus, being a fan of puns, it opens the door for some real groaners. My first thought was a sword-and-sorcery setup because the pen is mightier than the sword, and I could have a full-fledged grammar wizard teaching his young apprentice. Too “Harry Potter,” methinks. Besides, a grammar wizard sounds too much like a computer wizard program that checks for grammar.

After writing the descriptions for a couple of the “enemies” (below), I am envisioning the bad guys’ bios in the form of a wanted poster, which opens the door for a Western. And like the settings of most Western stories, I expect the humor will be very, very dry.

Who are the heroes?

Perhaps the player chooses among three characters. If there’s no difference between their skills/attacks, then it doesn’t make sense to offer three choices because it’ll just take up needless space. However, if each hero has his own approach (time trials vs. strategy vs. something else), then I would advocate for the following three crime-fighting characters:

  • Johnny Redpen — a hot-tempered quick draw, Johnny Redpen’s speed with a sixshooter is matched only by his hatred for good punctuation gone bad.
  • Edith Goodword — kindly schoolmarm by day, vigilante typo-hunter by night, Miss Goodword isn’t afraid to spread the gospel of good grammar in even the seediest of sentences.
  • Dominic “Doc” Proofer — the retired sheriff of Syntax Springs, Doc isn’t ready to hang up his shotgun, not when unruly marks are running amok and he can help make the West a little less wild.

Who are the villains?

  • Slim Semicolon
  • Dash Dastardly
  • Miss E. Lipses
  • Colon McClock
  • The Savage Slash and his half-wit of a half-brother Backslash
  • James Trouble (with a capital T)
  • The Quote-Crazy Kid
  • Old Man Apostrophe, the grocer

Who is the final boss?

  • Mr. ? (pronounced “Mister Huh?”) — The mysterious mastermind, he believes rules are meant to be broken and covets the mythical “Poetic License,” which will allow all manner of ne’er-do-wells to swarm previously perfect grammatical constructions.

What’s the concept?

The storyline unfolds through the poorly punctuated sentences our heroes are correcting.


Whether or not you think The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical would make a worthy video game, I encourage any writer who lacks the basic understanding of grammar (and/or lacks a professional proofreader) to find some way to brush up on the subject.

If you don’t fix bad grammar and poor punctuation, you’re just shootin’ yourself in the foot.



Filed under Writing

What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 1)

Let’s forget about the craft of writing for a moment.

It should go without saying that a serious writer must have some measure of creativity and a solid grasp of language to avoid the proverbial pitfalls of syntax and semantics (such as these).

Anyway, there are countless resources dedicated to helping dabblers step up their game and plenty of places where professional writers can learn to improve in such areas as concept development, composition, publishing, and so forth.

Elephants have thick skins. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

Elephants have thick skin. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

We live in a DIY era, where a million (or more) websites will happily walk you down the path of getting an idea out of your head, into a computer, and, ultimately, in front of the eyes of other people.  And while I know I’m not the first to tackle this topic, there seems to be a dearth of articles pertaining to some of the more intangible qualities that, in my experience, benefit someone who wants to succeed—or simply survive—the sometimes schizophrenic lifestyle of an artist.

So without further ado, here is the first character trait of a well-adjusted writer:

Thick skin

Blame it on the prevailing mentality that we are all beautiful and unique snowflakes worthy our own reality TV series.  Social media gives us the ability to broadcast every inane detail of our lives.  We must be important, right?  I mean, these days even the losing team gets trophies just for trying.

Our collective self-worth has never been higher.  Or more precarious.

I suspect writers have always carried a certain measure of sensitivity when it comes to their work.  While we often hear the analogy of a book being an author’s “baby,” the relationship between the creator and the created becomes even more intimate than that when we see our work not as an extension of ourselves, but as the prevailing piece of our identity.

Not good.

I can’t help but marvel when I hear writers whine about negative reviews or, worse, when they go on the warpath to defend their precious child/ego.  Oh, I’m not immune to the impulse.  But having weathered college workshops populated by (fellow) know-it-alls, attended countless critique sessions with the brilliant Allied Authors of Wisconsin, and dissected many a manuscript alongside my biggest fan and harshest critic (my wife), I’ve learned how to keep my mouth shut—and my ears open.

Let’s get one thing straight: The reader owes you nothing beyond the price of your book—not their time and certainly not a positive review on Goodreads.  Your ideas and delivery thereof might earn you those things, but they are not to be taken for granted.  It’s a huge mistake to assume that the reader will share your emotional bond with a story, especially before they even crack the cover.

No, it’s your job to make them feel a fraction of what you feel about your characters, setting, and plot.  If they stop reading after a page or even the first paragraph, it could be for a variety of reasons, but it all boils down to a lack of connection between story and reader.  Hence, your book is always partially to blame.

Let’s get another thing straight: Even if your novel is better than anything written by Shakespeare or Suzanne Collins, you won’t please everyone.  The playwright has never been universally adored, and despite record-breaking sales, some folks simply can’t stomach The Hunger Games.

If you can’t please everyone, the logical conclusion is that some people will have some not-so-nice things to say about your work.

That’s OK.

Even if you end up writing something terrible, that doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.  It might mean you need more practice with the nuts and bolts of the craft.  Or it could be you didn’t do a very good job translating what’s in your head to the page.  Or maybe you just haven’t reached the right audience.

Every writer needs an audience.  And because technology is a two-edged sword—giving a writer not only multiple channels through which to distribute his or her work, but also instant access to readers’ reactions—we writers have to get better at separating ourselves from our work and letting the story speak for itself.

How writers engage their readers is a topic (or an entire series) for another day.  Meanwhile, here is my recommendation for contending with criticism:

  • Step 1 — Solicit feedback from those whose opinions you trust, particularly those who are well-read in your genre.  Wherever the criticism comes from, keep it in context.  It’s just one opinion among billions.
  • Step 2 — Tell yourself, “Even if they don’t like the story, it doesn’t mean they don’t like me.”  (And if necessary, add, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”)
  • Step 3 — Listen carefully and take notes.
  • Step 4 — Defy the urge to defend.
  • Step 5 — Seriously, keep your mouth shut!
  • Step 6 — Once the critique is over, you can speak, but only to seek clarification.
  • Step 7 — Show appreciation for the feedback, even if your ego has withered to the size of a prune.
  • Step 8 — Give yourself the distance of a day or two, and then go back to your notes and decide which points have merit.
  • Step 9 — Edit the manuscript, keeping what works and fixing what doesn’t.
  • Step 10 — When your baby goes out into the world, wish it well and resist the urge to hover and embarrass it by coming to its defense every time someone says something unkind.

Bottom line: Constructive criticism is a gift, not a curse.  But before a writer can benefit from it, he or she might need to grow a few more layers of skin.


Filed under Writing

Watch out for these five overused words

When a fledgling writer first takes a stab at the craft, he or she is apt to make a few fundamental mistakes.

One such error is assuming that the more words one uses, the better.  Perhaps it stems from penning so many papers in high school and college.  After all, most essay assignments come with word or page quotas.  A student quickly learns to cram in filler words to make sentences extra robust.

The words "and then."

“And” and “then” can cause problems on their own. But when they team up, watch out!

And don’t get me started on those lovely long words that take up half a line all on their own!

Academic writing aside, most folks who concentrate on fiction and creative nonfiction strive for the opposite.  Simple, straightforward syntax rules the day not only because the writing reaches a broader audience, but also because even advanced readers tend to prefer tight, fast-paced prose to a narrative that is drags due to excessive words.

(Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader.  But few people gravitate toward fiction that reads like a dissertation.  It’s as much a matter of tone as a matter of composition.)

The first step to tidying up a manuscript is finding the words, sentences, and even paragraphs that impede a reader’s progress.  A writer must measure every phrase carefully and decide whether it moves the story forward—either by advancing the plot or by presenting pertinent information about characters, setting, and so forth.

As with most aspect of writing, the devil is in the details, and often it’s the smallest, most innocuous words that clutter up clauses.

Here are five words that appear more often than necessary and should be the first on any writer’s chopping block when tightening up his or her work:


“I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

The problem with “then” is that it doesn’t have much intrinsic value.  Readers assume that, unless otherwise indicated, the actions occur in chronological order.  The event in one sentence precede the events in subsequent sentences.  So in most cases, “then” is redundant.

Despite its semantic shortcomings, “then” occasionally can be helpful in terms of sentence structure variation, rhythm, and clarification.  Just be sure to use it sparingly.

Note: if writing in the present tense, the same goes for “now.”


Like “then,” “also” seldom adds anything meaningful to a sentence.  It belongs to a family of adverbs that show a relationship between ideas, but like its relatives “both” and “either,” “also” can quickly cause sentences to slog, especially if used habitually.

Again, a reader understands that when two thoughts are separated with a conjunction—particularly “and”— the second item also belongs in the collection.  The same is true for the context among sentences.  There’s seldom a need to start a sentence with “also,” as demonstrated below.

Also, “too” and “as well” are just “also” in disguise.


I challenge anyone to write a story of any substance that completely avoids the word “and.”  The result, I posit, would be awkward at best.  But while conjunctions like “and,” “or,” and “but” are essential to the English language, “and” can become a crutch like the others on this list.

Notice my what-not-to-do example for “then”: “I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

Not only does “and” like to tag team with “then” to create redundancy, but also it encourages run-on sentences.  “And” also appears when a writer lists a series of items or actions.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with series, too many of them can make a scene sound more like it belongs in an instructional manual than a manuscript.

Consider this example:

“I grabbed my coat, opened the door, and slammed it behind.  On my way to work, I stewed over the argument I’d just had with my girlfriend, swore at the sluggish traffic around me, and fumed at the thought of what awaited me at work.  Frustrated and weary, I stomped to my desk.”

That’s three “ands” in three sentences, and while there’s no crime in that per se, the idea of grouping actions—and emotions—gets old very quickly.  Yes, combining the verbs “grabbed,” “opened,” and “slammed” in a single sentence is quicker than dedicating three separate sentences to the motions, but employing too many of these “grocery lists” grows wearisome.  Either space them out or determine which actions can be cut—and likely remain implied.

(For that matter, we don’t even need “frustrated and weary” in the last sentence because we already know the protagonist’s mood from prior sentences, and “stomped” communicates the emotions effectively on its own.)


When it comes to speech tags, “said” is very much in vogue.  In fact, novice writers often get scolded for using fancy variations, such as “stated,” “declared,” “reported,” and “told.”

And yet, when a writer intersperses action or deftly uses voice—via word choice, sentence structure, etc.—to otherwise indicate the speaker, “said” just gets in the way.

More on that here.

All in all, reducing the number of speech tags is an easy way to reduce the word count and pump up the pace of dialogue.


“Was”—and “is,” if you prefer the present tense—can present like a plague if you’re not wary.  Just because any given sentence can contain some form of “to be,” doesn’t mean it should.

Action verbs are always stronger than copular verbs.

Let’s look at that last sentence as an example.  I could have said, “Action verbs always dominate a sentence, whereas copular verbs simply connect a subject to the predicate.”  The semantics aren’t identical, but the latter gave me an opportunity to be more specific and more creative.

Another example:

“I was so hungry that I ate the whole box.” vs. “I devoured the entire box.”

Not only does the second sentence lose a few unnecessary words, but also it is arguably more impactful because it uses “devoured” instead of “was so hungry.”

Beware of the copular verb’s clever cousins, modals: “can,” “could,” “might,” “must,” “should,” etc.  Used in moderation, copulars and modals are harmless; however, when relied upon too regularly, they are bound to let you—and your readers—down.

I suspect every writer has his or her own stable of overused words or a particular construction he or she employs too often.  How often is too often?  However many times it takes a reader to become distracted by it or otherwise bogged down by it.

For instance, I used the “not only…but also” sentence structure three times in this relatively short post.  If it didn’t serve such a fine example of my final point, I’d likely go back and find other ways to express the same thoughts.

Another example from my fiction writing is the word “eyes.”  For some reason, whether giving a character’s description or trying to convey emotion during dialogue or other action, I default to calling attention to people’s eyes.

But now that I’m aware of this tendency, I always stop after typing the word “eyes” and decide if there’s a better way to proceed, possibly by employing a different sensory description.

The five little words outlined above don’t do much harm on their own.  Their danger comes from numbers.  Pruning a handful of these small words from a short story or avoiding them throughout a novel can add up and result in a leaner, meaner manuscript.

The best writers don’t jack up their word counts with filler words.  They understand that true skill is conveying meaning with fewer words, not more.

Did I miss any other common offenders?  Do you have a literary pet peeve that (figuratively) jumps off the page and pokes you in the eye?  Let me know below! 


Filed under Writing

When it comes to writing, how much planning is too much?

I might be one of the few writers who look forward to editing a rough draft.

I won’t deny there’s something invigorating about the first trip through a story.  Even with the requisite chapter outline, a certain amount of magic occurs during the first draft.  Characters climb up off the page and take on lives of their own.  The story wends in a slightly different way, sometimes concluding in unexpectedly manner.  Subplots and themes emerge.

Pure, uncensored creativity pours forth.

But it seems few people have the same enthusiasm for a second (or third or fourth) draft of a novel.  It’s not hard to see why.  If the first draft allows the writer to indulge in a carefree orgy of imagination, a Wild West of whimsy, and a devil-may-care series of experiments, then the editing process demands the writer to abstain, rein it in, and exorcise a host of demons.

At the start, the writer writes the story he wants to tell, plain and simple.  His prime concern is getting ideas onto the page.  It doesn’t have to be great or even particularly good; it just has to be done.  A beginning, middle, and an end are helpful, but, really, if some loose ends aren’t tied up, so what?  The editor will sort it out, after all.

Which is why many writers cringe at the thought of going back through their work to evaluate what works: The party is over, and there’s a heck of a lot of cleaning up to do.  In addition to fixing broken furniture, the editor nurtures underdeveloped elements and axes the stuff that just gets in the way.

It’s a big responsibility…some might say, a burden.

Tempting though it may be to describe writing as creative and editing as analytical, I believe the same spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness should permeate the editing process. And the same intoxicatingly high level of energy.

For someone (like me) who basks in the brainstorming process, geeks out on organization, and approaches problem solving scientifically, editing can present a pitfall of a different sort.  Whereas some writers struggle with a rewrite because “there’s nothing like the first time,” I procrastinate before diving into the second draft for an entirely different reason:

I absolutely love to write about my writing.

Consider how many words I typed while in the planning phase for the first book in The Soul Sleep Cycle: 30,864.  That included four character profiles, a partial outline, and a generic “notes” document that contained everything from explorations of character motivation to pushing through dead ends in the plot to researching the science behind the sci-fi.  The investment of 30,864 “planning” words resulted in a 73,256-word first draft.

Upon finishing and then reviewing the first draft and soliciting beta readers for feedback, I wrote 15,624 more words while debating how I would solve eleven overarching categories of problems and a total of 103 individual issues in the MS.  The final draft of If Souls Can Sleep ended up at 91,557 words.

So to get to a 91,557-word novel, I wrote 46,488 words in supplemental works—more than 50% of the final work.  (And that’s not including first draft.)

I have no idea whether or not that is normal.  Or practical.  Or if there is a “best practice” when it comes to planning and repairing a novel.

Here’s where I start to worry: Having recently read through the first draft of the sequel to If Souls Can Sleep with my most avid fan/harshest critic/wife, I came up with thirty-seven categories of big-picture problems and a total 233 individual issues that range from “should so-and-so get more screen time?” to “so-and-so doesn’t make a credible red herring…fix that.”

Simple algebra suggests that if it took me 15,624 words to solve 103 issues, it’ll take about 35,344 words to solve 233 of them.

Again, whereas some writers might balk at the task, I’m all too eager to open my sequel notes file and begin solving each and every one of them.  My problem is that the rewrite of book two will face an indeterminable a delay while I’m wearing my editor’s hat.

It begs the question “How much planning is too much?”

The easy answer is an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do to whip a MS into a publish-worthy state.  If a writer can do all of the planning in his head, so be it!  But for those (like me) who hope to avoid a third draft by getting his ducks in a row before beginning the second draft, a lot of time and effort will be required.

A rule of thumb states that a writer needs to know far more about his characters and plot than the reader ever will so that he can write with confidence.  After all, a reader will notice the hole resulting from when the writer doesn’t know.  The paradox is that it’s equally problematic if a writer puts everything he knows into the story.

How much planning is too much?  I imagine it depends on each author and each book.  Rules of thumb aside, there are no definitive laws when it comes to the craft of fiction writing.  No perfect formulas for planning and editing.

Which brings us back to “an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do.”

So even though my many extraneous words will never be seen by anyone but me, I have to believe they serve an important purpose.  My novel will be better because of my background knowledge.  In my experiences, shortcuts lead to dead ends.

And if I have to delay the second draft in order to spend another month writing about my writing, well, that’s a punishment I’m all too willing to accept.

So how about it—am I a literary freak of nature?  I’d be grateful for any other writers’  insights below!


Filed under Writing

In defense of the dabbler…or…why getting published might not be all it’s cracked up to be

In an earlier post, I defined a dabbler as someone who has yet to write one million words while simultaneously implying that the one million words benchmark might be less of a milestone than a state of mind.

Undoubtedly, there are dabblers out there who have surpassed two million words, and there are days that I envy them.

Back in my dabbler days—while a high school student, specifically—I had the great fortune to not only meet, but also hang out with a slew of successful sword-and-sorcery authors, including Margaret Weis, Don Perrin, Jeff Grubb, Kate Novak and others.  As an avid fan of the Dragonlance novels, it was more than a little surreal to spend time with the talented writers whose books were being enjoyed by millions of readers around the world.

I’m not sure what those established authors thought of the boy with no shortage of questions about the craft and business of writing, and, sadly, I don’t recall much of the conversations.  However, one sentiment has remained in my gray matter these past sixteen or so years.

At some point in the afternoon, one of the writer said the downside to being a published author is that she always felt compelled to put forth her best effort and that she could no longer write “just for fun” anymore.

I remember thinking, “Now there’s a problem I’d like to have.”  Even then, as a dabbler whose narratives took the form of an endless series of scenes featuring hundreds of characters storylines, I recognized that when one decided to buckle down and craft a true novel with actual chapters, a limited cast of characters, a grand story arc, and maybe a subplot or two, the professional novelist needed to consider every word’s impact on the audience.

Transitioning from a dabbler to the next stage—a would-be professional writer or a not-yet-published novelist or, let’s be frank, a wannabe—requires a fundamental shift in attitude and behavior.  If a hobby is to become a vocation, one needs discipline and dedication, a big step beyond simply answering to your own literary whims.

In that instance, a stress-reliever becomes a source of stress.

According to psychology, there are two types of stress: eustress and distress.  The former is a positive force that can motivate an individual to achieve.  It brings with it a sense of satisfaction.  The latter, of course, is a destructive power that takes a toll.  As a young wannabe, I eagerly tapped into eustress, channeling it and letting it fuel me as I wrote my first novel.

And the next one.

And the next one.

And, possibly, the one after that.

But not so much anymore.  Even though I promised myself that I wouldn’t let the road to becoming a professional writer leech the fun out of writing, I realize now that that is exactly what has been happening over the years.  It’s not simply because I hold myself to very high standard when it comes to my fiction (though that plays a big part).  As a matter of fact, I make it a point to engage in “nonproductive” writing when I’m in between novels—short stories that I write just for the joy of creation and with no intention of publishing or even editing them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still take a lot of satisfaction out of the craft of writing.  Yet somewhere along the journey, I’ve succumbed to the most sobering aspects of professional writing without the bright side of seeing any of my projects in print.  I tackled my latest manuscripts with all of the seriousness of a professional writer, taking every step I can think of to ensure artistic integrity and commercial appeal of the work.  In a sense, I’ve become a slave to my fiction, sacrificing countless hours of sleep, family time, and time I could have been pursuing other pastimes.

In short, I’ve done everything imaginable to get to the finish line, and yet publication remains ever out of the reach.

I’m sure the other wannabes out there can empathize with my plight.  Perhaps it’s only natural that a certain amount of bitterness will creep in after a writer pens five novels only to realize that the first four aren’t good enough to attract an agent and the fifth novel, while good enough to be represented by an agent and good enough to be considered by a major publishing house, still hasn’t been purchased after going on two years because of so much uncertainty in the industry.

I might even sound ungrateful to the dabblers and other wannabes out there.  After all, I’m fortune enough to have a regular writing gig as a freelance columnist for the local newspaper.  I have a fulltime job at an ad agency and get paid to write marketing copy, commercial scripts, blog posts and so forth.  And I have a great agent and an editor, both of whom are pushing for the sale in spite of the current quagmire.  I could get a phone call tomorrow with the good news.

Or the bad news.

And where would that leave me?  Back at square one as far as my fiction goes.  I am a writer.  But I want to be a novelist—a published novelist.  Fiction is my first love, and while I’ve been very blessed to find other outlets for my writing skills, I can’t help but feel like a failure when I consider how much time and energy I’ve invested in fiction without any return on investment up to this point.  Arguably, too much of my identity is tied into my fiction writing.  It’s not enough for me to know that I’m a good writer; I crave the validation in the form of a signed contract by a publishing house.

It occurs to me that my preoccupation with getting published is unhealthy—not only because I’ve lost some enjoyment and enthusiasm for the process of writing itself, but also because there’s this other area of my existence called Real Life, and it, too, has paid a price while I’ve been on this decades-long quest.

Setting the actual fiction writing and editing commitment aside for a moment, consider that while this publisher has been pondering the purchase of my MS (If Souls Can Sleep), I have pursued other avenues in support of my dream, including setting up this author’s website and updating the blog herein.  I have three distinct venues for writing creative nonfiction: this blog, the ad agency website blog, and my lifestyle column.  When working solely on fiction, I would routinely have thoughts that sparked a “what if” storyline; I’d file it away somewhere for a future project.  When I started my newspaper column, I began doing the same thing, thinking, “That might make a good column topic.”

Now that I contribute to two blogs as well, it’s gotten much, much worse.  Just about any thought I have now passes through a filter:

  • Could this be used in my fiction somehow?
  • Could I write a column about it?
  • Is it writing-related and suitable for my author’s blog?
  • Is it marketing/communications/website-related and suitable for the agency blog?

As if planning for and then plotting out these different forms of writing weren’t exhausting enough, there’s still another step before all is said and done: promoting it.  With a background in public relations and marketing, I am well aware of the myriad delivery systems and channels available.  I’ve started following other blogs so that I can network and, when it’s not too tacky, link back to one of my posts.  I started a Facebook and Twitter account for One Million Words, which is in itself a form of personal branding.  My agent lent me a book about guerilla marketing for writers, and I’m scared to open it up because I can’t keep up with all of the tactics I’m tentatively trying, let alone new ones.

The insanely aggressive writing-related schedule I came up with is unsustainable in no small part because even when I step away from my writing and am in Real Life, I can’t stop thinking about what I am going blog about next, what I should be doing to get more readers for this blog, and how on God’s green earth am I going to fit fiction back into the mix when I start working on the editing my current MS.

And didn’t I decide against self-publishing and to work through an agent with a publishing house instead so that I didn’t have to get bogged down in the business side of writing?

In case it’s not already obvious, I tend to be an overachiever.  I’m not just a Type A personality; I’m Type A+.  Though I’m a recovering perfectionist, I still suffer from a chronic addiction to measurable progress.  If there’s something else I can do to ensure my success, I’ll do it…even begrudgingly.

R.A. Salvatore, another fantasy author I’ve had the good fortune to meet (though our conversation lasted only as long as it took him to sign an autograph), claims the only way a person can know if he or she is a writer is to quit.  If you can quit, then you’re not a writer.  If you can’t quit, congratulations…you’re a true writer.

That sounds an awful lot like an addiction to me.

I’m pretty sure I was an addict even back in my dabbler days, but it’s only gotten worse while in the wannabe stage.  These past 20 months, while waiting for an answer from a publisher, I’ve overcompensated for having no control by trying to assume as much control over my fate as a hopefully-soon-to-be-published author as possible.  Apparently, getting a book published is no longer enough; I need to get everything in place so that when my novel hits store shelves, I’ll have the groundwork for having everything a real author needs to be successful.

All of which has me yearning for those simpler times when I wrote just because telling stories was fun.

Once I took pride in being a fiction writing addict.  It meant I had “the stuff.”  These days, however, I’m starting to wonder if any addiction—including something that started out as being constructive—can be healthy.  With my head filled with a frenzied miasma of thoughts about writing (i.e., obsession) and my free time crammed with writing and writer-related activities (i.e., compulsion), the whole shebang starts to feel like a big withdrawal from Real Life.  When I’m productive, I’m happy.  When I feel as though I’m making progress, I’m happy.  When Real Life gets in my way?  Not so much.

Since something has to give (and hopefully not my sanity), my thoughts drift back to the dabbler days, about the motivation that spurred me on this road to wannabe and, God willing, to the real deal eventually.  Back then, I wrote because I had stories in me that I had to get on paper, and I had one loyal reader: a good friend who today is my wife.  (And without her early support, I might not be in this pickle now!  Just kidding…)

My freshman year of college, I took the blind leap from dabbler to wannabe.  I started my first novel, writing a chapter a week and working with an English professor, who helped me avoid the types of mistakes that seem so obvious now.  But why did I become an English major?  What made me decide to dream of becoming a published author?

It wasn’t the money, though who wouldn’t want to get compensated for doing what he loves?  It wasn’t fame because at heart I’m an introvert.  Yes, I’d like to have a small following—fans who look forward to the release of a new David Michael Williams novel—but more than anything, I wanted more than just one other person on this planet who appreciates the work I put into my fiction.

In my naïveté, I made a goal to be published by the age of twenty-three.  (Are you done laughing yet?  OK, I’ll wait.)

Ten years after that deadline has come and gone, I still have zero books published.  A lot has changed in that time.  Vanity presses, once the tacky badge of an amateur (a wannabe who wants to be published so badly he or she is willing to pay for it), have evolved into e-publishing.  Anyone can get his or her fiction uploaded to a website in a matter of minutes.  If my sole goal was to get my novels into the hands of readers, there’s really nothing stopping me.

Which means that prestige is more important to me than I care to believe or I need an objective expert in the industry to confirm my desperate hope that my writing is worthy of publishing.  Maybe it’s a little of both.

Yes, I want to be “discovered.”  I want those with keen eyes (and a healthy budget) to reward me for my endeavors.  Even though I live in a DIY era, I don’t want to have to figure everything out for myself.  I don’t want to hunt for cover art or peddle my wares like a desperate blog-to-blog salesman.  All that takes time away from what I really want to be doing: the writing.  And gosh darn it, I want people to be able to flip through the pages of my novel, not just download a digital copy.

So, yeah, I guess I’m kind of picky.

The good news is there’s a decent chance a major publisher will buy If Souls Can Sleep.  Then the dream becomes a reality.  Then I’ll be happy.  Right?

Probably not—at least not if I let my personality (A+, remember) have its way.  Clearly, I’ve lost my way from the optimistic dabbler…that dope who was happy with just churning out stories.  My motivations need a readjustment.  Writing, in moderation, should be enough.  Getting published should be a happy coincident.  It’s about the art, not adoring fans; the creative thrill, not the cash.

So I’m tossing out my writing schedule.  I will continue to set aside time to write and edit fiction regularly.  My newspaper column has been rewarding, not to mention the only legit publishing credit I have.  I’d be an idiot to abandon it.  I plan to contribute as the spirit moves me.  That has served me well in the past.

For now, I’m done tinkering with this website.  I’m unsubscribing to the various and sundry blogs I’ve been reading (some people post daily?!).  No offense intended, fellow writers.  As for Facebook and Twitter, I’ve had enough.

I rescind the promise I made to myself to update this blog weekly.  The sad thing is I really enjoy writing about writing.  I just don’t have the time.  It’s beyond the focus of my dream.  And there’s too much pressure (self-imposed stress) to write something profound, something of value to the greater world, and something that will somehow give me “street cred” in the arena of fiction writing.

Starting with this post—with its unwieldy headline, dull lead, lack of subheads, and a length that any strategic marketer would have chopped into eight distinct installments—I’m not going to waste time shaping an image or paving the way for professional networking.  If I feel the need to write about writing, I might post it here.  Or not.  I won’t commit to anything.

Fewer nonfiction obligations will mean fewer distractions from my fiction and fewer intrusions into Real Life.  Filling my time with more and more activity hasn’t made me a better writer or a happier person.  I’m ready to set aside my quixotic quest for “publication or bust” and embrace moderation and balance.

No one wants to be a wannabe.  But I’d rather be a content wannabe than a published author who has lost sight of what’s truly important.


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