Tag Archives: creative process

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Dealing With the Slog, part I

Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming…

Yes, I am a Pixar fan. Sue me. My kids were the perfect age for the magical first generation of Pixar movies — Toy Story (1 and 2); Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars (the first one) — and Nancy and I loved them, too.

But Dory’s little don’t-give-up song is more than cute and annoyingly catchy. It also offers a valuable lesson every writer should take to heart.

Today, I continue my “Most Important Lessons” feature, which I began a couple of months ago. In this installment I intend to give a few pointers about what we can do to keep ourselves moving forward in the middle of the slog that is novel-writing.

Because here’s the thing: We writers love to talk about the big events in our professional lives. We shout from the hilltops when we sign a contract or have a new book come out or complete a manuscript. Those are the golden moments, the ones we live for and love to celebrate. But, of course, those moments make up a teeny-tiny fragment of our professional lives. The achievements themselves are significant and worth marking, but they are fleeting and painfully brief. The vast majority of our time is spent working toward those milestones — slogging through the initial drafts of our books and stories, revising and reworking the manuscripts, marketing ourselves and our writing, developing new ideas, or maybe worrying about when we might have a new idea that’s worth a damn.

Of all of these, the first one — slogging through the initial draft of our manuscripts — might be the most difficult. I think it’s safe to say that’s the place where most nascent careers founder. And so that’s where I’m going to focus today.

How do we keep going? How do we avoid becoming one of those aspiring writers who has started ten books but finished none of them, or has started one passion project but stalled at about the 60% mark and cannot move forward from there?

Here are some strategies I have used over the years.

1. Set and internalize your own deadlines. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career, and have sold several series to publishers large and small. That means I have often written to deadlines imposed upon me by my editors. But most writers in today’s market, even established professionals, have to write the first book in a series before they can sell the project, and so I have also written a lot of books that had no deadline, at least no official one (including Thieftaker, Spell Blind, Time’s Children, Radiants, and the first two books of the new Celtic urban fantasy I’m working on). The deadlines for those books are ones I gave myself. And I can tell you that writing to an external deadline is much easier than writing to a self-imposed one. When we miss an external deadline, we risk angering our editor, giving up our place in the publishing schedule, and even endangering our contract. When we miss a self-imposed deadline, there are essentially no consequences.

And so, we need to internalize our deadlines, to make them feel as real and absolute as the external ones. For me, the best way to do that is to map out my project schedule for an entire calendar year. “Jan. 1-April 15, work on Novel X. April 16-May 31, work on editing projects 1 and 2. June 1-September 15, work on Novel Y. Etc.” This way, missing that first deadline has the potential to set back my entire year. Suddenly, missing my own deadline puts something I care about at risk. These are still all artificial deadlines with artificial consequences, but the more I put at stake with each deadline, the more likely I am to take them seriously, which is the point.

2. Keep your deadlines realistic and achievable. Yeah, I know. That hypothetical calendar in the paragraph above includes two novels, each of which I’m writing in about 3 1/2 months. For me, at this stage of my career, that is realistic and achievable. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve written a lot of books and a lot of stories. You should not necessarily expect the same of yourself. When I first started, I took a good deal longer to complete each novel. When you make your deadlines, you need to be realistic about what you can get done, and you need to set your timetable accordingly. When we set deadlines that are unachievable, we set ourselves up for failure. The purpose of deadlines is to keep us on task and on schedule. The moment we miss our first deadline, that purpose is blown. We become discouraged. Our projects languish. Before we know it, our next deadline is shot as well, and suddenly we’re back where we don’t want to be, struggling to complete the novel we’ve already been working on for too long. So be realistic (and that includes factoring in travel, family and work obligations, and anything else that might slow you down). Set yourself up for success.

3. If necessary, divide large tasks into smaller, discreet, manageable ones. For some writers, the very notion of writing a novel can be intimidating. For these folks, nothing is scarier than typing “Chapter One” on a page. I get that. To this day, I am somewhat daunted each time I begin a new book. It’s a bit like painting the entire interior of our house. That seems like too huge a job to take on. But when we look at the big project as a series of more limited tasks, we remove some of that pressure. “I might be thinking of painting the entire house, but for now I’m just going to paint this room.”

I approach writing books the same way. I don’t fixate on the big project. I think in terms of chapters. How does the book start? What comes next? What do I need to do after that? And so on. I don’t tend to set deadlines for each chapter, because I write my chapters in one or two days. But again, that is something I can do now that I couldn’t have imagined when I began my career. So by all means, if it feels like it would be helpful, establish a schedule for your writing on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Set realistic, achievable deadlines for their completion and stick to the timetable.

This is already a long post, so I’m going to stop here for this week. Next week, dealing with the curse of the 60% stall!!

Until then . . .

Just keep writing
Just keep writing
Just keep writing…

Professional Wednesday: Confessions — The Ways In Which I Waste Work Time

I have shared some personal stuff in these posts in the past. Today’s post is the most private, the most embarrassing, the most revealing I’ve ever written.

Well, not really. But today, I confess to all of you, in front of God and everyone, how I waste time when I ought to be writing.

Let’s be honest, we all find ways to procrastinate and distract ourselves when we’re working, writers and non-writers alike. I also think, though, that writers in particular need to have ways to occupy the front parts of our brain, while the hind-brain works through plot points and character arcs and the like. (Go with it, people. My blog, my rules . . .) Certainly I need these things. And I resort to all sorts of stuff during the course of a day.

Confession #1: I play Bejeweled Blitz on my phone. I play it a lot, and I have been addicted to it for years. I have enough gold bars and coins piled up to make Warren Buffett envious. I have so many free gems wracked up that I could play for weeks straight, without pausing for meals or sleep, and never have to pay for a gem with any of those hoarded coins. It’s a bit of a sickness, actually. But I do enjoy it.

Confession #2: Bejeweled Blitz is not the only game on my phone. Not even close. I play Wordscapes, Crown Solitaire, Hearts, Spades. I don’t play them nearly as much as I play Blitz, but . . . well, let’s just say I don’t lack for entertainment options. And don’t get me started about Wordle.

Confession #3: I will, at least a couple of times each week, I look at guitars on various music store websites. Yes, I own three acoustic guitars, all of them very nice. Yes, I own an electric guitar. Also very nice. And yes, I covet more. I look at Reverb.com. I look at Musician’s Friend. I look at Sweetwater. I look at Music Zoo. I could go on, but I think you get the point. I never tire of looking at beautiful new guitars that I neither need, nor can afford.

Confession #4: Repeat last paragraph, and everywhere I mention “guitar” substitute “camera” or “lens,” and everywhere I mention a music store, substitute a camera dealer. I’m not proud of this.

Confession #5: I shop for other stuff, too. Books. CDs. Sometimes clothes or shoes. Sometimes gifts for other people. Not as often as I would like you to think. But I do look for stuff for others. Really.

Confession #6: This is really not a confession, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. But I’m talking about procrastinating, so . . . I play guitar during my work day. It’s a good way to refocus, a nice break from sitting at the keyboard, a constructive use of time I might otherwise spend, oh, I don’t know, playing Bejeweled Blitz?

Confession #7: A lot of the online searches I do for the purposes of book research quickly morph into rabbit holes that have nothing to do with my stories and everything to do with wasting time and NOT writing. I have a strong feeling I am not at all alone in this regard. Looking at you, every writer reading this post . . .

Confession #8: A lot of the online searches I do never had any connection to the book or story I’m working on in the first place. They were about birds or music or baseball or anything but the book or story I’m working on. I have a strong feeling I am not at all alone in this regard, either.

Confession #9: Email — blah, blah, blah. Facebook — blah, blah, blah. Twitter — blah, blah, blah. YouTube — blah, blah, blah. Etc. Ad infinitum. Social media is absolutely essential to self-promotion, to building our audiences and platforms. It is also the ultimate time-sink.

Confession #10: Sometimes when I am listening to music when I write, I’ll suddenly just HAVE to know who is playing rhythm guitar on this particular song. And then I will need to know what other albums this person played on and who he played with. And pretty soon it’s an hour later.

Confession #11: This is not a complete list . . .

In all seriousness, to procrastinate is human. It is, I believe, part of my creative process. I was actually serious earlier when talking about front-brain stuff and hind-brain stuff. I find these various things I do to distract myself are essential to my writing day. That’s not just a rationalization. I honestly believe these “wastes of time” enable me to be productive. And I AM productive, despite my distractions, which, I would say, proves my point.

And that mention of rationalizations reminds me of a line from a movie. I think I know which one. And IMDB is a really fun website, so I gotta go . . .

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Throw Nothing Away — A Writing Lesson Courtesy of INVASIVES

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)February has begun, Punxsutawney Phil has done his schtick, and time seems to be moving at breakneck speed. In a little over two weeks, Invasives, the second Radiants book, will be released by Belle Books.

Like Radiants, this is a supernatural thriller. This time, though, I have set my thriller in New York City, and a good deal of the story takes place in the New York subway tunnels. My lead characters are a trio of homeless, runaway teens — Mako, Bat, and, my main protagonist, Drowse. They live off what they can make by scrounging and, yes, stealing, and they take shelter in a house built of cardboard and shower curtains, tape and rope and plastic ties.

Bat is blind. He comes from money, but had to leave his home. When the book opens, we don’t know why.

Mako was involved in gang activity for a time, but eventually went straight. Or tried. Did I mention they have to steal?

Drowse ran away from a terrible home situation. She turned tricks for a time. Ran drug money. Now she’s trying to hold their small “family” together and survive in the Below. And, as it happens, she’s a Radiant, whose power is invaluable to their business.

But her abilities, and the business they do, have now attracted the notice of some of the most powerful people in New York’s financial world. They want something Drowse has, and they are willing to do anything, kill anyone, to get it.

Intrigued? I hope so. I love, love, love this book. Yes, I know, I say that about all my books when they come out. Because it’s true.

Invasives, though, is special to me in a couple of ways.

First, this is the book I was writing when we first got my daughter’s cancer diagnosis last March. At first, I put my writing on hold. I could barely function. I could barely think. How the hell was I supposed to write a novel? Well, as it turned out, writing this book was just what I needed. It is a fraught narrative, filled with suspense and tension. It focuses on these three characters, on their love for one another, on their bonds, and the forces trying to tear them apart. It wasn’t about cancer at all, and that was a good thing. But the story gave me an outlet for all the emotions churning inside me. As I have said before, I could not have gotten through the ordeal of last spring and summer without this novel.

And second, Drowse, Mako, and Bat were with me, lurking in my imagination, for more than a decade before I finally started work on this book. I had the idea for them, for their circumstances and relationships, long before I knew what story to build around them. I knew only that I loved the characters, and their dynamic. I had one idea for a novel, but I could never quite figure out the storyline, the world, the ending. I did write a kick-ass opening chapter for it, though.

Then, two years ago, I began writing the first Radiants book, and as I thought about subsequent volumes, Drowse and her friends popped back into my head. This was their story. Finally. This was the perfect world in which to place them. I even was able to use an updated version of that opening chapter.

I have said before, half in earnest, half in jest, that writers are packrats. We keep everything. Or at least we should. When I figured out that Drowse et al. would be the perfect protagonists for my second Radiants book, I knew just where to find the original character sketches, the original opening chapter, the original storyline for their caper. Because even that wound up factoring in to the creation of Invasives.

I never lost faith in the groundwork I did for their story all those years ago. I knew there was a novel there, somewhere. It was just a matter of placing it.

That happens to me a lot, and I know it happens to other authors as well. Sometimes we have an idea, and we are ready immediately to write and publish it. Other times, stories and characters take a while to steep, like good, strong tea. For ten years, Drowse, Mako, and Bat waited in a file on my computer desktop. It wasn’t that the original idea was bad or lacking in some way. It just wasn’t ready. Or rather, I wasn’t yet ready to write it in a way that did justice to the power of the original notion.

And that made the final realization of their tale in this novel all the more satisfying.

Keep writing. And don’t throw any idea away!

Creative Wednesday: What the Beatles Documentary Teaches Us About Creativity

So it’s Creative Wednesday, and I am still thinking about the Beatles documentary. Specifically, I’m reflecting on something I mentioned in my Monday post — the creative energy that Paul McCartney brought to the “Get Back” sessions recorded 50 years ago. The truth is, all four of the Beatles brought to the recording studio their imagination and talent, but also a willingness to try anything and everything in pursuit of their next collaboration. There is, I believe, a lesson there for all who create.

There were these incredible moments in the documentary, when we heard the Fab Four working their way though the earliest iterations of “Get Back” and “Let It Be,” “Across the Universe” and “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.” As a viewer and a fan, I felt as though I was getting a glimpse of history, of the formation of something that would change the course of rock and roll’s development. As I said in the earlier post, I got chills.

There are also moments in these eight and half hours when the band is jamming — with varying degrees of success — to old rock and roll classics, or on tunes of their own that never really amounted to much. It would be quite a stretch to say that every musical endeavor documented in the film was successful. There are several cringe-worthy moments.

And that’s sort of the point. Creativity at its purest is a messy process. If we’re fortunate and good at what we do, our bursts of creative energy produce gems to be shaped and polished. But even the best artists in any field also produce stuff that isn’t all that good. Creativity demands not just ability and energy, but also courage and even shamelessness. At times, John and Paul are hacking around, shouting, goofing, laughing, pounding on their instruments, clearly not taking anything they’re doing too seriously. But even in their least serious moments, they are still working, searching for lyrics or licks that they can apply to the more focused versions of their songs.

They know some of it sounds crappy, and they don’t care. You can tell, because when it comes time to lay down a serious track, they no longer sound like four kids playing with electric guitars and drums and amplifiers. They suddenly sound like the damn Beatles. It’s startling sometimes how quickly and easily they go from slipshod and careless to clean and amazing.

What does this have to do with writing?

Everything.

When we write, we need to be willing to take chances, to riff on an idea, to write something that may lead nowhere on the off chance that it will instead lead somewhere wonderful and inspired. I have a middle grade novel that I wrote a decade ago and that I love. Sadly, it never was really ready for prime time. My daughters loved it. Friends of my daughters who read it loved it, too. But it didn’t work on certain levels, and so it has sat on my hard drive all these years. Someday, I am sure, my grandkids will love it. And I’m okay with that.

Around the same time, I developed three characters for another novel I was thinking of writing. I worked out their dynamic, their backstories, their circumstances. But the novel idea never went anywhere and the characters remained homeless. Until this time last year, when I realized they were perfect for what I wanted to do with the second Radiants novel, Invasives. I wrote the book around them and the result is one of the best things I’ve ever written. (The book should be out in January 2022.)

I have stories that haven’t gone anywhere and never will, and others that haven’t taken shape yet. But I keep on trying, plugging away at ideas. Some pan out very well, others not to much. That’s the nature of the creative beast. As creators, we need to be fearless. We need to be willing to fail in order to succeed. That’s something I thought of again and again watching the Beatles play music for hours on end. Some of what they did worked brilliantly. Some of it sounded terrible. And through it all, they kept experimenting.

Let their example inspire you. Some jams go nowhere. Some songs fall flat. Same with stories and novels. That is part of being an artist. The sting of those disappointments lasts only as long as it takes us to try whatever is next.

Keep writing.

Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Breaking Out of Routines

I have a process that I tend to follow book after book. I’m stubborn, and a creature of habit. Having written all four Thieftaker and all three Fearsson books largely by following my regular creative routine, I fully expected that this book would behave and let me write it the same way. But like children, not all books are the same; some listen better than others.

Quick-Tip Tuesday has rolled around again, and I have my usual post up at Magical Words. This week I’m discussing the value of breaking out of our creative routines in order to infuse our work with something fresh and new. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.

And keep writing!

Quick-Tip Tuesday: Writing Every Day, or Not, or Yeah

There is a sort of alchemy that takes place when we manage to convert our own emotions into the different-but-related emotions of our characters. Spinning gold from that straw carried me through my grief. Had I given in to the temptation not to write, that book never would have been as good, and I don’t think my creative development would have followed the same trajectory.

Quick-Tip Tuesday is here again, and I have my post up at Magical Words. Today, I’m writing about whether or not writing every day is a good idea. It’s a more complicated question than it may seem.  I don’t necessarily think we need to write each day. But we should. Although not EVERY day. But yeah . . .

As I said: complicated. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.

Quick-Tip Tuesday: Being Scooped . . . Or Not

We as authors have enough to worry about in this business as it is — the market is tough, writing good novels and short fiction is no easy task, finding time amid work and family to do all we want to do can be difficult. Don’t compound the challenges we face by imagining problems where they don’t exist. The story you have in mind to write is uniquely yours.

Today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post is up over at Magical Words. It’s on the worry so many aspiring writers have of being “scooped” by better established authors, and it argues, in essence, that you don’t have to be concerned about that. I hope you’ll read the post. You can find it here.

Keep writing!

The Blog Tour Ends With a Post on Ideas and Creativity

Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that the act of creation is, among other things, an act of faith. We start our projects believing that when our work is done, the finished product will be complete and coherent, a reasonable representation of the vision that drove us to begin in the first place. But of course, we have no guarantee of this. We have only our confidence in our own creative process.

With today’s post at Magical Words, I wind up the Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour. The post is called “Ideas and the Creative Act of Faith,” and it is about my struggles with my next new project. You can read the post here. I hope you find it interesting, and instructive.

A Better Day

First off, my deepest thanks to all who left comments of support and encouragement and advice in response to yesterday’s post. Your words helped. Your good wishes helped. I knew already that I was not alone in feeling those things; the universality of those struggles I cataloged was one of the reasons I wrote the post in the first place. But hearing from so many of you that you understood from personal experience what I was going through, made it just a little easier. So again, thank you all.

And I’m happy to say that today was easier. There was no bursting of the dam, no comprehensive epiphany, but I didn’t expect either. Figuring out this new project is going to take some time. Today I made progress on my worldbuilding and some character work. I have something I can point at and say, “I did that today. I’m closer to where I want to be.”  And tomorrow, I’ll get closer still.

Feeling better.

 

Don’t, Don’t, Don’t

I’ve debated back and forth about writing this post. Even now, as I type it out, I’m not sure I’ll ever actually put it up. Honesty wars with pride. Fear of revealing weakness and saying “the wrong thing” strives against the notion that reading this post might help others struggling with similar demons.

This has been another of those days — I seem to be having quite a few of them right now. By “those days,” I mean the ones that are filled with doubts and frustrations, stretches of idle time during which I do nothing but stare at a blank screen, getting nothing done and feeling like a lump.

But worse, I find myself falling into all sorts of old, bad habits, things that I have posted about, glibly telling aspiring writers “don’t do this and don’t do that.” And now here I sit, guilty of all the sins at which I’ve railed.

“Success,” I have said in recent posts, “must by self-defined. Don’t look to others for affirmation, find it within yourself.” But I feel myself surrounded my mirrors, as if I have stepped into an erroneously named funhouse. These mirrors are distorted, farcical. And yet I look at myself as I appear in them, and I wonder, “Is that really me?”

“Be ambitious! Ambition is good!” But my ambitions mock me, daring me to reach for them again, to risk falling short of them. Again.

“Don’t write to the market. The market is a moving target. Write what you love, the story that is burning inside of you.” But that story feels elusive right now, and I am constantly second-guessing myself, wondering if I am on the verge of writing the “wrong” story, the one that won’t take my career where I want it to go.

“Don’t read your own reviews.” “Don’t obsess over your numbers.” “Don’t lose sight of the fact that to succeed in this crazy business one must understand that its ultimate reward is love of the craft and passion for the act of creation.”

Don’t, don’t, don’t.

And yet, I do it all.

Because as much as I love this business, as fortunate as I am to be a professional writer, I’m always mindful of the precarious nature of success, however it is defined. I am flying without a net, unsure of what I am going to write next and where I might sell it when it’s ready to hit the market. And that uncertainty terrifies me. I have ideas, but they have yet to coalesce into a vision for a new project.

A voice in my head says, “But they will, they always do.”

To which another voice — a voice that has plagued me all my life, as such voices do all of us — answers, “You mean, they always have. Perhaps this time they won’t.”

I really hate that fucking voice.

There really is no answer to that voice of doubt, at least none that is solid in its certainty. The answer to doubt has to be faith, and faith can be a shaky foundation on which to build confidence. Do I think that I’ll find an answer, that I’ll emerge from this dark, unsettled place? Of course. But I don’t — can’t — know. Belief is all I’ve got, and while I can hope that eventually it will be enough, right now my confidence seems threadbare and worn.

I have no answers for you, no note of redemption on which to end this post. Hence my reluctance to start it in the first place. I’m struggling, as we all do from time to time. And all I can do is contend with my demons again tomorrow and hope that in the light of the morning they seem a bit less formidable.