Tag Archives: writing

Professional Wednesday: One Hot-Mess of a Writing Post

Dispensing writing advice when one is struggling a bit with one’s own work can be somewhat strange. Just ask . . . well, me.

I am more than 50,000 words into my current work-in-progress, the third book in my Celtic urban fantasy. (No, you haven’t missed any releases. Book I is in production and should be out later this year or early in 2023.) Some days, the writing comes smoothly and other days it’s a struggle. And, of course, I am closing in on the dreaded 60% mark, so at that point all bets will be off.

Over the past few years, I’ve offered advice on dealing with a whole host of problems. Stuck at 60%? Distracted? Unable to get started? Unsure of how to finish? Check the archives of this blog. Chances are, I’ve got some post somewhere that tells you how I have addressed the issue. All the posts are well-meaning. Some of them might even have helped someone somewhere at some point.

Sometimes, though, there is no cure. Sometimes the only way past the struggle is through the struggle.

I am not at my best right now, for any number of reasons. And I am doing all I can to write despite distractions small and large, personal and national, serious and foolish. Writing, though, is messy. Writing is not one smooth, free-flowing creative process that starts when we type “Chapter One” and completes itself when we type “The end.” (And just an aside here: Writers shouldn’t have to type “The end.” If we need to tell our readers when the story has ended, we haven’t done a very good job ending it. Just saying.)

Writing, as I have said too many times before, is really hard. Writing is fits and starts. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. It’s write, revise, delete, write some more, delete some more, write some more, revise some more, etc., etc., etc.

And here’s the thing. Or here are the two things. First, anyone who has ever devoted any meaningful portion of their life to writing knows this already. And second, everyone who has ever known this, has promptly forgotten it the moment they start their next book.

Because we want it to be free-flowing, smooth, easy, linear. We want it to be painless. And why wouldn’t we? Who in their right mind says, “I’m going to write a book and I hope it comes within a hair’s breadth of killing me?” Then again, who in their right mind says, “I’m going to write a book…?”

But I digress.

In all seriousness, we want the process to be simple, and so we forget what it’s like to be in the throes of creating. Every book I have written has been a struggle at one point or another. Some are worse than others, but every one has its moments. I’ll struggle with plot points, argue with my characters, second-guess my world building. I’ll doubt that the book is any good, I’ll question whether I can even finish it, I’ll go through periods, sometimes weeks long, when I have to force myself just to sit down in front of my computer. Because I. Don’t. Want. To. Write.

Until I do again. And then all is well with the world, and the book seems pretty good. Better than that. It’s very good. Hell it’s one of my best — maybe even THE best thing I’ve ever done. And it will only ever be eclipsed by the next one.

Put another way, writers are head-cases. I know I am. And there’s a reason my writer friends are my writer friends, if you know what I mean.

You may be surprised to learn that there really is advice embedded in this hot-mess of a post. It’s simply this: Keep working. Writing is a battle, like any creative endeavor, like any endeavor at all that is worth pursuing. It frustrates us and exhausts us. It challenges us by striking at those places where we’re most vulnerable — our confidence, our sense of self-worth, our ability to stare failure in the eye and say, “Not today, motherfucker.” But that’s also the beauty of it. If it was easy, finishing a book wouldn’t feel so damn good. And it will feel good. Because you will finish your book.

Wishing you smooth-flowing prose, fast-moving plots, and characters who surprise and delight you.

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Understand Your Contracts

Today’s post won’t be overly long. It doesn’t need to be, as the advice is fairly straightforward.

One of the advantages of having an agent, beyond increased chances of selling our work to a traditional publisher, and increased access to secondary sales of media rights and translation rights, is that agents understand contracts. When I first entered the business, I didn’t know the first thing about them. I have learned over the course of my career, but I’ve been in publishing for twenty-five years. If I hadn’t learned it would be downright embarrassing.

The fact is, though, in today’s marketplace, finding an agent is harder than ever. And for many of us, it might not be absolutely necessary. Yes, those subsidiary sales are nice, but if our goal is simply publication here in the U.S., and if we’re willing to sign with a small press, we can do this without representation.

But here’s the thing: If we don’t have an agent, we need to educate ourselves on the meaning of contracts. Because no writer should ever sign a contract unless they understand and agree to every single clause.

Look, there are a lot of publishers out there. Small, large, and in between. And many of them — most of them, I would say — are decent, honest, and well-meaning. Many of them are also competent and capable of drawing up a contract that is comprehensive and legally sound. And the Venn Diagram that finds the overlap between those two groups probably includes a good number of publishers.

But it definitely doesn’t include all of them. There are some who are competent but untrustworthy. There are some who are honest but not so good with the legal words thing. There are some who are incompetent crooks, and there are some who probably mean well but simply have some wonky stuff in their business model.

Sadly, none of them come with signs attached telling us to which category they belong. It is up to us to read and understand the legal agreements we’re signing. If we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves when we get screwed later on.

Read your contracts line by line. Make notes of anything you don’t understand and ask questions. Ask other writers or editors or publishers you know. Ask that friend who happens to be a lawyer. Seek professional, paid legal advice if you need to. Yes, this last will cost you something on the front end, but you’ll be glad you did it. If you understand the contract but find some of the provisions not to your taste, bring those clauses to the attention of your publisher and try to negotiate a change.

Finally — and this might be the hardest bit of advice to follow — be prepared to walk away if the publisher won’t budge. Believe me, I know how difficult that can be. Getting a book offer is heady stuff. It’s easy to be caught up in the moment, to believe that this is the ONE opportunity that will ever come our way. It’s easy to convince ourselves that if we let this one go, we will regret it for the rest of our lives. And I can’t guarantee that’s not the case. But I can tell you these two things: 1) If one publisher thinks our book is publishable, chances are another will too, even if we have to wait a while; and 2) Signing a bad contract can absolutely be worse than signing no contract at all.

So understand your contracts. Ask questions about anything you don’t understand or don’t like. And be prepared to take your book elsewhere.

Keep writing.

Tuesday Musings: This is Why People Post Photos of Kittens…

I am having a bit of a “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all” moment right now. There are some things I would like to write about. I have a couple of rants percolating inside me. But no good will come of them. They are unlikely to make me feel better, and they are very likely to cause blowback.

I am back from LibertyCon, where I had a fun weekend. As always, I caught up with lots of old friends and made a few new ones. But I have to say that this year’s spring Con season, starting with JordanCon in April, and finishing with this weekend’s convention, has been more fraught than I would have liked. I won’t be heading to another professional event until DragonCon over Labor Day weekend, and I am deeply relieved to have a couple of months ahead of me without any conventions to attend.

A friend remarked to me over the weekend that everything in our corner of the publishing world feels more tense and dramatic than usual, and he’s right. Some of what has gone on is as serious as can be — issues of monumental importance. But some of it has resulted from the actions of opportunists seeking to turn the misfortune of others to their advantage. And some of it has been so childish as to defy comprehension. It’s like we have forgotten how to be adults, and are trapped in some God-awful episode of Star Trek in which aliens have caused all of us to regress and act like spoiled, self-centered teens. I don’t know if there ever was such an episode. There should have been. One more opportunity for William Shatner to over-emote . . .

Anyway, I could go on, but I am not willing to tread that road. As I say, it leads nowhere good.

This, I have come to realize, is why people post photos of kittens and puppies. Kittens and puppies are just what are needed in moments like these. Unfortunately, I have no puppies, and kittens make me sneeze.

But not so long ago, I posted about my new (at this point, new-ish) toy — my Sony RX10, superzoom camera. I have used it throughout the spring to take photos of birds and such, and I have accumulated quite a few good shots. And so I choose to fill today’s space with lovely images. This is not likely to make me feel much better, but I believe it will keep me from writing something stupid that will get me in trouble.

Prairie Warbler, by David B. Coe

My first image is of a Prairie Warbler, a bird that nests in this part of Tennessee. Warblers are notoriously difficult to photograph, largely because they’re hyperactive and usually prefer to hang out at neck-straining heights in the forest canopy. This one, though, proved quite cooperative.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, by David B. Coe

Next, I offer this male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, who, with eight or ten of his best friends, cleaned us out of sunflower seed in about an hour one late-April afternoon. They are exquisite birds, but voracious eaters.Prothonotary Warbler, by David B. Coe

This is another warbler — far more unusual than the Prairie. It is called a Prothonotary Warbler and it is one of my favorite birds. Like all warblers, they are tiny — maybe six inches tip of beak to tip of tail — but their call rings through boggy, forested areas like a clarion.

Carolina Satyr, by David B. Coe

I know: this is not a bird. But it is beautiful. It’s a Carolina Satyr, a woodland butterfly that is quite common around here.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, by David B. Coe

This Ruby-throated Hummingbird has been hanging out in our yard all spring, feasting on the sugar water Nancy puts out. We have at least two nesting pairs in the yard, and as the summer goes on and the young ones fledge and start to eat, the areas around the feeders turn into aerial war zones, with hummers buzzing everywhere, attacking one another, each trying to hog all the food.

Philadelphia Vireo, by David B. Coe

And finally, a Philadelphia Vireo, another unusual bird, one I only see occasionally. Some years I don’t find them at all. This year, I got lucky and saw several, including this cutie who allowed me to get a couple of good photos.

There! I feel better, don’t you? And I didn’t have to tick off anyone.

Enjoy the rest of your week.

Professional Wednesday: Listening To My Own Work

SPELL BLIND, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)About seven years ago, I received out of the blue, an email from the actor Bronson Pinchot, who is probably best known for playing the role of “Balki” in the sitcom Perfect Strangers. He was, by then, enjoying a successful career as a voice actor, and he was writing to me because he was about to return to the studio to begin recording his reading of the second Justis Fearsson book, His Father’s Eyes. He wanted to know what I had thought of his treatment of the first book in the series, Spell Blind, and if there were things I wanted him to do differently with the second book.

HIS FATHER'S EYES, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)I was thrilled to get the email, and also impressed by the care he was taking with my books. But I wasn’t really able to give him the feedback he was after. “I have heard great things about your performance from friends, as well as from online reviews,” I told him. “I’ve listened to the sample on the Audible site and very much like your take on the character’s voice. The truth is, though, I am incapable of listening to others read my work. It has nothing to do with your performance, or any one else’s, for that matter, and everything to do with hearing the flaws in my own writing, which I find excruciating.”

This prompted a reply from him that was as amusing as it was courteous. Saying we were “birds of a feather,” he admitted that he had never been able to watch any of his on-screen performances for much the same reason. And there we left it.

Fast forward to a couple of weekends ago, when I attended ConCarolinas. I have been thinking recently of returning to the Justis Fearsson series to write more books in that world. I loved those characters, and really enjoyed writing contemporary urban fantasy, and I have felt for some time now that there is more I can do with the storyline. But I need to re-familiarize myself with the existing works, and I have been eager to start going back through the books.

SHADOW'S BLADE, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)As it happens, I have from Audible the MP3 CD of the third and final book in the original trilogy, Shadow’s Blade. Since I also had in my immediate future two seven-hour drives, I thought I would go ahead and listen to the book. How bad could it be, right? Even if I hated what I heard (to reiterate, I wasn’t worried about Pinchot’s performance, but rather my writing), I could take solace in knowing that I was now seven years and at least eight novels more experienced than I was when I wrote the book.

I want to make clear here that prior to this, I had never, ever listened to one of my novels as an audiobook. Never. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

Well, first of all, I loved Bronson Pinchot’s performance. His interpretation of most of the characters was spot-on. His pacing and mood and approach were terrific. I would be delighted to have him narrate more of my work in the future.

And I will also say that I enjoyed my own writing. I was far enough removed from the process of writing the book that I actually got caught up in the story, but was also familiar enough (still) with the book that I could anticipate key scenes and remember lines of which I was particularly fond at the time I wrote them. It was a little like rewatching a favorite movie, but more intimate.

Earlier today, I reached out to Bronson Pinchot, after all these years, and thanked him for his marvelous interpretation of the book. We had a very nice exchange; it turns out he has his own recording studio and business now, so if I want to hire him to do future books, I can.

But the larger point of this story is this: There is nothing wrong with pausing to take pride in our creative accomplishments. Were there passages in the book that I would write differently now? Absolutely. I noticed places where I could have trimmed, where I explained too much, where I should have left stuff unsaid, or presented the material differently. Overall, though, I was struck by how well the book held up. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed writing Justis Fearsson novels. And I was reminded as well that, generally speaking, I am pretty good at this writing thing.

I say that without fear that it will sound like bragging or conceit. Well, okay, I say it with just a little fear that it will sound like bragging or conceit . . . . But as I have suggested in previous Wednesday posts, writing is a difficult profession and if we don’t give ourselves a little credit now and then, an occasional pat on the back for a job well done, no one else is going to do it for us. I wrote a good book. Instead of finding the experience of listening to it excruciating, as I feared I might, I found it really fun and very satisfying. I wound up energized and even more eager to return to that world and write more Fearsson stories.

So, if you are feeling down about a current project, put it away for a while, work on something else, and then return to it and read it fresh. Or, if you are generally lacking in confidence right now, take a moment to go back and look at some old work that you’ve set aside for one reason or another. Sure, you might see elements of the storytelling and writing that need improving. But chances are you’ll also rediscover what you loved about the projects in the first place. And there is definitely value in that.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: So Many Of Us Just Coping — A #HoldOnToTheLight Post

#HoldOnToTheLight

So, I don’t know where this post is going. I feel it’s important to make that clear up front. And I also want to say that, all things considered, I am doing pretty well right now. Our older daughter’s health is stable, and she is active, happy, enjoying her work and her friends. Our younger daughter is settling in to a new life out in Colorado with her love. She has an interesting job, a nice apartment, and the excitement of beginning a new chapter. And Nancy and I are solid as ever, partners in all we do, as always able to laugh and talk and enjoy each other’s company.

But I have been reflecting on the simple truth that life is just hard. Yeah, I know: quite the revelation.

I remember when I was younger, and I would go through a rough patch and think, “I just want life to get back to normal,” by which I seemed to mean a place where things were easy and smooth and not filled with heartache.

The naïveté of youth.

I’m not trying to get all existential, nor do I wish to say I think life is nothing but a slog through grief and worry and difficulty. Because I don’t. Life is wondrous. I have spent the last thirty-plus years (and intend to spend the next thirty-plus years) living with someone who is my best friend as well as the love of my life. I have two incredible daughters. I have the privilege of writing stories for a living. I have family and friends whom I adore. Life is good.

But it’s hard. Everywhere I look, I see friends and family — people I care about — dealing with loss, grief, tragedy, heartbreak. And, perhaps because I’m older now, and a bit wiser, a bit more jaded, I understand that this is life. There is no normal. The easy, smooth moments are the exceptions. In the last week or so alone, I have learned of one friend heading into a messy, difficult divorce. I have word from another that they are sick with a serious illness. And still another is dealing with as-yet-undetermined health issues. Less than a month ago, Nancy lost her mom. Our family — immediate and extended — have ongoing medical issues to deal with. Moreover, quite apart from all the other stuff, the pandemic has taken its toll. So has the ongoing right-wing assault on our democracy. And the epidemic of gun violence. Etc., etc., etc.

I could go on, but I actually don’t mean for the litany to become the point. Nor do I wish to extract from my readers expressions of sympathy. This stuff is happening to all of us, and I really am doing all right.

The point is not the difficulty, but rather the coping.

And I believe this brings us back to where I started, because I think dealing with the challenges life presents begins with acknowledging them, with having compassion both for ourselves and for those around us. I am part of an online writing group that keeps in touch via emails in which we share news, ask one another for advice, offer and seek moral support in times of difficulty, and even ask for word-of-mouth help in publicizing new releases and such. Recently, activity on that mailing list had slowed to a trickle and someone sent out a message asking if, after many years of activity, our group had finally given up.

No, came one reply. I’m still here. Just struggling with career issues, and pandemic exhaustion, and some personal problems.

Me, too, said another member. Still here. But I have a lot going on.

Same.

Same.

Same.

Before long, a bunch of us had checked in, reaffirming our enthusiasm for being in the group, but also confiding about all we had been through over the past few years. It was simultaneously warming and chilling. So many of us happy for even this small opportunity to reach out and reconnect, so many of us struggling with life issues that threatened to overwhelm.

I believe our tiny online community is reflective of something going on all over the country, all over the world. And I think my point in writing today is this: Life is hard. Life right now is REALLY hard. It’s all right to reach out. It’s all right to make ourselves vulnerable in that way. More, it’s all right to reach back, to be compassionate, to share and confide and commiserate and try to make others feel better. That, it seems to me, is a positive way to confront life’s challenges.

Twice now I have said I am doing okay. The third time makes it true (at least that’s how stuff works in the Celtic urban fantasy I’m working on . . .). I am.

And I hope you are, too.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Dealing With the Slog, part II — The 60% Stall

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Many years back, while I was working on one of the middle books in my Winds of the Forelands quintet, my second series, I came downstairs after a particularly frustrating day of writing and started whining to Nancy about my manuscript. It was terrible, I told her. There was no story there, no way to complete the narrative I’d begun. The book was a disaster, and I might well have to scrap the whole thing.

To which she said, mildly, “Ah. You’re at the 60% point?”

The question brought me up short, because that’s exactly where I was. And prompted by her remark, I realized something obvious to her that I’d missed up until then: To that point in my career, every book I’d written had stalled at the 60% mark.

Last week, I began a new “Most Important Lessons” feature that focused on “Dealing With the Slog.” The first post focused on meeting our self-imposed deadlines. Today’s installment will discuss how to address the 60% Stall.

I would love to tell you that as my career has progressed, I have moved past this problem, but I’d be lying. I don’t stall at 60% with every book, but I do run into problems at that point in most manuscripts. It seems to be endemic to my process. And I’m certainly not the only writer who does. The more I talk about the problem, the more I realize it’s fairly common.

The problem as it presents itself to me can be boiled down this way: When I begin a novel, I know what the main conflicts are, and I have a clear understanding of the obstacles I intend to throw in the path of my protagonist(s). And I also have a good sense of how I want my story to end. Quite often, though, as I write my story, certain elements change. I often alter plot points as I write them. My characters assert themselves in subtle ways, developing their own personalities and wills, and forcing me to rethink their arcs.

So those obstacles as I have written them are not quite the same as what I envisioned originally. On the other hand, the ending, as I imagined it, remains largely unchanged. And thus the path between the crisis point for my protagonists and the end point I want them to reach has to change as well. And the pivot point, the moment when we shift from doing all sorts of nasty stuff to our heroes to beginning to have them fight back and turn the tide, usually starts at about the 60% mark. Yes, shit still goes wrong after that. I’m not saying the last third of the novel has to be a golden time for the protagonist. Far from it. But, for me at least, 60% is when things begin to turn.

How do we address the 60% stall?

First, let me tell you what I don’t do. I don’t panic. I don’t rant and rave. I don’t freak out. Not anymore. Not since Nancy pointed out to me that this is something I go through with most of my books. Plot holes happen. The book as we planned it — whether we outline in detail or write by the seat of our pants — doesn’t always look exactly like the book as we write it. And that’s okay. There is still a story here worth telling. There is still a path between where we are at 59% and where we wish to be on the last page. Breathe. Calm down. It’s going to be all right.

The second thing I try to do is assess the deviations between what I’ve written and what I had in mind originally. Quite often, the answer to overcoming the Stall lies in those differences. Maybe (for instance) we have introduced a new character we hadn’t planned on including, and that person’s presence has set up this narrative disconnect. Most likely, that means the character in question needs to figure into the new narrative path leading us from where we are to where we need to be. Or maybe we have added a key plot twist we hadn’t anticipated originally. Again, if that’s the case, chances are our new solution needs to address the consequences of this twist.

The third thing I consider is whether I need to A) change the ending I’d had in mind, B) add an element in the final 40% to deal with the new conditions I’ve created, or C) go back and edit out some of the changes I have allowed to creep into the first 60%. Choice C) is almost always my least favorite option. Why? Because I have written the book as I have thus far for a reason. If I have strayed from my original, pre-writing vision, it’s because new stuff came to me organically, as I wrote. And generally — not always, but most of the time — I find that my organic decisions are my best decisions.

Finally, and most important, I keep writing. I keep moving forward. Even if my (temporary) solution to navigating past the Stall is flawed, I always, ALWAYS believe it is better to keep pushing through. The alternatives are to give up entirely (unthinkable!!) or to retreat into rewrites and try to fix the problem that way, which in my opinion makes the Stall harder to overcome. Every completed manuscript will require editing, and it may well be that after completing the first draft, setting it aside for a while, and then starting the revision process, we will discover solutions to our narrative issues that weren’t obvious when we were in the middle of writing.

The important thing to remember is this: The 60% Stall is not a death knell for our story. It is a temporary setback. It is not cause for panic, but rather for reflection, for brainstorming, for creative thinking about our narrative.

Keep writing!!

Monday Musings: Insanity

I spent this past weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, attending ConCarolinas, a convention I attended every year from 2008-2019, and then missed for two years, once due to Covid concerns cancelling the event, and once due to diverticulitis knocking me on my butt.

ConCarolinas has long been a favorite of mine, a convention I have come to consider one of my “local” conventions even though I live six and a half hours away. It is attended by many of my closest friends in the writing world, and each convention feels like a family reunion. This year was no different. I caught up with friends I hadn’t seen in too long, and, as always, met some new people as well.

I want to tell you about the weekend, about the panels I was on and conversations I had. But instead, my Monday Musings are once again focused on avoidable tragedy. For the second weekend in a row, nearby Chattanooga has been the scene of a mass shooting. Last week six teens, all of them minors, were wounded in the downtown area right near the aquarium and the city’s wonderful Hunter Museum. As far as investigators can tell, the shooters were underage as well. Children shooting children with weapons that should never have been available to them.

Last night, three people were killed and more than a dozen were wounded by gunfire and then by cars fleeing the scene at speed (two died from gunshot wounds and twelve others were shot).

This after the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. And Tulsa. And Philadelphia. There have been twelve mass shootings in the U.S. since Friday. Since Friday. There have been thirty-six in the last three weeks, more than two hundred and thirty since the beginning of the year.

This is insanity.

I honestly don’t know what else to say. Ted Cruz and others of his ilk have been running from one talk show to the next, telling us that gun restrictions won’t work, by which they seem to mean that passing red flag laws, or age limitations for ownership of the deadliest weapons, or requirements for universal background checks, or bans on high-capacity, military-grade weapons won’t prevent all future shootings. And of course they’re right. We can’t prevent all gun-related violence or self-harm. But that doesn’t mean those laws shouldn’t be enacted. We have laws against murder in this country and still people kill other people every single day. Does that mean we SHOULDN’T have laws outlawing murder?

Of course not.

But I would challenge gun-rights advocates who oppose all limitations on firearms ownership to answer honestly a few simple questions. Isn’t it likely that passage of the measures listed above will prevent some killings? Isn’t it undeniable that passage of the measures would prevent at least one death? And are you willing to go to the parent or spouse or child of that next victim and say, “Yes, I know you have lost a person you love, but it was more important to me that we keep gun ownership in this country completely unfettered than it was that we save the life of your loved one”?

Of course they’re not.

We shouldn’t politicize gun violence and gun deaths. That’s what we’re told again and again by those who don’t want conversations about firearms control to go anywhere. Guess what. It’s already politicized, and it wasn’t those of us on the side of commonsense measures who made it so. But here in the hard truth: Republicans lack the courage and integrity necessary to stand up to the NRA and say, “Enough!” And Democrats lack the courage and integrity necessary to do what it would take to overcome Republican resistance to firearms restrictions. The cowardice and incompetence of our leaders on both sides dooms us to ever more bloodshed and fear.

But, hey, at least we all got to watch Johnny Depp and Amanda Heard air their dirty laundry in a public courtroom.

I should be energized today. I had a great weekend. I spent time with fellow professionals, engaged in fun, informative conversations about craft, about the business of writing, about my own projects. And instead, I feel weary, fed up, ashamed of and embarrassed for my country.

That’s really all I’ve got.

Have a good week. Stay safe.

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: Roger Angell, 1920-2022

If you are not a baseball fan, and not a reader of The New Yorker, chances are the news of Roger Angell’s passing, at the age of 101, had little significance for you. But if you are familiar with his work, then you know we have lost a brilliant essayist, a keen observer of the human condition, and the greatest chronicler of baseball in the game’s history.

Angell’s achievements are legion, and others writing tributes to him can do a better job than I in summarizing his magnificent career. It is worth noting that he was the stepson of E.B. White, that he published articles and stories in the The New Yorker for a span of 76 years (that’s not a typo), and was for more than two decades the fiction editor at that august magazine. He was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame AND the American Academy of Arts of Letters. No other writer — no other person — can claim membership in both.

He was, in short, far, far more than a baseball writer.

And yet, for me, his legacy will always be tied firmly to the game.

The Summer Game, by Roger AngellBeginning in 1962, and continuing through most of the next sixty years, Angell wrote about baseball, contributing articles to The New Yorker a couple of times each season, usually once during spring training, and once at the end of the World Series. Some seasons he added a mid-season essay. His articles were later collected in volumes — The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), Late Innings (1982), Season Ticket (1988), and Once More Around the Park (1991). I own all of them, and have read them multiple times.

My mother was a dedicated subscriber to The New Yorker, and always had piles of them on her night table, because she could never quite keep up with all the reading. But whenever she received an issue containing a Roger Angell article, she would read it immediately so she could send it on to me, to my oldest brother, and to our sister. My father usually stole the magazine long enough to read the article as well. The appearance of an Angell piece was a family affair.

It wasn’t just that he wrote about a game we all loved. It was that he did so with poetry, with humor, and with the giddy appreciation of baseball’s unique grace only a fan can harbor and no writer, no matter how talented, can fake.

Writing in 1962, as the brand-new New York Mets franchise stumbled to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, he ruminated about their die-hard, stadium-filling fans:

It seemed statistically unlikely that there could be, even in New York, a forty- or fifty-thousand-man [sic] audience made up exclusively of born losers — leftover Landon voters, collectors of mongrel puppies, owners of stock in played-out gold mines — who had been waiting years for a suitably hopeless cause…
…This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try — antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.

He described the daring base-running of the wonderful Willie Mays (“the best ballplayer anywhere”) this way:

He runs low to the ground, his shoulders swinging to his huge strides, his spikes digging up great chunks of infield dirt; the cap flies off at second, he cuts the base like a racing car, looking back over his shoulder at the ball, and lopes grandly into third, and everyone who has watched him finds himself laughing with excitement and shared delight.

Wit, lyricism, and a fundamental understanding not just of how the game is played, but what it means to those of us who lack the talent to play at that level, but still identify with beloved teams and admired stars. Angell’s writing did more than reflect back at me my own passion for baseball. It deepened my understanding of the nuances of the sport.

More important in the long run, his work taught me about the craft to which I would devote the bulk of my life. His observations and descriptions challenged my preconceptions. I thought I knew baseball — I was a fanatic about the sport from an early age. But the game Angell described was more beautiful than the one I had seen up until that point. He made me look at it again, not as a fan, but as a storyteller. He inspired me to think like a writer, about baseball at first, but later about so much more. I read his first book when I was in junior high. His second when I was in high school. His third after I finished college. I grew up on his writing. The lessons I gleaned from his essays shaped my voice, even though I wasn’t writing about baseball at all.

Angell was born in 1920. He saw Ruth play, and Gehrig. He saw Mays and Aaron, Koufax and Gibson, Seaver and Jeter. He lived a long life filled with achievement and also with tragedy. And he wrote about it all. He continued to write pretty much to the end of his life, and I will miss his essays the way I miss watching Willie run. But his words remain, and if you are unfamiliar with his work, now is the perfect time to dive in.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: I’m Basically Ted from “How I Met Your Mother”

Are you familiar with the TV show How I Met Your Mother, which ran on CBS from 2005-2014? Ah, good! [Puts out hand.] Nice to meet you. I’m Ted.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it was a sitcom that featured Alyson Hannigan (“Willow” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Cobie Smulders, Jason Segel, Neil Patrick Harris, and Josh Radnor as “Ted.” The conceit of the series is that Ted (voiced in the opening narrative scenes by the late Bob Saget) is, at some point in the distant future, telling his teenage children the story of how he met their mom. Ted is a hopeless and hapless romantic, who goes through a long series of ill-fated relationships looking for The One, the person with whom he is destined to spend his life. It is an entertaining series, funny, poignant at times, and on occasion eloquent on the need to have faith, even in the midst of difficult times, that one’s dreams can be attained. You can stream it on Prime if you’re interested.

I say I’m “Ted” because for the longest time, throughout college and the early years of graduate school, I made many poor dating decisions based on my own epic quest to find The One. I wasn’t interested in casual dating. I wanted to fall in love, to meet the woman of my dreams. And so I pursued the wrong romances. I passed over opportunities to date people who probably would have been great companions for a while. Put another way, I took the whole thing way too seriously, and, more to the point, I made myself miserable doing so. I spent a lot of time alone, and sad about it. The two truly serious relationships I did have during this time ended badly, in part because I found myself thinking maybe they were my future. And so I grew too intense about the romances and placed too many expectations on my partners.

Why am I telling you this?

Wedding Day Photo 1Because eventually I did find The One, and I married her 31 years ago this week. (Our anniversary is Thursday.)

The funny thing is — and perhaps the predictable thing as well — when Nancy and I started dating, I thought I was making, at long last, a decision to live in the now instead of worrying about what was going to happen, about where the relationship was headed in the long run. I didn’t try to project out in my mind how things might go with respect to our possible lives together. I didn’t assume we had that kind of future. I had no expectations. And I also didn’t know, because Nancy hadn’t yet told me, that the moment she met me, she thought, “Oh, this is the guy I’m going to marry.”

Thank God I wasn’t aware of this. Because if I had been, I probably would have found some way to screw it all up.

To state the obvious, life is unpredictable. The Fates delight in messing with us, taking our plans and expectations and shaking them up like a snow globe. As I said, going in, I had no expectations about my relationship with Nancy. Within two weeks of our first date, I knew that I would spend my life with her. Within three months, we were living together. She was a thunderbolt in my life, and has been my love and my light ever since.

But as in love, so in life. Expectations and plans are good for things like AirBnB bookings and car rentals, project due dates and conference attendance. But for the stuff we can’t control, they can be a source of more stress than comfort, of more disappointment than direction. I found The One when I wasn’t looking for her. I have enjoyed my greatest triumphs and moments of joy professionally when working toward my goals without necessarily banking on my ambitions.

Thirty-one years ago at this time, Nancy and I were welcoming our first wedding guests to California (my brothers and their partners, and my parents). Over the next several days we had dinners, rehearsals, a wonderful Wedding Softball Game (Nancy, as the bride, never had to play in the field, and could bat for either team whenever the spirit moved her), and a glorious wedding day, complete with a civil ceremony in the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford, that still resonates as one of the three happiest days of my life.

The point of Ted’s search for love in How I Met Your Mother is that all his setbacks and disappointments, while painful at the time, were actually carrying him inexorably toward his one true love. I like to think of my failed romances the same way. Yes, I made some poor decisions at the time, and I went through some spells of loneliness. But given how it all worked out, it was worth the pain. I am a very lucky man.

Have a great week.