Changing Up the Plot Without Throwing Away the Story

I got 50,000 words into a draft of a novel and sort of slammed to a halt. Well, actually I slammed to a halt several times in the course of writing those words, too. There are questions about the story I’ve been avoiding for a long, long time, and I’ve realized I can’t proceed without answering them. My last talk with my writing coach shook some of this loose, and I feel much more capable of going forward now. Here’s the deal:

For better or worse, I chose to write a story where technologically-superior people from one civilization are shipwrecked on the home of a different, technologically inferior civilization, and the parallels with European colonization of the Americas have been dogging me the whole time.

To put it bluntly, and leaving aside the actual skin tones of my fantasy people: I don’t want to tell a story with any whiff of white people good, brown people bad.

There are lots of different ways I could have run that scenario instead (maybe the shipwrecked land on the shores of a more advanced civilization, a la When True Night Falls) but Joe helped me figure out how to skirt this without throwing away the whole story:

  1. Avoid making the indigenous people, or any one of them, the antagonist
  2. There has to be something inherent to the indigenous civilization that is key to succeeding in the challenge of the novel

Luckily, I already have (2) figured out. As for (1), when I was blocked months ago two ideas came together I came up with a third, antagonistic force that would assail the colonists and the indigenous people and require them to work together, but I’d considered that a thing to use in future books.

Instead, I can use it in this one, if I allude to it earlier and weave it into the story. That avoids having the indigenous people be “the bad guys”; instead, the colonists and the indigenous people have tensions and conflicts, but those must be set aside when this greater threat surfaces. This solves a large number of problems with the narrative, actually.

The next question is: who is this third, antagonistic force? I already had ideas for them, but, like I said, I was going to use them in later books, so hadn’t really fleshed it out. Well, the time of flesh is upon us1.

The civilization that’s sort of the “protagonist”, or that contains the protagonists, of my stories is relatively secular, at least in terms of political organization. It would be interesting to have a theocracy invade them… So now the question is, how and why do you get a theocracy and what would drive the invasion?

The dumb way to do this is a common problem when writing the “other” in your stories: make everyone a religious zealot. But a culture isn’t a “hive mind”, no matter how cynical you are about Facebook; the people in the civilization are individuals, and they participate in their culture, interact with it, in different ways.

So what’s a real-life analogue to a theocratic society engaging in a holy war? How about the Crusades? Even from the small amount of reading I’ve done, it’s clear the Christians and the Muslims were not two homogeneous masses driven by dogma to break lances on each other. The Crusades were perpetrated, and the Crusaders participated, for lots of different reasons, the same reasons people do anything.

Postulate: Wars happen because enormously-powerful interests are, uh, interested in them happening. Medieval society sure seems bloodthirsty in retrospect, but the vast bulk of people have always just wanted to live their lives in peace regardless of what century it is.

Even in the more-dictatorial societies that are typical in medieval-style fantasy fiction, just because you’re the king or empress doesn’t mean you can say, “Hey, you hundred-thousand people, I know you’re busy trying not to starve or die of the plague, but go pick up swords and die horribly hundreds of miles from home,” and your civilization will respond, “How high?”

This is perhaps even more true in such societies, because they didn’t tend to have standing armies (the economics just weren’t there), which means you really did have to give people incentives (which, sure, probably included religious dogma and the threat of execution) to get them to fight for you.

So all that being said, this theocratic civilization I’m inventing would probably only build an army and a navy and sail across the sea to make war on the heathens if they had a bunch of damned-compelling reasons to. Sure, the high priest might tell the people he has a message from God, and, depending on how your fiction is wired, he might have actually experienced something supernatural, this is fantasy after all…

But what seems more likely and more interesting to me is that there’s some kind of struggle in the government of this civilization that makes invading a foreign nation seem like an attractive idea. Maybe there’s an upstart political class that’s challenging the authority of the theocratic class, or vice-versa, and the way to keep the people in line is with a Crusade—good opportunity to extol the supremacy of God’s Chosen, and thereby keep the people excited about having the high priests rule over them—as long as you win, of course. It’s high-risk, high-reward. And the economic incentives of a crusade could get the political class to play along, too.

Does that sound cynical? Well, read about why the actual Crusades took place, and agree with me that the best fiction does not, even if it’s fantasy and dragons are casting spells on centaurs to appease a living volcano, divorce itself from human nature.

  1. Which sounds ike someting James Earl Jones said in the first Conan movie

What Exactly Are You Afraid Of?

I’ve been talking to friends lately about why it’s so hard to share the difficult parts. That is, why it’s so much easier to write a blog post about some happy-smiley writing tips, but when I spend two or three weeks that turn into two or three months not working on my novel, I go radio-silent, too.

Part One is it doesn’t seem like there’s anything worth saying. Does it help for me to share the things I’m struggling with? Aren’t we all struggling with things, and who am I to project my lot into the world, as though strangers on the internet give a fuck?

Part Two is the opposite, and equally unthinkable: if I project my weaknesses, if i reveal my soft underbelly, won’t I be found wanting? Especially in comparison to my heroes. You know the ones, the people who are doing the thing I want to be doing. We don’t even have to go lofty like Stephen King or Hemingway—that would be too obvious. Even Chris Fox.

I mean, Chris has talked about depression, and I appreciated that. But like everyone he mostly talks about his successes, and your brain gravitates to those and forgets about the failures he shared, and pretty soon the only failures you think about are your own, and why would you want to share those?

Then again, why not? Maybe they help one other person. Just one. Maybe the whole world rejects you, and more likely no one even notices you exist, but there’s just one person who sees this frustrated blog post, this admission that I’m flailing my arms in open air and I haven’t a fucking clue where I’m going to land, and they go, Thank Christ—because I feel the same way, and I thought I was the only one.

That might be a stupid story I tell myself as I spill my guts all over the floor, there to be humiliated or annihilated (which is worse?) But maybe it isn’t. And, most likely of all… it doesn’t even matter.

And if it doesn’t matter you might as well do it.

That’s Part Three.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about the human condition. I summed it up like this, because I was a beer in and just in that kind of mood:

You are an accident that will soon be corrected.

From the perspective of the universe, I mean. I’m not trying to be an asshole.

But, think about it: In a hundred years, the likelihood is that no one alive will know you even existed. In two hundred years, that’s just about a certainty.

You can either think about things like this and hang your head and stare at the floor or you can take heart in the understanding that your life is not so epic and important that you must be paralyzed by shocking panic fear whenever you conceive of creating anything.

Instead, you can just create the thing, because

a) it doesn’t matter whether you do or not, and

b) you’re driven to, regardless

My witticism about you being an accident was in response to my friend saying that entropy always wins. In the end, all human effort is futile.

I chewed on all this for a few days, and then a thought struck me as I was walking down the street: Sure, entropy always wins, but humans seem driven to create order from chaos even though we know it’s futile.

That being the case, you might as well create order out of chaos, because what’s the alternative? You’re wired how you’re wired. Entropy wins anyway, you’re driven to create, so… create.

Looking at it this way, there’s literally nothing better you could do with your time.

I want to apologize for these morbid ways of picturing our lot in life, but frankly I don’t find them morbid—in the sense of being depressing—they help me out. Because when I get heavy, the heaviness almost always seems to come from being too attached to my identity.

To worrying about what everyone else will think about me.

To being “found out”, never mind as what.

Something deep in my brain believes with religious fervour if I am found to be flawed, if I disappoint, if I am not enough… then I will be flung into empty space, there to drift and die an infinity of deaths. In the cold, all alone.

That’s ridiculous. Not to mention melodramatic. If someone doesn’t like me, I guess they could shoot me in the face, and that’d suck. But what’s far more likely is… nothing. Maybe someone says something unkind to me on the internet? Or in real life?

Compared to the inevitability of entropy, doesn’t that seem like a stupid thing to worry about?

Maybe this is too Zen for you, I don’t know. And now I’m probably misrepresenting what Zen is, for that matter.

Worry, worry, worry. Or I could just hit Publish.

And then, at least, I will have made something. And then I’ll have imposed a little order, in the littlest way, for a little, little while.

You might say: nothing matters, so what’s the point? But instead you could say: nothing matters, so what do you really have to be afraid of?

I’m afraid it will somehow harm me if I share the struggle. The bad stuff.

The just-not-giving-a-shit about the thing I keep saying and thinking I care so much about.

The way I just want to sleep in at the beginning of the day and play Skyrim at the end, which doesn’t leave any time to work on my draft.

The relationships I get into and then (I convince myself) they take all my time and attention, and then they end and my time and attention goes into medicating away the bad feelings with the aforementioned sleeping in and video games.

See? Does telling you that help? I have no idea. Does it hurt?

Not as much as I was afraid it would.

Focus.

Follow One Course Until Success.

I know. I know.

But let’s roll with it. I was listening to seanwes podcast 425: Put in Your 10 Years: The Long Game again, and thinking about this. I started drafting this novel right about at the beginning of 2019. I spent the couple months before that planning. So even though I’ve “wanted to be a writer” in some sense of the word for maybe twenty years, I’ve really only been focused on that goal for under a year.

Under one year. That doesn’t depress me, it emboldens me. Because imagine where I’ll be in two years, five, ten, if I let myself be pulled, pulled by my goal. I was thinking about something today that I wrote about earlier, why don’t I let myself be obsessed with my goal, to a totally unreasonable extent?

Look up images of my fantasy writer’s cabin and print them out and tape them to the wall.

Not stop fantasizing and start doing, but fantasize and do and keep the fantasies burning hot enough to pull me through the doing because I have to make them a reality.

Let’s have ten years of that, and then see where I am.

I turn thirty-seven in two days. In a decade I’ll be pushing fifty, still only halfway through this game.

Sean quoting John Maxwell in that podcast episode:

“I changed my question from ‘How long will it take?’ to ‘How far can I go?’”

I feel that way. So even when I get frustrated—where’s my writing habit gone?? Why haven’t I been posting on this blog??—I don’t feel defeated. Because I’m not stopping, and if I’m not stopping then I can’t fail, I can only run into setback after setback on the eventual road to success.

“But what if you never get to success?”

This question is a trap you’re setting for yourself, to talk yourself out of trying. To talk yourself into giving up.

If you don’t strive for some big dream, guaranteed you’ll die without achieving it. If you do strive, you may achieve it or you may not.

The trick you play is to convince yourself that you’ll feel worse if you try and fail than if you don’t try (guaranteeing you’ll fail).

I played this trick on myself all the time, especially in university, where I’d procrastinate on assignments, even legitimately interesting ones, until I didn’t have enough time to do them properly, and then, at least, the bad grades were because I “ran out of time” instead of because “I’m not good enough”. That argument doesn’t make any sense, but I think it’s what was driving my behaviour.

Sometimes it still does drive my behaviour. That, or something like it—why else do I still wait ’til the last minute? And when there’s no last minute, like with this novel, which has no real deadline, why I stop working on it time and again?

I keep tricking myself. Isn’t it frustrating, to trick yourself again and again even though you’re pretty sure you know all your tricks?

But it doesn’t matter, really. Because I’m not giving up.

Unstable Variables

From The Psychology of Prediction · Collaborative Fund

There are stories of Tiger Woods hitting 1,000 balls at the range without a break. And of Jason Williams practicing dribbling for hours on end without ever shooting a ball.

That’s how you become an expert. That’s how you get amazing results.

At least in some fields. In fields with stable variables like golf, where the rules and objectives don’t change – the correlation between effort and skill is obvious. But it breaks down in fields where outcomes can overwhelmingly be tied to one or two tail events that change over time.

Finance is one of those fields.

And so is publishing.

This excerpt made me think of something my coach Joe said—Joe, who has published something like dozens of novels, edited collections, etc., etc. He’s seen and done most of the things around “being a novelist” that I would like to do. And we were talking about the emotional rollercoaster of doing this job, and he said the publishing world doesn’t make sense. In short, your outcome is not a straightforward function of the effort you input.

And that’s crazy-making.

Writing and publishing fiction is not a game with stable variables.

What does that mean?

It means that success is not guaranteed, for any given definition of success. Assuming that what you want is to put a book, a story, out into the world that will be loved by its readers, and then, even further, that said love will translate into monetary reward for you, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you might not get it.

The thing to realize is that isn’t an indictment of you. Maybe it means you’re not good at writing a compelling novel. Start there, look into that. But it could also be that you wrote a pretty good book that doesn’t have a market right now. It could be that, even though the first four books in your series found an audience, book five doesn’t land for some reason. If you’re beholden to a publisher1, that adds a whole other set of unstable variables.

Perhaps for our emotional well-being we need to redefine success—or be very careful and deliberate what definition of success we’ll allow our ego to twine its gleaming black tentacles around.

I’m working on my first novel, and I believe I’ve eliminated any lingering bits of my imagination that picture this one, first book achieving any kind of substantial success in terms of audience or profit. Instead, where my imagination goes is the point in the future where I’ve written three, six, a dozen novels, and the business that is steadily growing around the entire body of work.

But effort correlates with outcomes in so many fields that it’s hard to accept situations where it doesn’t. So it’s natural to assume that effort put into a forecast should increase its accuracy. That can bring the worst of both worlds: high confidence in model with low, or no, foresight.

He’s talking about financial forecasts, but we can see the same thing in novel-writing: it’s the idea that this one book we’ve been working on for ages will be our masterpiece. I don’t know about you, but, like I’ve said, I haven’t even shipped a novel yet; the idea of a masterpiece, if it enters into my imagination, is off in the future somewhere. We need to earn the right to think in terms of masterpiece, or we have to earn the right to even think about a book’s likelihood of success. When you haven’t done anything yet, how do you make a prediction? Better not to predict, and just to act and then observe. But even later, when you find yourself in a position to predict how a book might perform—I’ve seen it all, kid—remember that the publishing game doesn’t have stable variables: if what looks like a perfect shot somehow doesn’t make it to the hole, I guess you have to just shrug it off… and take another shot.

  1. As opposed to the market directly, which appears to be the case when publishing independently. ↩︎

So Can You or Can You Not Write 100,000 Words in a Day?

I know this gentleman by the name of Sean McCabe and, a few months before he offered me a job, he responded to this blog post in this way:

…but little did Dan know that he would accidentally inspire me.

Sorry, Dan. I love you, but I have to prove you wrong.

I will prove it’s possible to write 100,000 words in a day.

And then he did this: Writing 100,000 Words in a Day

And he failed spectacularly.

So… I was right, right? And it feels good to be right, so, victory lap for me. Right?

Not so fast.

I started drafting my novel, after a couple months of planning, right around New Year’s 2019. I’ve written 46,562 words! But now it’s July and I haven’t added a word to the draft in weeks. This isn’t the first time I’ve ground to a halt, as this blog demonstrates1.

I came across Sean years ago and started paying attention because his podcast is inspiring. His message, and the work that he’s done to back it up, says: you are capable of great things. And I want to do great things, so that’s a message I tuned into.

If you also want to do something great/nutty like write a whole goddamned book, I recommend you tune into such a message as well. It doesn’t have to be Sean, but if you’re at all like me you need something to keep your head in the right space, to not just give up when you hit the wall, when your habits break down, again and again and again.

The other day I walked into a local café for lunch and a friend I hadn’t seen in months just happened to be sitting there working. I sat down with her for a few minutes and chatted. She’s also a novelist, with one or two published books under her belt. And when I admitted I hadn’t touched my draft in six weeks, her response braced me up: “Six weeks? That’s nothing.”

She’s right, six weeks is nothing. Six weeks is a blink of the eye in the unfolding saga of your life,

But also, six weeks is more than enough time to write a book.

If Sean can write a book in a day, given enough practice and preparation, do you reckon I can spit out the twenty thousand or so words I probably need to finish the first draft of my novel in the next six weeks?

Sure I can.

Will I?

Well, that remains to be seen. But you see someone you respect and admire write 55,000 words in a day and you think… maybe writing 500 words today isn’t such a big deal. Maybe, even though I don’t really know where this phase of the book is going and there’s this weird amorphous boulder of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that, like a truant Sisyphus I am staunchly avoiding pushing uphill, maybe I can just keep writing a little. One sentence, one scene at a time.

See, this is what I’m learning, and I’ve mentioned it before: writing a tiny bit every day doesn’t feel satisfying, really, not when you have a whole novel in front of you, but the only way you fail to write a novel is to not write it.

The difference between 0 words today and any words at all today is everything.

Everything I write on here, every exhortation? Especially those emphasized by swear words? They’re for me. I need to hear them. God willing they’ll jam their way through my thick skull and I’ll get to work. The reason I put them here and not in my cryptographically-secure journal is, I labour in the hope that I’m not the only one who (a) wants to write novels and (b) is having a hard bloody time of it, and maybe what helps me… will help you, too.

If so, reach out. Let me know. It’s a we’re-in-this-together kind of thing, you dig?

Go in peace, and throw some words at that book.

  1. I’ve also ground to a halt on the blog, too, haven’t I, which is a related issue we’ll touch on soon ↩︎

Don’t Call It a Comeback

I ain’t been here for years… but someday, I will have been. Straight up: here’s how many words I’ve thrown at my draft in the last sixty-seven days:

67 Days of Word Count

Not many. Why not? It’s not like I broke my arm skiing and I haven’t been able to type. The habit just… slips away, and next thing you know winter’s over and, if you’re lucky, it isn’t six years hence.

I gotta admit the truth: I might have dropped this novel like I’ve dropped most other projects except this time I’ve got a secret weapon: someone else, whose word on writing novels I trust.

I’ve got a coach. We have a one-hour call every two weeks. Doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a difference.

It makes a big difference to know, for real, that it’s not just me, that it’s not, “maybe I’m just not cut out for this writing thing”. Here’s a guy who’s published dozens of novels, telling me how he goes through the same slumps I do. And the trick is to make it a slump, not a capitulation. I’ve tried ways of doing that… they weren’t working.

So here’s what has been working, for the last five days: My coach said, look, every day by 8 PM we have to send each other at least 100 words of the project we’re working on. So far, that level of accountability is working for me where lesser forms failed. Knowing I would need to send Joe an email at 8 owning up to not writing even a mere 100 words today keeps me from spending the rest of the evening playing Stardew Valley, or cooking, or taking a nice walk before the sun sets. I can still do all those things, but I’ve gotta do some writing first.

My brain provides all the standard objections, among them: but I’ll never get the novel done 100 words at a time!

No. You’ll never get the novel done if you keep talking yourself out of ever writing it. If you write 100 words a day it might take a year or two to finish your novel but you’ll finish it. This is the trick: to let that impatience drive you to actually do stuff, instead of drive you away from doing stuff.

Like everything else I talk about here, I can describe that trick but I’m still trying to learn it. Maybe you are, too. Got something else that works to break the slump? I want to hear it. Easiest way right now is, shoot me a DM on Instagram: @djjacobsonauthor – I’ll read whatever I get, and respond whenever I can.

A Week is Not a Lot of Time

A blink and it’s Monday night again, and you’re supposed to have published a post on your blog. In fact, by now we were supposed to have a queue of content so we don’t have to decide at 10 p.m. on Monday, do I post to my blog or do I go to sleep? Right? But you lower your head and the week flies by. A week is not a lot of time.

When you start getting impatient with yourself, that’s worth remembering.

It sucks to let a whole year go by without working on your novel. But if a week goes by, if six weeks go by and you haven’t thrown any words at the draft, it doesn’t mean you’re dead in the water. Doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes to create the work that you love. A week is not a lot of time. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to seize that week. To do everything you can to be as productive as possible. I’m saying that if a week goes by and you don’t get anything done, here’s a radical suggestion:

The right thing to do is not to whip yourself.

It’s not to curse yourself. Especially not at that low-volume, almost subconscious level where you say, “Goddammit, I thought you were better than this by now.” Don’t do that. I’m done doing that.

When I catch my inner monologue going to that place, I’m going to reel him back in, and not with my hands around his throat. I’m going to maybe give him a gentle hug and, with my arm around his shoulder, say, “Come this way. Let’s go back to a happier place. This isn’t, after all, such a big fucking deal.

I go back and I read my journal sometimes, the entries I made a couple of years ago, and I’m such a ball of angst. I mean there were times when I was going through things that were legitimately stressful, but those aside my overall attitude towards my desire to write and lack of action was so negative.

That journal sure contains a lot of the exhausting mental activity of beating myself up. Treating myself like there’s the good part of me and the bad part, and the good part is at war with the bad. Maybe that sort of militaristic fantasy works for some people, but I tried it for a long time and I’ll level with you: It did not result in the production of a great deal of work.

Instead, it resulted in the production of a great deal of stress and feeling bad and probably acting like a fucking nutjobtortured artist towards the people close to me a lot of the time.

It didn’t help. And I’m done being mad at that guy; past me, and present, who’s sitting here right now weeks into a slump of not writing his novel. I’m done kicking my own ass. I know I’m going to go back and write it. I’m working on ways to bring myself back. (I’m just going to tell you as a sidebar that having a coach to encourage you certainly helps.) But the big change for me is my own attitude towards myself—my own mindset.

Listen: you are too precious to yourself to mentally punch yourself in the face over and over again. Your life is too precious to treat yourself like shit. And I’m going to just take a wild guess that treating yourself that way is not getting your novel written. It might not be hip to talk about loving yourself. Or to use the word “hip”, for that matter, sorry, Millennials1. But you only get this one life and maybe you’ll create your art and maybe you won’t (but I think you probably will). Just don’t beat yourself and curse yourself like you’d never do to anyone else you cared about while you’re making it. No art is worth that.

And I am more and more inclined to think that operating from a position of loving yourself is the only thing that’s really going to get that art made in the first place.

  1. Come to think of it, it’s probably hipper to talk about loving yourself now than it was when “hip” was a hip word. The future is confusing. ↩︎