History in Fiction: What You Don’t Need

Last time we were talking about asking questions to come up with cool made-up history for your made-up world.

Now let’s talk about one of the first and foremost problems we run into when injecting that history into our tales.

You may have heard the phrase “info dump” before. Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? In short, an info dump is when you spend narrative time informing the reader about the world rather than telling them a story. Here’s the thing: unless you’re actually marketing a fantasy encyclopedia, they signed up for the latter.

The examples go like this:

“Bertram stood and looked at the walls of Castle Skullraven. They were thick stone, quarried from the mountains north of here by King Ravenskull IV, whose father had first settled these lands over two-hundred-fifty years ago. The quarry was difficult to access from the lowlands and the king’s artisan builders had solved the problem by constructing a series of massive ramps and earthworks that could still be seen looming beyond the town like the hulks of an analogy I’m not going to bother developing because this is just an example. Bertram remembered his father telling him stories of the great battle that had raged among those earthworks when the labourers had revolted against the harsh taskmasters of the next king, Ravenskull III, who had ascended the throne amidst whispers that he had poisoned his own father. The court artificers had suspected that the poison had been brought in from the Swamp of Dark Nectar, hundreds of miles to the east, by a travelling caravan of the Oboroë Nomads, whose descendants still lived in the village to this day, and whose blood gave the skin of the villagers its peculiar violet colour.”

There are lots of enticing details in that much-too-long paragraph, and I will toot my own horn by saying I made them all up off the top of my head. But the problem is, here’s how much story is told in those 191 words:

“Bertram stood and looked.”

Hmm. That’s an info dump: the storytelling slams to a halt so you can tell us a bunch of things which I will grant add flavour to your world and might even be interesting… but they kill the pace and they bore the reader. And, to paraphrase my writing coach,

Boring the reader is the greatest sin.

Again: they came to hear a story, not read the history of a made-up world. So how do you communicate all that awesome history that you went to all the trouble of making up?

The advice I’ve come across all takes the form of “sprinkle it throughout the story”. Bertram can notice the earthworks at the edge of town, sure, but the quarry-miners’ revolt can stay safely in your head until it serves the story to reveal it. And maybe that never happens. Or maybe Bertram hires a one-legged man to sneak him into the castle at night, and the man reveals he lost his leg in that quarry.

You can also give details in dialogue, but it’s easy to do this wrong. I’ve heard this referred to1 as “As You Know,” the prototypical example coming from the stage:

A butler and a maid enter the scene.

MAID: As you know, Jeeves, the master is currently in the forest hunting with his business partner from the city.

BUTLER: I do indeed! And, as you are no doubt aware, Hortense, the lady of the house is sequestered in the North Tower, as she has been lo these many weeks, ever since that strange fever overcame her at the Colonel’s ball.

No human beings talk to each other this way, ever. If you want the reader to know the whereabouts of the master, the disposition of his wife, and why those things are taking place… you’re gonna have to do it with more subtlety than this.

For example…

BUTLER: Hortense, you delectable thing! Put that hamper down and accompany me to the root cellar before the master returns from his excursion!

MAID: Oh, Jeeves! Let me just run these linens up to the lady’s sickroom… do you think there’ll be time?

That communicates most of the same information, but it also moves the story, at least the part of the story where the help are fooling around behind their employers’ backs.

Bonus: it creates tension, by imposing time constraints and implied consequences.

The story is your cake. As much as you lovingly craft your world-building, it is merely the icing. Or, if cake isn’t your thing, the story is your taco. The world-building is merely the few drops of chipotle hot sauce you put on there to add the perfect amount of spicy, smoky goodness.

What were we talking about?

Oh, right, world-building. A little goes a long way, and the story has to keep moving. Now, seriously, let’s go eat.

(Next time, something I call Just-In-Time World-building.)

  1. I think by Brandon Sanderson, whose lectures on this topic are on YouTube and you should avail yourself of them at once

In Which I Hit Snooze A Bunch of Times

Now if uh, six, turned out to be nine

Oh I don’t mind, I don’t mind

I was reminded of that Jimi Hendrix lyric thinking about my mornings lately. I tend to wake up automatically between, say, five-thirty and six-thirty… but I haven’t been setting an alarm and haven’t been getting out of bed.

I know, I know: I quit my day job, lucky me, shut up. This is the struggle I’ve chosen, do you want to learn from it or not?

Anyway, I tend to fall back to sleep and then when I finally wake up and rise for the day it’s like 9:45. I don’t like this, as luxurious as it sounds. It puts the whole rest of the day behind the eight ball. Let me illustrate.

By the time I have breakfast and dawdle around and shower and look at the internet and read some, it’s noon and I should go outside and get a walk in, and the next thing I know it’s three in the afternoon and I’m in a coffee shop somewhere and then it’s dinner time and I haven’t done anything all day but it’s like 8:30, so… do I go to bed, or stay up late?

And the cycle repeats.

Again, if this sounds like heaven to you, well, fine. I’m not complaining like I have to dig ditches for fifteen hours a day. But I’m trying to be self-employed over here and they don’t tell you that structure is a challenge when you’ve had it forced onto you for your entire life by parents, school, more school, work.

The solution seems to be to form new habits, and they seem so simple it’s insulting: whaddya mean I have to learn to wake up at the same time every morning?

But it’s true.

As easy as it is to think, well, I don’t really need an alarm because no one’s gonna get mad if I’m not wearing a collared shirt in a fluorescent-lit building downtown in ninety minutes… life starts to suck when you have no structure for more than a couple of weeks.

Really. It does. I promise.

So this morning I set my alarm for seven. I use an app called Sleep Cycle, which tries to wake you up inside a half-hour window so you won’t feel groggy. When I set the alarm for seven it actually goes off between 6:30 and 7:00. You can snooze it, but every time it snoozes for fewer minutes until finally at 7:00 it won’t snooze anymore at all.

This is a pretty good way to get your ass out of bed even if you like to snooze… unless you just turn the alarm off and fall back to sleep. Which I have done, I’ll admit.

But not today.

Today I actually got up. Here are things I’ve found make the difference for me.

Put the phone across the room.

Alas! The way my bedroom is set up I can reach from the foot of my bed to the phone on my desk without really “getting up” but it’s better than having the phone lying next to my head, which is how I used to use Sleep Cycle. I’ve thought about going even further and putting the phone in the bathroom with the alarm volume at max, but I might not hear it when I shut my bedroom door.

And I’d lose the benefit of sleep tracking. Yeah. That’s the reason.

Me, I wear glasses.

Putting my glasses on right away makes it a little harder to just drop back onto the pillow.

Get your feet on the goddamn floor.

Even better, stand up. Even better, leave the room—go to the bathroom. If you develop the habit of splashing some water in your face first thing, that’ll probably get your day started.

Open the blinds.

Once there’s too much light in the room, it gets difficult to stay in bed, which is probably why I eventually get up between 9-10 when the sunlight gets intense1.

Look: it feels ridiculous to write those things down, like people haven’t known about these dark secrets for centuries, but we’re in rarefied air, here: nothing will die if I don’t get out of bed on time… nothing except my dreams, anyway. So I’m trying to swallow my pride and start doing this stuff, to see what’s effective.

Do you hop right out of bed every morning and start writing? If so, tell me your dark secrets.

  1. I should note that I made a lot of these notes back in the summer; this whole game gets even harder in the winter when it’s still dark at 6-7 in the morning, and the room is cold, and your bed is so warm and comfy…

Do I Have to Write a Little More Every Day, Though?

So far, the biggest thing I needed to learn about writing a novel came from running: just like you can’t go from couch potato to marathon runner, you can’t just sit down and write 100,000 words. Even if you’ve done it before, even if you start at, say, 4 in the morning and write until midnight. Let’s break it down, just for fun:

100,000 / 20 hours = 5000 words an hour

But there’s a book with that title, so I guess that means it’s possible, right? No. Even if you can crank 5000 words in 60 minutes, you can’t do that over and over again, 60 minutes after 60 minutes, with no break1.

And if you’ve never written anything longer than, say, a 10,000-word short story before (raises hand), you definitely can’t spend 20 hours writing a novel.

But that’s ridiculous anyway, so why are we even talking about it?

The way I used to approach writing a book was:

  1. Have an idea
  2. Dawdle for a year or two
  3. Open a Word document2, and… start typing.

If this works for you, cool, but what I’ve discovered is I am definitely not a pantser: I need to plan things out. I need to know where I’m going, I need to know what the point of the scene I’m about to write is, how it serves to either move the character or plot forward (ergo, I need to know what the both of those are) otherwise I end up staring at a blinking cursor until my nose starts to bleed.

More to the point it doesn’t avail us to sit down and bang out two thousand words in a breakneck session and then write nothing for the next two weeks… because I don’t know about you but I want this novel done in months and not years. So back to the marathon metaphor: the way you train for a marathon is, you run just a little, and then a little more, and then a little more, and then a little more, until your “Oh, just going for a relaxing Sunday run” is still 15-20 K, like my crazy running friends.

Same deal here. I tell people I can do about 1000-1500 words in about 20-40 minutes 3, and that’s impressive to most people who aren’t writers in the same way as tossing off an “easy” 10 K is impressive to most people who aren’t runners, but we got here the same way.

It’s all a matter of training.

So: write a little, then write a little more. But here’s the thing, and I mentioned 5000 Words Per Hour before, here’s a big tip I took away from that book:

You need to track how much you write

Do this:

  1. Choose a piece of spreadsheet software. Say, Numbers on the Mac, Excel on Windows.
  2. In one table (Numbers uses separate ‘tables’ on a single sheet, in Excel each sheet is basically a big table but you can just use different ranges of that sheet as little independent tables) make a long list of dates in one column
  3. In the next column, tally how many words you write per day

Do this. Right now, I’m serious.

My writing tends to fall into two buckets—The Almighty Novel, and Everything Else—so I use two separate tables. Novel Words, which is how many words I threw at the draft, and Total Words, which is Novel Words plus everything else I wrote that day, including notes and journal entries and, for example, this blog post. Here’s a pic:

I’ve dropped a handy chart in there with a trend line. That’s cute, but… what’s the point of this busywork?

The point is, I can see that if I keep up the current pace, in eight weeks I should be averaging 4000 words per day instead of 2500. And you can watch that trend line over time. When it starts getting shallower, you know something’s up.

We can look at ranges of time, too. Look at this period: Banging that novel out.

Yeah, baby. But in the last week or so, I’ve been limping along. Full disclosure:

Now I can pull back and examine… well, why? What else is going on in my life, what can I do to get back in the groove? This is where journaling comes in handy.

If you don’t quantify any of this stuff, you can’t grasp it by the neck and take back control.

The trend lines are there to reinforce this message: you can’t improve all at once, you improve a little over time. In his book Atomic Habits4, James Clear talks about getting 1% better every day. Like compound interest, this sneaks up on you: after a year of writing 1% more per day, you’re doing 37 times what you started with.

Let’s pause for a second, that’s ridiculous. So if you were writing 100 words a day, now you’re writing 3700. That’s a novel in a month instead of in three years. Gimme gimme.

And this goal is much more realistic, less threatening, less fear-inducing, than thinking “OH GOD I HAVE TO WRITE A WHOLE NOVEL???!!” No. Someday a whole novel will have been written by you. All you have to do is, write today. Try to write as much as you wrote yesterday. In fact, just try to write 1% more. And you’ll get there, eventually.

  1. And Chris Fox never suggests this, I’m not calling him out. Not only is that not at all my place, but it’s also a great book.
  2. Literally don’t get me started
  3. Depending mostly on how well I can visualize the scene, I’m finding out. Action pours out of me, two people talking in a room takes ages.
  4. I may have mentioned this before. I will mention this again. Go read this book, seriously.

Producing as Much as We Consume

Been thinking of putting up a page here with book recommendations, and/or links to the things I mention all the time (Chris Fox, Pressfield, etc.)

But it also occurred to me: it’s dangerous to spend more time reading than writing. Or reading at the expense of writing. What if we agree to write a certain fixed amount as the “price” of making a recommendation? What if you wrote a page for every page of a book you recommended?

Pretty soon you’d be recommending your own books. Well, if politeness allowed such a thing.

The Learning Trap

I’ve bought a lot of “infoproducts” over the last few years. And some are excellent. Many feel oily, though: they teach you how to make money, quit your job, live the life of your dreams by…. creating infoproducts. This sort of self-referential loop, we’ve all been warned, will leave us with hair growing out of our palms.

But I want those outcomes so much, and you know what? I always think because I’ve spent my heard-earned money on a course, now I’m invested and now surely I’ll have the motivation to work!

Well, no.

Not for me, anyway. It turns out if I spend a couple hundred bucks on something it doesn’t really make me get out of bed in the morning to do that thing. That isn’t me being fancy, like a couple hundred bucks isn’t a lot of money, it’s just apparently not how my brain works. Okay.

You can consume information forever which would be fine except it feels like you’re doing work, and you’re not. I could teach you a couple things because I’ve read and watched videos for hours on end about writing… but it doesn’t mean I can sit down and grind out a half-decent novel1.

At some point you have to elevate implementation over information, and a mentor of mine suggested declaring the coming period an Implementation Season, where you pay less attention to incoming information and just create output.

Sounds great! But this is not easy, because information is

  1. Seductive, and
  2. Everywhere

I don’t really want to shut off the input entirely, you know? Because, well… let’s be honest, because the reason you sign up for a course after reading the hypnotic sales page or you buy the book after reading the Amazon reviews is there’s a little nagging part of you full of hope, thinking, oh, this one will be what makes everything finally slide into place.

Oops.

For Example

An offer emerged from my inbox for one of these joint-venture deals, where two dozen people throw their books and courses and videos about writing into a hat, and instead of the two grand it’d cost you to go buy each one individually2, you pay fifty bucks for the lot.

It’s so tempting, it might as well come slathered in maple syrup. 🍁

And I bought it! Because if you read ten books and nine of them aren’t great but one changes your life, you’re out maybe a hundred bucks and a few hours, which is a lot less than the cost of, oh, I don’t know, a university degree.

Right??

The problem isn’t really the money, it’s I could easily spend the next 300 hours poring over all this material instead of writing, which isn’t really going to help me be a writer.

What I really need to do is close my web browser and get to cranking, get to staring my inadequacies in the face long enough to actually produce these words.

A Modest Proposal

So I made myself the deal I suggested up top, and I recommend this to anyone who has to choose between consuming and producing (i.e. all of us): if you’re going to recommend a book, you’ve got to write, say, a thousand words first.

If you want to recommend another book, you’ve got to write another thousand.

As long as I bought all this material, I’ll be here to share whatever I learn. But the point is to keep writing even while I’m learning, instead of being the most-learned learner with no books to his name.

Let’s you and I adopt this rule: between every chapter of the latest book that will finally turn you into a writer, between every module of the course you’re still a little shell-shocked you spent so much money on, commit to writing those words.

At the end of all the courses and all the books that were supposed to turn us into writers, surprise! We’ll have done a bunch of writing. So we’ll end up writers after all.

  1. Though I’m trying.
  2. Not that you even knew they existed, which is the point of the joint venture…

Delilah Dawson on Finding the Time to Write

I’ve been loving the “Ten Things” bursts of writing advice Delilah S. Dawson posts on Twitter. This one, on Finding the Time to Write, grabbed me by the lapels and shook, so let’s talk about it. All quotations below are her words, from the linked thread1.

  1. My best tip first: DON’T LET YOUR WRITING PROCESS GET PRECIOUS. By which I mean that you don’t want to get too caught up in a ritual– at this time, drinking this coffee, in this chair. Make it so that you can write anywhere, laptop or pad. Keep your process nimble, not rigid.

Like all writing advice, the ritual thing is mutually exclusive: some folks say, have a ritual, always write in the same place or at the same time or using the same device… but doesn’t the above directly contradict that?

So which one is RIGHT?

Well, there is no right. All that matters is you get the words in, I’m pretty sure that’s Delilah’s point. Note she doesn’t say “don’t have a ritual, throw out your lucky t-shirt”, she says don’t get too caught up in your ritual.

It’s one thing to have a lucky t-shirt, but if you can’t work on your novel because it’s in the wash, you’re screwed.

I suspect that when authors talk about their rituals they’re not to be taken too literally: yes, when all the pieces are in place, Stephen Pressfield does all the stuff he describes in the The War of Art, but I would guess he probably types a couple hundred words into his phone now and again.

And whether he does or not, look: I want to embrace both worldviews. I am happy to have a ritual, it works well for me2. But after reading this thread, you know what? I was sitting in a pub waiting for my friends to show up, and instead of scrolling Twitter I opened Ulysses and just started writing.

Fast and messy. And there’s an extra 150 words by the time my mate showed up. That felt great.

Which brings us to,

  1. Stop thinking you need 4 hours to get anything done. Start thinking in doable chunks. Let’s say you aim for 1000 words a day, about an hour of writing. Do a page in the morning, a page at lunch, two pages at night. BOOM. Totally doable. Those little bits add up!

I’m not good at acting like writing books is my job. I don’t sit at my desk for hours at a time; I get up early, write for 20-40 minutes, and then go have breakfast.

After that, most of the day runs away with itself. I’ve had a hard time putting the writing at the forefront: that is, fitting the rest of the day in around writing as opposed to slipping a little writing into my day.

It’s frustrating. But this tip reminds me I am still getting somewhere: I’m 12,000 words into the draft in about two weeks; I wish it was even more, but that’s still much, much, much better than I’ve ever done except that one time I did NaNoWriMo: and the output of that frenzied month never went anywhere.

This time it feels more sustainable: if I have to go get a job again in a few months, so be it, as long as I’m up at 6 and writing before breakfast, this book will get done.

  1. Make writing A PRIORITY. When you’re just starting out, it can be hard to treat writing like a job– like it’s important. I was insecure about it, too. Telling family you need time and they need to respect it for what feels like a hobby is hard. THIS IS ART. ART IS IMPORTANT.

This. Fundamentally, this is what I grapple with the most.

It’s one of those cases of “I know I want to do this… so why aren’t I?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve hit a lot of such roadblocks over the years. Here’s a thing I want to do… but somehow I spent the whole day doing other stuff instead.

What’s going on here? One part is, just wanting to do stuff doesn’t seem sufficient if

  1. Doing something else is easier, or
  2. You have the habit of doing something else (a special case of 1.), and
  3. It’s not totally clear what to do next, or
  4. Something about the thing you want to do threatens your identity

That last one, which Delilah touches on in the quoted tweet above, is at the heart of it. It’s subtle, cryptic, it’s this thing we know is there but it disappears when we turn to look, it slips thorugh our fingers when we grasp for it.

It’s that thing Stephen Pressfield called The Resistance: The part of you that doesn’t want to change.

Is this just me? It’s hard to give myself over to my obsession with writing, with storytelling—it’s hard to take it as seriously as I want to take it. I want to be like a monk at this stuff: I really do want writing to be the axis the rest of my life orbits around. But it’s like this: I had a job, and tried to fit pleasant things around the job. Writing was one of them. Right now, I don’t have a job, bless me, so I just do pleasant things and try to fit writing around them.

But writing must become the job. It isn’t easy to flip that switch just because those words are capitalized in a tweet, even if I know they’re true, which I do. Maybe the secret is in that word priority. Delilah says “treat writing as a priority”, and the correct way to think about “priority”3 is that you can’t have A priority, you can only have THE priority: the priority is the one thing that can’t be allowed to die.

The core of it is focus. You focus on your priority. Once you’ve done that, you focus on whatever thing is the next priority. If you want to write but you have pick your kid up from school, picking your kid up is the priority. But once you’ve done so, then writing is your priority, and you shut the office door. Or put your headphones in, or whatever it takes.

So far the most effective way to make writing the prioriity for me is to do it first. But I want to go beyond that: I don’t want the production I can do in a day to be constrained to how long I can wait before breakfast, I don’t want to lose a day of writing just because I slept in until 8.

I want to reach the point where I spend a nice 3-hour block of time in a day working on the book; I’m sure I won’t be typing the whole time, god forbid, but I’ll be focused on the work like it’s a job.

When I was a software developer I was rarely focused on writing code for more than maybe 20-40 minutes at a time. Your mind wanders, you need to pee, you want a coffee, you want to chat. That’s fine as long as you come back and find some more time to be focused.

Bless the writer: frankly it’s a bit harder to get back into the headspace of a complex piece of software and working on it requires more complicated tools: I never got any coding done on the train or in the bar. We have it a little easier in that regard, that’s something to rejoice about.

I’ll keep working towards the point where I treat bookwritin’ like a full-time job so that it can be my full-time job. I’m not sure how to get there, yet, but Delilah’s tips took me a step further along the path.

  1. I haven’t used the cute little twitter-embed widget, because frankly I don’t trust Twitter not to fuck it up; either to not exist anymore in five years, or to, I don’t know, decide they need to start injecting ads into other people’s websites via that mechanism. For that matter, I assume it already carries tracking functionality… forget it. So I’ve just quoted and attributed the words themselves, which are the important bit.
  2. I hope it does eventually, anyway, it’s a work in progress.
  3. Chris fox just did a video about this topic

Smart Paste in Ulysses

I just found a new Ulysses feature by accident: Cmd+V pastes, of course, but Shift+Cmd+V pastes with a quick-format menu: you can pick from the following

  1. Paste – this is what you normally get when you hit Cmd+V. The paste behaviour depends on what Ulysses detects on the clipboard. For the example below, if it’s a hyperlink it will by default give it link markup
  2. Text – this pastes the clipboard contents as plain text, naturally, with no markup
  3. Code – this pastes the content in a code block, i.e. so you can get automatic syntax highlighting, it exports to HTML <code> tags, etc.
  4. Source – this pastes the content as “raw source” which, to the best of my understanding, is Ulysses markup for “export this exactly as it appears without trying to interpret its contents as markup” 🤔

This feature is called “Smart Paste”, and it’s documented here: https://ulysses.app/tutorials/smart-copy-paste

Here’s what it looks like when you paste a hyperlink in each format:

You can see that the default paste inferred the link’s display text from the page name! That’s interesting.

You can either select your format with the arrow keys and press ENTER, or hit the associated number key and it will paste in the associated format.

Do I Have to Write Every Day, Though?

I’m pretty sure I do, yeah. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t magically happen for free.

My current status is I’ve got a novel outlined and for the last week I’ve begun the drafting of the thing. I’ve given myself an ambitous goal: get it drafted in twelve weeks. I want to get it done so the editing cycles can begin, because I know it’s going to be rough. Assuming the draft is around one hundred thousand words (it’s epic fantasy, after all), that’s about 1300 words a day, starting on 31 December 2018. Depending where your head’s at and what level of experience you have with writing, 1300 words every day may sound like crazy talk, or child’s play.

It doesn’t sound like very much to me: I’ve been writing at least a thousand words a day with reasonable consistency for the past few weeks… but they haven’t been novel words. Here’s my word counts on the book from the past week:

  • Monday: 1006 (77%)
  • Tuesday: 379 (29%)
  • Wednesday: 0 (0%)
  • Thursday: 765 (59%)
  • Friday: 669 (51%)
  • Saturday: 0 (0%)
  • Sunday: 0 (0%)

Hmm. Two observations: I did write every day last week, but like I said the writing wasn’t for the novel. I wrote reflections, I wrote things that could become blog posts like this one, but I only threw keystrokes at scenes for the book on four of the seven days.

And, when I did, it was harder than I imagined it would be. It was hard to get into that flow state where the words just pour out. I have a list of scenes and I know where the story is going in each phase, so it’s not like I’m constantly asking “what happens next?”

Except locally, in each scene, I am. I have a pretty visual brain, so I tend to see pictures of the scene in my head; here’s the guy standing by the deck rail on the ship’s forecastle, looking out to sea and day-dreaming about adventure.

The thing that makes it hardest to keep cranking those scenes is sheer self-doubt: the constant observation what’s coming out of my fingers is not nearly as good as I want it to be. The description is lame, the dialogue is stilted, the action is too fast or too slow…

“This’ll never be a book”, whispers the voice, “you’re wasting your time.”

Oof. No wonder most people—like me, over and over again—give up on this. If you’re gonna sit there and type for, say, an hour or two each day it’s got to be some kind of fun otherwise you won’t do it. I’m quite convinced you don’t accomplish hard things that take a long time unless you either are under the lash or you figure out the version of the task that is fun for you.

You might be able to force your way through a 2000-word short story, but you’re not squeezing an entire novel through clenched fingers.

I’m thinking back to when I did NaNoWriMo in 2012: I did indeed write 50,000 words in a month, which is sixteen-hundred-and-something a day. If only I were doing that now, I’d hit my goal!

So what was different?

I remember just focusing on hitting that number, maybe that’s what’s missing. I’m looking at something like 8000-9000 words a week, a goal I could just put my head down and type frantically towards. Measure it every day.

Getting to the end of this week, I think it was Saturday, and realizing I’d only done 2819 didn’t feel great (and it didn’t translate into novel-writing on the weekend, either).

In terms of eliminating the self-doubt, I keep reminding myself that everything can be fixed in the future. Writing a first draft is just producing a pile of raw materials you can shape, the way you need to cut down a bunch of trees before you can make the logs that you’ll heave into place to build your log cabin1. If you’re worried about getting every stroke of the axe just right, you’ll freeze to death on the cold, cold ground: it’s the wrong place in the process to pour your time and attention.

Just take another breath and swing the axe as best you can.

Hey, there’s some magic of writing for you: I didn’t have that metaphor when I sat down this morning, but I’m quite pleased with it. 🙂

And I have to believe that’s what happens in the muck and horror of drafting the book, too. I know where the story has to go, I know a bunch of the things that happen in vague terms, the sitting down every day is where I find out the specifics, and that’s a kind of fun in itself.

The other way I’m trying to keep it fun, and the impetus for doing the planning up front, is an idea from my writing coach and elsewhere: you don’t need to write the book from the beginning to the end.

I have a stack of index cards, each one an idea for a scene, like “Introduce the expedition at sea”, and before (either the night before or right before) I sit down to draft, I can just pick the one that excites me the most.

Again, this is all in the service of producing raw materials, not “getting it right the first time”; so even if I write a scene in the middle of the novel and then the things I find out while writing the earlier bits necessitate changing or eliminating that scene… well, that’s fine. It’s a couple extra keystrokes. And they come later, in the future; the future I’ll never reach but by sitting down and typing.

I hope this little exploration is helpful to someone else, that’s why I’m putting it on the internet. You might also be sitting there staring at a blank page or lamenting the lack of words you’ve produced for that big, beautiful dream you’ve had for years if you could only somehow force yourself to actually do it.

As for me, writing this makes me want to throw some keystrokes at the book, so here I go.

And there it is: when all else fails, write about how you’re having trouble writing.

  1. Isn’t that a pleasantly old-fashioned, rustic workmanlike image of artisanal craftsmanship? Pardon me while I don a flannel shirt and wait for my beard to grow.