Category Archives: Writing

Writing Despair

I’m in a state of writing despair.  I can no longer see any good in my draft.  All I see are the flaws and it is overwhelming.  I’m not sure how to get over this.  I try to work on it, but I get discouraged very easily.  I remember when I read the novel in December (?) and was impressed by how good it was for a first draft.  But now, all I have are chopped up bits of novel that aren’t very good and don’t go together well.

I read my first chapter and I don’t know why anyone would keep reading.  I read the first chapter of a successful thriller or mystery, and I cannot put the book down, even if “nothing” is happening.  How do I get that?

My book starts slow.  The protagonist is an ordinary person who gets flung into a conspiracy by accident.  She is slow to realize that something horrible is happening because it is so far outside the realm of her experience.  So, the plot builds slowly.  Too slowly.  Even when I wrote the first draft I was aware of this problem, so I had a prolog set about half way through the story that was more gripping.  So the reader got a page of excitement, then dumped into the dullness of Chapter 1.  This seems a really inelegant way to do things.

I’ve tried coming up with a really gripping first line, but there is still a huge letdown as you slog through Chapter 1.  I suppose I could cut more, but I’ve cut about half the text already.  And I do want the plot & tension to build…

I think perhaps the solution is to put more interpersonal drama in the first chapter.  Those interactions between the characters might be exciting enough for people to keep reading.  But I’m not exactly sure how to do that.  My book is mostly plot driven rather than character driven, and I’m not sure how compelling my interpersonal dynamics are anyway.  On the other hand, I don’t have much to lose at this point.

So, that is where I’m at.  I haven’t made nearly as much progress as I would like.  I’ve mostly been avoiding writing since I realized this problem (and my lack of solution).

Camp NaNoWriMo Plan

So Camp NaNoWriMo has officially started (as of April 1), and I have done nothing…  Off to a roaring start!  I had thought I would plan out my strategy on Thursday last week, but it just didn’t happen.  And somehow on April 1, it didn’t make it on my to-do list.  I thought I was awesome and got everything done by 4 pm, so I cheerfully goofed off and watched TV for the rest of the day.  Oops!  So here is the Camp NaNoWriMo plan, at least for the first week.

As I mentioned before, my novel had terrible pacing, so during the first round of revision, I moved pretty much all the plot into the first act.  And I trimmed a bunch of padding.  I also fiddled around with the plot a bit, so now the first act has a lot of continuity issues.  So my goal for this week is to really carefully revise and edit the first act to clean-up all these errors.  I do have a few more scenes I need to write as well.   I also want to make sure that all my characters are behaving true to themselves and perhaps add in a few more moments that reveal how they think.  I’d like this to be polished enough to share with an outside reader.

I also need to do some research about my bad guy.  I actually got a book on the topic this weekend, so I’ll be reading that this week also.  I’m counting research in my 100 hours goal.  It has to be done.  It is necessary for the novel to be completed.  So why wouldn’t it go in my Camp NaNoWriMo Plan?

I want to make a serious push this week because I’m going on vacation in the middle of April.  So, in an ideal world, I’d get 30-40 hours done this week.  That would give me a bit of a buffer banked.  This seems a lot on top of my other projects, but I tracked my time pretty carefully in March and man, do I watch a lot of tv/surf the internet.  About 25-30 hours worth a week, in fact.  So, if I can just convert most of that time to noveling, then I should have no problem getting everything done.  I’m not sure I’m that strong, though.  I guess we’ll find out.

Camp NaNoWriMo

I am extremely motivated by external deadlines, so I’ve decided to add some pressure to my novel revision process.  I also really like winning.  I’ve signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo which is a more free form version of National Novel Writing Month.  Unlike the official NaNoWriMo challenge in November, where the only option is to write 50,000 words in a month, Camp NaNoWriMo lets you pick a variety of different projects and goals.  You can write a novel or revise something.  You can set your goal in word count, page count, or hours.  (There are other options for both the project type and the goal metric.)  If you achieve your goal by the end of the month, then you win!  (There are some discounts on some writing tools if you win, but I’m in it just to get the email saying I won.)

I’ve set the goal of 100 hours of revision.  So far, I’ve only put in about 26 hours of revision since I started working on it last month.  This is a big increase.  Obviously, I have time, since, yeah, jobless, but I do have several other commitments in April.  I am visiting my parents and brother for a week.  And I’ve taken on a fairly extensive professional project that I’m guessing will also take about 100 hours to accomplish.   All and all, I’ve ramped up the pressure for next month.

I’d like to get the novel revision completed in April.  Ideally, that would also include having other people read and comment on my draft, but I’m not sure I’ll be that far along.  I’d be satisfied if I could get it to a state where I am comfortable sharing it with other people.  I’m definitely nowhere near ready to share at the moment.

This next week I plan to make a substantial push to complete as much work as I can and then map out my battle plan for April.  I’m excited to finally push hard.  And, of course, I want to win…

Learning new things is hard

I’m a process kind of woman.  I like following a set procedure whenever possible.  It increases efficiency and reduces errors.  This is similar to my love of habits.  Having to think carefully and then motivate yourself to do that thing is hard.  It takes away from the energy that you could be spending on actually doing the thing.  Learning new skills is hard because you are usually spending effort on multiple fronts- learning how to physically or mentally do the thing, thinking about the best way to do the thing, figuring out how to fix your mistakes, etc.  That is why I really like courses for learning new skills.  Some people may chafe under the rigidity of a course, but I find the structure freeing.  I just follow the instructions/lesson plan and I can focus the bulk of my energy on learning the skills I want.   It is all execution and no overhead at that point.

That is part of the reason why I describe my process in so much detail, such as in my recent post on diagnosing my calf problems or my posts on revising my novel.  Are my processes the best ones?  Probably not.  But it is likely sufficient for a novice.  A beginner doesn’t need the best system.  They just need one good enough to get them to the next level.  As I build my skills, I will likely optimize my processes.  I may abandon them entirely.  But I hope that my posting my processes here, I can provide a shortcut for the next person.  Right now, I have three big projects: revising my novel, learning to draw, and improving my fitness level.  I let my novel draft sit for over a decade because I didn’t know what to do next.  I haven’t drawn since high school, and I was never good at it.  I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do.  And fitness, goodness, that is a complicated subject.  Couch to 5K is simple enough, but try to figure out a simple weightlifting routine, and things get complicated fast.  There are tons of resources for all these topics on the internet, but sifting through them is time-consuming.  So, hopefully, my work on these projects will provide

Right now, I have three big projects: revising my novel, learning to draw, and improving my fitness level.  I let my novel draft sit for over a decade because I didn’t know what to do next.  I haven’t drawn since high school, and I was never good at it.  I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do.  And fitness, goodness, that is a complicated subject.  Couch to 5K is simple enough, but try to figure out a simple weightlifting routine, and things get complicated fast.  There are tons of resources for all these topics on the internet, but sifting through them is time-consuming.  So, hopefully, my work on these projects will provide a set of great resources and a framework to accomplish these projects efficiently.  Obviously, everything will be filtered through the lens of what works (and doesn’t work) for me, but I’ll try to provide an alternate approach if I find one.

Plotters vs. Pantsers

I wrote both my NaNoWriMo books as a pantser.  What is a pantser?   A pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants, with no pre-planning.  By contrast, plotters are those who outline and plot out their story before writing.  There is a fairly lively debate on the internet about which style works best.  See some pro-pantser arguments here and a very strong pro-plotter case here.  I’m pretty convinced Stephen King is also a pantser based on his description of his process in his memoir.

Here’s the thing, though.  I think you need to have a lot of experience with story structure to be able to successfully pants.  When you have enough expertise, and you have truly internalized the rules, then it just shows up in your writing.  See for example Jami Gold’s description here and here of how her pantsed novel ended up having pretty much the exact pacing of a standard type of story structure.

But, if you don’t have enough experience, I don’t think you’ll be quite as successful.  I think then plotting does help you create a story with a decent pace and enough plot that it is interesting.  I assumed because I read a lot (and write a lot of technical work) that I would be able to produce a halfway decent story.  I thought consuming thrillers and mysteries would be sufficient to internalize the needed structure and pacing requirements.  It isn’t  At least for not for me.

When I went to map out my story’s structure (using Jami Gold’s basic beat sheet), I found that I’m missing a lot of key “beats” or plot points.  The pacing is terrible.  Part of that is a consequence of the format of NaNoWriMo- having to produce 50,000 words in a month does tend to encourage padding when the muse has left you.  Part of it is because I’m missing a lot of obvious opportunities to increase the tension and drama.  So, I’ve started to revise my novel by plotting it.  I’ve already deconstructed everything into scenes, so next, I can plot it, and then I can fit my scenes back where they need to go.

Just for fun, I pulled a thriller/mystery off my shelf.  The author has won numerous writing awards, so I figured this would be a reasonable check of the basic beat sheet concept.  I sat down and read the book with pen and paper.  Every major plot point I wrote down along with the page number, and yeah, it matched the classic structure exactly.  Reading a book to understand the structure is a fascinating way to read.  Despite taking a ridiculous number of literature classes in college, I never was exposed to this way of reading.  I highly recommend re-reading an old favorite and mapping it onto a beat sheet so you can see how it all fits together.

For now, I firmly a plotter.  Hopefully, as my skill as a fiction writer improves, I will become able to pants.  It is a lot of fun just to sit down and bang out a novel with no pre-planning.  But it is less fun when you realize how much time it will take to revise the novel.

Revising my novel, Part 1

So, I’ve started to revise my novel.  As I’ve mentioned before, I wrote it as part of NaNoWriMo in 2004 but hadn’t even read it until recently.

So, good news and bad news.  It is much better than I thought.  Enough time has passed since I wrote it that I was actually surprised by parts of it.  Some of the plots twists are clever.  The mystery itself isn’t bad and the plot generally holds together as the mystery is solved.

It is filled with typos and “(insert more words here)” or “(blah)” where I didn’t have time to research something.  The typos are easy enough to fix, though it is more time consuming than I thought.  I’m done correcting twelve of sixteen chapters.  I haven’t filled in the (insert more words here) sections yet, though the day is coming.   Lots of the characterization sections are extremely dated- they mention tv shows and celebrities who are long gone.  They can probably be updated to more modern references or the characterization scenes can be re-written to be more timeless.

Parts of it are cringe-worthy though.  Me ten years ago was a much more naive person and that is reflected in the text.  At the time, I’m pretty sure I intended this to be a wildly feminist book, but reading it now, I see I reinforced a million sexist tropes.  In general, the way people interact with each other is superficial.  The interactions between the characters lack depth.

I think there is enough good stuff here that it is worth fixing up the larger problems.  But there is much more work to do than I had guessed at first.  I thought I’d read it, fix typos, write a few small scenes, do some light editing and then work on figuring out the publishing part.  What actually needs to be done is deconstructing the entire text into individual scenes, reworking each one or deleting them, and then reconstructing the whole thing as a novel.  And then figure out publishing.

I’m also writing the book in Scrivener.  I haven’t used this program much before and what I had done previously was mostly using it as a text editor.  The program is designed specifically for complicated writing projects such as writing a novel.  But there is a steep learning curve for the advanced features.  And the text is just hard to read in Scrivener.  It ends up all crunched up and tiny, no matter how I have the font set up.  I’m not really sure why this is the case.  But the ability to store information/ metadata about each scene (like point of view and location) or the ability to have sections of research (like character profiles) makes me think that once I figure everything out my life will get much simpler.

My goal for this week is to correct all the typos and grammatical errors.  I’m also deconstructing each chapter into scenes as I’m correcting the grammar.  I want to start filling in the metadata for each scene.  However, since Scrivener is pretty flexible, I need to decide what metadata I want to include.  Once that is done, I can check the pacing.  I’m pretty sure the pacing is a mess.  Fifty thousand words is much shorter than a typical novel, so things feel rushed.  But at the same time, the pressure of writing fifty thousand words in a month means that there is a ton of padding.   Being concise does not make one a NaNoWriMo winner!

Starting again…

So, I haven’t been writing or blogging at all for the past, what, month?  6 weeks?  Something embarrassingly long.   So, I thought I would restart this habit, and do a public postmortem of why it failed the first time around.

I had two separate, but related habits for this year- the first was to blog 3x per week, and the other was to write 30 minutes each day for myself (not work related).  I’m going to talk about the writing one today and the blogging one later in the week.

Writing 30 minutes every day

Initially, I thought the writing would mostly be blog related, but I expected that eventually there would be space to work on a book or some sort of writing that would become a second source of income.  I also wanted to create more this year, and I thought that writing would be a natural and easy way for me to express myself.  So this tied in to two bigger picture goals (second source of income and creating) that I set for myself.

So why did setting this habit fail?  There are two things I identified.

  1.  No solid home on my calendar.  I didn’t like writing in the evening, because I was tired after work and it felt more like a chore that had to be accomplished before I could do something fun (like surf the internet).  I moved it on my calendar to the morning before work, but I never actually managed to write in the morning.  I mostly overslept and had no time to sit down and write.  Then I didn’t do it at night because I already over-scheduled myself there as well.  🙂
  2. Weak sense of reward or accomplishment.  I had a few different things in place to provide a reward.  I’m unusually motivated by checking things off a list or getting a sticker or whatever other trick you would use to motivate a 5-year old.  So, I set it up as a recurring task on my on-line habit tracker (I’m using Habitica currently) and I wrote it on my planner as an entire block of time that could be colored in when completed (yeah, weird, but this is almost as motivating as a sticker to me).  Apparently neither of these are sufficiently motivating given the magnitude of the task.  I also thought that starting a blog would serve as accountability.  However, the only people who read my blog are spammers and that is (unsurprisingly) fairly demotivating.

So, I am approaching this in two ways since there are two problems.  First, massive bribery.  I like pen and paper and ink, but I realized that my rate of purchasing these items vastly outstripped the rate I used said items.  So I’m on a temporary ban until I use up some supplies.  If I successfully write for 7 days in a row, then I get to buy some fountain pen inks for myself.  I already loaded my online shopping cart  with an excessive amount of ink- all I have to do is write everyday for a week and many bottles of ink will come my way.  (The bargain is actually that I need to check off all items on Habitica daily to earn the ink, but in practice, most days the only unchecked task is writing/blogging.  I don’t want another habit to slip as I ramp this up.)  The second approach is to put writing back on my calendar in the evening.  While there were a lot of reasons to put it in the morning, it didn’t actually ever happen.  So, hopefully back to evening will work.

Book Review of Stephen King’s “On Writing”

I bought this book many years ago, perhaps when writing my novel.  I read it, enjoyed it, and passed it on to a friend with the recommendation to read it.  The book never returned.  When I saw it in the library, I wondered if it was as good as I remembered.

Stephen King is a very good writer.  I know that sounds like an odd thing to say, given his widespread renown as an author, and perhaps it is.  I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his work (outside this) or seen any of the movies based on his work.  But here, he makes the most mundane story extremely compelling.

The subtitle of this book is “A memoir of the craft” and roughly half the book is memoirish.

The first half of the book is a collection of anecdotes about King’s life.   Most of them are just everyday life/ growing up stories, yet you are left with an impression that King lead a wild and exciting life.  King entitles this first section “CV” and suggests that these events are key to understanding him as a writer.  I’m not sure this is true, plenty of people have had similar life stories and not become a writer.  There are two things that stand out to me though.  One is that King consumed wildly in the sci-fi/thriller/horror genre as a child.  This is key to learning what works and what doesn’t.   It also shows that he has a true passion for the genre in which he writes.  But what is even more illustrative is that King started writing and submitting his stories at a very early age.  He racked up a stack of rejection slips before he left high school.  He, like many others, put his 10,000 hours of mastery in before he hit it big.

King briefly discusses grammar & the mechanics of writing (“The toolbox”).   He illustrates his thoughts with snippets from other sources.  He does this deftly.  I’m reading another book about writing that employs the same tactic and it is driving me up the wall.  The clips are either extremely boring, or perhaps worse, vastly more interesting that the actual text.  Here, King’s examples are interesting enough that you don’t lose interest in continuing to read, and his writing is lively enough that you are eager to get back to his thoughts.

King has a unique perspective on writing ; he believes stories are like fossils.  The writer merely excavates them.  He hates “plot”; in his mind plot is artificial and a tool used by a bad writer.  Things like themes and symbolism likewise shouldn’t be deliberately planned in the first draft.  A good writer just, I don’t know, channels the story from somewhere.  As a consequence, he argues that the first draft should be written very quickly, so the author doesn’t have a chance to overthink it.  The draft should then be put away for several months, until it is completely forgotten.  (I guess I’m taking this to the extreme then; my draft has been aging for a decade!)  Then, editing can happen.  At this point, the theme or symbolism that was inherent will be detected by the author.  Now, it is perfectly fine to polish, edit, rewrite, and retune the work to emphasize the themes or symbolism.

I think King can write this way because he spent decades honing his craft and internalized the necessary components of a good story.  He doesn’t need to sit down and plot out the story; his subconscious knows how to construct a compelling plot.   I think this is common with experts; they just do it, and half the time they don’t even know how/why they did.  This does lead to problems when they try to teach, since they don’t exactly know their own process.  Magic just happens.


I don’t know that I agree with King’s rules on writing.  But I think his book is a beautiful illustration of mastery.

Self-publishing, a path to riches?

So, I completed Chandler Bolt’s video series, and it is a pitch for his class.  There was some okay content in the remaining videos, but probably not worth the 1+ hour I spent watching the series.  Video 2 dealt with mechanics of how to write the book.  Chandler emphasized doing pre-work- mindmapping, outlining, etc before starting to write.  I think this is really an excellent strategy, especially for non-fiction.  He then suggests such things as dictating your book into an app (working off your outline) and paying to have it transcribed and edited.  While I think may be a useful approach for some, and especially those with handicaps that might prevent typing, I think that there more iterations of editing/improvement beyond get it on paper and pay (a low cost bidder) to edit it.  For me, it further reinforced the vibe that this course is for people who don’t care about writing, and don’t care to hone their craft.  The last real video was about marketing your book and the mechanics of becoming a Amazon best-seller. How you orchestrate a launch, pricing strategies, how to get reviews, how you should categorize your book on Amazon. Chandler’s demeanor totally changed in this video; he became noticeably more passionate and engaged.   This is some of the stuff that I would be interested in learning, and I would even pay for a course.  Chandler might even be a great teacher, based on how engaged he became.

But, philosophically, I don’t agree that everyone should write a book.  I don’t believe that the actual _writing_ part should be considered the least important part of the process.  I strongly believe that the internet and self-publishing are revolutionary and this allows voices that would not be heard before to have a platform.  The “long tail” wasn’t served well before, and I am grateful that we live in an age where it is.  But a writer has to want to write.  A teacher has to want to teach.  An artist has to want to create.

To vomit out a book to make some passive income sounds horrible to me. From what I could tell, most of Bolt’s students didn’t do all that well on the passive income side.  Usually they made a few thousand total, with steep drops after the first few months.  Most of the figures about how much money they made included things like increased consulting gigs/ gaining new clients based on the credential of writing a book.

At first glance, that doesn’t sound too bad- assume you get $5,000 out of the book.   I have a feeling that is a wildly generous figure.  I did a quick search for how much the average ebook makes, and found that 60% of self-published authors make less than $5,000/year.   Are they really all failing because they didn’t take Chandler Bolt’s course?

Let’s run through the math.  The course itself costs $600 or $2000 depending on the tier.  You can argue that maybe this shouldn’t be included in the estimate, but it is a real cost.  There are other costs involved too. If you do his dictation to the phone method, then you can add a few hundred for the transcription.   Two others mentioned in the video were editors and a graphic designer for the cover.  (Technically a graphic designer wasn’t mentioned, but the cover was mentioned as a critical factor.)  I really have no idea how these might cost- $500?  I’m sure a high quality professional would cost dramatically more, but assume you can find someone acceptable on Elance or Fivver or whatever.  So far, you are still coming out ahead- most of us would probably spend ~$1000 for a $5000 return.    The common timeline mentioned in the video was 3 months from start to publication, if you worked for 30-60 minutes every day.  If you assume an hour a day for 90 days, then you have spent 90 hours to set up this source of passive income (that will probably only last for 3-6 months).   I’ll do the math all the way for you- assume that with your costs, you net $4,000.  This means you earned $44/hour for your 90 hours of writing time.  That sounds really good.

I’d like a passive income as much as the next person.  But courses on generating passive income are modern day snake oil.  If it were really that easy, wouldn’t we all be doing it? So, I’m going to research the economics of self-publishing a little bit more.  How much does the typical book make, and how long does it continue to generate reasonable passive income?  I’ll post my findings here when I have them.

Who is Chandler Bolt?

I love knowledge.  I love plans.  I like finding what other smart people have done, and copying their methods.  Standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that.  I’ve never met a mailing list that I didn’t sign up for.  Promise me all sorts of secrets?  All I have to do is give you my email?  Well, here you go…

Unfortunately, in the modern age, it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Maybe this was always so, but now the volume to sift through seems infinite.  One regular feature of the blog will be me inflicting some internet course on myself, and reviewing it for you.  Even if you don’t pay money for the course, you are spending your time & energy.  So, knowing what is valuable and what isn’t is important.

I recently received an email promoting the course Blank Page to Best Seller.  This is a free (other than your time and email) course that teaches you how to self-publish a book and make tons of money.  This is a free 4 video series with a downloadable pdf ebook.

A little googling reveals that Chandler also sells a course on how to publish an ebook (for $600 or $2000 depending on the level).  Most of the reviews I found were glowing, but by people who sell the course through affiliate links.

Chandler Bolt is our guru, because apparently he and his buddy slapped together 60 page book on productivity while snowboarding in Thailand.  Said book made Amazon’s best seller list- topping David Allen for some time.  As Chandler admits in the first video, the books is all the best bits of productivity wisdom he found from other places.  He argues that he is adding value by presenting only the best bits of wisdom.  The reviews on amazon are mostly positive, though you do find the stickler or two (or 10 ) who mention the massive amount of recycled content and lack of attribution in this book.

Chandler has a ton of books on Amazon.  Many are “guides to” cribsheet versions of his books, available for free.  I’m intrigued by a cliff notes version of a 60 page book, so of course I downloaded it.

Video 1 (~ 15 min):

The tone rubs me wrong from the start.  You can be a shitty writer, turn out a mediocre product, and make thousands a month?  That’s your opening?  Seriously??!!  What happened to craft?  As I mentioned, he eventually puts forth the argument that his selection of the the best productivity information is adding value, but the whole first half is who cares if you are a bad writer?  Is this merely a motivational speech designed to encourage those with low self-esteem?

I can’t bring myself to watch the second video or read the guide yet, so this will be a “to be continued…” post.

So, has anyone taken an internet course they found extremely useful?  Was it free or paid?  How did you go about deciding to commit the time and/or money?  I’d love to hear about people’s experiences in the comments.