Category Archives: For the Writer
The Art of Writing a Serial (Or: A Lesson in Surviving Hurdles)
Before embarking on the long adventure known as the serial story, I made sure to do my homework. I read everything I could from people who’d already done it. I scoured blogs and how-to ebooks and kboards (Amazon’s kindle boards, where you can find all kinds of awesome people living the dream…and ten times more trying to get there). I had my plan ready to go – I knew the size of each installment (15-20k), the frequency of release (every 2 weeks), and my intended pricing scheme. I knew I wanted to write it as I went, rather than writing it all up front, and was prepared to keep to the schedule. I created my pen name, had the basics of my brand, and launched my platform on my chosen social media outlets. My prep work was good.
I released the first book on a wave of self-accomplishment. I did it! I crowed to myself (and to my husband, though he wasn’t quite as excited). A new pen name, new world, new experiment, all begun and set to do great things. Best yet, I’d only spent $15 to do it. And I was flexing my very rusty Photoshop skills to create decent covers. (Admittedly, they’re not fantastic. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call them good; but for 15 bucks, I’m happy with them!) I swore to myself I wouldn’t tell anyone I was writing them until after Christmas (the first one went live just before Thanksgiving). Which became “nobody but my sister and my brother, who are now my beta readers.” And then I was so chuffed about my cover, I showed it off to the rest of the family over Christmas.
That was mistake #1. (Okay, noticeable mistake #1. I probably made plenty of others I don’t have enough experience to see yet.) There are gobs of professionals (and memes; so many memes!) who will tell you to keep your dreams to yourself. You know what? They’re totally right. Eventually, people will find out. But you really want something you can be proud of out in the world already before you invite the criticism of those you know (and love). My dad was bummed – “A pen name? Already?” he asked, clearly lamenting that I had cast off the family name. “What about my sci-fi?!” my cousin demanded. Even though I stood strong and didn’t really feel the need to defend my choice, there entered the seed of doubt. By the time I reached my “after Christmas” date, the damage was already done. I “went public” to everyone, and the pressure set in.
Pressure, apparently, makes writing a lot harder. Who knew? 😛
Mistake #2 came a few short weeks later when, instead of having a week all to myself when my husband and son were out of town, I came down with the flu. The horrible, awful, kill-me-now sort of flu. I was sick the entire week. One setback, though, wasn’t going to stop me. I have perseverance! I cried (inwardly, in a properly introverted fashion). Except then my yoga ball, which I used as my desk chair, exploded while I was sitting on it (thinking back still makes me giggle hysterically – if you can’t save your pride, you might as well laugh, right?), which also broke my desk. No matter how I tried to cobble together a better situation, I couldn’t get comfy enough to write. But no problem – I still had my laptop. Right? Wrong. My 8-year-old MacBook finally gave up the ghost the same week. I managed to save my covers, which weren’t in Dropbox, and called it a blessed bit of luck. (Mistake #2 was not writing long-hand and continuing the habit. I wouldn’t have written as quickly and I’d have used a ton of paper, but I’d have gotten it done sooner, and not lost momentum.)
So I had to wait. And wait. And wait…until our tax return came in. Because we’re broke. Like, beyond broke. So broke, in fact, that we moved in with my in-laws in May because we couldn’t support ourselves with the skyrocketing rental prices in Denver. Our pediatric office just broke up with us because we couldn’t pay our bills. I bought a new laptop, one of the new HP Streams that’s designed to function mostly online. So pretty! So perfect (and perfectly in my price range). I finished up the rough draft of Issue #5 and shifted gears to the publishing side of things. And that’s when I realized: I no longer have access to Photoshop. I had to actually pay for it. Which meant I couldn’t create a cover for a bundle of the first five issues like I had planned.
That was Mistake #3 – I let my disappointment (and, honestly, financially-rooted depression) get the better of me. I didn’t research Photoshop options or alternatives. I just sat and stewed. Which, given that we were down to the wire in deciding what to do with our lives by that point, I don’t really begrudge myself. I had more important things requiring my time. But if I had done a little idle research, I’d have discovered the 30-day free trial of Photoshop CC and gotten to de-stress playing with covers.
The fifth issue of Eternally Born was five months late. I’ve accepted my failures and determined to do better in future. Namely, I will focus on the habit instead of the output, have backups to my backups (not just files but also writing situations and implements), and maybe bring in a couple new cheerleaders to keep my spirits up when stuff falls apart. Because I don’t have a lot of experience in indie publishing yet, but what little I do has shown me how easily things do fall apart. To misquote Jurassic Park, “We have all the problems of a traditional publishing house and a moody creative professional, and the money’s not even coming in yet.”
Yes, a serial is quite difficult as an entry into self-publishing – it’s an insanely slow build, and there’s not really a good way to market it until you’re quite a ways in. (Despite being in KU with everything but #1, I’ve only ever had 3 borrows. I’ve given away several hundred copies of #1, but only had maybe the same number of sell-throughs.) With 4 issues on the market, I haven’t yet broken even on that initial $15. It’s a long, hard haul and something of a slog. Choosing to write one at a time means I have to be okay working on the same thing every month (month after month after month). That can be tough when my creativity wants to try something new, or doesn’t want to break from the other project I’m working on to come back to the serial. And I have a sneaking suspicion the majority of people who might be interesting in reading the serial are waiting for me to finish the whole thing before they read. Which is fair and completely understandable…but it’s not a big boost to the old ego, either. Nor is knowing ahead of time that I’m not going to sell any of the new issues when they’re released.
All of that said, however, I don’t regret choosing to write one issue at a time. I don’t regret any of my actual publishing choices.This is the way this story needed to be told. It’s the way I needed to work on it. It reinforces the process, keeps me in the short-term (I have a real problem with that), and keeps me writing. Doing the covers myself keeps me excited, because even if nobody reads the words inside, they will see the cover. It keeps me learning, keeps me trying new things, and uses my brain in ways that novels don’t (especially because it’s non-linear, but that’s a different topic). By the time I’m done with this arc, I will have a lot of basic experience under my belt. I’ll have 10 issues on the market with 3 bundles. I’ve been keeping an eye on my category the whole time, and how sales and borrows affect my ranks. And, more than that, it’s set my expectations low. They already were – I didn’t start this up expecting to sell any – but once I’m done, I’ll know that I can stick with my choices no matter what happens; that I can finish what I start even when there is pretty much zero positive reinforcement or enticement to continue.
Essentially, this is the part where I stamp down the dirt until it’s hard-packed and capable of supporting bigger goals for the long-term. I may feel like a giant failure because all I have is dirt, but I will have the confidence to know failure won’t kill me. And that’s nothing to sneeze at!
Know Your Process
My old friend, Kathryn St. John-Shin, recently posted about plotting. She added a great infographic flowchart for good plotting that’s totally worth the look.
Anyway, her post got me thinking. I mentioned last time that I’ve been having major writer’s block. At first I thought it was a plotting problem, so I super-plotted the story I was working on (“The Shot Heard ‘Round the Planet” from the 13 Colonies series). It turned out pretty well, and I was happy with it. So I sat down to write it, and…nothin’. Finally, I decided it must be a problem of confidence because the story was too big for me right now. I decided to set Shot aside for a while and started a new story. So much stress had seeped into my writing, I wanted to do something fun. What started out as a 99.99% unplotted YA/NA romantic paranormal serial story became a study in non-linear structure. Cool stuff, but not exactly without pressure. 30,000 words in, I hit a wall.
I’ve pursued every route I know of to get back to
Pooh Corner creative space. I’ve journaled. I’ve jotted. I’ve brainstormed. I’ve come up with new stories, looked up new words, read over old work. Read a book. Learned new approaches. Immersed myself in writing/publishing blogs and listened to podcasts. Nothing worked!
I’ve been wallowing in self-doubt and angst for the last week or so, until I finally hit the Black Moment. That point at which an artist looks at their work, picks up the towel, and prepares to throw it in because they ‘obviously’ don’t have what it takes to succeed. I thought back over all my stories and thought, “What’s the point? I’ll never be able to do this for a living. I need money, like, yesterday, and I have to choose between writing and a day job, and what if I get a job and can’t find a way to work in writing? What if I slip backward and become a wannabe writer again, unwilling to work hard to make it happen? What if it stops mattering??”
And then I read Katie’s post today and I smacked myself in the forehead (literally, facepalm!). I’ve been such an idiot.
With every book – long or short, old or new – I hit a point where I hate everything I write. I loathe every word I type, every character I’ve ever written. Nothing will EVER be good enough! The WOE! The ANGST! I curse the heavens, berate my inner muse for being too lazy and too sassy to be of any help, and cry over the keyboard. It’s pretty pathetic, and it happens with every. book.
You see, my Black Moment is part of my writing process. It’s been so long since I’ve had heavy writing time that I’d forgotten. But somewhere between the one-quarter mark and the one-third mark, I lose all hope. My momentum hits a wall. My creativity dries up. I question every choice I have made and was planning to make, and most of them come up wanting. And then, after enough time has passed, that Black Moment of self-doubt metamorphoses into something beautiful. I make the decision to keep fighting, to keep writing, to keep trying. Suddenly, I become possessed with a wealth of determination, perseverance, and fortitude. I know my story’s strengths and weaknesses; I know where I’m going and what I want to accomplish. And I write. And I write. And I write.
Without that End of the World, Write No More, Black Moment, I wouldn’t have the energy and commitment to finish the book. If I don’t face those feelings and work through them, I end up with Story ADD, unable to get into a story let alone finish anything.
If you’re serious about having a writing career (as opposed to writing a book, which is its own legitimate goal), you need to know your process. To do that, you have to write. A lot. And then write a lot more. Just as importantly, you have to FINISH things.
My process looks something like this:
1. Get blinded by an awesome story idea.
2. Percolate idea, let the characters settle into the casting office with a cup of tea.
3. Assemble, in my head, a variety of scenes and necessary turning points (almost always character-based).
4. Begin writing.
5. Remember how hard it is to shut off the internal editor, but try hard anyway.
6. Fall in love with my characters. Make myself laugh.
7. Shove it at the husband for a little external validation (and so I can see if I’m accomplishing what I want).
8. Cheer as I pass 20k.
9. Black Moment of Doooooom.
10. Days, weeks, months down the road, have an epiphany/surge of determination and get back to it.
11. Get lost. A lot. Write a bunch of really boring stuff until the middle is over and the story has transitioned into exciting territory again.
12. Write. Write. Write.
13. Cease being able to think about anything but all the threads coming together, all day long.
14. Ignore everything else possible in life to get to the end faster.
15. Suddenly discover 80% of my plot in two scenes during the climax.
16. Breathlessly write the last few chapters.
17. Discover more info than expected in the denouement (and possibly find the plot of book 2 buried inside).
18. The End (eventually…my denouements tend to go on and on and on…).
19. Sleep, laugh, and socialize – a lot – to make up for the near-total isolation and extreme concentration of the last few weeks.
20. Start thinking about edits.
Knowing your process means you can accommodate it. For instance, #9 is where I’m most likely to give up. #11, I’m going to need calculated spurts of limited distractions followed by lots of distractions to stay somewhat focused. Starting at #14, my husband knows not to expect me to do anything but work. I also know when that rollercoaster starts down the mega hill at #15, everything’s going to be okay; I won’t freak out about how to make all these ideas and threads and subplots work because I know from experience they’re already in the story; all I have to do is remind myself I can fix it in edits, and then put my hands in the air and yell “woooooo!” as it all rushes in.
Not remembering my process has brought me perilously close to giving up. It’s going to be a little different, now I’m a mom and now I have a professional side to think about. My blogs are going to be really long and rambly, and I don’t beat myself up (much) over it. I could write them more professionally, edit them better, but I know I won’t and cut myself some slack (this post has been written over the course of making and eating lunch and watching Tinkerbell: The Pirate Fairy, interspersed with potty training breaks and fights over how much he has to eat in order to keep watching). It’s going to be somewhat discombobulated, and I’m okay with that – at least the post got written. I’m going to read over it once while rubbing my son’s back and trying to convince him that naps are fun. Then I’m going to hit Publish and never think about it again. And all of that is okay. Not ideal parenting and not ideal writing, but workable.
Know your process. Embrace it. Work with it. It’ll make your life a whole lot easier.
What’s the worst part of your process? The best?
Habits and the EarthGirly
Once upon a time, I started every day off right: I read industry blogs over breakfast. This got me into the writer mindset immediately, kept me up-to-date on what was happening in the world of publishing, and, if I was lucky, gave me ideas to put into my own writing.
Ever since my baby turned into a rambunctious toddler, I’ve stopped doing this. There are now too many things to fit in immediately upon waking that I don’t have the space to sit and “just read.” I feel like I only get a few spare moments to read in peace (deceptive and untrue as it may be), and I don’t want to use it up on “frivolous” things. Because my husband and I made a choice when we first got married that I would write instead of work, we’ve lived the life of the starving artist. I didn’t regret that decision at all…until the economy fell apart and I suddenly had zero job prospects when I needed them. I still need them, years later; I would like to no longer worry every week about whether or not we have money to buy things like food and toilet paper. I would like to be able to take my son to the zoo occasionally without saying, “Here are the animals! Now expect nothing but nutrition-less pasta for the next week.” (Then again, he’d be excited: “What? Animals AND pasta with NO veggies to hide from? Best. Mommy. Ever!” In his own toddler-like, non-verbal way, of course.) When faced with the necessity of finding a job, reading industry blogs really does seem sort of frivolous.
For the first time in years, I have no one but myself to look after (the boy-folk are visiting the in-laws). And what did I do? I woke up, fixed myself breakfast, and read industry blogs.
Immediately, I was struck with how different it makes me feel. Within five minutes, I’m both student and professional. I feel confident and energetic. I want to go play with my words, explore my worlds, pal around with my characters! I’m optimistic about my future prospects, and I can’t wait to get started!
Which tells me this: In order to be successful as a writer (as an author is another matter entirely, one I’m still learning about), I need to begin my day in the writing world. I need to make thinking about writing as much of a habit as I’m trying to make the act of writing. I need to begin with wordsmithing so it will be easier to smith words when I find the time later in the day.
I’m also hoping this will help me squeeze words in where I can, rather than waiting for an opening. We’ll see!
This week, I want to start every day with industry blogs. At least two posts on nothing but writing. I have a link of publishing folks on my side bar; these are the people I find helpful, inspirational, informative, or just plain fun. Some of them I’ve been following for over a decade while others arrived in the last couple of years. I’m going to actually start reading all of them again!
If you’re a writer, I want to stress how important it is to delve into the minds, hearts, and professional opinions of other writers. Especially the ones who write better than you do. Because someone out there always writes better than you do. Maybe it’s just one aspect – character, description, dialogue – but somebody (and probably many, many somebodies) does it better than you can. Find those people. Read their work. Read their blogs. Learn what you can and let your unconscious mind absorb the rest. Because eventually, it comes in handy. You may not even realize you’ve learned something until one day you look back over your writing and say, “Great gobs of galleon grease! When did I learn how to show vs. tell so well? I rock!” There is no substitution for learning by observing in writing. While we can take classes and be taught the rules of our elements, there is no guarantee we will actually understand how to bring them together. Observation, letting our critical thinking happen when we’re not being tested on it, is crucial to becoming better writers.
Speaking of which, I also need to start reading books more often (read: again). But that’s a tale for a different post.