For Writers

On Stuckness

I’m really excited about my next novel, The Unaccountable Death of Derelict Frobisher. It’s my best work to date—very funny, very deep, very me—and friends who have heard bits are figuratively hounding me for more. The draft is probably 85% complete. Problem is, I’ve got no idea what words to write next.

It’s a complex and multi-layered problem, made worse in some ways by the fact that I don’t really put much stock in writer’s block. I’ve always been of the mindset that plumbers plumb, coders code, and writers write, and if you’re so precious about your writing that you’re willing to let a little thing like not knowing what words to write next stop you, you’re at best an amateur, at worst a self-indulgent dilettante.1

So I guess I’m an amateur or, as the case may be, a dilettante, because I’ve been largely putting this problem off for months now, busying myself with other jobs that are definitely very important and not an excuse to avoid Frobisher.

Some of the reasons I’m stuck include:

  • I wrote all the fun easy parts first, which means all I’ve got left are the tricky complicated bits
  • Most of what remains is the brilliant climax where everything comes together, all the threads get resolved, and the clever twists and solutions occur, and that’s all really tricky to figure out
  • In my absorption with the aforementioned fun easy bits, I never really exactly figured out who the villains are or what they did when or why. Turns out this is a useful thing to know as you wrap up a story.
  • Existing draft is very complex—lots of scenes in various states of incompleteness, of which an as-yet-undetermined subset won’t be in the final draft—so it’s often tricky to figure out quite concretely which bits to start putting more words onto

Here are some things I’ve been doing to start getting unstuck:

  • Actually sit and think about it.
    • Turns out I overestimate the value of vaguely letting my subconsciously allegedly brood on an issue. You could say I’m mentally leaving the dishes to soak for four months. Focused thought and effort move things forward way more quickly. (Surprise!)
  • The kitchen timer method, in which you do nothing but write your work-in-progress or write in your journal for a set time. I wrote more about it here.
    • So far I’ve spent almost all of the time in my journal, and it’s starting to lead to productive breakthroughs. I think it’s useful to give myself permission to spend writing time on productive journaling instead of just adding manuscript word count.
  • Asking “What’s the next question I need answered?”
    • For example, in the final climactic showdown, I knew Hastily Dobbs and his people would thwart the Society for Entrepreneurial Insurgency using some sort of genius inter-planar cleverness. But I wasn’t sure what the cleverness was.
    • On further digging, though, I realized I wasn’t even sure what they were thwarting.
    • That led me to ask what the SEI is actually doing in this scene.
    • That led me to ask why they’re doing…whatever they’re doing. What’s their overarching goal? Once I answered that question, the knot began to unravel.

In summary: Trying to intuit my way through four layers of ignorance at once is ineffective. Not even trying is even more ineffective. Put differently, work works.

As it happens, this neatly resolves my impending dilettantism. The key to not being an uncommitted amateur is to commit and do the work, even if, in a periodic tight spot, the work consists of figuring out what words to write instead of writing more words.


1 From the German Dillentante, or “pickle-aunt,” an insult common among the 18th century pickle barons of the Weimar, implying that the insultee’s pickle-making was of a caliber comparable to a doddering aunt who, having canned some gherkins for pickling, quickly forgot which jars had been put up in what years, resulting in pickles of highly inconsistent quality and, in many cases, unacceptable mushiness.

Trying the Don Roos Kitchen Timer system

This week I’m trying out a new system of setting and tracking writing goals. More of a philosophy, in a way.

I think it’s called the kitchen timer system, as espoused and/or created by Don Roos, which I learned about because my wife was reading Lauren Graham’s book, which lays it out, and she showed it to me.

The basic idea is that each day you set a time goal for the next day, and you spend that much time with only two things in front of you: your journal and your work-in-progress (hereinafter WIP).

Turn off your Wi-Fi, turn your phone face-down and ignore it, don’t watch or listen to anything except music without words, and start to write.

You have two options. You can either work on your WIP, or, whenever you want and without recrimination, you can write about anything at all in your journal. When you get bored of journaling, you can go back to your WIP. When you get stuck on your WIP, you can go back to your journal. You can even sit and stare at your journal and/or WIP without writing if you want, as long as you don’t switch to anything else.

If you put in the time goal you set for yourself, you win. Simple as that.

Even more canny, if you don’t hit your time goal–and this is critical–you just move on. Take it as a sign that your goal wasn’t very realistic and set a shorter one for tomorrow. DO NOT set an even bigger goal to “make up for it” tomorrow.

It’s kind of genius.

In my experience, it’s almost impossible to journal or freewrite for a very long time at all without getting down to the roots of whatever emotional/intellectual/creative issues have me stuck or preoccupied. It’s also very hard, having gotten down to said issues, to journal or freewrite about them for very long without some sort of useful resolution or reframe emerging. And once my issues are resolved, I generally find the WIP writing easy and fun, even addictive.

This system is also great because it defuses the psychological risk inherent in high-stakes and/or high-intensity creative writing goals, especially those framed in functionally less actionable terms. If my goal is to write 1,000 words on my WIP, I’ll finish that in somewhere between half an hour and never, especially because the implicit goal is to write 1,000 good words, preferably 1,000 brilliant words.

Usually, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll sit and think harder. More realistically, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll play a dumb game on my phone or turn on a sitcom. Or both. (I’m a terrible person.) This method invites me, when I can’t find brilliant words, to just write whatever words, which I can always do.

That keeps me writing, trends toward resolution (and, eventually, a return to brilliance), and gives me a controllable win. All I have to do is stay there and not open any other things until my time’s up. Unlike being brilliant, that’s something I can simply decide to do, and my brain gets a lot more excited when I make the win about a concrete decision, not an unpredictable flash of insight (much less a thousand of them in a row).

Writing Mission Generator: My Latest Motivation Tool

This isn’t very polished, but it’s fun and it nearly doubled my writing speed on the spot and I wanted to share it with any authors out there who get into this kind of thing. It’s a writing mission generator. You give it an amount of time, and it will give you a word count target, and you see if you can beat the target.

The clever bit is that it will slowly nudge you faster and faster while adjusting to your actual performance. The target words per minute (WPM) it picks is a random number between 80% and 130% of your average WPM so far. So sometimes you get a break and sometimes it really pushes you, but on average it’s making your target pace 5% faster than last round.

Here’s the Microsoft Excel file: Writing Mission Generator

Writing Mission Generator

It’s simple to use, though, as I warned above, I made it in about 4 minutes and it’s not very polished. I didn’t put in any protections, so I recommend storing a blank backup copy just in case you write over the wrong cell accidentally.

The blue cells are the only ones you should enter values in. Enter the amount of time for your next writing burst under Min and Seconds – I usually use the length of the next song on my playlist. It will generate a target WPM, and you’ll need to enter the same number in the same cell so that it doesn’t keep regenerating new numbers and screw up your stats. This also gives you a chance to manually tweak your target if you want to. So if it puts a 22 under target WPM, go to the cell that says 22 and type 22. (Like I said, not polished. Sorry.)

Then get writing! Write as quickly as you can, and when your time is up enter your total word count under Actual Total. Note that this is a cumulative total, not the number of words you wrote in the latest burst. (If you find it easier to think in single-burst word counts, you can use the Target Session and Actual Session columns.) Day Start is just for reference, so I can see my starting word count for the day.

Once you enter your new total, it will show your session stats, your actual WPM for that session, and how far above or below target WPM you were. Then move down a line and repeat. Since I use songs, I do this in 3-5 minute increments and it really gets rather addictive. Here’s the workflow I’ve settled on as my favorite – Spotify at the bottom so I can immediately see how much time I have left and how much to enter for each session, Excel at the far right–I duplicated the Actual Total column at the far right for easy reference–and Scrivener front and center. (Forgot to include it in the screenshot, but I’ll also hit Ctrl-Comma in Scrivener to show my project stats, including overall word count.)

Writing Mission Generator - Sample Workflow

At the end of the session I flip to Excel (Alt-Tab), enter my new total word count, go to the next line and enter the length of the next song and confirm the WPM target, and flip back to Scrivener to keep writing. It takes me about three seconds so I don’t lose much momentum, and it’s one of the most reliable ways I’ve discovered yet of getting into the groove.

Final note: I’ve found I actually don’t do much stat-tracking with this. I just use it as an ephemeral tool. I don’t save it, and I just open a fresh copy each day. If you want to use it to actually track your writing stats over time it will probably need some modifications to optimize it.

If there’s enough interest I’m definitely up for making a tidier or otherwise improved version of this. Just let me know how it works for you and what would make it better.

Cheers!

—Ben

Wrangling Your Author Platform

Lately I’ve been wrestling with a dilemma. The more immersed I get in doing a high volume of high-quality, interesting work, the more I totally forget to come up for air and share the latest news with anyone else who might be interested.

I’ll look up and three weeks went by and not a peep from me. And I’ll realize I should make a blog post or a friendly note to my mailing list or…you know, a Facebook post or something.

I feel like I’m alone in this—I mean, who has to make a discipline of Facebook in this day and age?—but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you’re never the only person who has a certain problem.

I’m a systems guy, and this dilemma has been simmering in the back of my mind for a while, and I think I’ve finally developed a bit of a possible approach. I’ve been getting to the point where I feel an increasing need to wrangle or systematize my author platform a bit, given that I have presences all over the place and am intermittent on all of them and need to update several of them to, for example, indicate that I’ve published more than two things, or that Hubris Towers exists.

Here’s the approach that’s brewing for how to develop my author platform a little more strategically:

  1. Figure out all the places I communicate with readers. This includes my websites, mailing lists, author bios in various places, Wattpad, Patreon, social media, as well as things like calls to action (CTAs) in the backs of books.
  2. Decide what the point of each of them is and how often each one needs to get updated. For example:
    • Author bio in the back of a paperback probably never really needs to get updated. It’s clear it was written when the book came out.
    • Widgets on the side of my blog with links to buy my books should get updated when a new book comes out.
    • Facebook could use a couple updates a day, presumably.
    • Blog maybe every time I have something useful to say, though even that depends on what counts as ‘useful.’
      • Part of the question here too is whether blog is mainly for readers or mainly for authors or just for me and whatever I’m thinking about. Any of those could be valid, but as long as I’m not sure, I won’t be using it particularly well.
  3. Set up a quick schedule for when to touch each thing. This could get ridiculous really fast, so I think a light touch is important. But I have an (admittedly intermittent) system for tracking what I need to do and by when and such, so once I’ve figured out that I want to post to my blog once a week (or day or month or whatever), there’s no reason not to put that into the system. I’m a big fan of not having to remember stuff manually.
  4. (Optional ninja level) Make a list of topics to rotate through or provide inspiration and guidance for each thing. Speaking for myself, part of my real problem is that I don’t know what kinds of topics and scope are appropriate for each given platform. Do I tell my mailing list I’m having a baby? Do I spin out intriguing theories about the spirit world on my blog? Can I tell Facebook I’m feeling depressed and bad at writing, or do I need to keep on message? It may sound a little control-freakish, but I really think it would help me to be able to just look at a list of the 12 things I talk about on my blog/mailing list/Twitter and pick one, or (even better) have a few simple guidelines that help me pick through the thousand things on my mind and figure out which one(s) will be interesting and worthwhile to a given audience in the context of a given platform or medium.

What about the rest of you? For the authors and bloggers and brilliant social media-istas (?) out there, how do you keep track of what needs to be kept up to date? Do you keep lists of ideas for what to write about next? Do you write on a schedule or as your whimsy takes you?

Cheers!

—Ben

A Revolutionary New Kind of Online Communal-Story-Lovefest

Hi guys,

Man. So much cool stuff in progress that I’ve barely had a chance to look up. Sorry for dropping off the face of the earth a bit.

So the big theme these days is getting one-time infrastructure-y tasks of various sizes out of the way. I have a bunch of things looming/nagging, like finishing my newsletter’s welcome series or publishing The Dream World Collective or launching a website for Clickworks Press. Bad news is they’re each a ton of work. Good news is once they’re done, they’re done (unlike, say, Hubris Towers, which is running on a 6-week cycle so only gives me a little breathing room before it starts back up.)

I’ve realized these looming tasks take up almost as much brainspace as whatever I’m actively working on, so I’m really excited about the prospect of getting them resolved. I think life will feel free and easy (relatively speaking) when I can settle down to just working on the next story and building Clickworks Press with more focus on the business/community side than the web development side.

My brain is a very busy place these days. Here are some of the top things on my mind.

Hubris Towers Episode 5

Hubris Towers Season 1, Episode 4: Ominous Undertones

In case I forgot to tell you, this exists now.

Bill and I have completed half a season of Hubris Towers. (Woo!) But Episode 5 is starting to loom, with a target release date of 10/20/15.

Bill has been awesome and finished the plan in record time. Usually we work concurrently, with him a few scenes ahead of me at any given time. This time he was diligent and I was on vacation, so (pending a final conversation and maybe some tweaking) it’s all on me to just sit down and write it at this point. Yup. Three weeks left to get from zero words to holding a published copy. So…no pressure.

That said, my lovely wife and daughter are going to be out of town for a week, so I’m going to have a lot of quiet free time, and my crazy goal is to see if I can just sit down and bang out the whole rough draft in a day. Or two. That would be amazing.

Newsletter Welcome Series

I want people who sign up for my newsletters to get a proper welcome. The trickiest part, setting up an optional weekly delivery of free Dream World Collective chapters, is basically done. Huge relief. Now I’m working on a few final pieces and I’ll be ready to kick this off.

I want to add an email that gives a little cool background on The Stone and the Song, but I’m having trouble figuring out an interesting angle that hasn’t been done to death already.

I also set up a fun little reader quiz, which was way too long to start with, so I’ve decided to break it up, with a few fun easy questions for starters and a button at the end to take the reader to the next level if they’re interested. Only problem is that means turning one email into about 3-4 that trigger each other when a person clicks the button. I’ve got the method down, so at this point it’s just busywork, but still adds probably several hours of work.

I cannot tell you how excited I am to launch this welcome series. It’s so much fun. It’s got Han Solo and secret tips on [REDACTED] and a sandcastle story and free access to a novel I haven’t even released yet. And no creepy tentacles. I think it’s going to be one of the best ways I’ve invented yet to make friends with strangers. So I’m also in the back of my mind trying to figure out how to let people who are already signed up for the newsletter try it out, both for testing purposes and because it’s awesome.

Clickworks Press Website

This one is crazy cool, though a little complicated behind the scenes. My vision is to build a website that will draw out what we love about stories, characters, authors, and each other, with specific and interesting prompts that go beyond star ratings or generic reviews.

Like, what if you got to talk about your favorite setting in a book, or your favorite food scene, or pick colors that go with characters, or rage against the villains, or whatever, and a bunch of other people were doing that too, and all of that got aggregated on the book page and made one big story of our collective experience with this book? And then what if you could do that with characters, too, and see all the main characters in a book, or all the stories a character shows up in, or all the stories an author has written, or read, and all the cool little things readers like about the authors, too, and about each other, and—anyway. Run-on paragraph.

And there’s more beyond that, but we’ll start there. Of course, building a website from scratch would be a big enough job even if it were a simple little e-commerce site, not a revolutionary new kind of online communal-story-lovefest. And I don’t want to wait until I’ve invented and built a whole story-love platform before I launch any of this publicly. So I’ve got this thing divided into phases, viz.:

Phase 1 – Visible, attractive front page. Links (if any) work.

Phase 2 – Full hierarchical catalog of Clickworks books and author pages.

Phase 3 – Readers can create accounts and log in and leave a basic snippet.

Phase 4 – First side game and more snippets.

Right now I’m almost done with Phase 2, and I think once that’s solid I’ll do at least a soft launch. At the moment I still routinely break the site as I make little tweaks and teach myself…wow, come to think of it, two or three programming languages plus a framework or two. Like I said, complicated.

But the super-cool part (at this stage) is that all the effort I’m putting in on the front end—(I mean…in advance. I think it’s more like the back end, in web development terms. Or the middle end. Anyway.) All this effort up front is creating the coolest setup. I’ve nearly got it to the point where I can just fill out a new book’s information once in a pretty, user-friendly form, and the right stuff will show up everywhere it needs to throughout the site.

Like, once I’ve loaded in a book’s information, it will automatically generate (as appropriate given the rules I’m setting up) a preview on the front page and on the summary Books page, link the book on the author’s page, and, with only one simple line of code (really a shortcode), generate a full book page complete with buy links to any platforms the book is available on, author bio(s), etc., with customized bits based on the book’s publication date and whether it’s available for purchase. (For example, if it’s available for purchase but future pub date, it gets listed as Coming Soon and shows pre-order links.) It’s a little like magic.

(For the curious techies among you, I’m building it with WordPress, making extensive use of the Pods plugin, which makes it easy to define and use custom post types and taxonomies, as well as providing pretty powerful templating tools. Let me know if you’re interested in hearing more. It’s super-sweet.)

I’m using Gumroad for direct sales and payment processing, and it’s quite elegant but not as powerful as I’d really like. Basically Gumroad has a super-sweet setup if you’re just selling items, but I want to be able to do cool micro-patronage stuff it’s not really built for and display information it doesn’t really make available in the ways I need, so I’m on the bubble. Stripe (and maybe Braintree) could do what I need, but I’d need to be a way better programmer before I’d feel comfortable using them. As I read the situation, Gumroad is a super-safe, simple way to get your products online and sell them, and it’s beautiful, but it’s able to be that simple and beautiful because it’s carefully focused on a specific task.

Things like Stripe have a powerful API (basically a way to program interactions with a site/app/service) that would let me do pretty much whatever I want, like make a charge to a credit card when some event triggers (say, we hit a support goal for a project a la Kickstarter), except I totally am not at a level where I’m comfortable just telling my website when it can go ahead and charge peoples’ cards. I make little mistakes from time to time, and I want to make sure that when I do, it results in things like a broken link or a page not displaying quite right, not someone getting double-charged or an author not getting paid.

So for now I’m sticking with the simple, secure, beautiful Gumroad, and dreaming of the day I can hire a proper developer, dig into the Stripe-or-similar API and really kick things up to the next level.

First 1,000 Copies!

I started consolidating my book sales numbers the other day and discovered something cool. Looking across platforms and counting free promos, I recently distributed my 1,000th book!

Thanks so much to all of my lovely readers for buying, reading, reviewing, spreading the word, and sending your love and support and encouragement. I say it all the time, but you are truly the best!

Cheers,

—Ben

PS – For the curious, here’s a breakdown:

  • About 75% of those copies were free to the readers, either as free promos or downloads of Hubris Towers Episode 1, which is perma-free. The rest have been paid sales.
  • The Stone and the Song accounted for about 70% of the sales and 55% of the free promos. This surprised me a bit since there are three HT books and only one S&S. Some factors:
    • S&S generated a big surge of interest pre-launch and got nearly 100 pre-orders.
    • The first free promo for S&S got over 300 downloads with almost no publicity from me. Still not sure why.
    • S&S has been available twice as long as the average HT episode.
  • In-person sales of Hubris Towers pocket editions have provided just under a third of HT’s sales and just over half of HT’s profits. This makes sense because most online sales are ebooks, and all in-person sales are paperback sales where CreateSpace doesn’t take a cut.
  • Excluding free copies of HT Ep1, we have about a 74% read-through rate from Ep1 to Ep2 and 31% from Ep1 to Ep3 (so far – one thing I’ve realized is that readers often take a few months to get to a book they bought.)
    • If we include free copies of Ep1, rates drop to about 9% Ep1 to Ep2 and 4% Ep1 to Ep3.
    • Currently we have about 42% read-through from Ep2 to Ep3.
  • The land speed of an unladen (European) swallow appears to be 24 mph.1

Birthday Reflections + 6 Months as a Self-Published Author

I turned 32 on Friday and, as most things do, it got me thinking.

  1. I’m just a few years away from being twice as old as all the college freshmen.
  2. I’ve been married for over 20% of my life. (FTW! Best. Wife. Ever.)
  3. I’m a dad. Still not used to thinking of myself that way. The other day in church our pastor asked all the parents to raise their hands and it took me a second to realize I was a parent.
  4. It’s been six months since I self-published my first book. This one totally blew my mind. Since then my books have hit #1 Free in Humor and Top 10 Paid in Fairy Tales and we launched PintsAndProse.com and published 3 episodes of Hubris Towers and I’m on the verge of a brilliant new adventure with Clickworks Press. Wow. Six months. What can we do in five years?
  5. It seems I am now at a point in life where an hour and a half to hang out at Starbucks and write is an annual celebratory treat. (Cf. #3)
  6. We have another baby on the way! I’m really excited to meet her, and also worried about what this will mean for my capacity to build my writing career as I continue my regular career.
  7. I think I’m officially past the age threshold for most things being impressive due to the age at which I did them. Unless it’s stuff like becoming President, which I don’t really want to do.
  8. I really feel like I’m reaching the beginning of my prime. I’ve been hitting a new stride in life: more confident, making visible progress toward long-held goals, better established than I ever deserved. God has blessed me so richly that it’s honestly taking a lot of thought and strategizing just to figure out how to make the most of what I’ve been given.
  9. That said, I’m clearly at the front end of things. I don’t know what things will look like in 10 years, but it’s plausible to think that by then I’ll be writing full time and doing a lot to help others get more better stories into the world. I can’t wait to see it unfold.

All in all, I’m enjoying growing up. Yes, there are a lot of trade-offs. Yes, it’s way harder than it used to be to get stuff done. But I also find myself stepping up to the challenge. And my daughter is one of the most incredible people I know, and my day job has taken a real turn for the better, and my wife is a fountain of ever-flowing blessing and beauty, and my friends are delightful and challenging and brave and supportive, and I can drink coffee and tea and whiskey and eat at restaurants sometimes and support incredible groups like Kiva and Feed My Starving Children.

And I can have as many cookies as I want.

PS – An amazing, free, easy birthday present is reviews on my stories, especially Hubris Towers Episodes Two and Three. Reviews are a quick, permanent way to majorly increase my visibility on Amazon and other platforms. Thanks!