writing

Jump-Start Your Writing With Ridiculously Easy Goals

I’m not a firm believer in writer’s block, but I have my tough writing days just like anyone else. Today’s one of them. Or rather, it’s becoming one because I’m forcing myself to work on Frobisher instead of Hubris Towers. Writing Hubris Towers is currently about like eating kettle corn. Once I’ve written a few paragraphs, I can’t help but write a few more. Frobisher, on the other hand, is getting so long and clever and funny and deep that it’s starting to feel like there’s no way I can bring it to a satisfactory fulfillment, and now I’m getting toward the end where I really need to figure out the extra-clever solutions to the very interesting problems I’ve been raising.

And the thing is, if I were to just sit down and write some stuff, it would probably be, on average, just as good as all the other stuff I’ve written, which is currently intimidating the hell out of me. Worst case scenario, it wouldn’t be, and I could delete it and write some more. It’s not like I’m facing bears or razor guns or something.

razor-gun by wiledog via DeviantArt

A razor gun, apparently.

But I managed to get myself into a mindset that’s more focused, I guess, on trying to figure it all out in advance rather than just writing it and giving myself more raw word count to shape into something exceptional. I’m finding every excuse and non-essential task I can find to avoid sitting down and actually writing.

It doesn’t help that my monthly target is looming, with 7,500 words left to write in the next few days (when I usually shoot for 5,000 per week).

I got out of it by making my goal easier. 7,500 more this month is too much to think about. Let’s start by adding 1,000 today. No, still intimidating. Maybe 500. Better, but that’s like half an hour unless I hit a groove, which isn’t looking likely. 250? Not at all scary, but what would I write? That’s still nearly a page and the whole point is I’m not sure what’s next

Bear in mind, of course, that if I were to just look at the page I’d probably manage to figure out what’s next. But so far I’m just arguing with myself while working on other things.

So I set a goal of 50 words. Seriously. That’s three minutes, one if I’m fast, five if I’m being ridiculous.

And it worked! Or at least it’s working. I’ve gotten moving on the writing, and as usual once I get out of my head and start spilling story it gets the flow going and soon I don’t want to stop.

There are a few reasons this works so well:

  • It cuts out the cost of trying – I can attempt 50 words any time I have a couple minutes to spare
  • It also cuts the cost of failing – who cares if I have to delete 50 words?
  • It gets my logistics in line – once I’ve done my 50 words, I have my tools in place and my Scrivener project open and ready for more
  • It forces me to look at what I’ve got so far, which gets me thinking about the story again
  • It provides an easy win. Once I’ve got 50 words (which is almost immediately), I can go for another 50. Then another. Then why not 100 this time? And by then I’ve finished 250 and that’s a quarter of a day’s production. A few more of those and I’m breaking actual targets.

So that’s what I’m dealing with today. Really am excited to see what I come up with for Frobisher now that the story’s open and growing again, though. In other news, I’m nearing completion on the paperback layout for The Stone and the Song. So much exciting in so little time! Stay tuned.

Cheers!

—Ben

What’s More Important: Progress or Discipline?

What do you do when your passion for one worthwhile goal edges out your progress on another worthwhile goal?

My goals for March include writing a whole lot of Frobisher and a tiny sample of Hubris Towers.

But Hubris Towers has proven incredibly fun to write, with the result that so far this month I’ve written a whole lot of Hubris Towers and a modest amount of Frobisher. More precisely, I’ve hit a third of my minimum goal for Frobisher, and maybe ten times my stretch goal for Hubris Towers.

That raises an interesting question: Is it more valuable to make fast progress or to stick with the plan?

My guess is most people would vote for fast progress, assuming it’s good-quality progress on a worthwhile task. And there’s a good argument to be made for that. If each of several tasks (say, work on 3 different drafts) will be contributing to your overall goals (say, publishing lots of books), then it stands to reason that the more quantity you can achieve, the sooner you’ll reach your overall goals. If you can write 100 pages of one book instead of 20 of the other, why not go for the easy win, right?

But if you’re dealing with a well-designed long-term strategy I’m going to argue for sticking with the plan. That’s right. Given my March plans, I’d ultimately rather hit 12,000+ words on Frobisher and 500 words on Hubris Towers than 4,000 words on Frobisher and 12,000+ on Hubris Towers, even though it’s adding less to my total word count, and even though it seriously could mean not reaching some of my publishing and financial goals as quickly.

Because in the long term, patterns matter.

Right now any time I choose to write the quick, easy, fun story over the tricky, deep (but fun) story, I’m training myself to do the work that appeals to me in the moment, not the work that is strategically valuable. And I’m training myself to act like the goals and deadlines I set for myself don’t matter.

Every writing project—really any important project you love—is going to hit a point where it gets tricky, where the ideas aren’t flowing as smoothly or the next steps aren’t as much fun as they used to be. A new project or a new system or a quick win can feel like a delightful escape, like you’re finally making real progress again and your work is fun and meaningful.

But every new project will, at some point, start feeling tricky and unglamorous too, and the real key to success lies in that decision point: push through and finish, or start developing the next fun, interesting idea?

In the end I’d rather know that I can keep the promises that I set and that no matter how tricky or complicated or unglamorous a goal feels in the moment, I can reliably push through and deliver anyway.

In the end, I’d rather keep finishing important projects than keep reaching the unglamorous halfway point of fun new ideas.

Hubris Towers: My Secret Master Plan, Mk. I

Ok, so writing Hubris Towers is officially getting addictive. This is my first deep fiction collaboration—working with Bill, who blogs here—and it’s so much fun that I want to give you a behind-the-scenes peek at our process, my personal goals, and some fun new things I’m trying with this project.

Before I go further, a caveat: This is all highly speculative and subject to change. Part of the fun of this project is the freedom to try things out and experiment freely.

Serial Structure

Right now we’re planning on writing episodes of 12.5-15k words each—that’s about 35-45 pages—with eight episodes to a season. That lets us bundle each season into a solid, novel-length book, idea being that we could sell the book at a discount to reward loyal readers who know they’ll read the whole season, while also serving everyone who’s eager and likes a steady drip of new stories as they come out.

It wouldn’t be out of the question to release an episode a month, though for now we’re both sustaining day jobs, families, real lives, and other writing projects, so we’ll see. But even with a slightly slower pace that’s a steady output of a full season each year in steady, snackable chunks.

Our Collaborative Process

Bill and I have been friends for decades. We were friends in grade school in Ankara, Turkey, where we would routinely spend the night at each other’s houses on short notice and spend long hours reading and writing and plotting together, and now we live a few blocks apart in Baltimore, where, along with some other friends, our families have dinner together several times a week and we spend long hours sipping whiskey and reading stories and talking philosophy or theology or writing.

So you could say we’ve got an understanding of one another by now. I pray everyone who’s reading this has or will one day have friends like mine—it’s a massive blessing and one of the most fulfilling parts of my life.

Mushiness aside, here’s how we’ve got the collaborative process set up so far.

We met for a couple big-picture brainstorming sessions to lay out the story concept, setting, and characters. At the last of those meetings we sketched out the overall arc of Season 1, then developed it into paragraph-length summaries of each of the eight episodes, along with a few ongoing hooks and interesting ideas that will take us into Season 2.

I’m great with characters and settings, and my prose skills are pretty solid, but I have always found plots a lot harder to develop. Bill is a veritable fountain of brilliant plot turns and devices. I can say something like “We just need these three impossible things to happen. All at once.” And then he’ll think for a second and lay out a plan for how all three of them can happen at once, with this other clever twist developing in the background. So the plotting went pretty quickly with Bill in the room.

Short version: We had a four-hour meeting where we made each other laugh constantly.

Then Bill expanded Episode 1 into a detailed summary of a few thousand words, say a quarter to a third of the total projected length.

I’ve taken that summary and am fleshing it out into the full draft. We have very compatible senses of humor and are both being pretty unselfish with the plot, so it’s really turning into the best of both worlds. He’ll put all his best ideas in the summary, then I’ll take those, run with them, and add my own. I suspect it’s going to start turning into a sort of contest of trying to make each other laugh out loud. Certainly that’s where it’s going so far.

A Series That Pays Minimum Wage

This is a little ambitious, but I want to see if we can make this a project that pays minimum wage or better on average. Our plan is to keep it light, fun, and fast, and it occurred to me that I can actually track all the time I spend on it and calculate my overall hourly earnings for the project.

With our collaborative process it’s a pretty speedy production cycle, and I bet the serial structure will help us be efficient with post-production and may even net some economies of scale like, say, repeating cover design elements within seasons or bulk purchase of ISBNs.

My part of the planning for Season 1 is basically done, and took about 4 hours. I’ve since maintained an overall average of 15 words per minute composing the draft. If I can maintain that, writing a season of 100,000 words will total around 111 hours of writing time. Let’s add 20 hours to account for post-production. That may seem optimistic, but I’m only counting my own time here. With Bill’s help my time on editing should be minimal, and I think we can get the compiling and publishing down to a science.

I’m going to assume the average reader (who goes on to finish Season 1) buys one standalone episode then gets the full season. With that assumption and a 50/50 income split, some back-of-envelope calculations indicate we’d need a little under 600 readers for me to make minimum wage on this. And that’s not out of the question by any means. If I can bump my speed up to 25 words per minute the minimum-wage point drops below 400 readers. That’s really not out of the question. The Stone and the Song passed 100 sales in its first month and that was just my very first short, preliminary test run, with no product funnels in place and minimal marketing. Hubris Towers will be building on itself over months and will have both Bill’s network and mine drawing readers.

Anyway, that’s all kind of pie in the sky, but it’s fun to think about.

More to the point, at this stage the writing is cracking me up constantly. It’s so much fun I’m stealing time from other projects, even Frobisher, which I love, to write more of Episode 1. I’ve already written about 10 times as much for it as I meant to this month, to the extent that it’s almost becoming a problem. Except not really, obviously. Glee! I can’t wait to unveil it in all its Wodehouse-y (Wodehouse-ish? Wodehomely?) glory. Patience.

Cheers!

—Ben

100+ Copies Sold, 100,000 Words, and Other Big Round Numbers

The last few weeks have been tons of fun and tons of work. I’ve been putting in so much time and effort on writing and laying infrastructure that it’s almost starting to feel like I have two full-time jobs. But I’m starting to hit early milestones, and it’s exciting verging on addictive.

A couple highlights:

  • I wrote over 4,500 words over the weekend. Almost a full week’s production in one day! (For the non-writers, that’s around 15 papberback pages.)
  • I hit 100,000 words on The Unaccountable Death of Derelict Frobisher. Woo! Big round number!
  • I’ve sold over 100 copies of The Stone and the Song and counting!

A few more, converted into various bases1 to help them look like milestones:

  • Hubris Towers has reached over 25,0006 words! (Not only that, but we’ve got the first 1,0002 episodes sketched out. Wow.)
  • I’ve posted over 100,0009 words of The Dream World Collective, and you can read them free here! (For you base 14 types, that’s over D014 pages!)
  • To put a more dramatic spin on it, I’ve sold over 10,0003 copies of The Stone and the Song and counting! Don’t get left out – get your copy now!

Cheers!

—Ben


1Note: In case you are not a math geek like me, these numbers are not as big as they look. For example, 1,0002 equals 8 in regular (base 10) numbers. Don’t be fooled by my cunning mathematical treacheries.

Near Miss #17 (Or Why ‘Distractions’ Aren’t What’s Keeping You From Working)

This was originally posted on 12/11/10 on a different blog. I still love it.

Oh my gosh, guys. There is such an intensely strong correlation between lack of clarity and distracting myself with internets. I’ve started paying attention, and it is practically one-to-one. When I know (e.g.) the next thing that needs to happen in my story, I make it happen. When I’m not sure yet, I open a new browser window and check something. Anything.

It’s kind of blowing my mind. Every time I hit Ctrl-N on pure instinct, I stop myself for a moment and pay attention to how my story/planning/life is progressing. Every single time, it turns out there’s a question I’m too chicken to face. I’m never just bored. I’m not even distracted. (!) I’m scared of uncertainty. New rule? Brainstorm, don’t evade.

Is this just me? (Seriously. Leave a comment. I’m curious.)

Case in point. For an upcoming DWC episode starring Summer, I had a rather obscure planning note: ‘Near miss with Alex.’ I don’t even know what that means, much less how to do it. Suddenly the internet blossomed before me. But I fought it. Opened a blank document and, before sense could catch up to me, typed “Seventeen kinds of near miss with Alex:” and started a numbered list.

Rrrgh. Seventeen is an insane number of kinds of near misses. I ran out of ideas after number 3 (and checked 43folders). Then I ran out of ideas again after number 5 (and checked my e-mail). Then I ran out of ideas again after 7 and 8, which were both lame anyway. (I quote: “7. He asks her out but she’s not feelin’ it. 8. She asks him out but he’s not feelin’ it.”) Then a bookshelf fell over for number 9. Then I ran out of ideas again and checked Penny Arcade. Not kidding. I ran out of ideas after numbers 10, 12, 13, 15 and 16, and checked some website every single time.

Lesson: If you’re like me, you’re never “getting distracted.” You’re not sure what to do next, and you’re trained to dodge the question instead of answering it.

Incidentally, numbers 11, 14 and 17 were were worth something.  Side lesson: You don’t actually run out of ideas. Just keep punching your brain. Training yourself to dodge that painful moment of effort is very comfortable, very easy, and totally deadly.

Snow Day! Commence the Hubris!

Baltimore is partway through the process of receiving somewhere in the area of a foot of snow, and I got a half day off of work! Sort of a test run of the full-time writing life. Can I actually be productive with large chunks of free time?

Phase 1 says yes. Bill and I got together and sketched out season 1 of Hubris Towers. Overall arc, eight episode summaries, and hooks for the future. And while I can’t give too much away yet, it’s killer. I don’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so much. I seriously cannot wait to start getting this series out.

Phase 2 is a little iffier. Once he went home I had about 45 minutes to write more words on Frobisher. I’ve written this blog post and watched some Comedy Central clips. Not a great sign, because now I have to go be responsible. Still, day’s not over yet. And the snow’s not either.

Snow day tomorrow? Please?

In the meantime, here’s a neat article about a Chrome Extension that lets you see the way your writing in a Google Doc progressed, one keystroke at a time: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/watch-me-write-this-article/

Cheers!

—Ben

Back to Job One: Write More Words

My first book launch is (mostly) over. It was highly successful and highly educational, a crazy whirlwind of 18-hour days and emotional highs and strategy and enthusiasm and screenshots. Now it’s time to get back to the real work and joy of being a writer: writing.

Launch Highlights

The Stone and the Song: A Fairy TaleThe launch of The Stone and the Song was a test run in preparation for upcoming full-length novel launches. For a first release and a short work, I was surprised and pleased with how well it did:

  • Nearly 100 pre-orders
  • 4 days on the Top 20 Amazon Best Seller list in Fairy Tales
  • Broke the top 10k in Amazon paid rankings
  • Really lovely response in early customer reviews

Above all, I’m incredibly grateful for the massive enthusiasm shown by my friends, acquantances, long-lost friends, friends-of-friends, and new readers throughout this launch. I was blown away by all of your kind words, word-of-mouth, and eager purchases. Thank you to everyone who was involved!

Back to Work

Pre-order and launch was a really intense couple of weeks. I put in many hours beyond the day job working on final formatting, marketing copy, promotion, and infrastructure. I indulged in the urge to obsessively refresh my stats—hey, you only get one debut book launch, right?—and record and celebrate and angst and adjust things. I allowed myself to get fully sucked into the experience, and I learned a ton.

And then, like waking up, I realized all of it had been a week or two out of my life, and the Big Climactic Launch Day is actually the beginning of my book’s life in the world, not the end. I’ve stopped obsessively refreshing—it’s going to be a little while before Amazon recommendations and new organic sales start kicking in, even if that happens. And I’m ready to move on.

This was fun, but it’s all in the service of a bigger goal: a life spent writing. Now that the bulk of the work on Stone & Song is done, I’m finding it’s oddly pleasing to let it go and get back to business on the next big thing. Today’s goal is 1,000 words on Frobisher and, if I can swing it, uploading the next chunk of The Dream World Collective for free reading on Patreon. I really enjoy the strategy and the friends and the energy of a launch, but I love the writing.
Cheers!
Ben

When Characters Make Up Characters

I’m not sure if this is the sign of a horribly fractured psyche or what, but my characters not only help me with my creative process, but they’ve even been known to make up their own characters. I mean, it’s pretty routine to hear authors talk about characters “taking on a life of their own,” but this is at a whole different level.

Best example is probably Otto, resident geek and aspiring technomage of The Dream World Collective. Partway through the story it became evident that he has a “consortium of highly skilled gremlin and gremlinoid adventurers” that he consults and/or bickers with from time to time. Funny thing is still get them mixed up—Griphook and Grumbles and Tickleback and…I think there’s another one—but Otto has a live and vibrant relationship with them. He does know that they’re imaginary, though. That’s key. (Intriguingly, so do they.)

The part that really interested me was when Otto’s characters took on a life of their own. In one chapter Otto finds out that Grumbles is married. Otto didn’t know it, and I certainly didn’t. It really took me by surprise, though I suppose it stands to reason that if a character can develop an independent identity to the extent that he’s making up characters, those characters could do the same.

So that’s all fun, but where it becomes useful is in letting those characters who have developed a rich independent identity start pulling their weight in the creative process. I’ve done this in various ways. Sometimes I interview characters to learn more about them and get insight into where their story is headed. Lately I’ve been experimenting with character improv, where I just give two characters a prompt and let them play off each other—this has been a ton of fun and I’ve started releasing some of these as patron perks.

One of my favorites, though, has been holding board meetings with my characters. I basically imagine a boardroom with all of us in it, provide and/or ask around for agenda items, and let the discussion unfold sort of like I would when writing a scene or dialogue. With richly-developed characters it can result in surprisingly productive discussions.

In fact, early on in the development of The Dream World Collective there was a character named Max. During a board meeting he started being a jerk, and we realized we didn’t want him in the story. I think he came to the same conclusion and left. Then we held auditions to fill his spot, and that’s how Alex joined the book.

Fun fact: Max makes a cameo in Episode 1.

DWC 46-51 Text Art

Building Your Author Mailing List From Scratch

In all my research about how to market your books, the consensus I keep finding is that the real foundation for an effective strategy comes down to two things: your next book and your mailing list.

This makes sense. Each book boosts all the rest, and there’s no point in finding ways to drive traffic if there’s no high-quality catalog of books for people to find. And for all the social media and book promotions and algorithm hacking, I can’t imagine a more stable and consistent way to make sales than to have a list of people who like what you do and have asked you to contact them directly when you have new work available. So while I’m constantly experimenting and researching to find and harness good ways to get the word out, my fundamental strategy rests on writing more books and maintaining a strong mailing list.

Except I don’t have a mailing list yet.

This sets up an interesting situation. I’ve already been a bit noisy about my book launch (speaking of which – get your copy before the price goes up on Saturday!) And while I don’t mind a bit of justifiable self-promotion, I really don’t want to be that friend who’s constantly trying to get you to buy my book, so I’m not going to just put all my friends on my mailing list (which is poor practice and borderline unethical anyway), and I’m a little hesitant to even broadcast a lot of invites.

But I also have some amazing friends who will do everything in their power to help me get the word out, who eagerly want updates, and who will be all the more effective if I can give some clear goals and unified direction. I want them on my list. And across years, cities, and continents, I’ve built up wonderful circles of friends and acquaintances who, though we may have fallen out of touch, might be very excited to read my books and get in on the fun.

Or possibly some of them have forgotten who I am.

So how do you start a list that has everyone who should be on it but nobody who shouldn’t?

Here’s the solution I’ve come up with. I’d love to hear what you guys have done. I’ve gone through my entire contact list (including some very old and diverse acquaintances) and narrowed it to just the people I remember and I think might remember me and be interested in the fact that I’m publishing books now.

I’m getting set up with a mailing list service—still testing things out, but probably MailChimp—and I’m going to make a burner list out of those contacts. I’ll send out one email letting them know about the launch and upcoming cool stuff and give them a link to sign up if they want updates. I’ll probably send a reminder or two in a few days, just because sometimes people miss emails. And then I’ll delete that list. Anyone who signs up for more will get it, and I won’t bother the others any further.

The fun thing is that since I’m a geek and game-obsessed and process-oriented and (let’s admit it) unnecessarily complicated about stuff, I’m already finding some really fun possibilities for segmenting the lists. I’m playing with interesting sign-up forms that will help me find which of my people are big readers or aspiring writers, who’s a socialite and who’s an enigma, who wants to spread the word and who likes missions and experiments.

But more on that later. Or you can sign up here and get in on the ground floor. I’ll warn you now, it’s all experimental and subject to change. But I think it’s going to get pretty sweet.

Top 10K in Amazon Paid!

Just a quick one today because I’m on vacation in Orlando and there’s family to be enjoyed. The Song and the Stone broke the top 10,000 in Amazon’s overall paid sales ranking!

Stone & Song Rank - 14 FT, 9405 Overall

May not sound like much, but that means fewer than 10,000 of all the books Amazon sells were beating Song & Stone. Many thanks to all of you wonderful people who have gotten in touch, pre-ordered, and are helping spread the word!

Pre-order your copy now if you haven’t – it’s only $0.99 if you get it before its 2/21/15 release, then it will go up to $2.99.

The Stone and the Song, coming Feb 21, 2015 (!)

The Stone and the Song, coming Feb 21, 2015 (!)