Write like you’re on vacation

My wife and I are lucky enough to get to vacation once a year. This year’s destination was Cancun, Mexico. Previous vacations have been pretty good; a lot of time writing, some sun, some good food, a few drinks. Paradise for me.

This is exactly how I pictured my time in Mexico. In fact, I took this picture on the last day while rushing to get ready to go to the airport.

When I have time off work, I like to work. No, really. For me, a vacation is an opportunity to spend time doing things I really enjoy, even if that thing is writing really hard. I see vacations as an opportunity to really get some thing accomplished.

Or, I used to. Christmas, when I intended to make a big end-of-year push to get some work done, turned out to be anything but when the whole family got sick, I was worn out, and it was KRH’s first festive season. But this vacation would be different, I told myself. KRH was 5 months old, not 3. We were going with my wife’s parents, who would babysit! I would get up early before everyone did, so I could get my words in and still spend lots of time with my family.

You can probably guess how that went, huh?

It’s not to say I didn’t get anything done. But we arrived in Cancun already exhausted, because preparing for the first vacation was a lot more work than we expected. The plane trip was good and KRH turned out to be an excellent traveller, but it was still a long day and trip. And between the heat, the new experiences, and us adapting to a vacation schedule with a baby, it turns out I actually got very little accomplished at all.

He is both an exceptionally good and an exceptionally cute traveller.

It wasn’t exactly for lack of trying. I did drag myself out of bed early about half the time. But it was sure tough to put finger to keyboard. And once the day got going? Good luck. There was food to eat, and swimming to do. For a nine day trip, we lost two to travel, one on a tour to Isla Mujeres, and the others sure went fast. And you know what? I don’t regret it at all.

Here’s the thing. This is probably going to be the new pattern of vacations. For a while, they’re not going to be free writing sojourns anymore. Instead, they’re going to be about spending time with KRH and his hypothetical future siblings. That’s not a thing I’ve gotten the opportunity to do enough.

NOW NOW NOW is an ethos I’ve embraced for a long time when it comes to writing. As silly as it is, I feel like my window is slipping away, or that I’m somehow missing my chance to achieve my goals. I worry I’ve already wasted too much time and that my goals are getting further away as I get older, not closer. I fear that I’m falling behind others, no matter that it’s neither a race nor a competition. So a vacation, a solid week to write, is always a treasured opportunity. And although losing that is going to be hard and I won’t stop trying to write while I’m off work, what I will do is stop thinking of them as writing priority weeks. Now, they’ll be parenting priority weeks. We need to have that sometimes, right?

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
42% Complete
37,836 of 90,000 words

The process alone was enough

A little while ago, during an AMA, I asked author Kameron Hurley about becoming tough. A few days later, Brandon Sanderson stopped in for an AMA as well. In terms of both craft and persistence (he wrote a lot of books before he got published), Sanderson is the writer I want to be like the most. I asked him much the same question. “How did you develop the toughness to keep at your craft, when I’m sure there must have been times you despaired about ever being published?” I didn’t get an immediate answer and figured my question had already been answered, so I didn’t lose any sleep over not getting it answered.

However, kudos to Brandon, about 25 days later he got to my question. Here’s his reply.

I’ve told this story before, but the biggest moment for me came right before I wrote The Way of Kings. I was unpublished, with a dozen (as you’ve mentioned) books under my belt–books nobody in the business seemed to want to buy.

The decision to go was very personal. It was an acknowledgement that the process alone was enough for me. I wanted publication, I wanted to do this as a living, but even if I never obtained that, I loved the writing process enough to keep going.

I wrote, and write, primarily for myself. I realize this is cold comfort when I’m able to make a living, and you haven’t yet reached that point. However, my decision was this: If I reached the end of my life with seventy unpublished manuscripts, that would be a better life lived than if I’d stopped writing.

Just like I needed that last reply, I also needed this one. I’ve been slogging on a book that is probably, at my current pace, 10-12 months away. I’m really unhappy with that speed, but I’m not certain how to improve on it with the time available to me with KRH around. I’m also continuing to get a trickle of query rejections (when I even receive those). So a reminder as to why I do this is timely. A life spent in the pursuit of publication is a life I prefer one one where I don’t even try. A life telling stories isn’t a bad one, even if I’m my only audience.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
36% Complete
32,746 of 90,000 words

February’s fuel

Ah, February. It is probably my least favourite month. Cold, snow, dark; it all makes me want to hide inside. Despite that, I found myself with remarkably less time for charging my batteries than I’d hoped. Still, I found some time for some things. Here they are.

Voltron: Legendary Defender: I listed this last month. I’m listing it again because, hey, I’m still watching it. In a minor miracle for my TV habits, I’m now caught up to the end of season 2, which ended on a fun cliffhanger. It hasn’t been a perfect show, but it has been about the most fun I’ve had watching TV right now. If you’re looking for something that’s light-hearted but a little deep, this is probably your speed.

The Lego Batman Movie: I saw this one with my wife. I enjoyed the Lego Movie far more than I expected, so I went to this one with my expectations moderately high. They were mostly filled, because it was a good movie, packed with more Batman references than any one mediocre fan like myself could count. My biggest criticism was maybe that it was too full, and quite often I found it difficult to catch bits of dialogue or details because things were moving too fast. Overall, the movie was cute and fun, but not as good as the first Lego movie.

Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart: This was a fun read. Set in a fantasy world where divine gods touch most things (and aren’t afraid to intervene), 5 refugees come together to survive, have to face their pasts, and end up part of a larger future. In some ways I found the writing very spare, but that kept the story moving well and ensured that the story never bogged down. Dolkart did a great job of switching between his characters, and I felt their pain when they were faced with trials.

 

I continue to plug along on Cloudbreakers. Still going slower than I might like, but I’ve hit and passed the quarter mark. Still a lot of work to do but when isn’t there? I haven’t had a lot of luck building consistency yet. Another thing to work on.

 

 

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
33% Complete
29,823 of 90,000 words

 

Growth

There are a few kinds of growth. One is the kind KRH is enjoying. He’s still gaining weight and, according to his doctor, is in the 90th percentile for babies his age. That’s pretty good! He is now immensely chubby compared to when he first joined us, but that’s good. Babies are supposed to be chubby. Both my wife and I have, at various times, had awfully sore shoulders, backs and necks from carrying him. He’s also on the cusp of rolling over, and can usually be relied on to wiggle around out of anywhere you leave him. He’s growing and I couldn’t be happier about that.

A different kind of growth is the progression of skills. That’s the kind of growth I’m not feeling lately. Now, not all of writing is about growth. But I think the act of writing each book or project should teach me something and provide an opportunity to advance my skills.

The problem lately, I feel like, isn’t a lack of growth. It’s a lack of grit. And sure, this is the same thing I’ve been struggling with all through February. Consistency is a big problem, and its impacting most things i’m doing. I’m not going to the gym as regularly as I was. I’m not making a regular time to write. And while I’m not making no progress, I’m clearly suffering from it.

James Clear recently wrote about grit, which I think is the thing I’m currently lacking. And rather than merely relying on willpower, he suggests the best way to build it is through consistency and habit. So March is going to be about establishing habits.

As it turns out, there’s one thing I can do to get most of my goals on track. Reliably get up in the morning to write. It works for a couple of reasons. If I hustle, I can get in an hour of writing. If I consistency get up at the right time, eventually my bed time will shift earlier (because I’ve been going to bed and lying there awake because I’m not tired). I write on the treadmill, so that gets me some activity as well. My days run better with these things done early.

What’s likely to get in the way of this habit? Short nights where I don’t sleep much have been the biggest problem so far. I’m going to try and focus on ways to keep myself out of bed after my alarm goes off, like moving my phone farther away from bed (so I don’t grab it and go back). We’ll see if that helps.

In the last week, I made some fair progress on Cloudbreakers. There’s a bit of a pause midway through the first act, so I have some work to do to iron that out. Also, I’m pretty far behind where I wanted to be by the end of February, so without some progress on that I’m going to fall behind my goals for the year. That’s not the end of the year, but it’s my goal to get this book done, so I gotta get on with it.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
22% Complete
19,557 of 90,000 words

When the going gets tough, the not-so-tough have to keep going too

I’m not sure I would ever really describe myself as tough. Toughness to me brings to mind the hardworking and determined. When I think of a tough writer, I think of someone who can take criticism or laugh off a bad review. I think of someone who can take a setback as a challenge, with a gleam of “I’ll show you” in their eye. I think of someone who can go to bed at midnight after a night of writing and get up at four to start again. Toughness, for me, implies a resilience that feels superhuman. I don’t have that.

Nor would I call myself particularly talented. But I decided long ago that talent is something we create, rather than something we’re born with. A talented writer is merely one who has worked really hard. Who is tough, so to speak.

I think writing is a business that requires toughness. Fight for what you want. Make the sacrifices. Outwork everyone. Do better. Be better. That’s how you find success. The writers I look up are the ones who tend to embody these traits. All of them talk about how difficult this business so. Finish your shit. Do the work.

February has been a tough month. My mental state has been so-so. Work is challenging. Life at home with my 4-month old is good, but also challenging. Writing is challenging because when is it not? And my work has suffered.

If I was tough, my thinking goes, I wouldn’t struggle with this. I’d do my work, even when I had a bad day at the office. I’d do the work, even when KRH won’t go to sleep and stay up late to cry. I’d do the work despite whatever awful crap is going on in the world.

That doesn’t mean I’m not doing any work. But I’m not doing as much as I want (as if that were even possible). But often, I find myself feeling like I should be tougher in the face of these things. Isn’t that how I’ll find success? By outworking other writers? By doing the work harder, longer, better, than they do? How else can I compete?

I don’t have a good answer to this. And I feel like, more than ever, I should be tougher than I am. What I have, I suppose, is persistence. I’ve had a lot of friends who have given up on writing. I know others who have lives, children and families and jobs, that don’t allow them time for writing. And they make the right choices for themselves, and those choices often don’t involve pursuing writing. But I refuse to give up on my goal. No matter how discouraged I may feel, or how difficult my life may feel, or how far away from that goal I am, I won’t give up. Is that enough? I don’t think so. But it’s what I have, so I’m working with it and it will have to do.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
14% Complete
12,357 of 90,000 words

Advice

February has been a challenging month. We are sleep training KRH, (basically, teaching him to go back to sleep on his own), which is both exhausting in that the method we’re using (The Sleepeasy Solution) requires KRH to do some crying, and for us to be up frequently to reassure him that we haven’t abandoned him. It’s been going fairly well and we’ve achieved a regular bed time and naps, but it was pretty tough on both my wife and myself. On top of that, the last few weeks have been rough at my work and challenging as my wife and I still try and rebuild our house.

So, when Kameron Hurley, one of my favourite dispensers of writing advice, stopped into Reddit for an AMA I asked her the following.

“How do I become tough? How do I get to the point where my writing attitude is “Do my fucking work and fuck the rest?” How to I cultivate that resilience so that even when things aren’t good, when I sit down at my desk to write, I write?”

Here was her answer.

“Here’s the thing. We’re all going to die one day. Could be an hour from now or a decade from now. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow. When I need motivation, I ask myself what it is that I’d like to have been doing in the days or moments before I died, and honestly, if I could die knowing I gave everything I could to achieving my goals, then great. I’d die happy. You have kids, which does make it harder; you want to have a balance, because on your death bed, you don’t want regrets about that either. Most writers with dayjobs and kids get up really, really early. I get up at 5:30 in the morning, no later than 6am if I’m feeling sullen. I get a lot of admin stuff and blog posts and such done first thing. It may turn out that you need to get up at 5am, or 4:30 am. And when I am like, “Arg, this sucks!” I imagine being on my death bed, not having done all I could to achieve what I wanted, and I think, wow, that would be way worse than getting up at 5am, and I get up.”

In some ways, this advice was about the physical how, rather than the mental how, but at the same time I took it to heart. I hadn’t been getting enough done in the evenings. So I’m moving my bed time earlier, and also moving my wake-up time earlier. So far, it’s working, perhaps because it coincides with us getting KRH to bed far earlier. I don’t know if my bed time is sustainable, but whatever I have to do to carve out time to write without taking time from my family, I’ll do it. But it’s also advice about the motivation behind the writing. I think I needed that as well.

In the mean time, I’ve started rewriting Cloudbreakers.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
7% Complete
6,354 of 90,000 words

January’s fuel

Last week, I briefly mentioned the idea of refuelling my creative engine. As a writer, I can’t exist in a vacuum. I am constantly influenced by the media I’m taking in. I need this. I need to keep inspiring myself with the work of others, and seeing themes and exploration of ideas. When I read a great book or see an amazing movie, it tends to stay stuck in my brain for days. That’s how I know it was excellent. When I’m not doing consuming these things is when my engine tends to lose power. So if I’m smart, I keep myself well fuelled.

I used to write book reviews in this blog, but I don’t think that was a great use of my time. Instead, I’m going to start doing a semi-regular review of the media that’s gotten into my brain and stayed there. Here’s what did it for me in January. I’ll keep things spoiler free.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Rogue One was a flawed movie, but I loved every second of it. It was different from every other Star Wars movie. It set out to accomplish something else, and in my mind it succeeded wildly. The ending, in particular, was probably one of the most intense and excellent climaxes I’ve experienced, and kept me on the edge of my seat (not unlike another favourite of mine, Fury Road). I hope this isn’t the last Star Wars movie that has an emphasis on the war.

hqdefaultRimworld: I mentioned Rimworld last week. Video games occupy a bit of a strange space for me. As the primary waster of time in my life throughout my late teens and 20s, I regard them with some suspicion. On the other hand, some of my favourite stories have come in the form of video games (I’m a huge fan of older games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and later games like Dragon Age: Origins). Furthermore, video games are my primary stress response. Nothing helps me turn off fear, anxiety or worry like immersing myself in a game, in a way that TV or a book doesn’t. I’ve cut down the amount of time I play games a lot from earlier in my life, but my attempts to stop playing them entirely have failed. So I regard them as useful, so long as I’m careful.

Anyway, Rimworld is my current obsession. It’s a sci-fi colony simulator, similar to Dwarf Fortress but a lot more accessible. It’s still technically in alpha, but it’s by far the best-polished games I’ve enjoyed and is fully playable. If  you’re into management games, then this is probably up your alley. I could play it all day if I’m not careful. Also, fuck megaspiders. You can grab Rimworld on Steam.

Voltron: Legendary Defender: I will admit right her to being possibly the world’s worst TV watcher (to my wife’s eternal frustration). For some reason, my brain regards TV as a waste of time (while wanting to play video games instead). I don’t really like watching one episode a week, but I also don’t have a lot of patience to watch a bunch of episodes in a row. I can start watching something, really enjoy it, and just never continue. So with all that said, I’m really enjoying the new Voltron series (from my point about 6 episodes in). It’s fun in a Avatar: The Last Airbender sort of way. Now, we’ll see if I actually keep watching it, but for now it makes the list. You can watch it on Netflix.

There are no books on my list this month. I spent a lot of my time reading non-fiction. Even though they aren’t really creative fuel, I should mention Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus. I’m a huge fan of their work. I would go so far as to say their emotion thesaurus is essential.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
0% Complete
of 90,000 words

Right now I’m working on re-plotting and other background work. I’m hoping to have this rewrite knocked off by the end of March. We’ll see how it goes.

Writing through

I don’t think it requires any great leap to say that a lot of creatives are struggling with the ongoing torrent of news. If you lean progressive (as I do), you can find something in the ongoing shittorrent of current events to concern and terrify you. The shooting in Quebec,  a potential constitutional crisis in the United States, whatever. By the time I post this article, I’m sure something new and worse will have happened. As if KRH and having tossed a hand grenade into my relationship wasn’t enough, it’s impossible to so much as glance at social media or the news without hearing about something terrible.

Not long ago, Chuck Wendig offered the advice “Write despite.” And that’s good advice. But the journey for each person to actually getting shit done when the world feels like it’s falling apart is probably going to be a bit different. Here’s how I do it.

Take the time I need. I want to be a writer, and that means writing even when writing isn’t hard or fun. That means meeting deadlines and pushing myself. It means trying, failing, learning and getting better. In short, writing is a career, even if I’m not currently making my living as a writer. But there has to be a balance in my life. And that means doing more than just writing for 8 hours after I get home at night. Sometimes, there’s value in turning off my brain with a video game (Rimworld is my current obsession.)  Or a movie or a book. Or a night with friends. All these things are important to keep myself sane, and also to refuel my creative engine. Some days, I won’t do these things at all. And some days (bad ones) all I can do is refuel and prepare for tomorrow. And that’s fine, so long as tomorrow I write.

Take care of myself. It isn’t enough to just take mental time for myself. I have to take care of my body, too. Although I might occasionally stay up late to hit a deadline, for me sacrificing sleep to write is a losing battle that makes me feel worse and doesn’t help me write better. Sacrificing time from the gym is the same story. Also important is taking the time to cook and eat properly, both to keep my wife fed and because I do best when I fuel myself properly. All seems basic, but it’s easy to forget sometimes.

Stay aware and engaged, but not too aware and engaged. The internet is a seething mass of terror sometimes. I browse social media and such during the day. But when it’s time to write, if I have my internet connection open or my phone out, I can browse twitter all day rather than actually putting my fingers to keyboard. That’s a great way to waste the time I have, so I need to use programs like Anti-Social or just plain put my phone out of reach and write.

Remember why I do this. Why do I write? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to give up on the remote dream of publication, let alone the near-impossibility of writing full time? Wouldn’t my time be better spent with KRH, my wife, my friends and family? Wouldn’t I feel better if I spent more time at the gym, sleeping and playing games? Wouldn’t I spare myself stressing over word choice, story progress, querying agents and writing the best damn books I can? Maybe, but one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m not happy unless I’m writing.

I have a need to tell stories. I want to think those stories matter. I want to think that I can use my passion to make the world a better place for my son, my friends and family. I want to think that people who I don’t know might someday read my stories and have them mean something. Even if I wasn’t chasing publication, I think I would still be telling stories. In part, that’s why I made this blog. It would be far easier to just give this writing thing up for 6 months or so until KRH was older, or until he was in school, or a teenager, or out of the house. But I can’t. So I write because I want to and because I need to.

In other news, I finished my first edit. Now I’m making notes and identifying things I need to fix in a printed copy of the draft. After that, I’ll go back to my notes, re-snowflake, make note of consistency details, write a stylesheet and things like that. Afterwards, I start work on the second draft, a total rewrite.

Progress

Cloudbreakers
100% Complete
416 of 416 pages

Tossing a grenade

When I started blogging about my journey as a writer and father, I didn’t intend to discuss my wife that often. I’m not sure why, given how important she is to my writing process. She has, at various times, been my editor, supporter, taskmaster and more. A writer herself, she understands how important my writing is to me, she encourages me to do it, and tries to ensure that I’ll have time to pursue writing even when things are busy.

We are, I think, a pretty good match. We communicate well, we agree on pretty much everything, and we talked extensively about what we wanted our life to look like after KRH arrived. I felt about as certain as anything that we would do fine when our son arrived, even though we know things would be hard and different for a long time.

It turns out that having a baby was a lot harder than either of us anticipated or prepared for, even knowing that change was coming. A metaphor that appeals to me goes like this.

Missing the window

Every couple of months, the conversation goes around writing circles about age of publication. There seems to be a certain stigma, currently, that a lot of successful writers make their debuts by their early 30s. If you haven’t, the thinking goes, you’ll never make it. I think this round of writer angst was kicked off by Min Jin Lee’s excellent post about her own writer’s journey.  That conversation requires the occasional bit of reassurance from more successful writers to newer ones.

Of course, that might be of limited use if you’re older than 35 and still unpublished, and indeed Scalzi’s own journey (second novel bought at age 33) isn’t that typical. Still, Scalzi’s points  about the average age of publishing stand. Writing books is hard. Getting published is harder. Yes, some writers do it early (and we laud and idealize those who do) but many, many well-known writers have debuted after 35.

Still, that brings me to my own thoughts. In my early 30s with several books written (but so far unbought), I’ve had the looming feeling for some time that I’ve missed a window of opportunity. Why? Well, I’ve been writing since my teens (though I didn’t get serious about it until just a few years ago). In that time, I’ve completed a fair amount of education, started a career and married a wonderful companion and partner, which doesn’t seem like a bad list of accomplishments. And yet, when I think about how much of that time has been outright wasted (and a lot of it was) then I can’t help but feel like I should have accomplished more.

Because, you see, I expect being a parent to KRH (and any future siblings he may have) to take a lot of time. I also expect to have to work more over the coming decades to meet my family’s financial goals. In other words, the time I should have been writing harder, producing more content, honing my skills further… was years ago. And I was, but maybe I didn’t do it enough? Maybe I should have gotten serious earlier? I wish I had produced more.

Giving yourself a hard time over the past is an emotional trap that it’s easy to fall into. Yes, you didn’t meet your goals. At the same time, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change that failure. All you can do is try and learn from it and do better. That’s a mindset I try to embrace, admittedly not always successfully. So maybe, yes, I did fail to make the most of a window of time over the last 10 years. But it’s worth noting that unless I became the next J.K. Rowling, I’m likely to look back on my accomplishments and feel like they weren’t enough. Still, I did accomplish a lot in that time. I learned how to work steadily and regularly, how to to finish my projects and a lot about editing. I built habits and learned how to work more efficiently and effectively. And hey I wrote some books I think are pretty good, even if they’re not on bookshelves. And I’ll keep writing until they make it there.

 

Progress

Cloudbreakers
50% Complete
207 of 416 pages