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Balancing Act

There is only so much time in a day. The trick is to make the best use of that time. Hence my problem.

I have switched in the past year from writing short stories to self–publishing novels. This creates difficulties, because it turns out that writing novels on a self-publisher’s schedule requires even more time than writing a respectable number of short stories in a year. (This is exacerbated by the fact that no one expects you to write short stories on a schedule.) It requires, in my case, about twice the time.

Given this, I have abandoned writing any new short stories for the foreseeable future. I still have a catalog of unsold stories, however, and I am still trying to sell them. In our wonderful Internet age, new markets spring to life every month, unlike the Dark Ages of the Nineteen-Mumble-Mumbles when I started. So all those stories that haven’t yet found a home need constant attention in case a new possibility opens up.

But what happens when a new market opens that fits a story in your inventory perfectly–except that the story’s the wrong length? Can you extend a too-short story? You can, but it’s a tricky and dangerous game. Cutting down a too-long story is easier, but not easy, particularly when (as in the example which prompts this post) you’re talking several hundred words (a typewritten double-spaced page).

On what do you spend your time? The short story, which if sold will generate a few hundred bucks, or the novel, which is going to be published but each copy will only generate a couple of dollars and whose ultimate sales numbers are as speculative as that story sale? Not only that, but the story market has a finite closing date, whereas your book has a publishing schedule that you’d really like to keep.

If I were a best-selling novelist, this wouldn’t even a issue, but I’m not and it is. I know which way I’m leaning…

#SFWApro

 

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I am fond of saying that one of the reasons I’m a writer is because I have absolutely no talent for higher math. I’m pretty good at straight arithmetic, I managed to hold my own in algebra (with a great deal of struggle), and geometry was relatively easy–but when I try to advance beyond that, forget it. Many of my friends can read complicated equations like I read the newspaper (yes, some of us still do read the newspaper, and not on our phones), but to me they don’t even form a language, let alone a readable narrative.

Words, on the other hand, have always been my bread and butter. I was always the best speller in my elementary classes (among the boys, anyway), and I was a top English student in high school. Now I’m a writer. My friends with physics degrees can build models of quarks, but I can build models of worlds.

It is ironic, then, that so much of what I do is defined by numbers. There are sales numbers, obviously, and numbers of reviews (never enough), and ranking numbers at Amazon (although I realize as well as anyone how arbitrary they are, it doesn’t stop me from looking). And there are other numbers, as well–first among them is word count.

When you’re writing a short story, word count defines what kind of story you’re writing: flash, short, novella, etc., and where you can sell it, because magazines have parameters, based on their page counts and budgets. Some are firm, some have a little elasticity, but they all have the limits. You have to know this if you’re going to have any success at all, because your 17,000-word novelette may be brilliant, but its potential markets are few.

Word count also defines something quite different: It defines how difficult this job is. Think about it. A commercial short novel these days runs no less than 65,000 words, and you’ll find damn few of those. Most are at least 80,000 words. My longest novel so far ran 122,000 words. The novels I’m writing now are designed to come in at 60,000. And these words are not random; every one of them is specially selected. How hard is that?

Let me give you some context: The average person speaks about 16,000 words per day. That means that my typical novel is the equivalent of everything you say for four days. And it all has to be entertaining, suitably paced, and come to a point. You think you could talk that way for four days straight?

I do. Granted, I plan some of it out ahead of time, and it may take me ten weeks, but in the end it’s the same thing. The next time you’re reading a book, take a look at its page count, and multiply by 300. That will give you a rough idea how many words it is (depending on the book, of course, but bear with me). Then ask yourself, “Could I write that many words in a fashion so entertaining that people would pay money to read it?”

If the answer is “yes,” then close this window and get to writing. But if the answer is “no,” then the next time you finish a book, take a few moments to rate or review it on Amazon or Goodreads.

After all, in writing, it’s the numbers that count.

#SFWApro

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It’s late, I’m tired, I probably should leave this until tomorrow, but it’s not been a good day writing-wise, so I’d like to go to bed knowing I accomplished something. I’ll try to be coherent.

My last book (The Scent of Death), I wrote up as “The Experiment,” a mostly-weekly rundown of how well I had kept to my 8,000 (later 6,000) word schedule. Now I’m working on Son of the Experiment (The Killing Scar), and it’s not going nearly so well. After seven days, I have close to 5700 words. (It is, again, ironic that under my old system this would have been considered quite satisfactory.) And the words are all right; I have no problem with them; the characters are behaving themselves. Although it took time, I have the major plot points worked out, and the settings, and all that. But it’s been slow, and I’ve been slow to realize why.

The problem, I now understand, is that I’ve been trying to go too fast. Not that I can’t put out 1500 words a day (I wrote 1900 last night), but I’ve put the cart before the horse. The whole basis of my new system is outlining–and I kinda sorta forgot to do enough outlining.

I thought that because I only outlined the last book up through the first dozen chapters and wrote the rest with a vaguer sort of guidance, I could write a whole book that way. Turns out I can’t. You see, as long as you know where you’re headed, the closer you get to the end of the book, the easier it is to write. In the case of The Scent of Death, I was able to apply that principle to the last 40,000 words (and the last 10,000 flew by). But that still means I wrote 20,000 words from a pretty detailed outline, a luxury I haven’t given myself this time.

Last night’s 1900 words came in the form of a prologue–that I wrote after I was 3000 words into the book. If you’re writing a huge prologue after you’ve started the book, something’s wrong with your schedule. It means, most obviously, that you began your book in the wrong place. And if you start in the wrong place, you cannot end in the right place.

So I’m going back to the outline. (I feel better about the whole process already.) I’ll outline the first quarter-to-half of the book, maybe more if it is working. Then I’ll be able to jump into the real writing with a sense of confidence. Yep, I’m rarin’ to go now!

After I get a good night’s sleep. I don’t want my characters yawning in the middle of their dialogue.

#SFWApro

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Lately, life has developed a way of grabbing me by the scruff of the neck, shaking me around, and saying, “Things don’t always work out the way you think! You’re not always right! Stop analyzing and just believe!”

Now, I’m not talking about a religious conversion here, but a couple of things have happened lately that jerked my head around ninety degrees. In short, I don’t know everything.

As you all know, prior to very recently, the fastest I’d ever written a book was just over a year. Most had taken longer (although in some cases there were extrinsic circumstances that slowed me down). But a few months ago, I decided to see if I could write a book more quickly, using outlining and a strict daily word requirement. Part of the reason I hadn’t been fast before was because I used 500 words as a benchmark, 1000 words if I was feeling ambitious. But I knew I could do better, because I had done so before, albeit in short stretches.

And I wrote a 57,000-word novel in 55 days. It still sounds weird when I write it. But it told me that I could do things I never thought I could do.

Then, in a completely unrelated episode, last night I attended a football game. It was hot and muggy; it rained. It was one of the ugliest games I ever saw. We had minimal offense; we had virtually no effective defense. People were leaving the stands in droves. I was ready to leave. As the third quarter wound down, UCLA was losing 44-10.

We won.

In the greatest comeback in school history, we scored five consecutive touchdowns, including one in the last minute. No one would have given a plugged nickel for our chances, except apparently the players. They believed.

If I can write a book in under two months, if the Bruins can come back from a 34-point deficit in twenty minutes, how can you not believe that the impossible is merely the unlikely with good PR?

In the past month, I have both done and seen things that I would have sworn were impossible. But they happened. From now on, when my reasoning brain tells me that this is a brutal business, that success may never in my grasp, that making it as an author is practically impossible…

I’m going to say, “Yeah? That’s your opinion. Me? I’ve seen miracles.”

#SFWApro

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I’m editing The Scent of Death, and it’s going… pretty well. As in, I’m not having to erase large tracts of pages and replace them. There are the usual awkward phrasings, the repetitious words, and some inconsistencies that I am correcting (all of them, I hope). But in the main, it’s going okay.

But it’s not going quickly. It feels as though editing is taking longer than the writing did. This is ridiculous, of course; last night I edited sixty pages. (If I could write sixty pages in one night, I’d be producing a novel a week.) But it feels that way.

The problem is that when you edit, you are rereading a novel you just, in effect, read. And when you write the whole damned thing in two months, you haven’t even had time to forget the beginning, let alone the ending. In my whole life, I have immediately gone back and read a novel a second time exactly once. And I wasn’t reading that one critically.

Which is the other problem, or really, the second half of the problem. You aren’t just reading the book, you’re editing it. You’re deliberately finding all the faults in your own work, and that’s everyone’s favorite pastime, right? How can a project which you tackled so joyfully a few weeks ago be such a pain in the neck now?

It’s kind of like being Victor Frankenstein, and after the first flush of creation, you see all the warts and flaws. You’d like to just start again and fix some of those things in the next version, but you’re still stuck with what you’ve just done. A book, like a seven-foot-tall golem, wants to go places. It wants to be seen by people. It doesn’t like being chained in a dungeon. So you have to let it out, but you can’t let it out like it looks now. People would be frightened. They’d call it a monster–and then they’d call you one, too. Worse yet, they’d call you a bad writer. Pitchforks and torches are one thing, but bad reviews…

So you edit your little monster, and you teach it some manners, and ¬†you let it out, hoping that it won’t do too much damage and that eventually, when the next creation is ready, it will help them forget about your earlier, flawed, attempt. But then, if you’re lucky, to your surprise people start to befriend your monster, and to see in it the beauty you had always wanted to show, but thought you’d failed to do. And you realize that, after struggling through all that editing, maybe you didn’t create such a monster after all.

But by then, you’ve got another little creation coming out of the printer, and he’s all covered in warts and flaws, and his ears are where his nose should be, and you wonder if you’re ever going to get this right…

#SFWApro

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Now that it’s all over, and I’ve had a few days (not enough) to think about it, what data can be culled from the research project called The Scent of Death?

Well, for one thing, it still doesn’t seem real. I have now written my tenth novel, and it doesn’t feel any different from when I finished the ninth; in fact, there is less of a sense of accomplishment. This is hardly surprising, since I put in only one-sixth of the time; TSD did not occupy a full year of my life, so I don’t feel so invested in it. (Oh no! One of my children is not as good as the rest! I am a bad parent, er, writer.) I suspect that after I’ve commissioned a cover and start taking pre-orders, that will change.

Second thing: When you write that much, that fast, it’s hard to turn off. I’m already in the pre- pre-planning stages of the next book, no. 3 in the Captain Swashbuckle series, entitled Dr. Scar. (I like “Dr.,” but it could be “Doctor,” if public sentiment swings that way.) Dr. Scar is intended to be a recurring villain, a really bad person whom Eric (for very good reasons) thought was dead. But then, Dr. Scar thought the same about him, so everybody’s gonna be surprised.

Third thing: As I’ve alluded to before, this newfound ability to write quickly may have a profound effect on my plans. I usually alternate between novels and short stories, for economic as well as practical reasons. But now the world is turned upside-down, the practical reasons have dwindled, and they may have dragged the economic ones with them. (This last, of course, remains to be seen.) Everything I’ve read, however (and I have seriously researched this question) tells me that you have to put in some heavy lifting, as in, you have to write several books, before you can see if you’re getting any traction. I have two, and Dr. Scar would make three. If I can keep a schedule, I figure I can be up to five by this time next year. If sales warrant it, I will keep going. If they don’t, well…next year’s an election year and maybe I’ll just run for office.

Putting all this data together, I have reached a conclusion: If you buy my books, and tell all of your friends to buy my books, I won’t have to run for office. Believe me, we will all be happier.

#SFWApro

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I recently, in the course of another discussion, asked parenthetically how authors can estimate their final word counts tens of thousands of words ahead (or even when they’re starting a story)? I guess the easy answer is that if you know roughly how much more plot you’ve got to shovel in, and you’ve done this long enough, you can figure out vaguely how many more words you’re going to need. And hey, it’s not like anybody’s keeping score. Like every other aspect of the writing process, it’s just you.

But that led me to a bigger question: How do you write a novel?

I don’t mean physically, and I don’t even mean by plotting v. pantsing. I mean–how are some people able to create stories that are tens (let alone hundreds) of thousands of words long? And even more to the point, how am I able to do that?

Let’s face it, big numbers usually means math, and I suck at math. I started having trouble when they introduced long division, and it hasn’t gotten any easier since. Any equation with more than one variable is a struggle, and taking calculus in college is, to this day, one of my greatest regrets. (And this is with a roommate studying engineering, and friends who majored in chemistry, astronomy, and physics.)

I understand that mathematics is a language, one that I don’t speak. At all. And yet. If you were to ask my science buddies (up to and including Ph.D.s) to write a 4000-word short story, their brains would fizzle like an android in a logic contest with Captain Kirk. I went to school with people who discovered planets, but write a short story? That ain’t happening.*

And yet I, who couldn’t master the first class needed to discover planets, can make them up wholesale. I can create worlds out of nothing. I created an entire future of the Earth from my own head. Nothing I create existed before I wrote it down, and I am almost 50,000 words into my latest creation. Think about that. Fifty thousand words.

And yet, I have no idea how it’s done. People ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” Like that’s the hard part. Ideas? I’ve got lots of ideas. Except how to stretch most of them into a story. Because I have no idea how that’s done. I do it; I’ve done it almost all my life, but I haven’t a clue how. And still, here I am, chugging away at 1500 words a day. Which is really mystifying, because a year ago I would have been satisfied with 500 words a day, 1000 on a real hot streak.

In the end, of course, some people are good at one thing, others another. This seems to be what I’m good at. But I grew up wanting to be a scientist, and that inner scientist isn’t going to rest until he figures out this problem.

Maybe if I keep at it, someday I’ll write a story that explains it all. Kind of like the programmers in “The Nine Billion Names of God.” I just hope it doesn’t end up destroying the universe.

 

*Yes, I know there are scientists who are also writers. I’m acquainted some of them. They require no explanation; they’re simply geniuses.

#SFWApro

 

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