Writing During Wrenching Times

It’s weird. I’m about to dive into the third and final draft of my sixth cozy mystery. I only finished the first draft on March 2nd and the second draft on the 13th and yet I know going back to it will be odd.

Because it’s a contemporary series and this story ends on the first day of spring, which is basically right now. And I know, for example, that there’s a little back and forth scene in there where my hero and heroine (because there’s a romance subplot) are bantering back and forth about all the places where they could go for a weekend getaway. My heroine suggests Iceland or Argentina or Guatemala. My hero is all for San Diego.

It’s a conversation that I could’ve seen happening when I wrote it a month ago. But now…

Not so much. I’m still going to finish it up as if it wasn’t happening in this world and this spring. But something that should’ve passed by as a nothing scene will have a different resonance for readers now.

My thought had been that I’d turn to a fantasy novel next. I’ve had three of them percolating away in the background of my mind, but in the last couple weeks it’s like those three novels just dried up and disappeared. Maybe because in my fantasy I like to wrestle with big ideas and I’m not sure what ideas I can safely wrestle with right now.

(I had a post I’d written yesterday that I chose not to publish about all the dark things I’ve thought about as part of this whole thing. Those squiggly little thoughts that were well hidden under a rock but are starting to see the light as people reveal themselves through their actions. But who wants to write about that when it’s playing out right here, right now?)

It’s a challenge. To write at all. To figure out what to write. To keep going and keep focused rather than watch the chaos and try to figure out what’s coming next or how bad it’ll get. To not take the anger and anxiety and amplify and spread it further, either in person or through my writing, but to at the same time make sure that people understand what’s coming.

But what’s the other choice? Do you write about happy fluffy bunnies when the world is on fire? People do need them, but wow that’s a tough one to pull off.

And I know the wrenching change isn’t done happening just yet either. So what seems good to write today may not seem so great in six weeks when that first draft is done…But if you want to keep moving forward you have to do it regardless.

 

Reading is My Refuge

My last two years at Stanford were two of the hardest years of my life. I had decided to triple major–which included a major I didn’t even start until my junior year–and I was also working more than full time to pay for room and board. So 19 or 20 units each quarter plus 50 hours of work a week. Oh, and I was commuting from Sunnyvale my junior year so add in a real drive each day as well.

It may seem strange, but what got me through it was reading. Mostly fiction books, but some non-fiction too. (That was when Guns, Germs, and Steel came out and I absolutely loved that book.) That first finals week I think I read three fantasy novels while studying for and taking all of my exams.

I was lucky to work in a bookstore and so have free access to books. (It was a company program, I wasn’t cheating in any way.) But even if I hadn’t, I would’ve worked an extra hour a week to be able to buy books, they were that important to me.

Which is why yesterday I dropped the ebook prices on about a dozen different titles. Since I know there are people like me out there who are desperately in need of a distraction right now, I thought I’d help out a bit.

We’re all going to need to get away and disconnect to make it through this. For some that will be video games or TV shows or movies. For others it will be books.

So…If you’re a book person, here’s what I’ve put on sale. It’s a very eclectic mix as you’ll see. Hopefully there’s something in there for everyone:

Just click on the image to be taken to the Books2Read page which should have links for all retailers. Or you can just go to your favorite retailer and look the titles up. All except for Erelia are available everywhere and most libraries should also be able to get them.

Non-Fiction ($2.99 USD each)

Excel for Beginners open sans boldv2

Excel for Beginners: A guide to Microsoft Excel for those who need to master the basics.

 

 

Budgeting for Beginners open sans

Budgeting for Beginners: A book that will teach you how to figure out where you are financially, judge what that means, and give tips for how to improve. Especially helpful right now for those who are finding themselves without a steady paycheck, because it covers how to approach irregular income like that. (Also available in audio as the Juggling Your Finances Starter Kit.)

Quick--Easy-Cooking-for-One-KindleQuick & Easy Cooking for One: Exactly what it says. A guide to cooking for yourself for the absolute beginner. More concept-based than step-by-step, but it does include recipes.

 

 

Writing for Beginners open sans

Writing for Beginners: An overview of what a beginning writer should know to get started. Includes discussions of point of view, tense, as well as agents and publishing paths. (Also available in audio under the title The Beginning Writer’s Guide to What You Should Know.)

 

Dont Be a Douchebag PC version 20160803v10Don’t Be a Douchebag: Online Dating Advice I Wish Men Would Take: A snarky guide to online dating for men who aren’t doing so well at it. (Also available in audio. Some retailers may have a different cover.)

 

 

Fiction:

Riders-Revenge-The-Complete-Trilogy-GenericThe Rider’s Revenge Trilogy: ($4.99 USD) A feminist YA fantasy adventure trilogy about a young girl who sets out to avenge her father and finds herself caught up in much bigger issues.

 

 

Erelia blue flame 20151222v5Erelia: (Available on Amazon Only, $2.99 USD and in KU) A dystopian utopia. Life seems perfect on the surface, but the reader sees just what horrible actions create that perfection. Also has a pandemic subplot. (I had unpublished this one just because I thought it needed a sequel and I wasn’t sure when I’d write that sequel, so be forewarned.)

 

A-Dead-Man-and-Doggie-Delights-KindleA Dead Man and Doggie Delights: (99 cents) First in what will soon be a six-book cozy mystery series set in the Colorado mountains. For lovers of Newfoundland dogs, Colorado, and quirky characters who like a little murder on the side. (Book 2, A Crazy Cat Lady and Canine Crunchies is also reduced to $2.99 USD.)

 

Something-Worth-Having-KindleSomething Worth Having ($2.99 USD): Contemporary romance bordering on women’s fiction. About a woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis who goes on a road trip with a man she is absolutely not allowed to fall in love with. (A related but standalone title, Something Gained, is also just $2.99 right now.

 

Effective Communication is Key

Don’t worry my writer followers, although this touches on coronavirus (again) it is also geared towards writers at the end, so hang in there with me.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending what is probably too much time trying to figure out what was headed my way and how to prepare for it when it comes to COVID-19, the latest coronavirus outbreak. (When my grandma asked me yesterday if I’d stocked up for this thing, I said “Yes, five weeks ago” and I was not kidding. Better to be prepared and not need it than not prepare in my opinion.)

At the end of the day the best resources I found were on Twitter. Most of those resources have been very good about simplifying highly technical medical discussions so that someone like me–an interested layperson with no medical training–can understand what they were saying. (Flatten the curve, social distancing, etc.)

(I have bookmarks right now to @JeremyKonyndyk, @CT_Bergstrom, @ScottGottliebMD, and @juliettekayyem among others if you’d like to go down the rabbit hole yourself.)

But I’ve been thinking a lot about a thread I saw last week by what was probably a highly-educated researcher summarizing very important research. (I want to say it was about IGG antibodies, but don’t quote me on that because I am not a medical researcher and I can’t find the thread to verify.)

I ran across this particular thread because one of the people I was following had shared it and it was supposed to contain some sort of good news with respect to the virus. But by the time I finished the thread I had no clue what it was saying. None.

What they provided was a series of technical facts that made perfect sense to them. Something along the lines of “At 2 days, XYZ levels are .213% but by 5 days they have dropped to .013% but FGH levels have risen to 3%.”

Anyone in their field would’ve probably read that summary and said, “Oh, wow. Great news. Thanks for sharing.”

But for those of us who didn’t know what those abbreviations meant or what the percent values represented, we were completely lost. That researcher needed one or two tweets more to say, “And this is what that means.”

The reason I bring it up here is because at the very bottom of the thread someone had actually responded something along the lines of “Could you please simply that for us non-technical types?” and the author of the thread replied, “I did.”

I laughed, because, well, no. They did not.

They were so caught up in their area of expertise that they couldn’t step back from it to make what they were saying accessible to a non-technical audience. Which is absolutely crucial when dealing with an issue like we’re dealing with right now. The scientists and doctors can see what’s happening in their area of expertise, but then they need to pass that information on to others to get them to act.

Someone needs to translate R-nought values and CFRs into something my grandma can understand.

It’s not enough to know something or to personally understand it. If you want others to learn or to take action based upon what you know, you have to be able to translate what you know in such a way that others can also understand and act upon it.

As most of you who follow this blog know, I write a lot of non-fiction, some of it on more technical topics like Microsoft Excel and regulatory compliance. One of the consistent challenges in writing those books is determining who my audience is, because it can’t be everyone. I have to choose a target knowledge level for my audience and then present that audience with enough information to further their understanding but not so much information that I lose them and not at such a simple level that they disconnect and move on because they already know everything I’m saying.

That means I can’t stop in the middle of a book on regulatory compliance fundamentals and have a ten-page debate with myself about the optimal regulatory structure for the financial services industry. I may be able to write those ten pages, but that book is not the place to do it.

You have to know your audience and gear your message to that audience.

I’ve seen this issue play out often with those who have technical training. They want to be absolutely 100% precise about what they’re saying because they know all the nuance. But being absolutely 100% precise only works if your audience is full of experts. If they’re not, you will lose them by being too precise.

The best discussion I ever saw of this issue was in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to teach or persuade others because it does a tremendous job of walking through how to meet your audience where they are right now and move them forward from that point. It truly is a masterclass in rhetoric.

So bringing this back to writing and being a writer and the lesson we can all learn from this. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction it’s important to step outside of your viewpoint and ask what your audience is going to perceive. Have you given them enough information to understand what you’re telling them? Are you making assumptions about their level of knowledge that you shouldn’t be? Whether it’s explaining the relationship between two characters, describing the room they’re sitting in, or letting your readers know what XYZ stands for and what a level of .125% means, it’s all the same issue.

You can’t bring others along with you and get them to where you want them to be if you can’t communicate effectively.

 

A Good Post on Writing Scams To Watch Out For

One of the hardest aspects of getting published, either traditionally or by self-publishing, is knowing what’s legitimate and what’s a scam. And there are people out there who make a very good living by taking advantage of the ignorance and hopes of aspiring authors.

Anne R. Allen had an excellent post on her blog this week outlining ten current publishing scams to look out for.

My one quibble with what she said is that for non-fiction I think print is a much bigger part of sales than it is for fiction, even for self-publishers.

But still. Don’t go paying for a box full of books to sell out of your garage unless you are already established as a speaker with an audience you can sell them to. Print on demand (through KDP Print or IngramSpark) is the best option for print for self-publishing, IMO, unless you’ve pre-sold a large number of books already, like, for example, through a Kickstarter project and can justify the cost of a print run.

(And those scams targeting teens have been around for ages. I once “won” placement in a lovely gold-embossed book of poetry which was only $50 to buy. Fortunately, I was not so excited to see my poems in print that I paid it.)

Knowledge is Power

There’s a thread on Kboards right now where someone posted about how anyone can make a living self-publishing and then shared that they were making $4,000 a month with minimal advertising (they had some free titles) off of approximately a thousand 10,000-word erotic romances.

That’s 10 million words of content. The OP stated that they’re working 15-18 hours days to do this and don’t mind because they come from a background of having to put together a bunch of minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

I admire the OP’s work ethic and what they’ve accomplished for themselves. (At my current writing rate it would take me another twenty years to hit 10 million words published. I currently have about 2 million.)

But what it really made me think about was class differences and knowledge and opportunity and how incredibly-hard-working people can almost kill themselves working hard for small rewards simply because they don’t know that there are better options out there.

For example, I took a year off in college. I had this notion that I’d become a stockbroker and earn enough to go back to Stanford and pay for it with cash if I could just work as a stockbroker for five years. (Turns out I hate selling people things and would almost try to talk them out of investing with me since I was twenty years old at the time and it made no sense for someone to trust me with a hundred thousand dollars they’d worked hard to earn for decades.)

When I went back to college the next year I needed a job to make ends meet. (Kids, check the cost of living where you go to school. Seriously. Palo Alto is not cheap.) As a kid from a lower middle class family my immediate instinct was to go get a job at the local mall. Which I did. They were happy to have me and to pay me some amount a little above minimum wage, but not that much above minimum wage.

Which meant that while I was completing that triple major I’d decided on, that I was also working forty plus hours a week to pay my rent and car payment and put food on the table.

But there were so many other choices I could’ve made that would’ve made my life easier. I ended up getting fired from that job about two months before graduation. (About a week after I’d complained about being made to feel very uncomfortable by the manager’s brother who followed me around all the time and then got into a shouting match with the manager over the fact that I was wearing shorts and he was wearing shorts but she said I wasn’t allowed to while he was, but that’s another story for another day.)

When I lost that job, I learned a few interesting things that I wish I’d known earlier.

First, I was working enough to earn vacation time at that job but had never been told about it. So on my last day they handed me a check for something like $400 I hadn’t even known I was due.

Instead of working through finals week because I needed the money, I could’ve taken a few paid vacation days. Who knew? (My manager…)

Second, turns out I was able to go down the street to a temp agency and immediately get a new job that paid me twice as much as the bookstore had. For stuffing envelopes and updating a database of customer addresses. Brainless work.

I had grabbed the first opportunity I found because as someone who came from my background and had no financial reserves to take the time find “the best job” and no one to tell me there were other options, I didn’t know I could do better than that almost-minimum-wage job at the mall.

(Honestly, if I’d been really thinking about how to make the most while working the least I would’ve taken one of those “we’ll pay you $25K for your eggs” ads in the back of the school paper seriously and not had to work at all. But, ya know. Hindsight. And growing up with a mindset that expected to work hard for what I received.)

What’s interesting is that I almost fell into that same mistake again when I graduated. Working full-time to barely make ends meet while trying to complete a degree like that meant that I hadn’t followed the proper path to get a consulting or investment banking job. (Or to prepare for grad school.) I had no clue how any of that worked, so I failed all those interviews.

Which meant after college I found myself back in Colorado with no access to the fancy campus recruiting options and no job prospects.

Not knowing what else to do, I applied for a manager position at a local ice cream shop. The salary was enough to pay my bills and I was qualified for it. Not based on my degree. Based on my prior experience managing the cashier’s office at an amusement park for a couple of summers.

But that manager did the biggest kindness to me that anyone has probably ever done me. He told me they were willing to hire me and that they’d give me the job if I really wanted it. But he also told me that he thought I could do better than that job and encouraged me to keep looking.

So I did.

And about a month later I was able to get my first regulatory job which ultimately led to my consulting job.

That one difference in which job I took after college meant the difference between working sixty hour weeks to earn $40K a year with minimal benefits and working sixty hour weeks to earn $160K with good benefits and promotion potential.

(Not immediately. We’re talking ten years out. One job had career potential with an upward trajectory, the other did not because it was a small family-owned business.)

I was lucky. Because a complete stranger was kind enough to share with me that broader perspective that they had but I didn’t. No one in my family had been down that path before. My brother and I were the first to go to college straight out of high school. And I was certainly the first to end up with an “elite” degree.

(One I still didn’t leverage properly even where I ended up. Starting i-banking salaries plus bonus the year I graduated were probably more than that $160K. But coming from where I had that wasn’t even something to imagine let alone expect.)

So bringing this back to that post on Kboards.

I see this woman who is happy with her accomplishments and happy with her income and I think of how many people come from those environments where you have to work tremendously hard to stay above water. And where it never occurs to you that you can work in a different way to accomplish that same goal. And where you don’t have the time or energy or connections to show you that easier path or to even tell you it exists.

A part of me wants to take that woman aside and say, “work smarter”. Write longer. Advertise.

But I don’t know that that’s an option for her. Maybe the quality isn’t there for that to help. Maybe it will just destroy what she has created.

So instead of reaching out to her, I wrote this blog post. To say that if you feel like you’re working at your max to barely get by that maybe it’s worth taking just a moment or two to look around and see if there isn’t a better option out there. If you’re good at what you do, see about a raise. If you’re not using the skills you trained on, see what’s out there job-wise. Ask yourself if there’s something else you could do that would pay more for the effort you’re putting in.

It’s too easy to get a little bit of something and cling to it when you’re right at the edge. But that can keep you at the edge.

Sometimes head down, full speed ahead isn’t the best choice. It got me a lot of what I ended up with, but looking back I know there were better choices I could’ve made.

Maybe that’s the case for you, too…

Writing Speed

One of the conversations that often happens around writing is how much can a writer feasibly write in a day or a week or a month or a year.

Often people will discuss how many words per minute they can type and try to extrapolate that to some number of words they could write if they just had the time. “Oh, I write 50 words per minute, so if I have sixty minutes that gives me 3,000 words which means if I quit my day job and write for six hours a day I can write 18,000 words a day. That means I could write the first draft of a 70,000-word novel a week.”

Now most people aren’t that extreme about it. But there are definitely people out there who argue that it’s easy enough to write 5,000-10,000 words per day. And that doing so for five days a week gives you 40,000 words in a week which gives you a novel a month easily.

What got me thinking about this is that I started the next cozy mystery this morning. And in the space of about an hour I wrote the first 2,400 words of the cozy, which for me was two chapters, each written in a thirty-minute chunk.

It’s only eight-thirty in the morning right now. I have a call in half an hour and need to feed the dog and spend time with her, but I have at least four more hours I could write in this afternoon. Which makes it look like I could easily hit 5,000 words for the day. And if I can do that today, why not tomorrow and the day after and the day after.

But it turns out that, at least for me, how many words I can write has nothing to do with my typing speed. It has to do with my idea-generation and refilling-the-well speed. I wrote 2,400 words this morning but none the past three days. And I’ve been pondering the way into this story and the plot for the story for months now. (The general idea–a cold case–was actually going to be the idea I used one or two cozies ago, so I’ve been trying to come up with a good cold case idea for months now. Which, because it’s a cozy, also has to be a bit light-hearted, too.)

It’s quite possible I’ll be able to sit down this afternoon and write the next chapter or two. But it’s equally possible that I’ll sit down to write that next chapter or two and not quite be ready for them yet. Or that I’ll write them and then need to go back after five or six chapters and smooth things out and ramp things up to keep the story momentum where I want it.

After many years of this I’ve found that for me the steady writing pace that helps me keep moving with a novel and not burn out averages around 2,000 words a day. (Non-fiction averages closer to 3,000 words a day and requires less downtime between drafts.)

And that’s still a higher number of expected words than I actually produce in a year because I need downtime between projects where my mind is working on the ideas and turning them this way and that and imagining scenes or dialogue I might include but I’m not writing.

Others work differently. Some people are binge writers. They just dive in and write for hours on end until they’re ready to collapse. Some people extensively outline so that when it comes time to write they can also put words on the page for hours at a time. Some are so high in Ideation that the ideas are always there and they don’t need that pause.

And some have to achieve perfection the first time they type a sentence so only get down 250 words an hour.

The key is to learn what’s reasonable for you and to plan accordingly. Don’t push yourself to be something you’re not. Find that steady pace that you can hit comfortably and work from there.

And also understand that others work differently and so will have different results than you do. Which means you shouldn’t tell someone they’re not capable of writing faster than you do just because you can’t do it. But it also means you shouldn’t tell someone who writes at a slower pace that they’re just not trying hard enough.

We all work at our own unique pace.  The key is finding what works for you and is sustainable for you.

 

Writing: Point of View Matters

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. I mean, I always am reading, but I think I’ve been diving into more new-to-me authors lately which means I’m running across more writing approaches or styles than normal.

And I’ve realized as part of that exploration that the point of view the author chooses to use can make or break a story.

I’m reading a novel right now that’s written in first person, something I personally have no problem with. My cozies are written in first person. But as a writer reading this book I am annoyed at the author for making that choice.

Because they chose to write in first person but they included at least six different points of view. ALL of them in first person. NONE of them identified in any way at the start of each section. And they change point of view within chapters. So you have on first-person point of view starting the chapter and then another picking up at the section break halfway through. It feels like I’m constantly playing catch up in each new section, trying to figure out who is talking now.

The story itself is fine. But I know because of the point of view choice this author made that my mom won’t be able to read it. She’d never be able to make those switches successfully.

And what annoys me so much is that the author could have simply used a deep third person point of view and accomplished the exact same thing but had it work better for the reader.

This is not some new author. This is a trade-published author with I think 11 books out. (All in first person, though, so maybe that’s the issue. But by now you think they would have read enough to know that deep third can be very close to interchangeable with first person.) And they have an editor who should’ve seen this, too.

So that’s one. And probably the one that prompted this post. But another I’ve been thinking about lately is that I just don’t like to be in the point of view of nasty human beings. It’s like immersing myself in slime. I don’t mind reading stories that have nasty human beings in them (as long as they get their comeuppance at the end), but along the way I really really don’t want to sit in their head for any length of time.

I read all the JD Robb books this last year and there was one (of the fifty?) that I really did not like for this reason. She’d included the killer’s point of view in a certain number of chapters and I just didn’t want to read them. I didn’t want to see some self-centered asshole murderer justifying their actions.

As a writer reading something like that I then step back and ask, “Did that help the story? Did the story gain anything by having an insight into this character’s thoughts?”

And my personal answer there was no. That was the only book of that series that I really didn’t like, but it wasn’t the only one that included the POV of the killer. But I don’t think any of the books I read in that series that had the POV of the killer benefited from having it. And I think in some cases it actually took away some of the suspense because we already knew things about the killer that the detective hadn’t yet discovered so false paths we might’ve gone down as readers were taken away.

Now, those books are so good that I’ll keep reading them anyway. I think she is a master of her craft and does so many things so well that she’s well worth studying.

But another author that I’d recently started reading I’ve stopped reading for also including the bad guy’s point of view in the story. In that case it was a lazy user-type who starved his kids and beat his wife. He gets killed in the end but about half of the book felt like it was in his head and I just did not want to be there. Especially since it was a world that should have killed him much earlier on.

I’m sure there are other POV changes I could think of given enough time, but those were the two that were top of mind for me just now. But I guess in a sense they both boil down to the same issue: don’t do something with your writing that pulls the reader out of the story. And if that seems to be happening, then check you POV choices.