“5,000 Words Per Hour”

I have not kept up with my goal of reading and reviewing one book on writing per month, but I’m catching up now. Last month I actually got through a couple of writing books. I read 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox and The Life-long Writing Habit, also by Chris Fox. I think that, of the two, I definitely got more out of the former, although I enjoyed them both.

5,000 Words Per Hour is a super handy book. I was a bit surprised. The title makes it sound kind of gimmicky, but I’ve been watching Chris’s videos on Youtube and it’s clear to me that his method works really well for him. (Astoundingly well, even.) He literally writes entire novels in a month or two each, back to back. Of course, that alone doesn’t mean his method will work for anyone else. Some people have the right combination of skills, practice, and good habits to be super productive, but that doesn’t always mean they know how to help others achieve similar results. Plus, a whole book that just says “Do this thing every day like it’s the only thing in the world that matters” isn’t likely to be very popular, or helpful for most people.

The nice thing about this book is that it is very simple and direct. He asserts that if you actually do the exercises he lays out, you should see dramatic and measurable improvement. He also says they’re simple, and he isn’t lying. The whole thing is easy to follow, makes a lot of sense, and most of it doesn’t take much time to try out. He jumps quickly into actionable suggestions, why he thinks they work well, and provides examples from his own experience.

Daily writing sprints are central to his approach. Writing sprints are exactly what they sound like: Short bursts of concentrated writing. The main thing, and the part that I personally struggle with, is not going back to edit during the sprint. I hate this, but it’s definitely sound advice if your goal is to improve your writing speed, so I’m working on it. Getting words onto the page, even if they’re a mess, is vital. Editing can always happen later, but you can’t edit what you haven’t written.

Another important component is tracking WPH, or words per hour, so you can see your improvement over time. Tracking numbers doesn’t exactly get me excited, but I’m taking this on because I know that a lot of the time when I get discouraged it’s because I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere.

Because longer writing sprints require practice and stamina, he suggests starting with five minute sprints (easy and manageable, right?) and then multiplying your word count by 12 to get a WPH number you can track as you go along.

My favorite take-away from this book is the idea of making a tortoise enclosure for yourself. I liked this concept so much that I made a goofy drawing to go with it, because it is both sensible and charming. Apparently, he got the idea from a video of John Cleese talking about creativity. The tortoise enclosure is a safe space for your imagination that makes it easier to get right into flow state and stay there the whole time you’re working. The boundaries for your enclosure are (loosely): Time, Space, and Privacy. He also suggests making a list of all the potential distractions that you frequently encounter and then making plans to eliminate or temporarily block each one before starting.

This last is probably very sound advice, because according to some science stuff that I read a while ago and can’t find now, each distraction sets you back significantly in terms of focus, no matter how briefly it holds your attention.

I’d recommend 5,000 Words Per Hour to pretty much anyone who wants to write more and write faster. It’s a quick read, so not a huge time investment. I listened to it on Audible, but it’s available in ebook and physical form as well. There’s a content warning after the picture, just in case anyone needs it.

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It’s Inktober, and tortoises are funny, so here you go.

CW: The author references his own weight loss and dieting behavior multiple times, and there’s some mildly food-shamey content that could bother some people.

I believe there was also a brief mention of depression and thoughts of self harm in his past.

My Less Than Epic Entry Into Writing

Writing wasn’t my dream career. I didn’t start as a kid like a lot of authors, and I don’t have any cute snippets of childhood fiction to share, sadly.

I started writing in 2011, when I was 22. At first I just did some journaling to cope with my depression. I’ve always loved to read fantasy, and an idea for a fantasy story had been rattling around in the back of my head for a while. I think the stream-of-consciousness journaling that I was already doing helped loosen me up enough that I just started writing it down.

I pounded out a few chapters, then slowed to a crawl as I ran out of the bits I had already figured out, struggled through a few more, and then stopped. I knew I didn’t have the skill to write that story the way I wanted to, so I quit. But then, I did something totally normal and healthy that was nonetheless a big deal for me. I decided to get better at writing so I could come back to that story and tell it really well. I started writing little short stories when I had ideas, just ’cause, and that was fun. They weren’t great, but I could finish them in a few sittings, and finishing anything felt really good.

I switched to a second novel project for Nanowrimo in 2012, and figured I could just do it all in one go because it was supposed to be a shorter and less complex story. I was very wrong, and I didn’t win. I hadn’t plotted either of those attempts, and even though that story was simpler in concept, I had allowed it to ramble again and gotten totally lost. I kept working at it, but I was pretty frustrated, and effective practice was still totally foreign to me. I was just flailing around and trying to make this huge thing without a plan.

Looking back at it now, I see that the drafts for those two stories actually add up to a pretty impressive amount of output for a beginner. I wasn’t tracking my progress very well at the time, and I counted all discarded work as basically wasted time and effort even though I was actually learning from it.

The idea for Somnolence came to me in a dream. I hate myself a teensy bit just for writing that ridiculously pretentious sentence, but it’s basically true. In 2013, I had a dream that was just the climax battle of a fantasy story. It felt super epic and compelling, and when I woke up I wrote it all down in my journal and started making up more backstory for it. I really liked it, and it had the potential to draw from a lot of the emotional crap I was going through at the time. In a spectacular act of self-sabotage, I switched projects again. I kept feeling like I needed a clean slate because the other projects had gotten so messy. In reality, I needed to learn to plot properly, but that didn’t really occur to me till I had written about half of Somnolence.

I slogged on, working mostly when I felt inspired and wasn’t too depressed to move my fingers on the keyboard, and it took for-fucking-ever to finish the first draft. I declared it finished, just barely, on New Year’s Eve right before I moved from California to Seattle in 2016. That really was a huge milestone, although it immediately paled in the face of what I wanted to do next. I wanted to edit it properly and actually publish it, and I had no idea how to make that happen. Fortunately, by then I was just barely starting to grasp the practice thing and I’ve always been really stubborn. I’ve been researching, reading, joining writing groups, watching youtube videos, blogging, and practicing writing craft.

I don’t know what it is about writing that drives me to improve. I find it satisfying in a way that I don’t really understand. I love to draw, but I never felt the need to practice enough to polish my skills or make a career out of it. I’m usually pleased with what I can produce, but I’m perfectly content to do it as a hobby. Writing comes less easily to me. I’m often not at all pleased with my initial results, but it’s still where my energy goes, and I’m happy with the progress that I do make. Working toward the goal of being a published author has helped me change my life in a whole bunch of positive ways and improved my self-esteem. It wasn’t my dream growing up, but it is now.

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Me at my favorite hiking spot, just after pulling an all-nighter to finish that first draft.

My Week

I touched a really big spider by accident while walking up some stairs. I’m not super arachnaphobic. (I’m actually friends with a very polite tarantula named Twilight Sparkle.) Surprise spider contact still makes me all shuddery, though. The spider seemed equally shocked, which was fair. He was quite decent about it all, and didn’t bite me.

My new acquaintance.

We finally got air conditioning since Seattle has apparently been relocated to the surface of the sun. The air quality has been terrible, too, because everything is on fire. So, we had the choice of roasting in a stuffy apartment or breathing smoke and roasting slightly less. We kept expecting the heat to break, but we broke first.

Our creative solution to the strange window design in our apartment building. Plus, a peek at my cute snek suit.

With regards to writing, and everything else since it all affects my ability to write, I’m working really hard right now on knowing my limits and planning my energy use so that I don’t break down halfway through a day, but it’s not easy for me. I’ve spent way too long trying and failing and being pissed at myself to be able to turn around now and objectively evaluate my capacity for work in a given day. I’ve tried in the past, but feeling guilty about not doing more has always pushed me to schedule way too much, which is overwhelming and makes it harder to get anything done at all, much less all of it. Very few things on my list ever feel not-urgent. I always feel like that there’s something more I *should* be doing. This makes me sound like an overachiever, but I run out of go really damn fast most days. I’m a little scared to be honest about that with myself, because if I’m not just lazy then I might be kinda sick. I handle stress by being mean to my body, which isn’t so great. I’m tired all the frickin’ time, no matter how many stimulants I pour into me, and I can sleep for eleven or twelve hours and wake up exhausted. It’s hard to get to sleep in the first place because of the aforementioned guilt and constant feeling that I’m shirking something. Oh, and I actually feel OK at night. I’m tired all day, and then my mind clears up for a while every night and I feel better and more alert and I want to do all the things. It’s basically an absurd cycle, and I am literally sick of it.

So, in the interest of not making it worse, I’m gonna go to bed now and post this in the morning. Well, later in the morning than it is now.

Ps. I started reading A Throne of Glass. So far it’s fairly engaging.

Updated Back Cover Blurb for Somnolence

Seventeen year old Orane has been given a mission by her royal parents: to travel to Castle Destare and convince her reclusive uncle to leave his estate to her family. With only her new lady in waiting for companionship, and steadfast Captain Felix and his men for protection, Orane sets out for the northern mountains.

After a harrowing attack on the road, Castle Destare is a welcome sight, but it is nothing like Orane expected. Her uncle and his caretakers are strange and withdrawn, and the great stronghold itself seems to be slowly surrendering to the elements. Worse, Orane can’t help feeling that the decay is creeping into her mind. With unnatural creatures prowling the woods, escape seems impossible, but it might be just as dangerous to stay.

Will Orane be able to open her heart and uncover the terrible secret that haunts the castle, or is it already too late? 

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I Was Really Struggling to Write Today

So, I thought I’d pull out my tablet and fiddle with drawing characters to see if that sparked some inspiration. It kinda worked, but it led to like eight solid hours of drawing, which wasn’t really the plan. I forgot to eat. I also forgot to put up a blog post, because I’m a bad person. Anyway, this is Orane, the main character in Somnolence. She likes hunting, so I gave her a nice woodsy background.

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Wonder Woman and Revisions

I saw Wonder Woman, because of course I did. I’m not gonna go into detail, so there are no spoilers to follow, but I’m not as excited about it as I kinda wish I could be. The thing is, it’s only revolutionary compared to the bulk of really fantastically sexist crap up to now. It’s still good to see, and it’s a step in the right direction, but they could have gone a lot farther. I enjoyed the fight scenes as much as the next person, but there were a lot of points where I wished for a little (or a lot) more boldness and awareness. I feel oddly uncomfortable with the amount of praise it’s getting, even though I understand why it is, because treating a female superhero like a male one shouldn’t be anything other than normal. They still played into the born sexy yesterday trope, so they didn’t even quite treat her like a male superhero, but even if they had. That’s what we should expect every single time, from every single movie. That’s not something we should have to celebrate, and we shouldn’t have to ignore any problematic elements to encourage them to make more. I’m glad I saw it, but I’m sad that basic non-shitty storytelling isn’t common enough that we can just shrug and call it a decent superhero movie with some issues.

I’ll say this again and again. Sexism, racism, ableism, etc are all elements of bad storytelling. We shouldn’t be saying “well, it was a great movie except their female characters were all basically cardboard cutouts with boobs, and the only people of color were evil, as fucking usual.” We should call that a bad movie, because it is both incredibly lazy and harmful to rely on the same offensive stereotypes and narratives. Normalizing equality is important, and while it’s totally understandable that we treat anything that gets even a little bit close as exceptional, it’s still a serious sign of how messed up things are that Wonder Woman is such a huge goddamn deal.

On that uplifting note, I’m still in the midst of revisions, and I’m hoping to be done with them by the end of June so I can stay on track and get Somnolence off to be line edited. We’ll see how realistic that is, but I’m pretty sure that if I give myself more time I’ll get complacent and slack off.

I’m also preparing to buy some ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers.) That’s a whole thing. You need a different ISBN for every version of the book to be published, and the pricing scheme is kind of bizarre. At the moment, one number costs $125 and a batch of 1000 numbers costs… $1500. Bowker is the only source for these numbers in the US, so I guess they can basically do whatever they want. There are also some midrange options, which I’ll be taking advantage of, but the scale is still a bit startling.

Don’t Blame the Muse

 

It seems extremely odd to me that handy little lists off of Tumblr, such as this one below, inspire as much ire as they do from members of the writing community. 18557056_1394586123913674_8439391497564996321_n.jpg

Few things seem to piss off some writers more than telling them, even indirectly, that, while they’ve diligently studied the art of creating a solid story arc and researched medieval warfare extensively, their lesbian character might need some serious work to be anything other than a walking cliche. For some reason, every other aspect of writing is craft, and we generally accept that we should work hard on it to improve, but when it comes to characters and world-building, suddenly it’s all down to the ineffable and unquestionable work of the muse.

It’s interesting to note that the aspects of writing which are most rigid and subject to strict judgement are the parts that make it more difficult to succeed if you’ve not had access to an extensive education, you don’t have the funds to hire an editor, or your habitual speech patterns aren’t considered “proper english.” It’s also interesting to note that the areas where creativity and the muse are allowed to reign supreme are the parts that make it easy for those with social privilege to ignore the real experiences of people unlike themselves, while still using their identities as spice for their fiction. This indulgence allows writers to freely rely on lazy stereotypes and racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist narratives because art.

The thing is, the characters who pop into your head are not coming from some magical artistic inspiration. It’s your brain that cooks ’em up, and when they pop into your conscious mind already formed, it was your unconscious expectations and cultural programming that made them what they are. That means that, in spite of all the little details you may change to make them interesting, they’re just different pieces of you and your experience. If your only experience of asexuals is seeing them portrayed as damaged or confused, you’re going to be inclined to default to that tired, harmful trope. This does a disservice to everyone. Stereotypes are boring, they hurt vulnerable people, and they drag down the quality of their creator’s otherwise hard work.

In response to these helpful but oddly controversial lists of suggestions and warnings, the advice I often see is to ignore all that SJW crap and to just write the person first and then basically slap the label you want on top of the personality you’ve created. I think the basic intention here might be good. You don’t want to fall into the trap of making your character’s entire personality revolve around one aspect of their identity. The opposite pitfall, though, lies in the myth of the “real” person hiding underneath all the things that make people unique. Every aspect of every person affects their view of the world, including whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, being able bodied, and all the other default character settings that too often go unchallenged. Yes, we all share a great deal in common and we can draw from that, but there’s an important difference between trying to imagine someone else’s experience so you can empathize with them, and imagining that they’re really just like you underneath all the things that make them who they are. Doing the latter results in characters that have maybe stretched a little, but can’t be much more than reflections of the way you already see the world. Doing the former involves listening to the lived experiences of others and respecting what they say, and it opens up a whole realm of possibilities you literally couldn’t have come up with on your own. That’s where the magic can really happen.