A few days ago—more days that I want to admit—I became, for the first time in my memory, stuck on a story.
Now, that was really a milestone. Before I started writing fiction, I’d managed to get quite a bit more than a million words published as a journalist and freelancer. In all that time, my notion of “stuck” was a delay of maybe thirty minutes or so while I pondered the demands of the story, and then back to the keyboard.
But now I’ve found I’m well and truly mired. So bogged down, in fact, that I took to catching up on podcasts in lieu of thinking through the problem. I happened on The Self Publishing Podcast by the Sterling and Stone boys that was made just after they had ended the Smarter Artists Conference. Three of the topics particularly caught my imagination: mindset, productivity, and the readers’ viewpoint.
As a result, I’ve taken the notion of mindset to heart. The story is no longer “stuck” in my mind. It is simply waiting for the right information to put it back on track. I’ve been “pantsing” my fiction, and I don’t think I’m wrong to do so. But at the same time, I’ve been more intensely studying story structure, basically going back to my copy of The Story Grid, Story, Story Engineering, Take Off Your Pants, Save the Cat and others.
Now, that effort alone won’t provide the right information. What I decided, however, was that I had a very curious writing problem—almost a unique problem. I knew the ending. I knew the beginning. What I haven’t been able to figure out is the middle.
The normal problem is either the lack of an ending idea or the lack of a beginning. But rather than take this temporary setback as an obstacle, I decided to change my mindset to have it create an opportunity: learn to be more thorough in my conception of the story, and by doing so, better at its execution.
Now doing that kind of thing also leads to thinking heavily about productivity. I don’t believe productivity can be separated from a notion of the ultimate goal. So back to the drawing board again. What is my true goal in writing fiction? Obviously I would like to make some money, but within that concept is the real nature of that particular goal. It’s secondary. What I really want … need, even … is to write fiction that is entertaining, enjoyable, and occasionally, memorable.
An obvious question arises: Is that a viable goal writing genre fiction? I believe it is. I probably have been more entertained and had my world view shaped by Gorky Park and Ice Station Zebra (an admitted favorite) than by Jane Eyre or David Copperfield or Grapes of Wrath or even Catcher in the Rye. I certainly don’t think Kurt Vonnegut ever felt his art constrained by a science fiction label (although many academics would dispute that designation), and if it was a good enough concept for Kurt, it’s more than good enough for me.
But I have certain time constraints from other work that I do which tends to drain the energy available for writing, and just as important, marketing my work.
Originally, I had a goal this year of completing eight to ten projects. I typically write 1500 words a day, six days a week, and give myself Sunday off, especially during Seahawk season, and family holidays. That pace works out to 450,000 words for the year, about eight novels in the 60,000 word range or six novels of that length plus four shorter works.
I’m taking that goal off the board right now. I work a regular job three days per week, and for seven months a year, I have a weekend business that takes up the rest of the week. The best I can manage for my writing effort is about 20 to 24 hours per week. Half of that goes to marketing or production needs. Hitting that 1500-word daily mark can take as little as an hour or as much as two hours, generally closer to the latter. I know there are people who can write many more words per day, but my mind becomes mush at about 1500 words. I’ve had days where I’ve produced as much as 6000 words, but at the end of the day, all I could do was go to bed.
Instead, I’ve decided to cut that writing goal in half, and use the time saving for story prep and finding better ways to give the reader what they want. Either it will be more effective, or it won’t. If it is, then I think it would be scalable and as sales improve, I can throttle back on my other businesses.
The next element, to me, is the most important. I want to have more time to find out what you, the reader, want to read. That’s going to be one of my top priorities for the rest of the year. And to begin that effort, here’s a little survey to get a sense of what you like best. This is my first attempt with Survey Monkey, so please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any problems with it.