Signs, revisited

I’ve talked previously about how I listen when I get Signs from, for lack of a less new-agey term, the universe.

And… well… they’re happening again.

To the point of this post, there are significant indications that I’m on the wrong track with my writing.

As regular readers of my posts are aware, I’ve been working on novels recently. I finished my first one last year — Huzzah! — and got right to work developing another idea and starting to write it, then got distracted by another idea that seemed to be flowing better and started to brainstorm it and write it instead.

But then I got to a point in the last few days where I was realizing my main character isn’t… I guess… fully formed enough? Or something? He’s absolutely integral to the story, but the story doesn’t flow because of his actions. He’s become more a means to an end in resolving the issue. He’s not proactive, he’s a vehicle for getting the story from one place to the next. Not a particularly engaging character or read.

So clearly I’ve gotta do some workshopping on that issue. Meaning that project, or at least progressing in the active writing of it, is on hold while I noodle on more background work to bring the main character up to snuff and make some alterations to what I’ve done so far to enact those changes.

But combined with the timing of that critical flaw issue, I recently contacted a podcast I listen to regularly where the two hosts have plenty of writing experience — one worked in TV show writers’ rooms off and on for years, and the other is actively working on shows and in movies, writing but also in higher positions of authority — and are now answering listener questions. I asked how an aging writer who hasn’t yet found success in books or TV or movies could start getting some traction from his work. And they read the letter in their next podcast and responded to it. And I got one really important answer.

It was something I realized in retrospect I’ve heard before but had forgotten: Work at building up a solid base of followers or fans of your work, and then send some quality work samples to agents, along with mentioning that you already have a fan base in place. That makes for a more appealing cold pitch to an agent who of course wants to try to suss out better bets among all the people trying to get the agent’s attention. In the weight scales of an agent’s head, a demonstrably good writer with a built-in fan base is greater than a demonstrably good writer without a fan base.

I was going to write back to the podcast with a followup to ask how one builds a fan base, but it occurred to me that I have access to this thing called “The Internet” that has info on pretty much anything you’d want to find. (Not always, however.)

So I did an online search asking how a writer builds up a following. And after reading a few false starts with advice like “Just be yourself” — to the best of my knowledge, I’ve always been very much myself online, and to date that’s collected a few hundred social media followers at most, plus the family and friends who actively continue to support my creative efforts — and a promo article from a self-publishing course citing the pros and cons of traditional publishing vs self-publishing (something I’ve weighed in the past and is genuinely interesting as an option), I came across this article, which was exactly what I was looking for.

As luck would have it, Chuck Wendig, the article’s writer, is one of my favourite authors to follow on social media. He’s written several books, including material for the Star Wars universe (no mean feat, given Disney can of course be extremely particular about who they allow to write for them) and calls things like he sees them in amusing and often creatively profane ways, whether the topic is good, bad, or ugly. And in that article, he does his usual cutting to the chase in each smaller section of advice.

The one that stuck with me the most, however, is the very first of his 15 points:

Swift Cellular Division
The days of writing One Single Thing every year and standing on that single thing as if it were a mighty marble pedestal are long gone. (And, if you ask me, have been gone for a lot longer than everybody says—unless, of course, you’re a bestselling author.) Nowadays, it pays to write a lot. Spackle shut the gaps in your resume. Bridge any chasm in your schedule. This doesn’t mean write badly. It doesn’t mean “churn out endless strings of talentless sputum.” It just means to be generative. Always be writing.

Now here’s the thing: Particularly since starting to date the fantastic woman who’s now my wife, let alone becoming a dad to an amazing kid a dozen years ago, the volume of my writing — very rarely abundant anyway — has dropped tremendously. Moreso still since getting back into the workforce last year. As of course most even paid, published writers must contend with, a life with a family and regular job doesn’t leave a ton of time to focus on the creative project du jour. And yet, to Chuck’s point, somehow, some way, it must.*

For years now I’ve ensured I’ve done something creatively productive every day. Sometimes that’s developing a story, sometimes it’s writing that story (if only nickel and diming it, any progress no matter how scant is still a good thing), sometimes it’s working on a tabletop game idea or writing a haiku… just something/anything creative. But yeah, sometimes that’s a tiny little bit of work just to ensure that’s crossed off my daily To Do list.

All of which is to say, I’m not writing often enough nor enough when I do.

The novel projects I’ve been working on lately are taking a long-ass time to get through. Chuck says, and again, I’ve heard this elsewhere for a while, that (even some years ago when he wrote that article), writing just one big project a year isn’t sufficient. Well, I don’t recall the last time I’d finished multiple big projects in a single year. Which got me feeling a bit stuck — how do I do multiple projects a year when my amount of writing isn’t often getting even one done a year? — until my dear father added another piece to the puzzle with a link to an article:

Short novels.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard of such a thing, though that as a legit literary category is relatively new to me (gone, perhaps, are the nuanced differences I’ve tried to dedicate to memory over the decades between the likes of novella and novelette), but the advice came at a key time in all of this — not coincidentally, since I’d been talking to him about this stuff, but the timing still came as it came — and it gathered with everything else to this point to tell me that the answer to not having enough time to finish larger projects faster is to not only write more and more often, but also to work on smaller projects instead.

These wouldn’t be “short stories”, which I’ve always written and always will, but which aren’t exactly a hot seller. These would instead be short longer projects, as it were. Books, but small ones. Because those (of course when written well enough and/or at least have enough push or momentum) evidently do, or at least can, sell. Plus, evidently, they can get some attention from people specifically seeking out shorter stories because those people† don’t want to get through several hundred pages that novels often span to. As a painfully slow reader myself, I get that. (As I recall, the books in the list my father sent me were between just over 100 pages and just shy of 300 pages.) And of course the theory goes, I could get more shorter stuff done faster. I may not get to Chuck’s suggested ‘more than one [completed] thing a year’ until and unless I can find a groove and stick with it, but I will be much closer to finishing more faster than I’m getting lately, which would be fantastic.

And that, particularly in connection with the timeliness of that one article about the benefits of self-publishing, are all coming together for me to be something of a potential paradigm shift. Which is to say: What if I wrote shorter stories than the full-length novels I’ve been mulling over in order to be able to finish more of them faster? And then what if, agent or no, I looked into self-publishing my work? That would allow me to get my work out there regardless of needing the approval of any big publishing house gatekeepers, which would ramp up my potential to gain a bigger readership faster, whose support could perhaps lend itself to my self-publishing more material, or possibly getting noticed by traditional publishers (if that route was even a beneficial step at that point).

After writing the bulk of this post, I went down something of a rabbit hole on self-publishing basics, and while I knew there are of course costs incurred by doing that — paying someone to edit, someone to do a cover, legal fees to set up a legit publishing company to print your material from (an advised practice), whatever the costs may be for the platforms the books are sold on, etc. — I didn’t know how much it costs. Let’s just say that I had a number in my head for what it would probably be to get a book edited and packaged and out into the world and the real number to do it right and well is several times that.

I pulled myself out of the self-publishing rabbit hole by giving my head a shake and stepping back to realize that this is all completely putting the cart before the horse. I reminded myself to stop mulling over “How will my work get out into the world in the most efficient/cost effective/hopefully some day money-earning way?” and instead focus on getting the work done in the first place. That means first and foremost, getting butt-in-chair and writing more often.

Whatever I’m working on creatively, I’m not going to put it out into the public until it’s done the best way it can be. I’m not going to stress over the best way or even if the material will get out into the wild because that even isn’t applicable until the material is done in the first place.

Time to get to work.

*For the record, the usual advice about how to get more written of “get up early or stay up late to write” doesn’t work for me, since my wife is up at 5:30am for work most weekdays, my afternoons and evenings are often busy even when I’m not working, and the wife and kiddo don’t get to sleep until around 10:00pm at the earliest, often later, and my brain is usually pretty wiped out by that point.
Other advice like “write in the little bits of time you have free during the day” tend to not work either, as I get frustrated with only having snippets of time to get into working on a project because when I get on a roll I want to keep going.
Yes, I do have more time very recently to write, given my recent lack of shifts at work, but one must bear in mind the reality of the half-joke that is how much writers procrastinate rather than actually writing. Meaning, I have more time to write lately, and always wish I had more still, but the irony is that even when I have that time doesn’t mean I’ll actually write more.
Maddening, isn’t it?
I connected with a custom-made t-shirt business recently and have wanted to get a bunch of them made for myself. Among the more recent ideas is one that says:

†Fun fact: I was recently listening to a podcast whose guest was an expert in attention spans, and specifically cited how they’re demonstrably waning. She and her team discovered that just in the last few decades, our attention spans have gone down from feeling the need to distract ourselves an average of close to every three minutes through the day, to feeling the need to distract ourselves every 47 seconds. I’m by no means suggesting that longer books are going to get phased out ever, let alone soon as a result of this, but rather that this trend does suggest that shorter material (“short novels”, for instance) could become more popular among readers with an attention span that simply isn’t as long as it used to be. In a world where attention spans are shortening, shortening the length of entertainment one produces doesn’t seem like a bad idea.