Update on My Novel: Month 16

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AUGUST STATS

Days Writing: 17
New Words: 3001
New Chapters: 0.75

Total Word-count: 53,133
Total Chapters: 14.75

August continued with the greater success that we saw in July. I’m not at the 6,000-words-per-month level that I was at the end of 2019, but I’m more than double the low point of 1,376 words in June.

Interestingly, I did 17 days of writing in August, a significant increase to July’s 10, but wrote nearly the exact same number of words. I don’t mind that my average performance each day was less, though I wouldn’t want that trend to continue down further.

The good news is that my family and I are officially done with the move! We’re still acclimating to our new surroundings and we’re still busy with unpacking boxes, but the main effort is over. Hopefully that means more time for writing, but honestly even if I maintain this baseline I will be content.

I had an interesting experience with writing this month when I wasn’t sure how to start a particular scene. After trying to find the “right answer” for a while and failing to do so, I just plowed ahead with the first idea that came to mind. I finished feeling that what I’d done was garbage, and that tomorrow I should just erase it and try again.

When I looked at it the next day, though, it was actually pretty decent. Really it was only the very last paragraph that I still had an issue with, which was probably what had put the bad taste in my mouth to begin with. So I kept everything else from before, only rewrote the last paragraph, and happily continued. It was a good lesson in not being afraid to let go of problem areas, but also to step away and look with fresh eyes for value that I might have missed in the heat of the moment.

Before I head out, here’s a little snippet from my work this month. Enjoy!

Across the island, John arrives back at the field, bringing with him the last bundle of sugarcane for William.

“Thank you,” William exclaims, hobbling over to take the sack from him. “Sorry again to make you come all the way down here. I think there’s still some porridge in the pot if you wanted to sit down a moment.”

“No, I had better get back to the workstation.”

“Of course. Well sorry again.”

John waves his hand dismissively, but he cannot help but consider that if it had been he who was bringing in the sugarcane yesterday, he surely would have found a way to bring in the full measure, even with a sprained ankle. Although, more likely, he probably wouldn’t have sprained his ankle to begin with.

“I admire your passion, son,” he says as soon as he is out of earshot, “it gives you vision and motivation. But sometimes you let it get you worked up, let it get you jittery, and then you make mistakes. Yes, I want to give you the fulfillment that I never had, but not at the expense of the grounded surety that I have had. I want it to be possible for you to dream and achieve, but also for you to be focused and deliberate. Otherwise you won’t have it better than me, just different. And I want you to have it better.”

Update on My Novel: Month 15

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JULY STATS

Days Writing: 10
New Words: 3060
New Chapters: 0.7

Total Word-count: 50,146
Total Chapters: 14

With July I decided to do things a bit differently. I got rid of tracking partial days and full days, I got rid of minimum amount to work each day, and I just made it a simple commitment to do something on my novel every day.

And, for the first half of the month, things went quite well. I wasn’t getting every single day, but I was getting more than half, and I was on track to have my best month since January. Then, in the second half, I once again stopped working altogether.

I feel more okay with my lack of productivity for this month than I did for May or June. Things have been very strained these past few weeks, with us getting our house up on the market, preparing to move, and an intense deadline being thrust on my team at work.

It’s difficult to decide the balance of “just get something done, anything, no matter how chaotic the rest of the day has been” and “have some understanding, it’s okay to get less done during hectic days.”

But rather than dwell on what didn’t get done, I want to relish the first part of the month where I was really working on the story. It felt so good. I feel like my changes in how to approach the work removed all of the stress, and left the pure enjoyment of it instead. I’ve craved that these past couple weeks, and want to get right back to it.

So I’m going to keep that same format for August, and hopefully I’ll be able to find a little more time in the nooks and crannies of each day.

Before I head out, here’s a little snippet from my work this month. Enjoy!

“Oh look, there’s some new flowers over there!” Clara suddenly points excitedly to a small cluster of black morning glories perched on the slope that rises on the other side of their stream. They grace a particularly steep portion of that incline, crowning a sheer, rocky outcropping that presses out of the green growth that otherwise makes up the hillside.

“Oh…” Clara says slowly as she regards the precarious position. “We don’t have to get those ones…if you don’t want to.”

Eleanor’s eyes narrow.

“I hadn’t expected you to be scared off so easily, Clara.”

“What? No, I’m not scared, I just–“

“It’s alright. You just wait here where it’s nice and safe and hold my bag.” Eleanor hands Clara the sack and then begins to ascend the hill. She goes up the gentle-sloping side until she is about level with the flowers, then moves sideways to the rocky face. The flowers’ ledge is a little more than two feet higher than her feet now, so she grips the rock face with her left hand, stretches her left foot up to plant it on the rocky shelf, then firmly swings the rest of herself up and onto the ledge. A few moments later and she has plucked a few of the flowers’ finest representatives.

Getting off the ledge is a somewhat trickier matter, though, as now she must step down onto the slanted surface of the hill. Clara sees her mother’s hesitation and quickly scrambles up the hill to be beside her.

“Here,” Clara says, “take my hand.”

“And send us both rolling down the hill?”

“I’ll be firm.”

Clara plants her feet squarely, and keeps her hand out until Eleanor concedes. The maneuver is made simply enough, and the two quickly ascend to the top of the incline.

“Weren’t you frightened, mother?”

“Terrified!”

“But—but then why did you go up there in the first place?”

“Because you thought I was frightened.”

“But you just said that you were! And I knew you were the whole time, even though you pretended not to be!”

Clara’s tone is frustrated and chiding, and Eleanor cannot help but laugh.

“I’m sorry, Clara, you’re absolutely right. It was silly of me, but…well, I don’t know…I suppose it’s just a hard thing for a parent to let their child know when they need help.”

“Well…as long as you know that it’s silly!”

Update on My Novel: Month 14

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JUNE STATS

Full Days Writing: 5
Partial Days Writing: 3
New Words: 1376
New Chapters: 0.3

Total Word-count: 47,133
Total Chapters: 13.3

 

For a while now I have reported declining numbers each month, and each month come up with a plan to resolve that, and each month that plan hasn’t worked. Consider how many words I have written each succeeding month this year:

January: 6360
February: –
March: 5244
April: 3747
May: 2751
June: 1376

A very steady trend down, and fast approaching zero. For June I said I was going to start tracking partial days and full days of writing, in order to encourage me to write something even if only a small amount.

Ultimately, that did not pan out. I’m sure I could make up a number of excuses for why my numbers are continuing to decline, such as starting at a new job and generally having less time due to the new baby in our family, those reasons would sound hollow. The simple truth is that my motivation has been declining. There have been many days in the past months where I could have written…and just didn’t want to.

I am far from giving up on this project, though. I still do care for the story, and frankly have put in too much time and effort to call it quits now. I’m still going to keep working on it, and will hold myself to a higher standard moving forward.

To this end, I am making the following changes: no more partial-days/full-days, no more “my goal is to write this many days for the month,” no more set amounts of time to write for, and no more set amounts of words. We’re just going to go back to basics. My goal is to write every day, full stop.

I will still track how many days I write, and how many words, so that I can measure trends, but there will be no more quotas. This might seem counter-intuitive for increasing productivity, but really I just want to get rid of all the clutter and bring the focus back to pure writing. Perhaps this plan will backfire, in which case I’ll just re-evaluate it at the start of next month.

Wish me luck!

 

Though I wrote very little for the month of June, I did write some, and here is a snippet from that work. Enjoy!

The next day William digs some burlap sacks out of their gear and throws them in a pile on the ground, next to his cutlass and field journal.

“How many sugarcanes are out there?” Clara asks him.

“I think it actually is just ‘sugarcane,’ even when you’re talking about more than one.”

“What?”

“Never mind, it doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, so how many sugarcanes are there.”

“No, see, if there is just one sugarcane you just say ‘one sugarcane.’ And if there are two sugarcane you still just say ‘two sugarcane.’ Just like ‘one sheep,’ and ‘two sheep.'”

“So how many…”

“Sugarcane.”

“…sugarcane are there?”

“Well…I didn’t count their number exactly, but back when I was taking inventory of the island I did estimate what I saw. A few dozen here, about a hundred there, and so on. In any case there’s more than a thousand of them.”

“More than a thousand!”

“Or at least there had better be! I’m counting on it!”

“So that we have enough for filling our field?”

“Exactly. Each cane that I bring back should give us about four or five setts–that’s what you call the chunk you plant in the ground that the new stalk grows from–and it will take more than sixty-six hundred of those to fill our whole field!”

“Well Daddy is going to be busy all day!” Clara laughs to Eleanor, who is now walking up to the two.

“Aren’t we all, and every day?”

“Yes, and with no holidays,” Clara pouts.

“Now that is a problem” William concedes. “But for now, the cane isn’t going to wait.” He picks up all of the supplies that he has prepared, kisses his wife and daughter goodbye, and treks off for the first cluster.

Update on My Novel: Month 13

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MAY STATS

Days Writing: 10
New Words: 2751
New Chapters: 1

Total Word-count: 45,743
Total Chapters: 13

Well, May wasn’t a great month for working on the blog, but I don’t really feel too bad about it. To explain why, I think there is something I need to make clear. Writing my novel is not a relaxing exercise for me. It is work. I don’t mind that it is work, it is work that I very much want to do, even work that I need to do, but it is still work. It is the same with these blogs. I enjoy doing them, but they still require real work.

Writing my novel and blogs only happens because I have made peace with the fact that I am going to work my full-time job, and then I am going to work some more. I will work my full-time job for pay, and work my writing projects for passion.

Sometimes, though, the “work” work takes up more of my time than usual, at which point I don’t have much left in the tank for writing. That was the case with May, where on top of my regular hours I have been applying to and interviewing with other companies, looking for a new job. This can be quite an involved process. In my particular profession, each company that takes your application under consideration requires you to undergo a programming assessment, which usually take around 2 hours to complete, in addition to all the standard interviewing steps. Pretty soon looking for a new job becomes its own part-time job.

I could have crammed novel-work on top of the rest, but I think I would have grown to resent it. I frankly needed more of a break at the end of each day. And thus I’m actually pretty pleased with getting 10 days and a whole chapter completed during the month.

There is one thing that I think I could do better in how I approach my novel-work though. I find that if I don’t want to write for my full goal of 30 minutes, then I give up writing at all for that day. I don’t like that. From now on I am going to track two numbers: full writing days, and partial writing days. If I feel I cannot write a full 30 minutes one day, I’ll still try to talk myself into doing 15, and count that for a partial writing day.

So what are my goals for June? Well, the good news is that I did end up getting that new job. As in, just this morning I signed the agreement! So hopefully things will be a bit more back to normal. I’m going to shoot for 21 days, hopefully each as full-writing days, but at the very least as a mixture of partial and full.

Before I go, here’s a snippet from the work I did manage to get done during May. Enjoy!

Thus begins a very slow process of watching and waiting. The puddle fills out the bottom of the main channel quickly enough, and then starts to lift itself from flatness into fuller definition. The family is transfixed by the swelling, slow as it is, and silently stare on as the void is filled.

 

After it reaches a certain height, the water in the main line starts to tease at the mouth of each irrigation trench. It begins to reach down them, like fingers that are curious, but oh-so-cautious. The water does not flow merrily down these channels yet, rather all of its moisture is spent only in permeating the dry earth there, preparing the way for later, bolder incursions. It creates the illusion that a damp mud is spreading through the soil, extending itself down each trench by pure osmosis.

 

Only after the soil has had its considerable thirst quenched in this manner do small, thread-like trickles of water glide over the freshly sealed mud.

 

Later on…


Now that each trench has filled the entirety of its length, all that remains is for them to rise to their fullest height. The family stand and turn their heads side-to-side, watching the progress ebb and flow through each lane. Now this one pulls ahead of its neighbors, then slows down as its trench widens suddenly. Now this one takes the lead as the eddies from the mainline bring an extra wave rippling down its length, then lapses as the same eddy moves on, sucking some of the water back out.

 

It is hypnotizing to see the mass at work, as if with a mind of its own. Sometimes it seems a single unit, other times a chorus of individual voices. No one questions whether observing this process is a worthy use of the family’s time or not. Like the birth of a child, or the death of an elder, it seems an important thing to witness. It is the story of how the veins of their field were brought to life.

 

But then, the exact culmination of the process is impossible to tell in a sequence such as this. For the irrigation system comes near to being filled to the brim…even nearer…nearer still…and then, all at once, the family realizes that each irrigation line has already reached its full depth, and they aren’t sure when exactly the system crossed the line from “very, nearly, almost complete” to “complete,” but it has!

The Narrowing Wide

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Life Stuff)

Life seems to occur in chapters. We many times come to a major juncture where we realize that life for the past several years has fit within a single theme, but now a new trajectory is about to take place. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but almost always never in the way that we had anticipated. For though we try to exhaustively outline every chapter of life ahead-of-time, we always seem to go wayward in the actual writing of the work.

I had one of these moments just recently, with the birth of my second child. Something about changing from a family of three to a family of four opened a whole new reality in our home. This one change is substantial enough, but it also proved to be the catalyst for other changes that were past due. We are going to start looking for a new home, we have purchased a car with more seats in the back, and we are changing jobs to be able to afford all of these changes.

Thus a singular event grew wider and wider, causing a ripple of side effects, each of which came with their own set of ripples as well. Of course eventually these life changes tend to stabilize. Eventually you finish ramping up, or downsizing, coming together, or moving apart, and then the complexity of life starts to contract. The chapter of life starts to wane.

But the thing about life is that once things start to feel normal, there is sure to be a fresh disruption to expand things out again. If nothing else, we just get bored and start talking about “needing a change.” If life does not compel a new chapter upon us, we instigate one ourselves.

 

The Ebb and Flow)

In case you didn’t know, a central theme of this blog is how the nuances of life invariably find their way into the structure of our stories, and this matter is no exception. We not only have learned to imitate life in how we divide our stories into thematically consistent chapters, we even structure those chapters with the same pattern of expanding and then contracting.

Think of the quest of Frodo and Sam in the Fellowship of the Ring. Things start off pretty simple in the Shire, but all at once everything expands dramatically with the arrival of the ring and the charge to carry it to Bree. This leads to the further expansion of the little hobbits’ world as they discover new locales, witness amazing feats of magic, fall into danger, meet all sorts of colorful characters, and even recruit some of them to their party. Finally they arrive at their destination, and the world of wonder starts to contract as they enter a small and cozy village.

But then…a new “chapter” of the story begins. For things don’t go according to plan and a new leg is added to their journey, carrying them back into the wider world. That chapter leads them to Rivendell, but of course things don’t come to their final rest there, either. The pattern continues, through the Mines of Moria and to Lothlorien, past the breaking of the fellowship, and still continued into the other books of the series.

If you look for the pattern, you will soon recognize that each chapter of the trilogy introduces a change, either of status or intention, widens off of that idea, and then draws to a close around it. Yes the larger plot of destroying the ring ever continues, but along the way the characters resolve the chapter of Isengard, the chapter of saving Rohan, the chapter of traversing Mordor, etc.

 

Mini-Stories)

In fact, each of these chapters is nothing more than a miniature story in its own right, each with its own beginning, middle, and end. A more explicit example of chapters-as-their-own-stories can be found in the idea of the television series, where each episode is usually comprised of its own complete arc, though usually with an ongoing narrative that continues over an entire season, and even the entire run of the show.

Sometimes it can be hard for a show to walk the line between the two. It might lean too heavily towards developing the overarching narrative, resulting in the occasional “bridge” episode that lacks its own, complete arc. Or the show might lean too heavily on making each episode a complete experience, and as a result avoid meaningful character development, for fear of alienating new viewers who aren’t up to speed on the latest micro-drama.

One show that was very compartmentalized in every episode was the Mission: Impossible series. Bruce Geller, who was the original producer for the show, even insisted that the writers not include any character development in their episodes, having the agents come and go freely without explanation. Each episode is so autonomous that you can pick up just about any one and not miss a beat.

A better balance was found when the series was later expanded into theatrical films. The Mission: Impossible movies pay homage to their roots by featuring a series of set pieces, each one of which feels like its own episode of the show, but each of which also leads into the next step of the overarching plot.

In fact, every major secret agent or spy film seems to follow this pattern. James Bond and Jason Bourne also travel to a new destination, with a specific objective to be accomplished there. Things go wide as they gather intel, are acquainted with the relevant characters, and prepare for their operation. A climax of action occurs, the objective is either accomplished or failed, and the target moves to another location, repeating the same process over and over until the greater narrative comes to its close.

 

Multiple Benefits)

Composing your story of several diamond-shaped micro-stories is beneficial to you as an author, and also to your reader.

For you, it takes the gargantuan task of writing a large narrative, and breaks it into much more manageable miniature tales along the way. It is an easy template to follow of Introduction, Expansion, Climax, and Resolution.

And for the reader, it helps the story from becoming stagnant and disinteresting. There are many high points to look forward to along the way, and the final climax feels all the more epic for the many rises and falls that were experienced just to get there.

In my current short story, Raise the Black Sun, I just brought to a close one diamond-shaped-sequence, that of the caravan traveling their final leg to Graymore Coventry. It opened right after I closed the sequence with the witch, and was initiated by the problem of the Treksmen falling into despair. It expanded in its sense of intrigue as we watched their numbers dwindle towards doom, found a new wrinkle as the few survivors bonded around their shared hardship instead, and then started to narrow back down as they approached their destination. Finally there came a sense of resolution in their solving the mystery of the end of the horizon, and now they go to the entrance of Graymore Coventry, literally closing the door on the previous chapter, and opening it into the next. Come back on Thursday to see how that chapter move forward!

Update on My Novel: Month 12

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APRIL STATS

Days Writing: 12
New Words: 3747
New Chapters: 1.25

Total Word-count: 42,497
Total Chapters: 12

 

Well, the main takeaway from April is that I did not get as much done as I had hoped. Out of the 22 days that I meant to write, I ended up with only 12. There were reasons for that. I had come to rely on a regular daily routine which got thrown out the window with COVID-19 and all that that entails. I wouldn’t say that I had less time to write because of it, but just that my usual cues of when to write were harder to pick up on.

More than that, though, we had a family project which consumed a lot of time, and after I had missed a few days in a row it became very easy to say “well, April is ruined, let’s just not worry about it anymore.”

Which is not the mentality I want to have with this project. I’ve always wanted the freedom to be able to say “this day is crazy, today I can’t write,” but in that case I want the next day to truly be a new day, not just an extension of the last. So I’m a bit disappointed in myself for giving up on a whole half-month because of one unforeseen disruption.

That being said: today is truly a new day, it doesn’t need to be an extension of the last. I can be both disappointed in how things went last month, and also let it go and not be bogged down by it.

With May I already have a couple things on the calendar that I know are going to limit my capacity to write, so I’m only going to set a goal for 19 days. And if I miss one of those, then I’m going to make a goal to try and get right back into a fresh perspective for the next day.

Before I leave, I wanted to start sharing small snippets of my work with each of these updates. I will try to choose things that are still “hot off the presses,” but that does mean they will still be a bit raw, and not quite in their final form. Here’s a little something that I put together during the last weeks of April.

 

“Your mother and siblings had a garden when you were a child?” Clara asks Eleanor as they work.

“Yes, both to grow our own food, and also to sell at the market.”

“Did your father ever help you?”

Eleanor laughs. “Well there was one time. He had a wealthy customer come in to pick up an order, and the two got to talking, and the man told him all about a new fruit that was coming to our country from the wilds of Africa! Large, red, and juicier than any other fruit on earth!”

“What was it?”

“Watermelon!”

“Watermelon? But I’ve had watermelon.”

“Yes, because it migrated to our country during your father’s childhood and mine. We had never seen it before then.”

“I suppose that makes sense. Father said saffron and vanilla never grew here before we planted them either.”

“Yes, it was just like that. But my father heard about this new fruit and desperately wanted to try it. So he came to the market with us the very next day and found a man that was selling seeds for it. He took them home and planted them that night. Every day, after he closed up shop, he’d come out and tend to them. Never asked the rest of us to look out for them, in fact he wouldn’t hear of it. I think he was proud to have his own special project.”

“And was he pleased when they grew?”

“Well they never did. After the first week without so much as a sprout mother began asking if he wanted any help. Which of course he took as a slight against his honor,” Eleanor smiles in amusement. “So he refused, of course, and then it became a matter of us teasing him each day, asking when he was going to let those who knew how take a look after the crop. He must have tried a hundred different ways to get some life out of those seeds, but there was never so much as a green stem to show for it all.”

Eleanor pauses and looks to the horizon, her face shifting halfway from amusement towards ruefulness as the memories of those bygone days play through her mind. She stays a moment caught between the two emotions, then leans back to her work and continues with the story.

“It was a big joke to us for a while, but then we forgot all about it that winter…for that was the winter he got sick and passed away. The next year watermelon started showing up in earnest, and we finally got to see what all the fuss was about. I still remember the shock when I tried my first piece.”

“Shock?”

“The seeds were not the same as what my father had planted the year prior.”

“What had he planted?”

“To this day I do not know, the man at the market had swindled him.”

“Oh…that’s sad.”

“It is…” Eleanor agrees “and yet my father maintained a good humor through it all, and I honestly believe he would have been very tickled by the final punchline, if he had only been around to see it. So I’m not bitter about the setback he had, I only wish I could have heard his laugh at the end.”

Update on My Novel: Month 11

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MARCH STATS

Days Writing: 18
New Words: 5244
New Chapters: 1.75

Total Word-count: 38,857
Total Chapters: 10.75

After getting no novel work done in February it felt very refreshing to dive back into it with March. I had intended to write for 22 days of the month, and only ended up with 18, but overall I would say it was a successful return to form.

Based on my estimates I am now one-third of the way through the draft and I very much feel the sense of being in the middle of my work. During the first chapters I was able to feel my work adding up with each day’s efforts, and I anticipate that towards the end I’ll be able to feel the conclusion looming nearer and nearer. But when you sail from one shore to another, there is inevitably that time in between where you perceive little change at all. You might have moved to a different part of open the ocean, but it still just feels like the same, old open ocean.

That’s why writing my story has to be about the journey, and not just the destination. Each chapter needs to be compelling to write for its own sake, no matter where it leaves me in the overall project. Not only will that make for a better writing experience, but a better reading one as well.

For April I hope to write for 22 days again, we’ll see how that turns out. If I do, I would expect to land about halfway through the twelfth chapter. Come back on May 1st to hear if I managed that or not.