I recently got some insight into my creative process from my kid’s music teacher… who is now, somehow, my music teacher… even though I previously had no skill or interest in music. But he’s really more of a creative mentor. The work we do goes from making music to making videos to managing time better, and it even informs my writing process. And how to worry more effectively. So I thought I could share with you some of the ideas I’ve gotten from his teaching style that have helped me with my creative life, and my… life life.
I’ll admit it. I resent other writers who can write something start to finish without needing any input. For me, after bathing in the unknown (aka: my last video), I need to have others look at it. I need to listen for when they laugh or sigh or gasp or hold their breath. And then, I can better understand what the hell I’m writing. That’s when I find out that my story I thought was about all the crazy bus routes in Portland is really about one lonely man’s longing to connect with another person. Or how my Darth Vader story is really a story about the challenges of step parenting. Or how there are already enough think pieces about Bojack Horseman. Or how maybe I shouldn’t have filmed my most recent video while on the toilet…
So I’m trying out non-animated videos with the notion that I might be able to create more than two a year when I’m not crudely drawing every single frame… But, unfortunately, we now have to rely on my real-world, crudely-drawn face… And my crudely drawn face is here to tell you that bathing in the I-don’t-know-ness of a creative project is really valuable…
Check out my recent Writer Unboxed blog post for more info about this subject
I’ve always struggled with being monogamous when it comes to my creative outlets. I’ve been writing for most of my adult life, but I also dabble with YouTube videos and making apps and making music (sort of) and various other activities. I used to focus on the downsides to working on so many different pursuits (and there are plenty of downsides!), but this video is about me accepting (and maybe kinda sorta embracing) this quality. (I also do about 12 seconds of research and find out that there’s already a name for this quality. But since I don’t like the name, I made up a new name…)
Check out my recent Writer Unboxed post for more info about this subject.
I don’t usually talk about current events in this venue, but I’ve woken up to this need to get more educated and engaged when it comes to dealing with racism. Also, even though I’ve loved some books by Black authors (James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James McBride, to name a few), I haven’t honestly read all that many Black authors. So this month, I started reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. My family is also listening to the audiobook of Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. I’m starting here because this distinction between antiracist and not racist is a distinction that is helping me think about the problem in a different way. I also donated to a few organizations that fight racism. I’m volunteering for an org that informs and mobilizes voters of color to make sure they’re registered. And I’m writing letters to local leaders who can make changes.
I just wanted to share where I’m starting.
Black lives matter.
If you’re looking for some suggestions on what to do, there are many people posting useful stuff right now. Here’s a start:
- Obama’s list of actions: Anguish and Action
- 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
- 11 Things You Can Do To Help Black Lives Matter End Police Violence (Teen Vogue)
- 5 More Ways To Channel Anger Into Action To Fight Racism (NPR)
- People Are Marching Against Racism. They’re Also Reading About It. (NYT)
In a blog post about my forthcoming novel, I claimed that I’d pull together a video about writing the novel. Well, here it is. It’s under five minutes, but it still required 1060 bad drawings, some background music that I created on my iPad, and one video of me sitting on the toilet. Oy![Read more…]
I recently got news that my book (my second novel!) is going to be published by Red Hen Press. I’m totally excited to work with such a great press—I’ve been following them for a long time, and most recently I loved reading Sugar Land by Tammy Lynne Stoner. But this isn’t about me awkwardly showing off about my book and this press, at least not yet. Today I want to look at the process of actually writing a book in the middle of a busy life with family, a day job, side projects, whining, and chronic pain. When a book goes out in the world and you’re holding it (or its digital equivalent) in your hands, it’s easy to think that writing the book was just this one coherent thing the author had to do, but writing a book is chaotic and confusing and has to somehow fit inside a busy, messy life. And I enjoy (for some reason) analyzing how to jam a writing process into this life. I don’t have a magic formula, but I have a process (sorta), and thought it would be fun(ish) to talk about it.
This is a longer-than-usual blog post, so strap in! (As a bonus, I added section titles and stick figure drawings to ease the burden…)
About the Story Origin
Around five years ago, I was chugging along on a novel that was a pain in the ass for me to finish—it was a big, mEsSy, spRawLing piece of historical fiction and I couldn’t quite bring it together. On top of that, I was struggling at my day job at a social collaboration software company and struggling with my connection to family and friends. Basically, I was miserable. During this time, I went out with my fabulous friend Anne and was telling her about my difficult-to-write novel. She isn’t one to pretty something up if that something isn’t pretty, so she said to me, “This book is toxic to you. I see it on your face.” I used this exact line in the short story I started writing later that night (a line spoken from a character uncreatively named Anne). The story was about dating, divorce, family, parenting, and all the ways that we’re connected (but often not connected) with humans… in this era when we’re hyper-connected to our devices. This story shot right out of me in a few days.
So, OK, fine, whatever, I had a fun short story on my hands. I thought that was that. Maybe I’d try and get the little thing published in a lit magazine, and get back to that difficult novel.
I sent the story to my agent without expecting her to do anything with it, but she said, “This thing sounds like the beginning of a novel.” She also told me that it sounded like I was having a great time writing it. And it was a blast to write. Instead of doing the things I was supposed to do, like working at my day job and doing chores around the house and writing that other book, I was cheating on all those things with this fabulous one-night stand of a short story. (FYI, I’m happily married… the metaphor only applies to book writing!)
If I were to fake some sort of takeaway here, I think it’s just that I like to be working on at least two different creative things at a time, so that I have a way to take a break from one project by working on the other project. This is a tricky balance (especially with a full-time day job and other responsibilities) because you don’t want to overload yourself with too many side projects and end up getting fired alongside having fifteen crappy, unfinished stories on your hands.
On Writing a Novel Draft Quickly
I was annoyed (but maybe also flattered) at the prospect of having another novel on my hands. This was supposed to be a fun little place to vent, not a new tedious project. But as I walked around with this new (slightly annoying) notion, I actually started getting excited about where the novel might go. I even made a ten-step list (which I can no longer find!) of what I thought would happen in this novel. A very simplified, very high-level roadmap of a novel, with a rough hero’s journey arc in there.
So, OK, fine, whatever, maybe this damn thing could be a novel after all. Now I needed to figure out how to turn it into a novel when I didn’t have time for this new challenge.
I took a week off of work and I left my house for the week and I wrote. The mornings were my main writing sessions… I wrote for about 3-4 hours at a cafe each morning until I reached my quota. Which was in the vicinity of 5000 words a day. These weren’t pretty words. I wasn’t scrutinizing the details. I intentionally glossed over things. And that horrible cafe chair was brutal on my back and neck and shoulders… But regardless of the obstacles, I wrote a lot.
In the evenings, I scanned over what I wrote, taking notes about what I wanted to fix later and making sure I knew where I was heading the next day so I could get a running (or at least a fast limping) start the next morning.
At the end of the week, I had a 30,000-word messy novel (novella?) on my hands.
It took about a year to turn it into a proper first draft, but still, in one week, I had the bones of a novel!
If I were to fake another takeaway here, I think it’s that even with a full-time day job, it’s still totally possible to write a book, but sometimes, at certain phases of the process (especially at the beginning or the end of drafts), it’s critical to disappear from the world for at least several days so you can immerse yourself in the story.
On Revising the Novel
Maybe I had the bones of a novel after a week, but it was still missing the flesh and the blood vessels and the organs and the connective tissue (have I destroyed this metaphor yet!?).
So, OK, fine, whatever, it wasn’t ready for the world yet. I’d need to figure out how to beat this story into shape. But I liked this story and I was (mostly) emotionally prepared to see it through.
First step was that I organized my notes (about what needed to be fixed in the novel) from my writing getaway. I cleaned up the notes and came up with a plan.
Then, I just wrote every week. I know some writers say that “real writers” need to write every day. I think that’s bullshit. But at the same time, I know that my little brain can’t easily fit a whole novel inside there, so I do need to keep a novel-in-progress in my consciousness as much as possible—in the shower, on bike rides, when I’m going to bed, while waiting in line at the grocery store. I had roughly two big (2-4 hour) writing sessions a week, along with about three or four smaller (around 1 hour) writing sessions a week.
(Dealing with chronic pain adds another level of messiness to the process. I already talked about that in my video about writing with chronic pain. Quick summary: lower your expectations, but don’t stop.)
All this writing crap takes discipline and motivation. I know some writers who talk about how they love writing, but not me. I think writing sucks (at least a lot of the time). And writing a whole novel REALLY sucks. Some days, I believe that it takes something like a mental illness to keep at it day after day. It also takes some reminders (either from within, or from others) that you are doing this for a good(ish) reason. (For me, I think the reason is a desire to connect with other humans through storytelling. Your mileage may vary.) One of the most valuable things for me to keep at it is to be part of a writing group that I love. We meet every week for about two hours. This group keeps me committed to the practice every week. I feel guilty if I don’t bring something to the table. They provide emotional support, they remind me why I need to tell the story I’m trying to tell, and they also challenge me when I’m not reaching as high as I can reach. This balance is critical. I wouldn’t want a group that was nothing but a love fest, but I also wouldn’t want a group that was critical just for the sake of being critical. The group should care about you, but also want your story to be the best version of this story that it can be.
It took me a year to have a “real” first draft and another year to get it to a point where I was ready to shop it around.
At the end of each draft, I’d get a few trusted readers to read my book and give me feedback. My wife is a bad ass at this process. My agent is also amazing at helping make it better. I can rely on a few friends to read a novel draft and give me feedback as well. Similar to the writing group, the ideal reader wants to make the story as good as it can be.
The semi-takeaway here is that I am not capable of writing a book in isolation. (More power to you if you’re different…) I need a kind-hearted community that can help me serve my story. (And, in turn, I try and help others in the same way.)
On Finding a Publisher
Finding a publisher is definitely not my favorite part. For my first book, I found a publisher on my own. For my second book, my agent (bless her! ❤️️) found a publisher. In both cases, rejections did not feel good. Even worse, spending time thinking about what the “market” wants can very nearly kill my creative soul. On the other hand, the publishing world is still full of people who love stories. And I love talking with people who love stories… the agents, the editors, the publishers… it’s just fabulous to talk about stories. (One senior editor even spent six months working with me—on his own time—to improve my book just because he liked it so much, even when his publishing house wasn’t willing to take the chance on it. That’s a pretty cool world to be in. Good luck finding someone who will work with you on your taxes just because they think your taxes are interesting…)
So, OK, fine, whatever, the publishing biz is a big scary mess, but it’s a damn fine feeling to find a publisher that is excited about this story you’ve been working on for so many hours across the months and years.
I hope some of this was interesting or useful. This story is to be continued. Also, I’m aiming to create a video about the process of writing a novel based on what I learned from this particular novel… Hopefully it’ll take me less than five years to make this video.
By the way, I’m back to writing that “difficult-to-write” book and it doesn’t feel so difficult these days. (Shhhhh!… Don’t mess up this short-lived groove!)
So just because I’m hiding in the attic doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on anything.
One unsurprising thing is that I’m working on a novel (while shopping around another novel).
But the surprising thing is that, even though I struggle with communicating with humans, I just released a neurotic app that’s all about communicating with humans… by sending them goofy, animated stickers. If you’re one of the seven people tracking my trajectory, you’ll know that three years ago I released a free Messages sticker pack called Neurotic Stix. For reasons outside of my control, it did pretty well. And today (or maybe yesterday), I’m releasing Neurotic Stix Pro, which is a fully-fleshed-out app that lets you write your own captions on animated stickers. You just don’t know what it’s like to apologize to someone properly until you’ve tried to apologize with a poorly-drawn-poorly-animated sticker using your own pathetic words! You can send them from the included Messages sticker pack, or even share them from the app to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email or however you prefer to apologize to people. The neurotic possibilities are endless! 😱🌪
Oh. Also. For one of the few times in my creative career, I’m not giving this thing I made away for free. Well, it’s free to try out. And then if you want to make more than two custom stickers, you’ll have to readjust your lifestyle to afford the one-time fee of $1.99 USD. I don’t expect to make much money off this thing. But I spent many hours, at night, between the day job, the family life, the novel writing, the migraines, and the worrying… to build this thing from scratch. And so I thought I’d experiment with actually charging for it. I’ll report back on whether this plan fails, or if it really fails. I hope you like it enough to try it out, and even better if you’re willing to pay less than 1/10 trillionth of the U.S. national debt to help me out.
For more information about this so-called app, check out the app home page, which has more details. Here are some of the stickers you can create and share:
Feel free to send me feedback about the app, or also, let me know if you want me to report back on what the whole experience has been like to create and publish an app.
Get the app on the iOS App Store.
A short story of mine (Darth Vader and the Lemon) was just published in Carve Magazine. It’s a story about the complexities of step-parenting, and it’s full of bad metaphors about Star Wars. The oldest draft of this story that I can find on my computer goes all the way back to May of 2009. That’s more than 10 years ago! In those first few years, I was really excited about the story, and I even spoke with editors at The Sun and The New Yorker who liked the story, but these conversations didn’t ever result in a publication. At some point (at least five years ago), I abandoned the story after getting too much conflicting and confusing feedback.
I picked up the story again this year when my wife and my agent both mentioned it in passing in the same week. I had fond feelings about this dead story and so I dug it up. It was refreshing to pick it up after so many years — I could read it like an outsider, like I wasn’t the one who wrote it. I saw some spots where the story strayed unnecessarily from the general theme and tone. I also saw spots where I could beef up the connections. But most importantly, I still liked the story.
After getting back into the headspace of this story (which took a few readings), I began working on it again. Tightening it, making it more focused, while still keeping the charm and silliness of the voice. And then I sent it out again. And then Carve accepted it. Carve is a fabulous literary magazine with issues both in print and online.
Anyway, what’s the point of this blog post (other than testing out to see if I still remember how to blog)? I guess I learned that putting a story away isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it’s just time to take a break. The story may be dead. But maybe it isn’t. I find it useful to look back into the vault to see if there’s something in there that still has a charge to it… sparks joy is the overly trending term for this phenomenon, but whatever it’s called, you know it when you feel it.
Here’s an excerpt:
I move the Darth Vader action figure next to the lemon on the kitchen table where I’m sitting with my ten-year-old stepson. It’s breakfast. Which means I cooked him fried eggs and forgot to make myself anything. But I’ve got Darth Vader and a lemon. My stepson looks at me in that way he can look at me when I’m being me at my most me.
I got him the Darth Vader action figure as a Valentine’s Day gift because I knew it might sway him toward the original movies. I refuse to talk about any of the movies that came after that first trilogy. I tell him that the new movies are worse than bags of poo. My stepson tolerates my obsessions because of my accessible metaphors and because I bribe him with high-quality action figures.
I start breathing all Darth Vadery. I move Darth Vader up to the lemon. With my best attempt at a James Earl Jones voice, I say, “You have failed me for the last time, lemon.”
Vader’s movements are awkward—even though he is Dark Lord of the Sith, he is also only three inches tall—and so the lemon is watching carefully for weaknesses, in case it comes to that.
“That’s MY Darth Vader,” my stepson says. And he takes away the key character in my scene.
For the past few years, I’ve wanted to make a video about my writing process when I’m working on a book-sized project. My process is a zig-zaggy combination of scribbling and typing and listening. I particularly love writing on an iPad because you have a few different ways to interact with it (stylus + keyboard + voice + weeping under the desk), and I also find it a less distracting tool than an old-school computer. The problem with my first few fAiLeD attempts at making this video was that I overly focused on exactly what tech and which apps I used… It’s just too easy to get caught up in buying the trendy app of the month with the hopes that it’ll save you from the difficulty of writing. (Nothing will save you. Writing sucks!) And my main goal was really to focus on how and why I use the tools that I use. (But I also didn’t want to totally ignore the apps that I find valuable, because they are lovingly built and they are fabulous to use.) So… hopefully this short video gives you a feel for my approach without getting too lost in the technical weeds… (Below the video you’ll find more of the gory details.)
If you want more details about the apps, here are the apps that I use:
- GoodNotes. This is my current favorite scribbling tool. Simple and clean and feels so natural to use. Lovingly built and regularly updated.
- Notability. I also dig this app and often switch back and forth between this app and GoodNotes. This app is also built with such care and I honestly can’t tell you that one is better than the other. Try them both if you like.
- Ulysses. This is my current favorite writing tool. Looks beautiful and really powerful for organizing a book. I used to evangelize Scrivener and I still really love that app, but I like the simplicity and cleanliness of Ulysses a little better. And Ulysses is still plenty powerful — with nested folders and keywords and export, it does everything I need it to do. Works just as well on iPad as on Mac.
- Scrivener. I still have tremendous affection for this tool and it can do so much to help you organize your book.
- Say the Thing. A pretty dumb text-to-speech tool that I WROTE MYSELF! The reason I wrote it is because I wanted a lightweight app that will take whatever text you throw at it. You can copy/paste text, drag/drop text, or use the share command from most text editors. Is it amazing? No. Is it pretty good? Maybe. Is it free? Yes.
And since I was a little too quick and confusing about my specific process in the video, here it is for those who care:
- First draft, I scribble in my scribbling tool. Write by hand without thinking too hard about what I’m up to.
- Then I type it up in my writing tool. I do a little bit more organizing and thinking about it in this step. I keep the scribbling app and the typing app side-by-side as I type it up. I do not use any mechanism to automatically convert my writing into text. I know there are tools that do this, but I prefer to type it up manually so I can think about what I’m typing, and clean it up as I go along.
- Then I listen to the computer read it to me. Something about having a computer read your words exposes some of the bullshit in the writing. I use my own app (Say the Thing) side-by-side with my writing tool.
- Then I type up any edits after listening to it.
- Then I make a PDF copy of the writing (export as PDF from Ulysses) and import it back into my scribbling tool. The formality of a PDF helps me look at it like an editor.
- I read the PDF to my writing group and listen to feedback.
- Based on the feedback, I scribble notes and edits on the PDF within my scribbling tool. Sometimes I’ll even draw diagrams and flow charts as I think through the structure of my story.
- Then I type up any changes or edits.
- Then I listen to the computer read it again.
- I type up edits again.
- Repeat any of the above steps until done.
I know that this whole process doesn’t discuss how to actually structure a story. That part is at least as important as this process I’ve outlined here. But I feel like every writer and every story has its own unique way to tackle the issue of structure. Sometimes I think about structure very early in the writing process, sometimes I focus on it later. Sometimes it involves pictures and diagrams, sometimes it involves lots of lists and outlines. Maybe someday I’ll do a video on how this has worked for me for a particular story.
OK. That’s all for now. Hope this is helpful. Or at least not harmful…