I’m transferring some feeds from an old Feedburner account because I’ve got a lot of new content coming. And when you do that feedburner sends a confirmation email to the accepting account. And at the bottom of the email is this line.
If you do not wish to accept this transfer, simply ignore this message. Nothing else will occur except for the graceful passage of time.
I don’t know who wrote that email, but bravo. Way to not phone it in.
I’ve been feeling trapped by success. And by that I mean, I have a lot of cool projects and great things going on in my life right now, which means that I have a lot I have to do. "Have to," can feel like it is in direct opposition to creativity and exploration. If I don’t have adequate time for just messing around, I start to get antsy.
This thing is a beast of a book. Really quite amazing. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading all of these, but I can’t say they are my favorite novels ever. Without question they are unlike anything else I’ve ever read. You can argue that War and Peace has a greater sweep in a single book, but since this story is five books already and is projected to go to for two more, it is easily among the longest, most complicated works of fiction ever written. The man’s endurance is incredible. To say nothing of his imagination.
I have no interest in making a companion guide, or plotting out the whole series in bullet points. But what I am interested is in his technique. How he achieves and sustains such long books. And generates such interest. Great characters are a kind of magic. But structure isn’t. So here, hopefully made easier to see, is some of the structure of the first book in the series, Game of Thrones.
As some of you know, in 2005 I started helping professionals with their writing. This work involves coaching individuals, designing instructional materials and teaching classes. I work primarily with VBHs (Very Busy Humans) at innovative companies.  In terms of corporate classification, this activity generally falls under Talent Development, Leadership Development, and/or Human Resources.
I’m happy to say that this really kicked into high gear in July of last year. I’ve added more coaches and have launched  a dedicated good words (right order) website.. The website is now ready for prime time (they aren’t bugs, they’re features!) so please check it out.
In keeping with my beliefs about how the world and the web works, I’m giving away everything I know. Most of what I’ve learned as a professional, rent-paying writer, I learned the hard way. Why not go to school on my mistakes?
My approach does not focus on grammar. While grammar is an excellent tool for studying language, it’s not well suited to teaching the task of writing. Writing is something that people do, so focusing on human performance (rather than linguistic mechanics) makes more sense to me. Thankfully, it also get better results.
At its most basic, the work I do helps people make the writing process easier and the writing product more powerful.
So I have just fallen in love with Darwyn Cooke’s graphic adaptations of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark’s Parker novels. If you are unfamiliar with any of those names, you will love every moment you spend finding out about them. I promise. Genius all the way ’round.
I found this great interview with Darwyn Cooke about adapting the stories. In it he talks about visualizing the story. This is particularly interesting to me because not only is he a brilliant illustrator, but he’s a great graphic designer. So he compresses a lot of the story into the awesome and stylish informational graphics. You don’t need to list everywhere a character drove and everything he did, when you can draw an annotated map.
Annnnway, in the interview he remarked about the discipline with which Westlake structured his stories. He switches perspective or jumps time every 7 chapters or so. And evidently he did it in ALL of his books. I had to go check it out for myself. So I mapped out the first Parker Novel, the Hunter, Like this:
It’s 64,000 words and it has 4 parts. The average chapter length is about 2,000 words and a graph of the chapter lengths is in the upper right hand corner. I’ve also indicated the major action that each of the parts is devoted to.
This kind of stuff is fascinating to me. I believe that the discipline of a form is one of the things that can help a creator make something great. All hour-long episodes of television, no matter what the content of the show, are all structured basically the same way. (either four or five acts, depending on how you slice it.) Think of it like this Tease (Act I) – Commercial – Act I – Commercial – Act III – Commercial – Act IV – Commercial – Close (Act V).
I can’t imagine what a similar diagram of Game of Thrones might look like, but if I ever write any epic fantasy, I’ll probably make one. XKCD made this interesting chart of movie narratives but it’s pretty useless for my purposes. Where the characters were isn’t quite as important as how the story is parsed out. That’s what makes the plot-magic go.
Anybody else out there have a way to visualize the structure of a story?
This is my pep talk. This is my half-time speech. I know the truth of this deep in my bones and so do you.
Everything happens 5 minutes at a time.
In fact, most important things happen in even smaller intervals. Disagree? Go out and time a few marriage proposals, car accidents or heart attacks.
Big change is a myth.
The idea that you have to devote your whole life to do something great (or 10,000 hours) is a lie. If you look closely at big changes you can see that they are good PR (or whopping lies) around a collection of very small changes. You know what a mountain is? It’s a bunch of spoonfuls of dirt.
We focus on the mountains because they are big and sexy. But we don’t think much about the spoonfuls: those little packages of time in which the real work gets done.
Like training for a marathon. You know what the hardest part is? The marathon? Hell no. That’s easy. You’re amped up. People are cheering you on. And, if you’re not a complete idiot, you’re well-prepared. But the preparation? You know what’s hard? Early morning training runs. Especially when you’re cold and lonely and you just want to stay in bed.
In fact, it’s the five minutes it takes you get out of bed and pull your shoes on. That’s the five minutes that count. That’s the five minutes in which heroes are made.
For writing, the first five minutes when you sit down to write is what counts.
Those minutes when you clear everything else out of your head and soak in the suck. These are the five minutes of the blank page, the blinking cursor, of feeling hopelessly inadequate to the task at hand. It’s the five focused, uninterrupted minutes it takes for your brain to catch up with your intention. What separates the writers who finish from the writers who don’t? You got it. Five uncomfortable minutes.
If you can take feeling like a hack for five minutes, then the words and the ideas will come. Sure, the next time you sit down to write you might think they suck. And they may suck. But the only way to get to the words that don’t suck is by going through the first five minutes again and again.
That feeling like there’s no hope? That’s there’s nothing you can do to make your pile of words better? Everybody has that feeling. And it’s only strong for five minutes.
The first five minutes always suck
Tolstoy wrote War and Peace five minutes at a time. J.K. Rowling wrote all those gigantic Harry Potter books five minutes at a time. And the first five minutes always suck. As the man said, “Writing isn’t hard, it’s the sitting down to write that kills ya.”
Normal people, civilians, the kind of people who stay in bed and away from keyboards, they cheer for the end, the last five minutes, the victory. Sure, victory is nice. But me? I cheer for the first five minutes. Because those are the minutes that count. The five minutes in which the game of writing is won and lost. The five minutes that always suck.
Sure, writing is a complicated skill. But all of the choices you can make and the skills you can employ bottleneck at the first five minutes. It’s just this simple: if you make it through the first five minutes you’re a writer. If you don’t, try again.
So I’m NOT writing a novel this month. But, in the spirit of NaNo I’m cranking out 50,000+ words anyway. On what you may ask? Rewrites on the sequel to How to Succeed in Evil, Hostile Takeover will take up some of that. So will a HtSiE novella called “Consultation with a Vampire.” I’m happy to report I’m at 25,000 words on that and should be at first draft at 30,000 or so. I’m also preparing a piece of non-fiction. It’s a companion book for my good words (right order) class and coaching.
They are all exciting projects and I’m finding that when I’m procrastinating on fiction, I’m making headway on non-fiction and vice versa.
Here’s a live graphic from my writing log. The blue is my daily word count. The red is the total. It’s log scale so variations in the data are easier to see. Right now, I’m at 21% of the monthly total and 5% ahead of schedule, but this graphic will update, so enjoy my very public commitment. It will stay frighteningly up-to-date.
So here’s the question: How do you get some kind of handle on the often mercurial process of writing? Answers vary from writer to writer, but the question remains eternal. One good answer is NaNoWriMo.
If you don’t already know, November is National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Sure, that’s not exactly a novel. Sure, after you’ve written the first draft then real work begins, sometimes years of it. Yada yada yada — don’t be a jackass about it, NaNoWriMo a good thing.
The reason NaNoWriMo is good has nothing to do with the product and everything to do with the process. It’s about practicing the fundamental skill of writing, that unglamorous skill upon which all others rely — sheer, stubborn, leatherass’d keyboard pounding. Whatever else that can be said about writing and writers, a writer’s gotta put in the time.
NaNoWriMo is, if nothing else, a chance to practice that skill. And, as such, is extremely valuable. The person who writes 50,000 words of utter dreck in November is much closer to being a good writer, an accomplished writer, an acclaimed author than a person who snarks about other people’s hard work. As Theodore Roosevelt said with some beauty, some semicolons and many words:
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
I’ve been in fights. I’ve written novels. And let me tell you, the emotional strain of the two is more alike than different. Fear is fear. If you don’t think a draft of a novel can beat you up that only means you haven’t written one.
Say what you want to about crappy novels. They abound. Many will be written this November. Many can be found on rapidly disappearing bookstore shelves and in ebook format. But speak no ill of NaNoWriMo around me. ‘Cause, brother, as far as I’m concerned, them’s fighting words.
A week ago (hey, was it two?) I spent some quality time talking to John Mierau for his “Podcast Teardown” series. It’s a great idea.
The Teardown is a mini-series of 10 questions on the nature of podcasting, put to 10 well-known podcast authors. The questions are the same. The answers might just surprise you.
John has written and podcasted a couple of books himself so he knows how to ask a good question. It was a fun interview, but I’m really interested in the rest of the series. He’s got a great lineup and I’m interested in stealing all the ideas I can Seriously, if you have any aspirations or interests around podcast, check out some of these. I think it’s a brilliant idea.
Nothing ever means exactly what it means. It’s the fundamental reason that writing is difficult. For example, if I write the word orange, I might imagine the burnt orange of a brilliant sunset I once saw in the Joshua Tree National Forest. The orange that you imagine when you read that word can be very different. This is especially true of mythical or magical stories.
The “National Enquirer” question of what happens after you die is of little or no interest to me as a writer. It’s a question that I can easily answer. The only problem is, after I do so, I will have no way to transmit my report back to you faithful reader. One way or another, I will have an answer. The question isn’t interesting to me, because I can’t do anything about it in a meaningful sense.
What is more interesting to me is how I (and people in general) come to grips with life. See, death is easy. Especially for a writer. Most of the time, you kill a character and you’re done with them. Death is also, neat (after the initial cleanup) irrevocable and perfectly democratic — it gets everybody in the end. Life is the tricky part.
And, for me, that’s really why Unkillable is a thing worth making. Because it’s about a young man’s relationship to life. How he figures out it’s worth living, but only after he’s dead. Or quasi-dead. For me, that’s not only an interesting question, but also practical one. Life is often very difficult. How do you find the the enthusiasm, elan, strength of spirit — whatever you want to call it — to continue on in dire straits?
If, in the final reading, Unkillable was nothing more than a revenge story with some good characters then I would have failed. I would have created something that is smaller than the sum of it’s parts.
The good news is that I didn’t fail. Unkillable is a good yarn, and in it I think I managed to deal with essential spiritual questions without resorting to simple answers or crass fundamentalism.