The Psychology of Writing

Nice moments for a writer

Here’s something pretty snazzy: Looks like BLACK DOG was the third best-selling trade paperback in May’s list, according to Locus. How about that?

1) Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (Farrar Straus Giroux/FSG Originals)

2) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs (Quirk Books)

3) Black Dog, Rachel Neumeier (Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry Us)

4) Carousel Sun, Sharon Lee (Baen)

5) Indexing, Seanan McGuire (47North)

So go me! I’ve read Miss Peregrine’s Home, and while it was okay, I did not realize going in that it was just setting up a series. I actually liked it better before the main character found out more about what was going on, too. Very neat use of all those pictures, though.

I believe the data that went into compiling these lists was from February, meaning the month BLACK DOG was released. It would be nice to think it will still be on the list next month, but I don’t know how likely that is. Still, good news!

May’s been a good month so far in other ways. I’ve gotten pretty far with my current WIP (KERI, if you’re keeping track); I’m at about 45,000 words, which might be as much as half done, depending. A good rule is everything takes more pages than you expect. As far as that goes, I sent my agent, Caitlin, the first 100 pages a few days ago and she just sent me comments. Too repetitive. I knew that, actually; that’s something she wouldn’t have seen if I had written the whole thing and then polished it up before I sent it to her. Can we see more of the main character’s backstory, can we get to know her a bit better? Hey, probably that’s a good idea! Too slow to start, can we get to the main problem faster? Yes, yes we can, so I am revising now rather than pressing forward. Re-ordering events is a tedious exercise, I must say. But the main problem is that I really prefer revising to writing new scenes (usually), so I’m not sure it will be easy to start moving forward once more after dealing with this revision. Oh, well.

This is the first time I’ve ever sent anybody a chunk of an unfinished work, and let me just say, it’s weird. In some ways I’m glad to get those comments now, and in other ways, it makes me uneasy to let anybody comment before I have a completed ms. Well, it’s good to know that Caitlin isn’t all, This isn’t working, start over.

And she says she will have comments about KEHERA soon, too. So there will be a need to switch back and forth between projects, hoorah.

Basically a good month, though, and that best-selling trade paperback thing is the kind of practical feedback that makes me want to go write stuff. Did I mention YAY!? Because YAY!

Puppy update: Here’s a nice picture of Ish at four months.


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Lots of progress. It’s the 28th, and I still expect to finish this basic revision this month. Yay! Today I should finish revising Ch. 21, tomorrow I should be able to finish up Ch. 22, and that’s it!

Well, sort of it: I have a dozen notes to myself to fix things related to continuity, to add a minor character to one scene where her absence doesn’t make sense, to possibly write a very short Ch. 8 — right now there is a two-paragraph placeholder in that spot, but I think it may need to expand to at least a few pages.

Then I really should re-read right from the top and see if I can knock another 10% off the length. I think most book-length works are improved by a 10% cut. This is still going to be a long one at that point, but not insanely long. I am now saying to myself, “Self, if the INDA books could run 600 pages each (or whatever), then KEHERA can run close to 500 pages.”


Anyway, then I guess I need to think of a somewhat less stupid title and hand it off to be read by someone other than me. My goal is to have this completely ready for that by the end of the week.

THEN I will need to re-orient myself toward my NEXT work-in-progress. Which, yay!, means taking a week to read things I didn’t write, in order to knock myself away from April’s obsessive focus on KEHERA.

But what?

The Goblin Emperor, that’s a good possibility. I would like to finish Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy — I want to start back at the beginning and re-read the first book, though. I could read Cherryh’s latest Foreigner installment. I could also finally read Wein’s Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. It’s hard to decide, it really is.

But I know I will wind up by re-reading McKinley’s Chalice, because that is the tone I want to capture for my upcoming project. I probably won’t, exactly, but that’s the tone I want in my head when I pick my WIP back up.

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One baby step forward, three giant steps sideways

So, yeah, I’ve suddenly realized certain obvious things about the later plot of the current WIP, which is good. I will call this one KERI after the main character just to help us all keep straight which WIP is which. KERI is a work under contract, though I haven’t actually signed the contract yet, but I am assured that someday the contract will appear and then I will sign it (I presume), after which I will be able to tell you all about this particular WIP in more detail.

I have about 75 pp of KERI written, plus a loose outline that might be sort of accurate, plus a good idea of the next couple of things that might happen — drawing a blank on the thing after next, though — plus a nice scene that recently occurred to me but that would require an important secondary character to step up and take the pov. Which I think makes sense, but I had planned to have only one pov character (for a change). But I sure can’t see how to get the original protagonist into this particular scene, where the secondary character is crucial. If he does become a pov character, then I’m going to need a Chapter Two where he gets to be the protagonist and I’m going to need it to happen before we get 75 pages in.

So whatever, I’ll figure it out.

All the above constitutes the baby step.

What unexpectedly took me off sideways was, I suddenly figured out how to handle basically everything about revising this very early work of mine that I wanted to eventually self-publish. By revise, I mean:

1. Remove two of the three protagonists completely, along with at least two important secondary characters (including one I really, really like).

2. Take a different secondary character and make him an actual protagonist, adding material about his earlier life.

3. Remove one major plot thread and one major worldbuilding element.

4. Smooth out the remaining plot, in the process cutting 350 pages.

5. Yes, really. This was a trilogy to begin with, if you can’t tell, and even after selecting the characters and plot threads to keep, it is almost exactly twice as long as it should be.

6. In combination with cutting, revise every single paragraph on a sentence-by-sentence level.

And at this point, you may well be asking yourself, But wouldn’t it be less work just to ditch this and write a new book from scratch?

And the answer is: Why, no. Writing a book from scratch is, in fact, a lot of work. Having a basic plot that goes straight through from front to back, and the important characters with their personal character arcs, and the essential worldbuilding all in place means that even a truly huge revision is actually a lot less work than writing a new book. The main thing is suddenly deciding you want to bother, which I guess I have.

So that’s been my weekend so far. It’s a shame to kill writerly enthusiasm when it turns on, so unless I lose interest or get stuck — and it’s hard to see what I could get stuck ON, since the whole thing has come pretty well into focus at this point — maybe I’ll just finish this right now, in one straight shot. I estimate that it will take . . . about three weeks to a month, given the ordinary interruptions of life during April — work, gardening, the need to take dogs hiking, all the standard things.

This puts me in the odd position, as we finish up the first quarter of 2014, of having three WIP that I plan to finish this year:

A. The HOUSE OF SHADOWS sequel, which is about, oh, 80% done. I stalled out on that in January and set it aside, but it should not take more than a month to finish, if that. Right now it’s taking a back seat to both the others.

B. KERI, which is more like 20% done, but is under contract (I’m assured) and therefore technically ought to have priority. I expect its deadline to be about September of this year. I’ve written books from scratch in two months before (though I prefer not to have to), and summer is a good time for me to get work done, so I don’t anticipate any problems.

C. This big revision, which I’ll call KEHERA for now (yes, again, main character’s name), which honestly even given everything . . . I have to say, I would count it as at least 85% done. Maybe 90%. I swear, I think the rest of this one will be all downhill.

I would actually like to see both the HoS sequel and KEHERA come out this year, say in September and November. (No promises, stuff could happen). KERI of course, being under contract, will come out according to the publisher’s schedule, which is to say, 2016 if I remember correctly. Speeding up the timing is one big reason to shift some of my titles to self-publication. So, September and November. Cover art, copy editing, formatting, it will all be a new universe to explore.

So, yeah, that’s why I don’t know how long it may take to get to most of the books piling up on my TBR shelves. A while. The rest of you, enjoy spring’s new releases!

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Publication, reviews, and unsolicited advice —

So, you know, only a couple weeks now till BLACK DOG hits the shelves! Very exciting!


February 4th, I believe, according to Amazon.

This is when I get nervous. Reviews, you know! What if people hate this book? What if *people I like* hate this book?

BLACK DOG has 14 reviews up at Goodreads already — 10 of ’em are four or five stars; 3 one or two stars. I know you’re probably thinking that that those three negative reviews are eating me alive, but, and here is the first bit of unsolicited advice I am going to hand out for free:

IMPORTANT TIP #1: If you are a writer? Consciously choose to focus on the positive reviews.

Not everyone is going to love your books. I bet it’s no trouble for you to think of a couple or three authors whose work you simply detest. (Certainly I can.) Popular authors, too. There is no reason for everyone in creation to love the same books. When some people don’t love your books, don’t dwell on that. Instead, read the positive reviews, print them out, show them to your mother, quote the most perspicacious bits to your friends. Dwell on those reviews.

IMPORTANT TIP #2: Even people who love other books you wrote may not love this one. Think of three of your favorite authors: have you loved every single book they’ve ever written? Of course not. I did not keep the Rusalka books by CJ Cherryh. I hated the Nazi duology by Barbara Hambly. You all know how much I love Patricia McKillip, right? But I was severely disappointed by SOLSTICE WOOD.

And that’s okay! If an author you love writes enough books, eventually she will write one you don’t like. If YOU write enough books, eventually you will write one that any particular reader doesn’t like, even if that person is usually a fan. THAT IS OKAY. I still love McKillip and Hambly and Cherryh. The reader-writer relationship will survive even a very strong disagreement about the quality of one or two books.

IMPORTANT TIP #3: Don’t go out of your way to force your friends to tell you they didn’t really like one of your books. This is just my advice, and of course totally unsolicited, but personally, I never ask my friends, especially my writer-friends, what they thought of My New Book. I figure if a friend read it and loved it, they would tell me. The writer-friends among them may be sincerely too busy to read it right now, or scared that if they do read it, they might hate it, and that would be so uncomfortable. So I never ask Have you read it yet? What did you think?

Your mom, now. She is required to buy a copy, and one or two to give away, and she must read it and tell you she loves it even if she really doesn’t read books in your genre. Because, hey, that’s what moms do.

IMPORTANT TIP #4: Now that I have several friends who are book bloggers, I have a new, firm rule: Don’t get bent out of shape if a blogger-friend dislikes one of your books.

That rule has actually been in place for a while. Bloggers put their opinions out there, after all. One blogger — a blogger I follow all the time and really like — did not care for CITY. (Yes, I remember that review, even after five years.) I know of two bloggers I sometimes follow who didn’t like HOUSE OF SHADOWS.

Hand out your book to 200 bloggers, and this is bound to happen. It just is. People — strangers, friends, bloggers, fans — are sometimes going to dislike one of your books. If you’re not going to be a hermit, I think it’s so important to get it rock-solid-settled in your own mind that this is okay. To give people permission (in your own mind, I mean) not to like one of your books.

Or else you can be a hermit, I guess. But in this wide world, it’s a shame to close yourself off like that.

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The psychology of writing

A serious post from Martha Wells.

“I’ve never had a book come out that met anybody’s expectations, and I’ve always felt like a disappointment, I’ve always failed the people who bet on me. This is a job I’ve been doing for twenty years, and in one big way, I’ve never been any good at it.”

This is more or less where I live, too. I’ve had books earn out, but I’ve never had one break out. I keep hoping, though. Maybe BLACK DOG will be the one that makes it onto shelves in Wal-Mart! You never know! It could happen! Lots of readers really love werewolves!

The truth is, it’s terribly important to define success in at least some ways that have nothing to do with any measurable criteria of commercial success. Winning an award. Being shortlisted for an award, whether your book eventually wins or not. A great review from Kirkus. A great review from someone whose taste you admire. A book on the shelves that pleases your readers. Or that pleases you.

And it’s terribly important to make a real effort to be happy for other authors who win better awards than you have (yet), who get more industry buzz than you have (yet), whose books are on shelves in Wal-Mart when yours aren’t (yet). A little jealousy, eh, that’s tolerable as long as you’re also genuinely pleased by the success of great writers who aren’t you. But envy is a terrible thing.

And in a world that generally focuses on the new and shiny, let’s hear it for book bloggers and readers who keep a little bit of their attention for great authors who have not yet had the commercial success they clearly deserve.

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The After-Publication Roller Coaster: Laura Lam

This is a nice post on the post-publication roller coaster. I don’t think I roller-coast as much as some authors, but I still like this post.

“You sneak into a bookstore and just stare at the book on the shelf, trying not to cry. You see your Amazon rankings shoot up the lists the first couple of days. And even though you know — you know — not to get your hopes up too much, you do anyway. You get fan mail. You’re on top of the world.

And then, the buzz dies down. The rankings slip. Fewer reviews trickle in. The world has gone on to other new and shiny books. People are still reading you—but most are not reviewers. They’re not as likely to tweet to you that they enjoyed your book or post a review. They read it. They liked it. Or they didn’t. They go on to another book and you’ll never know.”

I never have an impulse to cry in bookstores. But I agree with this, basically. I do know not to hope for too much — but I hope for it anyway. I know buzz will die down, but I’m disappointed by that anyway. I expect every single author rides this particular roller coaster to some extent. I think it’s important not to take it too seriously when you find yourself on the downhill side, too.

Unlike Laura, let me add, I never worried that it might be rude to ask my publishers for sales numbers, but on the other hand, I never ask. I don’t really want to know. Eventually you find out, I don’t mean you can live permanently in that bubble. I know that THE FLOATING ISLANDS has earned out and that HOUSE OF SHADOWS hasn’t. But basically you do what you can to promote your books, and you trust that your publishers are at least making a reasonable gesture in that direction, and then the numbers are what they are, you know? You can’t do much about that. It’s better to just forget about it and write a new book. Which is Laura Lam’s conclusion, too, by the way.

Laura has a recent guest post that follows up this first roller-coaster post here. I see her PANTOMIME has been shortlisted for five awards, so that’s great for her. Hopefully that will do something to offset the falloff that plagues series. I do think the worry that PANTOMIME might draw significant anti-gay reaction was perhaps unnecessary. Surely readers can be expected to notice that Micah is not actually gay so much as unique.

Anyway, PANTOMIME ends on rather a cliffhanger, so I will be interested in how that works out in the second book, SHADOWPLAY, which is either just out now or else coming out any day. The Goodreads reviews look very strong so far. And the cover is fantastic imho — PANTOMIME had one of my favorite covers last year, and this one is also excellent. Here it is:


Do you love that? I really do. I think it is intriguing, beautiful, different and perfect for the story.

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If you are working on writing a book, you must —

Click through and watch this video over at Janet Reid’s blog.

It will take under a minute. There’s no soundtrack you need to mute. It’s just a short, silent little video of words, with different fonts and stuff.

You will probably like it even if you are not currently writing a book or thinking about writing a book or hoping someday to write a book. But if you ARE, then yeah, click through and watch the little tiny video.

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Does writer’s block exist?

So I happened across this post over at Nathan Bransford’s, and though I usually like Nathan’s blog and find him thoughtful in his opinions, I have to say, I could not disagree more with the point he is making here.

Here is what Nathan says: “When people encounter the phenomenon otherwise known as “writer’s block,” what they are really describing is one thing and one thing only: writing stopped being fun.”

And then he goes on to give advice about how to get over yourself and write even when it’s not fun. Which is all very well. But he is missing the OTHER kind of writer’s block. You know. The real kind. The kind that honestly does crush a writer’s ability to write. The kind that Judith Tarr describes here

“For all those who deny that there is a genuine, gut-wrenching, brain-breaking, soul-destroying inability to get words of fiction down on a page, I am here to tell you in all sincerity: Lucky, lucky you. May you always be so blessed. And may you never slam head-on into that wall and have to hear that there is no wall and you are just making it up and what you are going through is bogus.”

What Judith Tarr is describing, and Nathan Bransford is missing, is writer’s block as an expression of serious clinical depression.

I should add that this is not Tarr declaring that writer’s block can arise from clinical depression. This is me stating that what Tarr describes fits clinical depression to a T. If you have ever feel the way described in Tarr’s post, then I hope you seek help for depression rather than waiting it out, because I’m convinced that depression is the underlying issue.

Clinical depression is not something that you can overcome by an effort of will. If I’m right that some cases of writer’s block actually arise from depression, then when a writer is suffering from this kind of writer’s block, it will not help to have anybody deliver well-meant advice that there is no such thing as writer’s block and they should just sit down and the words will come. Because they won’t.

I am not, happily, speaking from experience. I think I have mentioned before that my family seems to have lucked out on that particular genetic lottery.

But it would be nice if those who, like me, are spared the ravages of real honest-to-God clinical depression, hesitate to declare unilaterally that no one else suffers, either.

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The psychology of writing and revision

You know, I honestly was not feeling at all secure about the overall structure of PURE MAGIC (which, you may recall, is the sequel to BLACK DOG, which is coming out in February.) I introduced a new pov character — and I already had two! I divided the plotline and didn’t really pull it together till right at the end! These things made me nervous, especially because as you fiddle around with revising, it gets harder and harder to tell whether the story is at all successful.

It’s not like revision is so very much fun, generally. And when you can’t tell whether the book is any good, it’s worse.

This is why *really good* beta readers are so extraordinarily important, even if they give you a whole lot more revision to do.

Sarah Prineas — who, as you may know, is the author of the MG MAGIC THIEF series — happens to have killer editorial skills, especially when it comes to characterization. So when she declares, “Natividad continues as one of my most favorite YA characters. Her voice is so great — I love her balance of sweetness and power and uncertainty. I love her fluffy pink bathrobe!” — well, that is a great relief. Especially when she immediately adds, “The Justin intro scene is terrific. Introducing a new character at this point is a really good idea.” Even when she goes on to critique his characterization — and I hate fiddling with a protagonist’s overall characterization, such a tedious fiddly sort of job, and impossible to know whether you’ve got it right except by sending it back to your beta reader — anyway, knowing that the basic bones of the story are working is so reassuring.

Especially when my agent, Caitlin, adds, “I loved PURE MAGIC! This one is particularly sure and strong. I like the addition of Justin’s pov and your action scenes are fantastic throughout.”

Particularly sure and strong? *I* did not feel that way. Whew!

And you know what? Despite the fact that both Sarah and Caitlin then go on to load me down with stuff to fix, that first positive reaction is the most important part. Because without that, I feel like, Is this even worth bothering with? But after these brief positive statements, I feel so much happier, even almost enthusiastic about leaping back into revision. This is independent of now having a much better idea of where the ms. is weak and how to fix it.

I mention all this because I just thought: if any of you are thinking of writing or are now in the process of writing a novel . . . it’s important to know that the process really may generate a predictable roller coaster. After finishing the first complete draft of a new story, I *often* feel that it may not be very good, that there may be huge structural problems that may not be fixable, that the characters may not work, that (if the book is a sequel) I might have missed re-capturing the protagonists’ voices. I felt that way with Land of the Burning Sands and with House of Shadows and with a ms I am (still) not supposed to talk about and now with Pure Magic. And in every single case, the ms. was basically fine. Even if there is always more revision to do.

Being confident of that is totally crucial for creating the basic willingness to continue messing around with the revision process.

Knowing that the It’s-Not-Working feeling frequently arises and has never been accurate in the past is one big advantage a writer gets only as she completes one ms. after another. Especially because I don’t *always* feel that way, which makes it harder still to tell whether the feeling is based on anything real. Here’s what experience has taught me: for me, this feeling — that at a very basic level, a story may not be working — is completely untrustworthy. You should never trust it. Or at least, *I* should never trust it. It’s important to let your (extremely competent) beta readers make that call.

Revision usually does not take all that long, provided you tackle it with some determination. I hope to have PURE MAGIC completely revised by December. Or no later than midway through December, which is when my month-long Christmas break starts and I like to work on something new.

In case you ever do need to tackle a complicated revision, what works for me is to make a bulleted list of Things To Do and cross them off as I fix things and never, ever go back to revisit an item after it has been crossed off. If you want to *finish* a revision, letting it be done is kind of crucial. You can trust your beta readers to let you know if there is something that still needs work after you have done the revision. But generally, if you work on, say, fixing a protagonist’s characterization, you will find that even if you can’t tell whether you’ve succeeded, you have. Feelings of insecurity about this are just another iteration of the unjustified insecurity that is (often) part of the writing process. Tolerating those feelings and moving forward is one key skill for a writer.

Or at least, for me.

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