Self-Imposed Stress

An interesting thing about stress, especially self-imposed stress.

I desperately wanted to get a new novel finished by Pikes Peak Writers Conference, so I’d have something fresh to pitch to the various agents/editors in attendance. To pull this off, I’d have to write about 1200 words a day, every day for almost 3 months. That’s almost NaNoWriMo pace. Yeah. I could probably pull it off, but the stress of writing quality words at that speed for that length of time stressed me out to the point that I couldn’t write at all. I’d open the document and just stare at what I’d written so far and just blank out.

I’d psyched myself out. Stupid brain.

About a month ago, I decided to pass on that opportunity and just attend PPWC to enjoy it and learn and network and such.

Stress gone. Almost immediately gone, to be honest. A few days after this decision, I managed to write several thousand words in a single sitting on this work-in-progress.

Since then, I’ve managed about 10,000 words on the novel. Since I’ll be attending the Ghost Town Writers Retreat in August, there’s another opportunity for me to meet some agents. I’ve decided to set August as my goal for finishing this fresh novel. Scrivener tells me that I need to do about 680 words a day, every day, until then to get things done. I don’t write every single day, so when I do write, I have to hit a higher target number. Most days, when I get a block of time to write, I produce 1k to 3k words. This means that August is much more attainable.

With the self-imposed stress gone, I won’t be letting myself down. It’s freed me to write. It’s opened up my mind and time to allow me to “fill the well” and expand on what I want to write. I’m in a much more comfortable mental space.

However, this makes me worry a bit. What if I get a tight deadline from a publisher? Will I stress to the point of missing the mark or seizing up?

Maybe. Probably not. I tend to do much better with external deadlines than internal ones. If someone needs something from me, I’m highly driven to get it to them by the time they need it. This provides me with energy and drive to accomplish something. I’m not sure why my brain treats my own deadlines differently. Perhaps this particular deadline was too ambitious? Not sure. Probably.

Here’s an example of a tight, external deadline that I managed to nail down.

A good friend of mine, Hank, was editing a horror anthology and needed one more story to round out the book. I knew about the anthology, but just couldn’t capture an idea that fit the theme the way I wanted it to. Then he called me up about 6:30 in the evening with an idea. Hank asked me if I could take the characters from a previous story and transplant them to a setting that fit the theme of the anthology.

It clicked. Hard. Yeah. I could do that.

Then I asked him when he needed the story. He was on a tight deadline from his publisher and passed that along to me. He said, “By midnight.”

Wow. A little over five hours to crank a short story, polish it up a wee bit, and submit it to him.

Here’s the deal: Hank and I can sit and bullshit for hours on end about lost of nothing if given the opportunity.

He opened that door by asking, “How’s things going?”

I responded, “Good, but I have a story to write. Gotta go.” I hung up on him. A little rude, but I’m pretty sure he was laughing on the other end.

I managed to crank out the story (4,600 words), print it, watch an episode of Fringe to clear my mind, edit the story on paper, and then transfer the edits back into the computer by deadline. I sent him an email with the story at 11:55PM. Five minutes to spare!

He called me the next afternoon and told me that I was in the anthology and that I had the anchor spot in the book.

See? I can hit tight deadlines. Just not my own, I guess.

Any tips for setting goals (sometimes crazy goals) for yourself and actually pulling it off?

A Fear: Writing the Other

I’ve started work on a new sword & sorcery series. I have a map of the city. I have back story of the city. I have scant character outlines. I know how the two protagonists met. I’ve worked up key side characters and vital locations. I’ve outlined the plot of the first book as well as I can without actually writing the book.

Egan was a well-educated (thus well-spoken) child living in a remote area. The emperor took offense to some (as yet to be determined) slight (or maybe an attack?) by leaders of Egan’s village. The emperor (being the bastard he is) declared a rebellion brewing in the village and ordered all adults killed and all children to be enslaved. Egan was barely young enough to be called a child. He and his brother were taken back to the city and sold off. Egan was forced into life as a gladiator because of his size, strength, and intelligence. He did well for himself.

Stiles was raised in the warrens of the city, and was forced to survive through any means necessary. He never knew his parents and was more-or-less raised by communal efforts to groom him to be a thief. As a result, he became a stellar thief just because he knew he had to be valuable to someone in order to make that someone keep him alive. His drive to excel pushed him high enough in the hierarchy of the Warrens to the point where he was able to escape to the city proper. Once in the city, he was back on the bottom rung of society and had to start over. He’s known to the law as a relatively minor criminal, but always manages to slide past punishments meted out by the judiciary system.

There. We have a couple of character sketches and some background.

Sounds like I’m in good shape, right?

Not so much.

Here’s why:

Egan is a black man. Yes. I went there. I enslaved a black man to a white master. While this is an alternate reality story, it’s a reflection on history of our world. I hope to treat the outlook, attitudes, actions, and reactions of not only Egan, but also society, his master, those against slavery, and those for slavery properly. I’m a middle-aged white guy who has never been a slave. I’ve never owned slaves. Slavery (at least in the United States) was long gone before I came about. This means I have no personal experience with any of this. Egan, his past (and present) situation(s), this society, his master, etc. are all “the other” to me.

Stiles is gay. I had originally written him as a womanizer, but every time I had Stiles flirting with a woman, something felt off to me. The interactions were false at face value. I didn’t even believe them. As an exercise, I wrote a test scene where Stiles had an intimate (not sex, just close) moment with another man. Someone who was once a lover, but now are just good friends that still deeply care for one another. The scene worked. It felt (to me) to be plausible… believable…. genuine. This convinced me that the character that leaped from my brain was not who I originally imagined. He told me he was gay. Who am I to argue? However, I’m not homosexual. This means I have a second main character of the series that is also “the other.” I’ve had a few gay/lesbian friends over the years, and they are the people I’m thinking of when I write Stiles. I’m not planning on using them as examples or character sketches, mind you. I’m going to be thinking, “Will they approve? Will they like this? Will they ‘buy’ this scene with Stiles?”

So there you go.

I’m writing “the other” on so many different levels with my next project that I’m actually scared shitless about doing it.

Will that stop me?

Hell, no!

I’m all in.

I’m going to do this.

I just hope I do it well enough to make an entertaining story without forcing my middle-aged-hetero-white-guy perspective and attitudes onto my decidedly different characters.

Wish me luck.

Deadline #1 — CRUSHED!

I had set a deadline of Sept. 30th for finishing the map for the Egan & Stiles stories. As of last night, it’s done.

You can see a small version of my efforts below. Click the image to enlarge.

Map of Mesnick
Map of the City of Mesnick

You’ll probably notice that there aren’t many labels, street names, etc.. I’m leaving most of that open for my imagination to run wild with as I develop the stories. As I nail down locations, I’ll mark them on the map and move on.

I expect this to be a living document that evolves as the stories evolve.

… Now to start the process of outlining the story. I think I have enough ideas to chain together and make an 85,000 to 95,000 word novel out of things. Though, if it comes in shorter, I’m cool with that. Just so long as it’s north of the 75k mark.

I’m sure some folks will ask me how I made the map. I’ll go ahead and divulge that now.

I started with an art pad measuring 18″ x 12″. I used a regular old mechanical pencil to create the river, cliff, and buildings. Yeah. I had to use the eraser quite a bit as well. I didn’t explicitly draw roads. I just gapped out the buildings so there would be a place to flood fill the road patterns in later.

Then I took some photos (my scanner is smaller than the paper size) of the photo. I tried and tried and tried to convert the pencil drawing to black and white, but it failed miserably because the pencil lines just didn’t show up well enough to GIMP to be converted to black lines. Even with the help of my wonderful wife (who is a photographer and knows how to manipulate images), I couldn’t get a B&W image.

Instead of throwing the map out and starting over on a smaller, scannable sheet of paper, I spent the time with an ultra-fine-point Sharpie to ink the entire map. That was almost as hard as drawing it in the first place, but I got it done.

More photos and image editing based on the training my wife had given me, and I had a B&W image of the map I’d drawn. With a little clean-up around the edges, I was in business.

Then I added tons of layers to the map. Some for the red points (they’re shrines), some for the walls, some for the paved roads, and some for the dirt roads. Oh. There are some for the swamps, farms, warrens, and graveyard as well.

Then I started with a stencil tool to add the swamp, farmland, warrens, and graveyard symbols. Then I used the lasso select tool to select by hand the various areas for paved roads and dirt roads. Then I did a flood fill with a pattern to fill in the areas.

Then came the walls and cliff face. Those were easier to select with the magic wand and fill in. Then I had to select each shrine (they were originally black dots) with the magic wand and flood fill them with the red dots you see on the map.

Then I labeled a few areas/locations with some text, and called it good.

The whole process was probably 50 hours of work spread out over a few months.

Now I’m really glad I set a deadline. I should have had this done in a few weeks instead of a few months. Ah well. Such is life.

Now to get to some serious outlining!

Deadlines

I think I figured out why I’m in such a writing slump. I’ve not set a deadline for my writing in a long time. Yes, I’ve had Day Job deadlines, and PPW Contest deadlines, but I’ve not had any hard dates set for when I want a piece of prose finished.

There’s something you need to know about me. I’m driven by deadlines. I thrive on them. I kick deadlines in the ass as I cruise past them with a finished product in hand while on my way to the next deadline.

So why haven’t I set a deadline for getting the map of Mesnick done? I don’t know. I think it just slipped my mind that I needed a deadline. Perhaps I was scared to set one knowing that I probably wouldn’t be able to meet the deadline without going days on end without sleep.

With this in mind, I’m setting three deadlines for myself with regards to the first Egan & Stiles story.

  1. Finish the map of the city of Mesnick by September 30th, 2013. Yes, that’s only a little over 5 days away. I can do it, though. I already have a vast majority done. I just need to polish up some details. Honestly, they are probably unimportant details, but I want them done for the sake of my sanity.
  2. The second deadline is to finish the first novel telling Egan & Stiles’s story by March 15th, 2014. That’s the Ides of March and my 16th wedding anniversary. I figure it’s as good of a date as any, and will allow me the time I need to get the novel written. This is first draft only, which leads me to my third deadline.
  3. I will have the first Egan & Stiles novel edited by April 23rd, 2014. Why that date? Well, it’s the day before the opening day of the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I plan on pitching this new novel to agents and editors at the conference, so it kind of needs to be done and edited by then.

These are reasonable deadlines and goals. I can hit these deadlines. Heck, I might be able to crush these deadlines unless Real Life gets in the way in a serious way that I can’t predict. As it stands, I’m going to press forward and finish the first novel by the date listed above. I’ll keep you updated on my progress as things develop.

Radio Silence

I’m really sorry for the month-long radio silence you’ve had to endure. I’ve been head down in a large project for Pikes Peak Writers. That project has more-or-less come to a close for now. The web site for The Zebulon Writing Contest is now launched, and I can rejuvenate my energy levels with a few days off. I’ve spent those days reading, plotting, fiddling with my map for my Egan and Stiles stories, and playing with my son.

I’ve been feeling the incurable itch to write something for the past two months, and all I’ve managed to squeeze out the time for was a short story (a hair over 4,000 words), and that’s about it. I’ve jotted tons of notes and ideas for Egan and Stiles. I have the basic idea of the first of their stories I want to tell, but it needs to percolate more. I think a little more world building… er… city building will spark the ideas I need to fill in that “swampy middle” of the novel.

I have the opening scene in my head. I have the closing scene in my head. I know of a few key points for the middle that I want to happen. However, I’m know it’s not enough material to make a novel out of. It’s just a matter of letting the ideas coalesce into something coherent and continuous.

I’ve been tempted to throw up a copy of the map I’ve been working on, but since it’s a work in progress, I’m a little shy about doing that. I think I’ll finish off the map and then send it your way, so you can check it out.

Back to the grind of the Day Job. I hope to get some writing/mapping/plotting/planning done this evening!

Writin’ & Ramblin’

As you guys can tell, my muse has forced me down a path to where I’m starting a new series. For those of you that know me, you know that I’m a serious world builder. It’ll probably be 2-3 months before I actually outline the first story for Egan and Stiles. I have world building to do!

This doesn’t mean I’m not going to be thinking about the characters, story, plot, arcs, antagonist(s), minor characters, and all that good stuff. I’m making notes on all of that as well, but my main focus right now is the city in which the stories will unfold.

I don’t anticipate Egan and Stiles to leave the city during the tales I’m telling. They might go under the city, but probably not outside it. We’ll see how things unfold.