D is for Doubt

Let’s face it, at the time of this writing, I’m an unsuccessful writer. If you are reading this blog, chances are good it’s because we know each other in some way. Maybe tangibly – you’re a friend, a coworker, or someone who’s been stuck talking to me. Maybe we just know each other online (I’m intermittently extroverted when I’m not busy clamming up and shutting down). I’ve written a few books, even self-published a few of them, but I can tell you straight up, I have had no secret success as a writer.

And yet, I continue to write. I write for the simplest reason of all – I enjoy trying to tell a story. Now sometimes, I tell a story and others enjoy it. Sometimes, I tell a story and everyone looks at me with a vague, glazed over stare that tells me that the story missed its mark somewhere.

I used to think that when I finished writing a novel, that was it, send it out. Why hold onto it at that point? I think it was that mentality that led me to self-publishing my books, and it was waking up from that mentality that put a pause on publishing.

Take my most recent novel (you’ll need to take my word on it). Titled A King’s Lament, it’s the story of a king who is haunted by the ghost of his lost love. So much so that he forsakes crown and kingdom to track down where she fled to 20 years ago, even though his country is just recovering from a war with the republic that invaded and subjugated the neighboring kingdom. Oh, and his brother is out to get him too, but he doesn’t know that at the start of the story.

Sounds great, right? Wait till you get to the midpoint climax and learn X and Y and realize Z. Then there’s the mad dash to try and avert more war and disaster with the dawning realization that he was set up to fail. And some of the things we thought we understood about the world? Just a misdirection we should have caught on to before.

Don’t worry about that being spoilerly. Even if I were to buckle and publish/submit it someday, that’s the back cover blurb material and doesn’t tell you much about the story.

When I finished the first draft a few months ago, I set it aside. Its something I’m struggling with but accept the value of. Set the story aside for a while, let it fester and ripen, then look at it again. And when I did that, what I found was a bland story. I’d tried to write it in the first person, but what came across was just a boring, haughty king traipsing around. I spent some time lamenting that myself, then decided I’d rewrite it in the third person.

But yeah, that’s when the first doubt started to creep in.

Undeterred, I set off and wrote the first 30k of the revised novel, a third of it new material. Things were going great, or at least, progressing, until the day I needed to take a break. When I came back after a day off, I look at what I had written and despaired. Doubt with a capital and bold D was settling in.

The problem is that the story is still….bland. Luthor isn’t particularly engaging, and what I’ve written feels more like a spicy travelogue than a novel. I find myself doubting this work altogether. This is my second attempt (well….something like my fifth, really, but who’s actually keeping track of all those draft versions besides me and dropbox…) and it still feels…meh.

A past me might have transitioned from Doubt to Despair at this point, but this is a new me. I see where the story is failing. I acknowledge that for whatever reason, now is not my time for telling this story. I have a few other stories incubating at the moment, departures from the kind of story I’ve been telling which in a lot of ways makes them all the more appealing. It’s supposed to be in the 100’s F this weekend- sounds like a great time to catch up on some Harrow County, read some books, and tinker with some ideas while avoiding the inferno outside.

Hello, it’s me.

Hello, it’s me. I know it’s been a while. It feels like years, even though it’s only been a few months. How the world has changed in the three months since my last post.

I should start by saying I didn’t stop blogging because of the soft apocalypse. To be honest, in a lot of ways nothing has changed much in my life because of the lockdown. I worked from home before, I work from home now. I didn’t have a significant out of the house social life before, and that has remained status quo. With only sporadic outings for undeliverables, what I miss most is the freedom to run out and get something. Not enough to risk a contagion, but that’s what I miss.

So why the silent treatment? Well, and if you follow me on twitter (and you probably should, it’s the one platform I’m active on still), this is not surprising news. A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of The King’s Lament. There is a lot of work to do on it still, starting with rewriting the first six scenes for POV corrections, plus all of the revising and massaging I think the story needs, but I am fairly satisfied with the rough draft. I finished around 60k, which is a meaningless number for now. I know there are scenes and chapters I may yet add, and for every had and still and that I remove, there will be plenty of text stirred in.

I was silent on the blog because I have a bad track record of talking up a story when I’m working on it, then never finishing. I wanted to avoid that this time, so instead I wrote the story first. Novel, I know.

Long time readers – and this takes little effort given how sporadic my posts have been – may recognize the working title. This is actually a book I tried to start writing last Spring before my life was turned upside down. I’ve still not quite recovered if I’m honest. The coming week is the anniversary of my father passing, followed a few days later by my mom. I’m in my mid 40’s, and I won’t lie, I’m still shaken up when I say that. I guess you’re never too old to tremble at the realization your parents have passed.

So there we are. A blog post, to remind the spammers where I am, and an explanation of my absence, which is namely to say “writing.” And sure, I could have blogged about other things besides writing since February, but let’s face it, I can’t keep a secret for more than a few days. Ask my wife.

And since it was the song that came to mind when I started writing this blog post:

Outlining progress in a novel

Outlining. It’s something I know would help me, but I always run into a cognitive blockade translating the vision in my head into something sensible. In my head? It’s a three dimensional tapestry of interlocking pieces that converge to tell a story. On paper? It’s a mishmash of words that are fairly incoherent, volatile, and likely to be incomplete and therefore abandoned early.

“It’s all right,” I always tell myself. “I’ll fix the outline later. For now, let’s just get some writing done!” And I do. Often times a solid 30,000+ words. The problem is that although I bristle at the thought of following a guideline – who am I to tell me what to write?!? – the resulting story is often far more coherent in the parts where I did sit down ahead of time and map something out.

The problem that has always plagued me, I think, is the thought that it has to be a written outline. Bear with me on this one.

I was watching a Brandon Sanderson video on plotting the other day and in a not quite roundabout way, it led me to drawing out a map of the WIP I want to be working on (but refuse to put any solid words towards until there is an outline).

A funny thing happened. As I drew out the map, marking points where things needed to happen in the story, even where they should happen, I found myself doing more. Part worldbuilding, part storybuilding, I began making notes of things that had to happen here*, before this* or that*. And that’s when I realized, as I was drawing this map to frame the progress of the story with, I was also drawing an outline.

I still have a ways to go. Right now I have these pages in a small Field Notes notebook, and some poor attempts at digitizing the maps I’ve created. (Side note: it doesn’t seem like the same creative neurons are triggered drawing with a mouse on screen as with a pen and paper. Some are fired, but not the same ones.) But it’s progress on an outline, and I’ll take it.

Of course, that said, I’m getting antsy. There is only so much thinking I can do about a story before I need to dig in and start writing. I began this blog post a week ago. I’ve done little to alter the map since then, an indicator (to me) that the next creative step is to actually start putting words down. I’ve a rough outline, grounded with the map. I expect I will stray from the outline at times, but with the map in hand I hope to remain consistent no matter what.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Although my blog is setup to post across multiple platforms, I don’t actually go to Facebook more than once a month or so, Tumblr even less so. Thanks for visiting!