The System

Last night I attended another crafting session with the LittleSpec writers group. All in all, I’ve found these discussions productive. They require of me an investment of an evening a week which, at the moment anyway, I can afford and the discomfort of a nasty hour and a half drive from Boulder down to the south side of Denver in rush hour traffic. Predictably my least favorite part of the trip.

Next week, I’m excited to say, the group will be giving me some feed back on a working draft I’ve written currently titled “The Big Red Buckle“. I know that there is more editorial work I need to do as well as an impending re-title (I don’t actually mention the reward/title in the story … oops), but I’m very interested to get other people’s, specifically, people who are not soaring pilots, opinions on this work since it represents one of the first things I’ve completed since I started playing a writer. Once I’ve got this one tied up I plan on submitting it to a bunch of periodicals and it will be part of a collection I’ll probably self-publish.

So, last nights word-smithing discussion centered around the member’s various systems of working and producing. There are a lot of different ways to approach the craft that’s for sure and thus far I’ve been experimenting, trying to figure out the best mix of organizational finesse coupled with equal parts self discipline and brute force will to complete projects. Add all of that on top of the stay-at-home-Dad business I spend most of my time keeping up with and I suppose I’m still a professionally challenged individual.

The system that I’m developing seems to more or less work for me. I got a chance to think about it, out loud, last night for the first time and since I’ve been trying to put some better words into describing what I’m doing. This is more of a writing exercise for myself than anything else, but I’m posting it publicly because a) this is something I wonder about other writers I read and admire and b) what I do may be useful to other writers.

Deciding What to Write

Inspiration certainly plays a prominent role in this part of the system; you need to have something to write about before you can decide to write it. If a quarter of a year can be used as a yardstick, I have not had a problem being inspired. In fact, I seem to be coming up with new ideas I could write about all the time. Time is my limiting factor here, I’ve got on average two or maybe three hours a day to write about any one of these ideas. More often than not, I jot things down on scraps of paper or on my tablet when I think of them and then they get “shelved”.

Persistent or nagging ideas get developed. That voice we all carry around in the back of our heads nags me about ideas I think might work and it doesn’t let up even when I know I’ve got something else to do. Doing the dishes or driving my truck seems to be a good place to kick off the development of a story idea. Talking with Tess or other friends about my ideas usually adds more flesh to those bones. And eventually, I’ve got a corpse laying on the slab which needs life breathed into it.

Some of them get put on ice for a while (see Wiring Stories), but what I do is look at projects I’d like to finish and prioritize what I’m going to spend time on at this point.

Wiring Stories

In the past I’ve plunged head first into some stories I’ve written. No planning, no outline, no forethought I just sort of bang away at the keyboard until I run out of steam. Unfortunately, I usually run out of steam before I’ve even gotten close to completing these attempts. And some of them are really cool ideas too, so its a shame that I’ve lost these.

I’ve found that I need to pre-think what I write if I’m going to have any hope of finishing. For shorter stories (say 5,000 to 9,000 words) all I really need is a summary of what the idea is about. One maybe two sentences which I can refer to if I start to feel lost or unsure where to take it. Those medium sized projects, anything greater than 9,000 words but less than a chaptered novel, usually have at least one spreadsheet somewhere which I use to keep notes in about the setting, the characters, plot elements, you know the different parts of the story.

Never having written a novel length project yet, I’m currently opting to use development tools to help me as I tackle this beast. The first in a trilogy I have planned to work on later this year is a project, with a work breakdown structure, milestones, deadlines, multi-channel timelines, character descriptions and a mind map of key technologies and events. The amount of meta I’ve been using to wire up this project is actually a little daunting, I spent most of my writing time today adding detail to the timeline for the first book.

And then, and this is potentially one of the most important elements in the way I address projects, there is the project calendar. I’ve decided to give myself deadlines for just about everything. A writing project, regardless of the length, that I cannot fit into this calendar, which right now is running about six months into the future, gets put on ice. I may, if the planets align, tackle the iced ideas later, or I may not. Six months from now, when I’m looking for something to write developing one of these may seem like the thing to do or I may have different interests then.

The Grind

Regardless of where or how I publish I intend to publish the projects I’ve got in the pipeline. As I explained last night at the LittleSpec meeting, this has got to be part of the equation for me. I’ve effectively divorced from my previous career as a systems engineer and program manager and thus I find myself adrift in deep, deep waters. I can say that I’ve never been happier piloting this little boat of a life. No subjective annual performance reviews, no frustrating weekly “one-on-ones” (one of the most suggestive homoerotic terms ever used in the business community), and if there is kool-aid to drink at least its my own favorite flavor.

Right now I have goals, set out in increments. I shoot for a thousand words a day. I haven’t really figured out how to measure my progress doing editorial work or re-writes, its qualitative work that has to be done regardless and I am learning how to estimate the time it takes with more precision.

I am able to grind out at least a thousand words a day if I can sit down and work without distraction (yes, I’m talking to you loud lady who likes to talk on the phone in the lobby of the North Boulder Rec Center). On a good day, I’ve crammed three thousand into my two hour childcare window.

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