The temptation to quit

My book began simply and without grand ambition. Writing creatively has always been a source of joy for me and has rarely felt like work, even when it was to meet a scholastic or occupational requirement imposed upon me by others. The first three chapters saw their genesis in Sunday morning sessions on my laptop, writing in the quiet early morning hours with a cup of coffee and a comfortable chair, simply for the joy of it. Without any long-term goals, I merely wrote what I wanted to read. The main character is not based on any person, alive or dead, fictional or factual; he is what my hands typed almost at random, nothing more.

I learned about the main character the same way the reader does, word by word, sentence by sentence. His personality unfolded to me as I wrote him. Once I was introduced to him, ideas and inspirations began to form in my mind about interesting things that could happen, so I had to equip him with the skills and experience necessary to survive and thrive. He needed friends and family, so they came next as well as the world he lives in.

It wasn’t until I finished the first three chapters that turning it into a bona fide book began to seem plausible. I re-read everything I had written so far and found myself eager to read more, wanting to know what happens to him next. Up to that point I had simply written what I would want to read, so I made the audacious assumption that what I liked might also appeal to others. I made the decision to keep going with the explicit intention of making a book out of it.

At that point I stopped writing and began to read everything I could about the business of writing; how to write, what to write, and how to make it sell once the writing was done. I almost ended the entire project because the odds of getting it published and sold at anything resembling a successful level seemed nearly impossible.

I began to doubt myself. I let my wife and a few close friends read what I had so far and they were very enthusiastic about it, eager as I was to see what happened next. I contacted Michael J. Sullivan, a rising star in the epic fantasy world, who had become an overnight success that was more than 10 years in the making. A conversation began via email; questions were asked, answers were given, and ideas were discussed. After several weeks, Michael offered to read my work and give me an honest and professional critique.

Sullivan’s feedback was perfect because it was both encouraging and constructive. He admitted that my gritty writing style wasn’t exactly his cup of tea, but that aside, he gave me some pointers describing how he might change things. He added the caveat that there isn’t always a right or wrong way to do things, just different approaches to solving the same problems.

I took his advice into consideration, which basically means I contemplated scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch purely out of frustration. At this point I had four fairly long chapters written and the idea of reworking them to the level he suggested seemed like more work than it was worth. Starting over seemed easier.

Writing for fun is one thing. Writing for profit is an entirely different enterprise. The scale of what you write varies, of course, but there are many other concerns that I quickly discovered would influence how I wrote the story. Just like pop songs and blockbuster movies, there are formulas that govern how top-selling books are written. I found myself in a state of mind focused on the mechanics of writing a fantasy novel rather than being driven by the passion to create. It was this loss of passion that tempted me to give up.

Then I realized something. Books, like art, are very subjective things. Even non-fiction can be subjective. Three different authors can witness the same event yet they will write about it in completely different ways. Readers will like one version and dislike the others. It’s all subjective. I wasn’t overly worried about spelling and grammar, but if I made sure I didn’t have any plot holes or reference things or characters that weren’t previously introduced to the reader, I could continue writing what I would want to read and just let the book unfold and finish the same way it started.

I now find myself eager to keep writing because I really want to find out what happens next. Stay tuned…

Advice from a master, Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. SullivanAs I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I use Scrivener as my primary writing tool. I came across an article describing how acclaimed fantasy author, Michael J. Sullivan, uses Scrivener to write his books. Michael and I exchanged emails for a while, discussing various aspects of writing as a profession with a focus on the ‘getting published’ side of things. During these discussions I mentioned that I was working on my first fantasy novel and Michael volunteered to read what I had so far and give me a critique.

So I took him up on his offer.

Although Michael wasn’t personally enamored with my work so far, he said it was better than most of the works he reads from budding authors. He followed up with some excellent advice on how to improve the grab-factor of my first chapter, and more specifically, the first three paragraphs. Editors, like record executives, need to be hooked by your story as quickly as possible or they won’t bother reading the rest. You can’t write something obscure and then explain it in chapter three, hoping the reader has the patience to last that long into your story.

Michael is an approachable and likeable author who is willing to share [via his blog] his experience and wisdom gained in his effort to become published. He has numerous posts that impart valuable tips on the entire range of the “I want to be a successful author” effort. I am halfway through his first novel, Theft of Swords, and can attest that he’s a damn good writer as well as a nice guy.

For those like me who are aspiring to become novelists — regardless of genre — check out Sullivan’s blog. The breadth of information and advice he provides is invaluable. His books are definitely worth reading as well.

Zoom, zoom!

Lately I’ve only had time for short rides on weekends, and when weather and errands allowed, the occasional commute to work. As a result, when I ride, I want to make it count.

I’m fortunate that I live next to some tasty roads that remain snow-free 99% of the year. They tend to be through rural or semi-rural areas and are a diverse blend of curve types and elevation changes. This makes them excellent rides to keep my skills sharp during the off-season.

The downside to these short but challenging rides is the lack of a proper warm-up period. It’s a good idea to maintain a moderate pace for the first half-hour of riding and to pay attention to your presence in The Zone. I’m a big believer in this kind of self-awareness. If I’m in the zone, I’m more likely to challenge myself. When I’m not, however, I back off and play it safe. Having curvy and diverse roads so close to home requires that I be somewhat engaged before I even set off. This means I don’t ride if I’m already fatigued from other activities — I ride before chores, not after.

I also give my tires a chance to scrub in (warm up) before attempting any significant lean-angles when cornering. I’m not hitting 60% lean-angles like Ben Spies or Casey Stoner, but my V-Strom will definitely lean over enough to scrape pegs despite how high they are above the pavement.

All of these factors go into the skill-building effort. Practice doesn’t just involve cornering technique, it includes muscle memory, evaluation of riding conditions due to road surface, visibility, and weather, and perhaps above all constantly being aware of oneself and the state of my ability at the time — my ability to ride well varies from day to day, road to road, hour to hour, and I must constantly weigh that against my desire to go zoom, zoom, zoom.