Saturday, January 14, 2017

Tracking Your Productivity So You’ll Know How Long a Story Takes

Scott D. Parker

If someone were to ask you how long it took you to write a story or a novel, would you be able to tell them?

In the business world, we’re often asked to present an estimate for how long it will take to complete a project. That estimate is can sometimes be the one aspect of the estimate that either awards the project or kills it. I’m a technical writer by day, and I’ve been doing it for 17 years. Even now, I sometimes struggle to offer a detailed estimate based on the given parameters that you know will change in the course of the project. Only time and experience and the number of years I’ve been doing that kind of work has enabled me to come close to a proper estimate given a particular set of criteria.

This year, I decided to apply that mentality to my fiction writing. I’ve toyed with the idea of tracking my hours before—only once, actually—but decided it was time to do it again, this time for the long haul. I’ve got a number of challenging goals ahead for my writing life in 2017 and I think it best to know just how long it takes for me—a full-time day job person and, by default, a part-time fiction writer—to write a novel or a short story.

I began the new novel on New Year’s Day. It was developed from a story I set aside while I focused on other stories, but I’ve now returned to it. The only time I have most days is the one hour starting at 4:35am. Every other Friday I have off. Throw in Saturdays and Sundays and I’m looking at four days a week with one hour to write and three days in which I have at least an hour, if not more. Some of the workdays I have slide a few hundred more words in, but, by and large, I’m writing this book at an hour per day.

What am I tracking? Naturally Words Per Day and Words Cumulative. I have to know how much I’m writing. Beyond that, time. I track the time in minutes, in hours, and in cumulative hours. With those pieces of data, I can get my spreadsheet to calculate the Average Word Count Per Hour and a rolling Seven-Day Average.

What has all of this data revealed to me? As of yesterday, thirteen days after starting the new book, I’m up to 33,000 words. Throwing out the first two days of writing (since it was filled with material already written), my best word count day was Thursday. I had jury duty and a few extra hours to write. Yesterday was pretty good, too, since it was an off day. My lowest, ironically, was last Saturday, but I had a bunch of household duties to perform. And the total time used to date is 18.33 hours.

You want to know the real kicker? My average word count per hour for the work days is around 1966. Yesterday and Thursday, I produced more words, but my average was 1801 and 1824 respectively. How’s that for odd? More time to write, certainly more words, but the pace was off. My wife has a theory that I subscribe to: in my 4:30am regularly time, I have a hard stop at 5:30 to get ready for work and get my boy ready for school. Likely my creative brain is firing on all cylinders during that time.

What is the end result of this data? Simply this: as a full-time day jobber and part-time writer (so far), I’ll be able to have the first draft of a novel completed in a month. Yes, it’ll need work after that, but the draft will be done. Projecting forward, it will be likely that I could have a completed first draft of approximately 55,000 words in about 30+ hours. 

Now, with that kind of data, I’ll be able to predict how much time other novels will take. I’ll still need some additional data, but having that in my hand reminds me of the cold hard fact of writers like me who are not as lucky to be writing fiction full time: Yes It Can Be Done. And with relatively little time taken away from other things. And if I can do it, so can you.

How about y’all? Do y’all track your time?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

On Inspiration: Raven

By Nolan Knight 

Inspiration strikes in strange ways. The spark for my debut novel, The Neon Lights are Veins, began with an article in the L.A. Weekly titled “Death of Raven, a Hollywood Beauty”. The lead-in read, “Raven was one of the youngest and toughest Hollywood street runaways…” 

This was June, 2008. 

My future wife, Jenny, and I were renting a one-bedroom in Los Feliz, capitalizing on the benefits of having every amenity within walking distance (Metro line, movie theaters, restaurants, etc.) We never drove on the weekends, a luxury in Los Angeles. These weekends were mostly spent at movie houses or bar hopping with friends up Vermont and down Sunset. Neon signs served as beacons to and from our destinations. I became infatuated with them; the book Los Angeles Neon by Nathan Marsak and Nigel Cox, along with the Museum of Neon Art were integral. But it was the mention of one of these signs in the Raven article that lit a fuse. 

The Olive Motel: a seedy drive-in with rates by the hour and a (since replaced) ominous emerald neon. This was where a sixteen-year-old runaway was strangled to death and then wrapped in a bed sheet to be discarded with trash. The killer (who was caught on tape and later convicted) chose to dump her body behind the El Cid, a flamenco restaurant up Sunset. She was found on a summer morning in 2007. As I read the article, I couldn’t help but realize that when painting the town, Jenny and I would regularly walk right past the girl’s final resting place. Had we obliviously passed by on the night of, inebriated and laughing—the horror scene mere feet away? The article changed the way I looked at my beloved neighborhood, and the image of the poor girl still haunts. 

My novel is in no way a regurgitation of the unfortunate event; the article created an atmosphere to which I would draw and develop characters. Characters that I would see along Hollywood Boulevard as I rode my skateboard in early morning hours, watching sprightly tourists clash with dregs from the night previous. The article and these visuals marinated into what became The Neon Lights are Veins. 

I keep files with newspaper articles on Los Angeles happenings that somehow made an impression: a well for future backdrops or characters. To this day, none have had the impact that Raven’s had. I find this comforting in that I never want to read another article about such a meaningless homicide of someone so young. But living in a transient metropolis that sprawls like no other, I know that I will have to read many, many more in my lifetime. The City beckons; the City destroys. Until then, I await that next spark. 

Nolan Knight is a fourth generation Angeleno whose short fiction has been featured in various publications including Thuglit, Plots with Guns, Shotgun Honey, Beat to a Pulp and Needle Magazine. His debut novel The Neon Lights are Veins is out now via 280 Steps Publishing. He currently lives in Long Beach with his wife and their two children. Peep more at / @Nolan_Knight_ 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Reviews Resolution

by Holly West

My first ever post as a regular contributor to Do Some Damage was about writing book reviews. Or, more specifically, NOT writing book reviews. At some point during the writing of my first novel, I decided that writing reviews was somewhat of a conflict of interest, so I stopped.

Why was it a conflict of interest? Maybe that's not even the correct term. As someone who, then, was about to be published, I began feeling squeamish about giving anything less than a 5-star review. And up to that point, I'd reserved 5-star reviews for books that absolutely hit it out of the park--books I'd loved for years (THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt comes to mind), had read more than once, books I considered an influence to my writing.

By this definition, a 5-star book was exceedingly rare for me. It also meant a 4-star book was excellent and probably, a book that many people would consider 5-star. But how would my author friends view a 4-star review from me? After all, they didn't understand that for me, 4-star meant the book was great.

Rather than risk offense, I stopped writing reviews altogether.

After I got published, I realized first hand just how important those book ratings are, especially on Amazon. Though I've only got the vaguest idea of how their algorithm works, I do know that MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, my book with the most reviews (21) never reached the number required to trigger any sort of additional promotion. And that's okay. From this experience, I learned just how hard it is to get people to write those reviews.

I became sympathetic.

I decided I would write reviews again, especially for those authors for whom I knew my review would make a difference. Blockbusters like THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (which I'm reading now and loving) will benefit from a review/rating, but with numbers in the thousands, my review doesn't make much of a difference. But for the book that has twenty or thirty (or less) reviews? My review can help.

I also loosened my rating criteria. I'm much more likely to rate a book 5-stars now (although 4-stars is still an excellent rating from me).  I won't review books I can't give at least 4-stars.

In spite of my decision to resume writing reviews, I never really followed through on it. Part of it was the concern that whatever I wrote would sound stupid and/or trite. Filled with cliches. I'm a writer myself so my reviews should be brilliant, right? The pressure I put on myself prevented me from writing reviews on any regular basis. Also, I'm lazy. Writing a review was just another thing to put on my to-do list.

But as of 2017, the excuses are no more. I resolve to write reviews of every book I read that's 4-stars or higher. These reviews might simply consist of me saying "I loved it!" but goddammit, I'll review that book. I'll reserve more eloquently written critiques for posts on Do Some Damage, when I see fit.

The reason for this new resolve? I've been moving toward it (that is, thinking about it) for awhile. But when Eric Beetner and I wrote our end-of-year post about the books we loved in 2016, I realized I wasn't as much of an advocate to the book community as I wanted to be. So not only has Eric inspired me to eat fewer french fries, he's also inspired me to put reading higher on my priority list and to take the time to write reviews of the books I love.

Do you have any book-related resolutions?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Language, Language, Language

The other night I was talking with a good friend of mine, and we were discussing David Lynch.  We got into talking about how remarkable Lynch is in creating an emotional feeling in the viewer and how he often does this without dialogue. There's the images, of course, but there's also the way Lynch gets inside the viewers' skin by the way he uses sound design, sound editing and music.  You're watching Twin Peaks or one of his other movies, a particular scene, and without really knowing why, you're feeling sad or joyful or apprehensive or a number of conflicting emotions at once. He's able to get to you subliminally, as it were, and that without question is among the hallmarks that make David Lynch, well, Lynch.  My friend wondered how hands on Lynch is concerning the sound design production of his films, and I mentioned how I'd seen a documentary on Lynch that showed him in Eastern Europe (Poland, I think) working very closely with the soundtrack composer and all the sound people on his film to create a dense, layered sound design. Every aspect of that sound design Lynch scrutinized and approved.

Now, all this talk of Lynch reminded me of a piece I read years ago about him, after his most straightforward movie, The Straight Story, from 1999, came out.  In the piece, the reviewer made the point that in this story which has little of the usual Lynch weirdness, but a very simple narrative about a sick old man wanting to go see his brother before he dies (though he does drive the 240 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin by tractor so there is some oddness), one can truly see that what makes Lynch so effective a filmmaker is not the weirdness per se.  Yes, without question, you sit down and watch a Lynch movie to enter the world created by his complex and bizarre imagination, but it's his mastery of cinematic technique that puts that vision across.  This was never so clear as when The Straight Story came out.  In this movie Lynch has to rely on all the conventional tools of cinematic storytelling, and if it wasn't already, it becomes crystal clear how Lynch is a great director of actors, a master of pacing and the building of narrative momentum, a director who knows exactly how to work on an audience's emotions. This goes with the tight control he exercises over editing, lighting, camerawork and so on.  He had proved this earlier, actually, when he made The Elephant Man, his second feature (after Eraserhead), a story that is Lynchian in its embrace of the beauty in so-called freakishness but whose narrative is, again, straightforward. A guy who had made one feature, and a non-narrative one at that, and here was Lynch directing Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, John Gielgud, and Anne Bancroft with the assurance of a veteran.  The greatness of Lynch, my friend and I agreed, comes in large part from how he has such formal control.  It's that technical mastery, put in the service of his distinctive vision, that allows him to get emotional effects whether he's telling a conventional story or not or using dialogue or not.  You feel a Lynch movie even when you don't quite know what, at that moment, is going on.

So what would be the equivalent of cinematic technical mastery in writing? my friend and I asked ourselves.  No camera to place here, no music or editing effects to employ, no lights and shadow to manipulate for mood.  How do you get your intended effects on the page?  Through language, obviously, and so it stands to reason that the more able and versatile you are with what you can do with words, the more you'll be able to accomplish.  Yes, one should be able to write elegant prose of a silky smoothness or coarse prose that cuts and bites. You should be able to compose with equal skill in long winding sentences or short blunt sentences, in extended paragraphs or short ones, with lots of dialogue or for pages and pages, in fiction, no dialogue.  It's not because you want to show off or write something that's pretty or "well-written".  It's because the more facility you have with language, the more you'll be able to pull off what your ambitions would like you to do.  Most importantly, the better your chops, the more you'll be able to move, engage, and engross a reader.  You can evoke the emotions in that reader you want to evoke.

My friend happened to be dipping every day into the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, and we began to talk about her.  She's a perfect example of what we were talking about, someone akin in her way to David Lynch.  You read a Lispector story (or novel), and it sounds like nobody else in the world. She has way of putting you inside a character's head and then bombarding you with that character's perceptions, both elevated and mundane.  Or she may begin a fairly linear story, but that story will almost never go where you think it will go, if it continues to develop as a linear story at all. Her stories disorient, and you don't even always grasp exactly what she's talking about, but you most certainly feel what's going on in the story.  At the very least, you have a sense, an intimation, of something powerful.  She gets these effects because she feels what she feels and then can translate it all to the page through a use of language that seems to have no limits.  Interest can come through telling a straightforward story, or not.  And, again, it's not that she writes "pretty" or "beautifully", though she can.  We're not talking literary for literary's sake, whatever that's supposed to mean.  It's that Clarice Lispector is an example of a writer who has an instrument she can play in so many different ways, it expands what she can write about.  Because of those tools, she has more approaches open to her than someone working with less.

It goes without saying I'm sort of talking ideals here.  What is writing if not the daily meeting with your own limitations?  Try as I might, I do not expect to develop the facility or originality with language of Clarice Lispector.  And it also doesn't need mentioning that if you don't have much to say, having all the language skills in the world won't make you a writer many people will continue reading.  But be that as it may.  No matter what you're going to write, everything begins with how you're going to say what you intend to say, and for my part, this desire to improve and expand the stylistic tool kit so that I can do more on the page with more versatility is one that I can't see ever burning out.

Monday, January 9, 2017

All In How You Say Goodbye

I have to admire anyone who has writing goals for the year, or any personal goals at all. With two puppies underfoot, I'm just happy if I get sleep!

So I won't be talking about goals, but I do want to take a minute to give my thumbs up to the latest in a long line of shows that's entertained me, and how it connects to a few of my storytelling pet peeves.

The OA.

Now, before we watched it, I'd seen there were some ringing endorsements, and I'd also heard there were some scathing criticisms of the ending. I stayed out of all of the discussion and didn't see the details.

I'm an oddity. I usually don't mind spoilers. I think they're unnecessary in a comedy and that can be a little irritating (because sometimes a spoiler spoils the joke) but I often look up information about characters or if there's going to be another season of the show. It doesn't usually bother me to read about an episode before I've seen it. I'm a grown up. I mean, I saw some remarks about The OA on Facebook and just didn't engage in them because I hadn't watched the show, so I remained spoiler-free.

I'm giving two thumbs up to the show for fully embracing its quirks, staying true to its form unapologetically, and being the first show in a long while that I've never looked up a single spoiler for. As we started this show I soon realized I just wanted it to unfold as the writers intended, and it was worth it to just take that ride. At many points I had no idea how things would progress, and it kept me engaged and entertained.

And the ending was brilliant.

Okay, I have to admit to having a bit of pet peeve with some storytelling conventions. It's funny how we push for realism, and yet defy that with standard storytelling components regularly.

My pet peeves include:

#1. Info-dumping the character history.

God, I hate the obligatory "must dump in several paragraphs about why this character is special/what their personal quest is/every detail about their life until this point" section that comes early on in so many books. You never meet a person and know everything about their entire life in the snap of a finger. Part of the enjoyment of meeting someone is getting to know them, and that's a process. If it wasn't for walking Scout at the Duck Pond I may have never known my husband was attacked by ducks when he was a kid, and that's after 9 years together.

#2. Tying everything up in a pretty bow at the end.

Every question answers, every loose thread tied off. Yes, because that's how it is in real life. I'm not saying you don't answer the who-dunnit. Remember The Killing season 1 ending? Yes, that annoyed a lot of people. In that format, I understand the criticism. However, you don't have to resolve everything, and particularly in a series book, maybe there should be some things left hanging out there to be picked back up in a subsequent book.

Consider The OA. Consider how it would not have worked if the backstory had been info-dumped. Consider how the ending stayed true to the format of the entire show. This wasn't a show that was big on rushing to explanations, and the end was as mysterious as the story was from the start.

And how many times has there been a story about someone emotionally and mentally damaged who quickly just unloaded their feelings and started healing? Thank GOD The OA kept OA as truly messed up and complicated as she ever was, from start to finish.

It's a completely different story, and yet there are some similarities to Rectify, which is one of the best shows that's been on cable in recent years.

Thank God there are opportunities for brave storytelling that's willing to buck conventions and push boundaries.

Thank God there are producers and directors and writers out there who see the potential in this, and are willing to embrace a more realistic approach to storytelling.

At the risk of starting 2017 as the least popular person in the genre, I have to say that maybe writers wouldn't be moaning about declining readerships if they were willing to take more risks and push the boundaries. Look at how TV has been doing it. Look at Netflix original shows. Look at The Man in the High Castle. Hulu, Amazon and Netflix have pushed the networks to bring shows like Rectify.

Maybe the reason we aren't engaging with our audience is that we're too tied to formula to show readers we're evolving. It's why the one thing I have been doing is attempting to write outside the genre. It's a type of cross-training that pushes you outside your comfort zone, but the end is that you have a far more open mind about the possibilities of storytelling than you did before.

The OA's ending will have me back for more in season 2. It earned its audience.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A New Year and More Research

This New Year, just like my DSD colleagues, I’ve made several writing-related resolutions. Including one that I think will actually be a lot of fun.
I want to find more research books. I write about one of the more fascinating parts of the country – Branson, Missouri, and the Ozark Mountains – which is why I love tracking down books about that area.
I’ve gotten some great ones over the past several years, and they’ve each saved me with just the right arcane fact or name that I need for my writing. (Okay, I haven’t actually had a reason to use the Little House book yet, but I will. Besides, how could I pass up buying Laura Ingalls Wilder when I saw that in the store?)
I figure the bigger my Ozark library, the better my books will be. What obscure or hyper-local reference books have helped you in your writing?