State of the Blog — August 2021

Has it been a year already?

In the spirit of being open about my process and progress, I decided to do a State of the Blog post every six months. This gives me a chance to evaluate my work, and hopefully will be helpful to others.

Goals

Why am I blogging?

  • To hold myself accountable to a writing schedule
  • To develop an audience of readers
  • To provide something useful to other writers
  • To make connections with other writers

This is the context that helps me decide how well I’m doing.

I started the blog around August 2020, deep enough into the pandemic to know that it wasn’t going away any time soon. Like many people, I was tired of the dread-induced lethargy, and looking for some creative outlet. I also needed something to help me keep my writing on a schedule; something to keep me accountable.

I didn’t have a plan exactly, but I did have a bunch of ideas. I’ve made vague attempts at blogging before, and they’ve never gone anywhere. This time, I was determined that if I was going to do it, I’d do it properly.

I had the idea of writing a serial novel, released episode by episode. I have a love of writing, and I knew that I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned with others. So before I started, I forced myself to list 100 possible topics for blog posts — to make sure I had enough fodder to keep me posting twice a week for at least a year.

The Metrics

  • Months blogging: ~12
  • Posts: ~85
  • Followers: 29 (and 9 on Twitter)
  • Monthly Views: 93 (average over last 3 months)

These numbers are small. That doesn’t bother me. I’d love to reach a bigger audience, but the important thing is the trend line, and the numbers are steadily growing. I can still get excited when I set a weekly or monthly record in some metric, and right now that’s happening pretty frequently.

Two Posts

After the first few months, I settled into a consistent schedule. On Mondays, I post something about the craft of writing. On Fridays, I post a development journal, where I document my progress on my serial novel, Razor Mountain. I always write my posts early, do a fairly quick editing pass, and schedule them for release.

This basic two-posts-per-week model has worked pretty well. The Monday post provides variety. I can write a Reference Desk post about useful tools, or a post about writing concepts like hooks, conflict, or outlining. Meanwhile, the Friday Razor Mountain posts provide consistency.

Writing these two posts per week also gave me a good baseline for how much time I could devote to the blog. I’m not a full-time writer. I have a day job and other projects keeping me busy. I needed to make sure I wasn’t trying to write more for the blog than I could sustain long-term. Two posts per week was good for me.

Three Posts?

After months of that cadence, I’ve started experimenting with more content. Part of this was finding things that I enjoy posting about, and that readers would enjoy reading. Part of it was finding ways to avoid dramatically increasing the time I spent writing for the blog each week.

I’ve decided to add a Wednesday post to my weekly schedule. I set myself a rule that I can’t spend more than an hour on a Wednesday post. These posts can be shorter and/or sillier than my other posts. I’m also trying to tie them into my other writing projects. Some examples of these Wednesday posts are my series on Twitter microfiction and my “ground-breaking” Writing RPG™.

I still consider the Wednesday post optional. I may skip it sometimes.

The Future

My biggest goal right now is to finish outlining and prep for Razor Mountain. Once that’s done, my posting schedule will probably change again. I still plan to post weekly development journals to talk about the writing process, but I’ll also be posting the actual chapters/episodes.

Being an inveterate planner, I will be writing chapters ahead of my posting schedule, so I have time for beta reader critique and revision. I plan to post episodes on other services as well, and I’ll be going into the details of that process.

I’m also working on interacting more with other bloggers. As a classic writer introvert, it takes a bit of effort to overcome the imposter syndrome and convince myself to comment on other blogs, even when I think I have something to contribute.

I’m also trying to reblog more of the good writing craft posts that I see, especially on days when I don’t have my own content scheduled. It took me a few months to find a decent list of WordPress blogs in my wheelhouse, but now I’m regularly seeing post in my feed that are worth sharing.

Next Stop

I’ll see you back here in six months, for the 1.5 year blogiversary!

Writing: The RPG™

In the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, the exploding popularity of alternate reality games got a lot of Silicon Valley types excited about the power of games to motivate people. For a few years, investors were happy to throw money at any product that included the word “gamification.” A handful of useful or interesting products came out of that wave of gamification, like StackOverflow and the StackExchange network it spawned, but a lot of attempts at gamification just slapped points and badges on drudge work in the vain hope that people would suddenly love it. Those products all sucked, and mostly disappeared.

Still, the idea of gamification isn’t completely useless (probably). I’ve browsed the ARG scene in years past, strictly as a casual observer, not a front-line puzzle-solver. In the best cases, it’s an interesting vehicle for storytelling, and it can be pretty amazing how effective a small group of people are at solving a problem when they’re all having a good time and feel like a community. I read Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, and while I didn’t exactly come away believing that gamification can fix all the world’s ills, I think it can sometimes be useful as a way to self-motivate.

So anyway, that’s why I sometimes think about treating real-life writing as a role-playing game.

Character Creation

Do you want to play Writing: The RPG™? You can! All you have to do is follow these easy steps that I’m making up on the spot. Get yourself a couple pieces of paper.

  1. Select a character name. This can be your real name, or a pen name, or the name of a friend who has a better name than you.
  2. Select a title. This should be something cool like Iron Pen, Word-o-mancer, or Page Slayer.
  3. Select your starting class. This is a general category of writing or writing-related stuff. Writer, Editor, Blogger, or Reader are all good classes.
  4. Select your starting sub-class. This is more specific than your class: Sci-Fi Writer, Short Story Writer, Fashion Blogger, etc.

Character Growth

Your character levels up by gaining experience points. You start at level 1. To gain a level, you need to get as many experience points as (your next level) x 2. So you need 4 XP to level up to level 2, and 6 XP to level up to level 3.

To gain experience, you have to  do stuff related to your classes.

  • A basic, unexceptional amount of work is worth 1 XP. This might be something like writing 1000 words or a short blog post.
  • Completing a task for the first time gets you a First Time Achievement, worth 2 XP. This is stuff like “First Thousand Words Written,” or “First Blog Post,” or “First Short Story.” You also get an achievement for the 10th time and the 100th time. After that, you’re an expert and you don’t get experience for doing that thing anymore.
  • Completing tasks that are very big or very difficult gets you an experience bonus: 5 XP or 10 XP, depending on how big and monumental you think it is. Finishing a novel or having your favorite author retweet you might fall into this category.

Writing: The RPG™ supports unlimited multi-classing. You can add as many new classes or sub-classes to your character as you want to. To add a class or sub-class, you have to complete a related task. You can’t get the Editor class until you’ve edited something. (Like really edited. Edit a chapter of your novel or something. Just fixing a couple sentences doesn’t count. This is serious business.) If you want the Blogger class, you need to post a blog post, and if you want to subclass into Fashion Blogger, that blog post better be about fashion, dangit.

What’s the Point?

There is none. It’s just a silly game. But maybe it’s a silly game that could actually motivate you to do something you kind of already wanted to do anyway? That’s what gamification is supposed to be good for, after all.

What do you think? Can we come up with more rules? I hearby release Writing: The RPG under a Creative Commons public domain license (no doubt giving up my chance to make millions from a half-assed afternoon blog post). Leave a comment with your additional rules, modifications, complaints, or erotic fanfic mash-ups down below.

Writing Advice…Advice

When I was younger, I would devour a book or blog on how to write, and I’d think, “Okay, maybe this is the one that will stick. Maybe this is the one true path that will work for me.” Maybe I can write just like Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman, or Sue Grafton, or even Strunk and White.

Inevitably, I would do my best for a few days or a few weeks, and then I’d start to drag my feet. Or I’d miss my thousand words per day for one day, and then two, and then I’m hardly on the writing-a-thousand-words-per-day plan anymore, am I?

Trying to follow these myriad, often-conflicting pieces of writing advice can be exhausting. Every time you find a process that doesn’t work, it can be even more dispiriting. They’re a bit like fad diets.

Yet, I have a shelf of books about improving your writing. I follow blogs about improving your writing. My own blog is all about writing and learning about writing. I love this stuff. I love the analysis of the writing process almost as much as the actual writing. So how do we make that learning process more useful, and less painful?

Today, I don’t want to talk writing advice. I want to talk about how we take writing advice. Writing advice…advice. Meta-advice, if you will.

Remember Who You Are

If you go look in the mirror right now, chances are pretty good that you won’t see Stephen King or Neil Gaiman. (If you do, get them a warm drink and a typewriter in a corner and they’ll stay out of your way.)

When someone successful puts out writing advice, it’s easy to say, “Look how well it worked for them.” We focus too much on the “look how well it worked,” and ignore the “for them” part.

We all have different life experiences, different internal machinery. We live in different times, places and circumstances. Even if those wildly successful writers could provide the exact book-length recipe that lead them to their wild success, it wouldn’t work the same way for the rest of us. We have different circumstances, and different mental cogs and flywheels that make us tick.

This gets said sometimes, in various ways, but usually not loudly enough. The first thing to accept is that we each have our own recipe for success. It’s going to be different from everyone else’s recipe.

Instead of trying to replicate someone’s recipe, step back and try some of their ingredients.

Pick and Choose

Let’s mix metaphors. Look at all that writing advice like the classic American buffet. There’s everything from pancakes and steak to crab legs and raspberry ice cream. There’s way too much.  A lot of these things don’t really belong together. Some of it is fresh, some of it has been sitting there a while. See, the metaphors are all food-related. It’s fine.

If you try to take everything from the buffet, you’re going to have a bad time. If you only take one thing…well, why are you at the buffet? Instead, pick a few things that seem to go together. Things you think you’ll like. Pick and choose.

I know myself better than any author with a book on writing knows me. I know what I’m good at and not-so-good at. When I hear some advice, I can think about it and have a gut instinct about whether it will be good or bad for me.

Unfortunately, I don’t know myself perfectly well. There are probably some things that would sound awful to me at first hearing, but actually work pretty well. There are certainly things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but ended up working terribly for me.

When following writing advice, pick and choose what sounds good. Once in a while, maybe try something that you’re skeptical about, just in case it surprises you. Follow that advice for a while. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, don’t be beholden to it. Throw it away and try something else.

Let it All Wash Over You

When I think of following writing advice, I tend to think of making a plan and putting it into action. It’s a bit of a science experiment. Make a hypothesis, run the experiment, and compare your results to what was expected. (Okay, this one isn’t a food metaphor. Sorry.)

That’s just my personal default mode. You may be different. But there are other ways to learn. As clever, thinking humans, we are great at acquiring knowledge and skills through purposeful study and experimentation. But we still have an ape brain lurking just below the surface. That animal brain, that subconscious, is great at learning just by exposure.

I’ve read plenty of blog posts and a few books on writing that just didn’t inspire me to go out and try doing something new and different. I’ve read some that I enjoyed, but I didn’t come away with a list of things to put into practice. I think that can still be useful. The act of considering the writing process, and listening to other people’s opinions and thoughts on the topic can still exercise those subconscious muscles. Your ape brain will take bits and pieces, mix them into your subconscious stew, and pour out a big helping the next time you put words on a page. (I did it! We’re back in food metaphors!)

Raise Each Child Differently

As a parent of three children, I know for a fact that my parenting style has changed over the years. My oldest got a different experience that the middle child or the youngest. As a young parent, I worried about things that I now know are no big deal. As an older parent, I have new worries that my younger self never considered. And regardless of order and what I’ve learned along the way, each of my children is their own person, with a unique personality and way of seeing the world.

Have you ever heard writers say that their books (or stories or projects) are like their children? Well, it’s true. Sort of. Each project comes along at a different time in your life. You, yourself, are different when writing them. And each project is its own thing. It has its own needs and its own unique challenges. Just like being a parent of children, when you’re a parent of words, you have to adapt.

It’s one of the most amazing feelings in the world to find a way to get through a book, or even a short story. And it’s really damn frustrating when I find out that what I did last time doesn’t really work that well for the next one. It’s unfair, frankly. But that’s the way it is. One of my favorite quotes lately is Gene Wolf’s: “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re writing.”

Accept that some projects — maybe every project — will be different. Even if something worked for you previously, don’t feel like a failure when it doesn’t work this time. And keep all your failures in your back pocket. You never know when a project will come along where one or two of those things just happen to fit.

Keep Evolving

There is no silver bullet. No One True Way. I write as well as I can today, and I keep learning new things so that I’ll write a little better tomorrow. Promises of sudden writing super-powers are enticing, just like those diet books that supposedly let you lose 20 pounds in a week. Unfortunately, those promises usually don’t pan out. It’s the steady, incremental improvements that make a real difference over the long term.

Many writers, myself included, like to think about some nebulous point in the future when we will have “made it big.” It’ll all be easy after that. The words will flow out of my keyboard and onto the bestseller lists. I’ll have it all figured out.

Even for the people on the bestseller lists, with the books about how to write, it doesn’t work that way. They still struggle sometimes, and if they’re good, they keep changing up their tactics. They keep learning. Instead of imagining some point of total enlightenment, think of learning as a continuous journey. There is no writing nirvana. It may be a bit sad to accept that we’ll never get to the point where we have it all figured out. But it’s also pretty awesome that we can always get even better than we are today.

That’s It!

That’s the end of my writing advice…advice. We’ll be back to the regular old non-meta writing advice by next week. And I hope you’ll take the things that work for you, for the project you’re working on, and throw away the things that don’t, without a hint of remorse.

The Blank Page

Every writer knows the daunting feeling of staring at the blank page. There’s promise and possibility. There’s a perfect story in your head, in that hazy wonderland where all characters are rounded and all plots are hole-free, and your brilliant, subtle themes give future literature professors whole semesters of discussion topics.

Unfortunately, as soon as it’s on the page, all the imperfections become obvious. Writing gets hard when you get down to the actual words. Like any other story, this blog is going to be one thing in my head, and another thing entirely when it’s on the page.

Bloggery

I’m going to talk about techniques and experiences. I’m going to point to things that I think are great, and do my best to explain why. I may review books or other media, but I’m more interested in what we can learn from it than any opinions on how “good” something is.

Serialized Fiction

Following in the footsteps of Dickens and Dumas, I’m going to be publishing free, (eventually) novel-length fiction here, hopefully weekly. This will be a fun experiment; I’ve never put work out into the world this way.

Writing…Live!

Another experiment I’d like to try is live-streaming writing sessions. The act of writing is oddly intimate, and while writers love to talk about writing, we rarely have an opportunity to see the first drafts or the editing as they happen. It may be a great way to start discussions. It might be a disaster. If nothing else, it should be interesting.

And More?

Of course, now that this post is nearly done, I find that it’s much worse than what I thought it would be, when the page was still blank. I’m sure there will be other things we do here. Other ideas. Other inspirations. We’ll keep some characters and kill off others. We’ll find the plot eventually. There will be a glorious arc. It’ll all work out.

At the very least, I’ll get it out of my head and onto the page.