Friday, January 27, 2012

Ambrose/Barron Convo 1: Wearing the Writer Hat

This is the second part of a recent Google DocTalk with my publishing pal Jeff Ambrose, and we had a broad conversation about this Writing thing we do. We decided to split it up into two "hats", writer and publisher. Last week? "Wearing the Publisher Hat" This week: "Wearing the Writer Hat". You'll be able to find the conversation on both of our sites.

Jeff Ambrose of The Window In The Basement is JA
David Barron of by David Barron is daB

Wearing the Writer Hat”

David Barron: ...yaknow, Ambrose Barron would be a really fun pen name. He writes Civil War Westerns and smokes a lot.

Jeff Ambrose: Do you know a lot about the Civil War?

daB: I’ve dabbled. As a political scientist, it’s my duty to know about the birth throes of the Modern Era. (That sounds much more exciting than what it looks like in academic papers.) It wouldn’t have to be about the battlefield exclusively.

JA: This is why Ken Burns is such a blessing … though I’ve heard his documentary on the Civil War is slanted at times. But then, all histories are slanted, if they’re worth anything. Who wants just a list of dates and facts? Good historians offer opinions.

daB: All description is opinion. That’s what writers have to believe or they’re screwed.


JA: Since we’ve been talking a lot about what “beginners” should know, I think it’s important to emphasize again where one gets ones information. One reason why I don’t talk too much, if at all, about the business side of writing is that I don’t know enough. I struggled with writing for over 10 years before I finally got into the groove, and 2012 makes my twelfth anniversary of trying to make a go at it, and my second anniversary of Getting Serious. So I have no problem talking about writing or telling beginning writers (i.e., writer with less experience than I) what they should or shouldn't be doing. Again, this isn’t in terms of business or even craft. It’s attitude. What attitude should a writer have. What kind of work ethic should they cultivate.

And yet, it amazes me how many writers look to their peers for advice (I don’t look to my peers, and I don’t expect my peers to look to me!). That’s silly. I want to be a long-term professional writer … so I look to my peers how to do that? I have to say, if you’re doing that, you’re beyond crazy. You’re an idiot. Here’s the rule of thumb: If you want to be a long-term writer, look to long term writers for cues of how to think and act, of which attitudes to cultivate, of which ones to get rid of.

daB: The standard mantra If you want to learn the business, find a few successful people and do what they’re doing. Then: innovate. If you want to learn something, find somebody who knows how to do it and do that until you’ve figured it out, then make it yours. It works for writing, of course: Read a Lot, Talk a Lot, then Practice by...Just Writing. For business, it’s even easier. Learn Business, by Watching and Doing.

My “First 200 Days” was all about how I got into that Mindset of Writing (and Publishing), and the only clear lesson throughout is “Copy, then Create”. ...obviously the thing to copy here is not ‘intellectual property’ but rather ‘best practices’.

Copying To Create

JA: I agree! And you have to make it yours, too. But how? By copying first. That’s the only way. One of my 2012 writing goals is to get serious about studying the craft in different ways. One way to do this is to copy out passages you like, passages that strike you as supremely well written. Dean Wesley Smith equates this to letting their words flow through your fingers in order to learn both by analysis and intuitively. Now here’s the thing. Dean says to copy out in Standard Manuscript Format. He says it a lot, too. Why is this important? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with seeing words in the rawest form, without the pretty font, without the bookish formatting. At any rate, I’ve decided that this year I’m writing using Standard Manuscript Format. I’m copying Dean’s method to a T, no exception. And I suspect that by doing what he does, I’ll not only learn how to write better (because of all that copying I’ll be doing) but I’ll also understand, in part, why he thinks Standard Format is the way to go. Once I understand that, I’ll be free to make it my own.

Now that I said it, I wonder if I’m just too OCD.

daB: Could be, could be... But I’ll sum it up, I think. It’s to ‘demystify’ the process, taking the formatting and spellcraft and sticking the words in Courier New, just like yours. Except written better. Writers aren’t Wizards, they just Work Harder.


daB: I know you’re going to one of those workshops [for short stories?], and I think that’s an excellent idea, especially for ‘journeyman’ writers (digression: well. The categories are a little loose. I’ll give my hand rule: 10 books = journeyman; 100 short stories = journeyman) I haven’t done it for the simple reason that I’ve had the Pacific Ocean between me and America for 27 months, but I’ll certainly do one of these things at some point in the next two years. That’s hard-earned practice, intense story, character voice, plotting, what-have-you practice, and overseen by Experts.

JA: The workshop I’m attending is the Character Voice & Setting workshop, a pure craft workshop through and through, and from what I’ve learned from past attendees, you write around 30,000 words that week, a few short stories as well as a bunch of exercises, I think. For me, I’m going for two reasons. First, to learn the skills it teaches. I did choose that workshop, after all. And second, from what I can tell from his blog, from what others have said, and a few private email conversations, Dean and I think the same way, beginning from an analytical standpoint. That’s great for me, because I have to figure out a way to take the analysis and make it intuitive, part of the creative process. My hope, beyond learning character voice and setting, is to learn how to about learning the craft of writing. Workshops take time and money, so you have to really suck the marrow out of them when you can attend. You have to learn how to fish, so to speak, and not just eat that which is given to you. Needless to say, I’m thrilled about going to this workshop.


JA: Regarding “journeyman” status, for me it’s a million words. That was John D. MacDonald’s mark, and Ray Bradbury said you have to write a million words before you hit the “foothills of good writing.” I have no idea how much I wrote between 2000 and May 2010, which was when I Got Serious About Writing, but I estimated about 500,000 words over those ten years. If that’s true, then I’m at 1,230,000 words overall. If I don’t count those first ten years, I have 270,000 words to go to hit the million word mark. That’ll come sometime this year.

daB: Both good, of course, I just prefer to measure by ‘titles’. 1 book/10 stories; beginner , 10 books / 100 stories ; journeyman , 100 books, 1000 stories ; Expert. It’s metric! Considering how few people write even 1 book (or, for that matter, one story) the pecking order of competence isn’t that hard to figure out. Before I started my blog, I had 1,000,000 trunked words, masses of plot holes and spelling errors (the stories of some of which I have salvaged, of course, which is fine.) I don’t really track my word count, except on a ‘work’ basis, billable hours (Have I written X,000 words today? 800 words this hour?) Not really on a yearly basis. I want “at least 4 books a year (i.e. 1 a quarter) and at least 52 stories (i.e. 1 a week)”

JA: Tracking word count on a yearly basis is just the outgrowth of tracking word count on a daily basis. I have a spreadsheet in Numbers (Mac’s version of Excel), and the tracking keeps me honest. I can see which days I wrote, how much, and I also have a track record of how I’m doing month-by-month. Which is nice, in case I want to set up a goal, such as, Break my monthly record, or what not.

Word Count vs. Projects

JA: Recently, however, I’ve become wary of my obsession with word counts. The most recent story I wrote took a big turn I didn’t expect, and once I realized the ending, I had to go back through the story and add/change what needed to be added/changed in order to make the ending work. I cycled through the story twice -- once to make the changes, and a second time to make sure it all worked like I should -- before I wrote the ending. Took me two days. Didn’t get too many words written. I freaked a little, then thought, What the hell? The goal is to write stories, not put words on paper. So I decided to back off a little on word count this year. I cut my yearly word count down to something more reasonable. Even though I’m still tracking daily and month words (I do want to know just how much I write this year), my real focus is on projects: at least 4 novels, 20 short stories, and 2 nonfiction works (and that may change, cutting out short fiction altogether, focusing only on novels). And that’s conservative, and based largely in part that I have no idea how long my novels will be, or how long they’ll take to write. 2012 is the Year of the Novel for me. I’m set on learning how to write a fricking novel. Short fiction, for me, will happen between novels and when I have a house full of kids this summer.

daB: I agree on needing to learn how to write a novel. Most of my books thus far have been ‘long short stories’, but when I read, say, a John Grisham or, for that matter, a Stephen King...they don’t feel like that. So, I just need to let it roll, let myself be free, and let the characters do their thing, until they stop doing their thing.

Oh, and I just did the math on 4 novels and 52 stories, and it says 500,000 words. (60,000*4)+(5,000*52) This should teach me not to do math. (I’m going to now ignore that number forever and just write)

Writing Novels

JA: I must have started anywhere between 10 and 15 novels over the years, but have finished only 2. I haven’t published any. It hit me today that my problem has been trying to write a long novel in the beginning. I mean, we learn by writing short fiction, right? Why not learn to write novels by writing short novels, around 40,000 to 50,000 words? Why set out to write 100,000 words novels, especially in this New World of Publishing, when you don’t have to write that long? So even though my goal is 4 novels, I hope to write 5 or 6 -- maybe even 7 -- short novels. We’ll see.

daB: My very favorite story length is 20,000 words, almost exactly. I call it a Davidku. It’s long enough for about five characters, but it only takes 2-3 hours to read. Which is the length of time I usually have for reading, unless I’m on a bus.

But, I think the secret of writing a 100,000 word novel is to not write a 100,000 word novel. That is...make some characters, decide a setting and let them roam and see how far they get. Then kill them off one by one, with bathos. I assume one of my novels this year will explode in this sense, and others will be stitched together ‘mini-series’ of three connected 20k stories. They’ll all be priced at $4.99, so who cares?

JA: True enough. Getting my mind around the freedom of length has been a difficult adjustment for me. For so long, a short story was 7,500 words, about 30 pages. So when I’m writing a short story, as I near the 7000-word mark, I can feel myself tighten a little, thinking I need to end it. Short fiction length in this New World is far more fluid than before. Likewise with novels. I have to stop thinking a novel is a 400-page beast. It’s not. And you’re right, the best way to write a 100k-word novel is to not try to write something that long. Just gotta learn to let the story go where it will.

Good talk! 

I don't want this to be the last Convo I do, because I'm too lazy to write my own blog posts now. If you want to have a Convo with me (or Jeff) and have indie published some stuff, hit me up on Twitter where I exist as DavidalBarron, or shoot me an e-mail at DavidalBarron [at] gmail [dot] com !

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