Three Lessons I Learned From Writing a Trilogy


My first trilogy — the Vizion series — is live on Amazon today, and to mark the occasion, I want to share three lessons I learned from writing it. (I’m also running a promotion where the first book is free from Friday through Sunday.)

I’m far from an expert on writing fiction, and with only single-digit sales to my name, I’m also a total beginner at self-publishing. My hope is that this post will inspire someone else go from zero books to three books.  

Finishing a trilogy represents a serious start for anyone working to become a full-time fiction writer. For me, clearing this hurdle has also provided a burst of momentum in my writing that is now reinforcing itself and inspiring me even more to pursue the dream of becoming a successful author. 

So even if this series doesn’t find any readers, my writing is already benefiting greatly from the lessons I’ve learned while completing this trilogy:

Lesson 1 –  I learned what kind of writer I am

Writers typically fall somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from meticulous outliners to those who start writing chapter 1 and figure everything else out along the way. I am deep in the outliner camp.

With my first book, I wrote myself into corner after corner, dug a field full of plot holes, and even had to double back and add a whole new first half of the novel. I expended so much mental energy on plot and consistency while I was composing that the flow and tone of the book suffered. It also took forever to finish.

I’m not alone in this. There are some solid books on how outlining improves writing speed, including 2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aron and 5,000 Words an Hour by Chris Fox. I recommend both, but for me, even more important than accelerating my word count, was how having a roadmap improved my quality.

With the second book, I crafted a detailed outline for the first two-thirds and a rough outline of the last third because I grew itchy to start writing. This served me better and allowed me to mentally stay in the scenes as I wrote them because I knew what was going to happen and only had to bring it to life. 

On book three, I wrote a detailed outline for the entire novel and even revised it twice to make the story more thematically coherent. The composition of that book went the quickest and smoothest of any three. 

But even that book had some blank spaces for me when I started writing, largely character motivations and backstories, that I had to stop and think about while in the composing stage. 

So for the book I’m working on now, in an entirely different series, I devoted a week to world building and character outlining so that my outline has even more depth. 

Lesson 2 – I learned how to find time to write

I wish I could say that I have settled into a writing routine, that I wake up early and bang out a few chapters before hopping on the train to the office, or that I tuck my kids into bed, kiss my wife good night, and crack open my laptop to type late into the night. 

The reality is that my life has changed so much in the years that I worked on these stories that I’ve learned to write wherever and whenever I can. Sometimes that means getting up early, and sometimes it means staying up late. Other times, it means ducking away from the office at lunchtime or skipping a workout on a weekend afternoon.

A consistent routine would be ideal. Failing that, a schedule is second best.

So now I spend Sunday evening looking at my week and figuring out where I can fit ten hours of writing in the upcoming week. That’s less time than most professional writers clock, but it’s decent for a part-timer like myself, and it’s more than enough to keep my momentum from flagging.

Lesson 3 – I learned the value of finishing

In college, when I thought I should probably start on my dream of becoming a writer, I began dozens of stories. I’d outline an interesting plot idea, spend an hour writing in the voice of a character I found intriguing, or sketch out a rambling philosophical dialogue that led nowhere.

But I never actually finished a story. 

Fast forward about ten years after I graduated, and one day I decided that I was going to finish a short story and submit it to some literary journals. I did, and to my amazement, it actually was accepted. 

Finishing that first story propelled me into completing more stories and even a novel that I haven’t published.  

With every story or novel that I finished, the inspiration to finish the next project grew even stronger. 

I published Waking Dream in June, and holding the first paperback copy of that book in my hand a week after it hit Amazon has permanently altered my relationship to writing. 

The experience of bringing a whole universe and a cast of characters into being — not just once, but three times — makes it impossible for me to ever turn back from this goal of becoming a successful author. 

The pride of finishing a task as monumental as a trilogy is a feeling I’m going to chase for the rest of my life. And if you want to be a writer, I can’t help but think it will have the same effect on you.



As I mentioned at the top, the first book in the series will be free from Friday through Sunday. If you want to be notified about future promotions, click here to join my mailing list.

At Last…

It took me more than five years, and a lot of wrong turns and false starts, but I finally finished writing a three-book series. I published one of the books on Amazon for a while, then pulled it off, then put it back on, then pulled it off again. I had my reasons, and maybe I’ll got into that at some later date.

For now, here’s the book, which is back on Amazon for good:

Books two and three in the series will be released in the coming weeks. If you want to be notified when they’re out, click here to join my mailing list.

I’ll have a lot more to share in the weeks ahead, but for now I need to return to proofreading to make sure these books don’t have any tpyos.

Back From the Dead

It has been more than three years since my last post, so I think I should explain where I’ve been.

This is hard to admit, and I know it sounds crazy, but I was abducted by aliens. They took me to an invisible space station of theirs that’s parked behind Mars. They couldn’t bring me all the way to their planet because warp drive isn’t real (obviously) and they knew I wouldn’t survive the 900 years the trip would have taken.

So they kept me captive at their base, and mostly they just wanted to know why earthlings are so into potato chips, why did we ever think disposable coffee pods were a good idea, and what the seventh inning stretch in baseball is all about. It wasn’t the worst three years I’ve had.

Obviously, an alien abduction is an absurd excuse for a three-year blog absence. The simple truth is that I was in the witness-protection program. On a hike in late October 2016, I stumbled across Bigfoot meeting with the Illuminati in the forest discussing who gets to be the next Andrew WK, and I’ve had to hide out ever since.

Seriously though, I’ve spent the last three years under a plastic palm tree in the Winnipeg Ikea in a transcendent meditative state. I’ve had some deep, heart-to-heart chats with Buddha and Jesus and Mister Rogers and Pema Chodron (even though she’s still alive), and they’ve encouraged me to start blogging again. So here I am.

Feels good to be back.

Thank You, Total Strangers

I’ve  been giving away my short story collection, Horizons, on Amazon for the past few days, and the response has been way better than expected. As of right now, I’m almost to 70 books given away, and with one more day to go, I’m hopeful that number can crack 100.

Why am I so happy to be giving away a book I worked so hard on? Partly, I’m glad that there are 70 more people who know my name and think that maybe when one of my novels comes out later, they’ll recognize the name and pick up a copy. But more than that, I’m simply happy to have written these stories. I’m happy to have brought these characters and worlds to life, and I’m happy that total strangers are entering into them and hopefully enjoying them.

So thank you to everyone who’s picked up a copy so far. And if you haven’t yet, the deal runs through the end of the day. All you have to do is click here.

Horizonsv2 (1)

A Crash on the Moon

buddy

I’m thrilled to share the news that my short story “Buddy” – about a mysterious spaceship crash on the moon and a nearby miner’s attempt to save the ship’s sole survivor – is now live on Perihelion’s website. Read it for free here.

There’s a funny story about that story, too. I had spent the whole year submitting stories to publications and had been met with universal rejection. That’s not a surprise for a newer writer like myself, but it does wear on you eventually. When I’d finished “Buddy,” I had planned to just publish it straight to Amazon and be done with it. I even had a cover made, which is pictured above. But I had just stumbled upon Perihelion (which is awesome, by the way) and figured, “What the hell? What’s one more try?” And it ended up being my first sale. So to my fellow struggling writers, in a nutshell, keep going.

The Conversation You Need to Have Regularly

stargaze

Courtesy of Anthony Goto, flickr

You’ve had this conversation before.

You’re lying on your back in the grass or in a lounge chair, staring up at the night sky. Maybe you’ve had a few drinks or enjoyed some of our planet’s botanical pleasures. You’re feeling good, with your mind and soul flung wide open.

“Isn’t it crazy to think that the light we’re seeing left those stars 65 million years ago,” you say to a friend lying next to you.

“Right?” they reply. “They could have exploded long ago, before the dinosaurs existed, and we wouldn’t know.”

“And how wild is it that there’s a storm on Jupiter that’s three times the size of Earth?”

“And we’ve put a robot on Mars. A robot from Earth is rolling around scooping up Martian sand right this minute.”

“Whoa.”

I hung out with my four best friends last weekend, and not long after the sky went dark, we had a version of this conversation. It’s a talk we’ve had dozens of times before, starting back when we’d hang out in each others’ backyards in high school, back before college, before marriage, before having kids.

Between our jobs and our families, it’s hard for us all to get together more than once or twice a year, but every time we are able to assemble, the conversation at some point always veers into expressions of wonder. It’s not always so cosmic. Sometimes we marvel at how rapidly technology has progressed or how strange our current lives would have seemed to the younger versions of ourselves.

At some point during last weekend’s conversation, right about the time we veered into amazement at how time slows near black holes, one of my friends remarked, “Oh man, how many times have we had this conversation?”

To which another friend replied, “It’s a good conversation to have from time to time.”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. How we need to cultivate fascination, stoke our wonderment, and try to stuff big ideas into our little human minds.

For me as a writer, this exercise is especially critical. My love for these massive ideas is part of what drew me to sci-fi. Without the challenge of tackling concepts that shake my foundational perceptions of reality, I couldn’t sustain the interest necessary to show up at the keyboard consistently. And my success as a writer depends in no small part on my ability to provide my readers with flashes of this awe.

Even for non-writers, this generating amazement is important. You’ll find peace in shrinking yourself, shrinking your problems. You’ll use new parts of your brain and give the worn-out practical parts a much-needed rest. You’ll feel better.

The sky is clear in the Midwest tonight, and Jupiter is looming large in the western sky. Go outside and track it down and think about that big storm and try to get your mind around the idea of a planet made of gas.

Even if you’re alone, have that conversation with yourself. And think about how crazy it is that your brain lets you talk to yourself. Whoa.

The Joy of Hunting Tics

thetick

So far this year, I’ve written six short stories, which I’ll be wrapping together into a collection that will be released this summer. I’ve submitted all of them to multiple publications, and they’ve all been rejected. I’ve published most of them on Amazon, and haven’t had enough sales to buy a bagel and coffee.

But the effort – nights, weekends, lunch breaks, early morning train rides – hasn’t been wasted. Through the constant experimentation allowed by short fiction, I’ve learned quite a bit about outlining, character development, dialogue, and endings, among other things.

The most helpful lesson, though, has been discovering my own writing tics. One of my editing passes is always a sit-on-the-hands-and-just-read-the-story exercise. This is the editing pass where I try to pretend the piece was written by someone else. I examine whether I’ve left holes in the plot or other mysteries that wouldn’t be clear to a reader who’s not inside my cranium. Occasionally, I’d find one of these oversights. But every time I did this read, some writing tic – a repeated word or construction – would grab my attention.

After a while, I decided to start keeping track of them, and I now have a list of fifty of these little buggers. I now devote an editing pass to interrogating each one of these tics to make sure they are essential in their place and whether there is a stronger phrasing I could use. I haven’t banned these words from my stories – it is incredibly stupid to ban any word or expression from your work – but they often serve as indicators of weak language, imprecision, or missed opportunities.

For example:

I used to start a lot of sentences with some variant of “There was.” This construction is a holdover from my days of adolescent Hemingway reading. The vagueness of the two words lends a detached, Voice of God effect to a sentence, rather than keeping the reader planted in the character’s head, seeing the world the way a particular person would see it. Most of these I’d rewrite to focus on the main object being observed. So “There was a weathered boat bobbing in the ocean” would become “A weathered boat bobbed in the ocean.” Tighter. Cleaner. More immediate.

I also used to hang “began” or “started” in front of a character’s action. Those are simply unnecessary words, and they can become distracting when repeated too often.

The last one I’ll talk about is “thing” words. Something, everything, or just plain old “thing.” These words crop up when I’m writing quickly and can’t think of the exact right word, but I don’t want to stop the flow so I drop down a “thing” and keep going. “Thing” words can be replaced with a more precise word almost every single time, and the sentence is immediately improved. “That was the thing that annoyed her the most” becomes “That was the habit that annoyed her the most.” “Something about the place gave him the creeps” becomes “The way no one made eye contact gave him the creeps.”

Making these changes during editing feels like being at the optometrist with my face in the phoropter and having the little lenses click over, sharpening the clarity of my vision bit by bit.  What’s interesting is that scrutinizing my own work in the editing phase has made me so familiar with these tics that I have since cut down on them during the composing phase without much conscious effort. The stronger phrasings have become instinct.

Does anyone else devote a whole editing pass just to tic removal? What are your writing tics?

How to Write Faster

…according to 1.5 books on the subject.

I’m going to keep this post short because I don’t have much time to write today, and I want to spend most of it working on my current novel.

Since the “not much time” dilemma is a persistent theme for me these days, I recently read through one and a half books on how to write faster, with a goal of getting more out of my scant writing time. One book was good (2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron), and one was not (1,500 Words Per Hour by N.P. Martin).

Despite their varying quality, they both had the same basic message:

Plan your novel. Extensively.

Figuring out what you’re going to write — before your butt hits the chair — frees you from doing your heavy “where am I going with this” thinking at the keyboard. It allows you to focus all your mental resources on settling into a flow while composing. Extensive planning also helps by preventing major mistakes that require you to scrap and rewrite large portions of your book. You know, the “Oh wait, when did my protagonist lose the superpower that would have made the climactic battle a non-event?” kind of oopsies.

I actually arrived at some of these conclusions on my own via another path. On my last short story – which will be released as part of a collection I’m putting out this summer – I tried extensive planning, purely with the aim of writing better. My goal was to craft a story that was deeper than my previous work, and I knew that would require weaving certain themes consistently throughout the piece. I had just read a great post by Steven M. Long about outlining, and my guess was that imagining almost every beat of the story in advance would help me develop that depth. It did. I’m happier with that piece than with a lot of my other stories. But the unexpected bonus was how quickly I was able to compose it.

2,000 to 10,000 was a lot better in fleshing out these concepts. The writer, Rachel Aaron, has produced a ton of well-received novels, and she walks the reader through the plotting and diagramming process that she has honed over her career. The examples are supremely helpful, and I’m employing many of her methods as I map out my current project. The Martin book is less detailed and mostly repeats itself ad nauseum.

Both of these books could have used better line editors. They are riddled with typos, which undercuts their argument that writing quickly does not mean writing poorly. The Martin book was far worse in this respect — to the point where I stopped reading halfway through — and even had an egregious error in the first sentence of the first chapter.

Speaking of first chapters, I’m hoping to start laying down words on my new novel this weekend, so I better get my outline done. I wouldn’t want to start writing without it.

I Love My Kindle, But…

I just read six pages of a book while waiting on a dark train platform. I’ll probably sneak a couple pages during visits to the espresso maker at work this morning. And each day usually presents the occasional four-minute stretches between tasks where I can sip down a scene or two. Add it all up, and by the end of the day, I’ve done a respectable amount of reading, probably more than 90 percent of Americans.

None of it would happen without the Kindle app on my phone. While it is physically possible for me to carry around a book all the time, it’s just not practical. My phone though? As long as I’m conscious, I’m going to have it on my person. Also, no one questions me for busting out my small screen for a bit. My coworkers might not take it as kindly if they saw I was skipping conversations at the break-room microwave to leaf through Battlefield Earth.

So as much as this post is a love letter to my Kindle, it’s also an “I miss you” to paper books. I miss their weight. Their smell. The lack of glare.

But it’s not just the physical experience. It’s also the abundant free time that enabled me to sit down for hours to read instead of stealing pages here and there.

I love my life. I wouldn’t trade the things that keep me so busy – namely my two amazing daughters – for any amount of reading time. Maybe there are other tasks I could lose or reduce, but for now, reading volume has slipped far down my hierarchy of priorities. Part of why I’m pursuing a writing career is to have more time, or at least more control over my time.

Until then, I’ll be reading my Kindle. I won’t be hating it. But still…

Review: Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance

musk

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is a thorough and readable investigation of one of the most fascinating people of our time. Ashlee Vance reconstructs Musk’s rise to wealth and fame through hundreds of interviews with current and former business associates. This exhaustive research allows Vance to provide well-founded insights into Musk’s thinking, motivations, and behavioral patterns. While Vance touches on the major points of Musk’s personal life, the book avoids most of the armchair psychoanalysis so common in many biographies.

It’s worth nothing that Vance is a business journalist, so this book focuses heavily on Musk’s methods as a businessman. The book also delves further into SpaceX than I’d expected, which was a pleasant surprise. While Musk is probably most well-known as the head of Tesla, SpaceX best epitomizes his grandiose ambitions and manic work ethic. And, as a sci-fi author, it’s the company I’m most interested in.

Bottom line: If you are interested in Musk as a businessman, especially the story of SpaceX’s founding and his plans for that company, you’ll find this a worthwhile read.