Punt or prosper?

This week on Forever Mountain Publishing, real adventures (and decisions) in writing! This week I’m sharing a bit about a project I’m working on, and why I’m making the decisions I am.

The idea

Some readers may know that I’m not just a writer. I also make stuff! A while back, I wrote some chainmail instructions. I’ve published (and sold) books and instruction sets in the past. But one set hadn’t really gone anywhere. Not yet.

I had a thought. The instruction set is for a chainmail camping tool. It’s outside my usual chainmail market. What about publishing it in a camping or backpacking magazine?

It wouldn’t be too hard to convert the instructions into an article. It’s an opportunity to break into a market I’ve been thinking about. So, why not?

The options

Initially, I had a magazine in mind. But is it the right market? I looked at the magazine rack in my local store and found three options: my original choice, a “glossy” frontiersman magazine, and a more hunting oriented magazine. I’ve looked all three before. They seemed like good possibilities. So, I considered them further.

The easy shot…

My first option, the initial one, is a pretty sure sale. It’s a small mag. I know I can make the writing standards (I’m more of a pro than a lot of their contributors). But, they’re small, they don’t pay in money (an ad or subscription but not cash…), and (to be honest) the writing isn’t always up to my standards.

The glossy…

This option is the ‘highest end’ magazine of my prospective markets. They accept freelance stuff, but you can also find a lot of paid ‘article’ advertisements. This one’s a better-paying choice (they actually pay money…). The writing standards are higher (there are pros in the mix) and competition is going to be a lot higher.

The ‘middle ground’…

This one has better writing than the easy shot, but isn’t as big or glossy as the glossy mag. It seemed like a good option. But, when I opened the magazine, I noticed a few things… There was no statement about writers’ guidelines or submissions. They might be online, but I also noticed something else…

Like many magazines, this one has a classified section. But, there’s a note at the top that ad space is only available to subscription holders and regular readers. Whelp… Um… this would have been an interesting option, but if they’re going to restrict themselves like that, I’m not sure I want to play ball with them. If my purpose is to expand my market, why go with someone with an editorial mandate of exclusion?

The unexpected…

I’d almost decided, and then… an ad for another magazine came to my attention. They weren’t on the rack at my local store, but the ad had a link to their website.

They weren’t as glossy as the glossy mag. I didn’t see a bunch of paid ‘adverticals’ and glossy paper. I did see quality writing, clearly stated writers’ guidelines, and a range of articles that fit with what I’d be submitting, without duplicate material. They were also offering around $40.00 per printed page.

The choice!

I did my research. I did my thinking. And… the unexpected magazine, the one I hadn’t seen from the start, is my first choice. I could start with the easy shot, but why? If I just go down the easy path, I could shoot low. I could get less than my work worth because I undervalued myself and underestimate my chances.

I could go for the glossy mag, but I don’t like the feel as much. It might net me more cash, but the unexpected magazine feels like a better fit. My material meshes with what they’re publishing without duplicating it.

The unexpected option beats out the ‘middle ground’ magazine because I don’t like dealing with people who are exclusionary for reasons other than subject-matter fit and quality of writing. Digging deeper definitely did me a favor here.

If things go bad with my first submission, I still have the easy shot as a backup. Based on their writers’ guidelines, they don’t mind something that’s been submitted elsewhere. But, by choosing the unexpected option: I get a magazine that’s a good fit for the article, I get more of what I want out of the work, and I maintain a backup option should things not go so well the first time.

Researching your publishers is a thing, dear reader. Remember, just like job interviews, it’s not just convincing them you’re the right fit, you’re also making sure you find the best fit for you and your work.

Well, dear reader, the article won’t finish itself, and you’ve got your own projects. Don’t sell yourself short. Do the thinking and choose the best option available based on your plans and needs. And, I’ll see you next post.

NANOWRIMO the countdown begins…

I know, I know it’s only August, but November is coming. And, November is the month for NANOWRIMO.

I’ve talked about NANOWRIMO before. Actually… Several… Times… . I’ve ‘won’ several times too. But it’s still relevant for many of us in the writing community. So, it’s time to talk about it again.

NANO is a great opportunity to crack out a first draft. From its inception, helping people get off their butts and write that story has been the point of NANO. For those of us who try it, and especially for those of us who finish a manuscript, there are things to remember.

  • We’re talking about a finished draft, not a finished book. Nobody’s going to have a finished ready to publish a book in a month. (Well, maybe Steven King…)
  • There is genuine work involved any time you write a book.
  • You need to plan ahead.

Pantsers need to plan too…

When I wrote “you need to plan ahead,” about thirty people I know shouted, “but I’m a pantser!” Great! But… Planning the manuscript isn’t what I’m talking about. Planners can outline and think. Pantsers can start the month with nothing but a blank page. But there are still things to think about and plan beforehand.

When are you going to write? You need to work writing into your schedule. If you don’t, it won’t happen. Finding the time often means making the time, and that takes planning. It also requires understanding how and when you write best. If you don’t know this before you start, you might learn a lot, but I’m not betting on you finishing a manuscript.

Where are you going to write? Do you have a good place to do it? Sure, you can clear a corner in your house, but working on a running dryer doesn’t work for most of us… What kind of environment works best? Again, this takes experience. And making sure such a place is available takes planning.

Do you have the correct equipment? It doesn’t matter if you’re a pen and paper writer, a laptop literato or just making do with your phone. If your equipment fails on you, you won’t get very far. Making sure you’ve got gear and supplies goes a long way to insure your success. (I’ve got several boxes of pens, a stack of notebooks, and a pallet of soda, so I’ll be ready).

Whether you plan the story or not, planning how you’ll succeed is important.

One thing most of us shouldn’t plan on is doing lots of editing… (At least not during NANOWRIMO)

It’s National Novel Writing Month, not National Novel Editing Month…

Some people do lots of editing as they write. They usually take a lot longer than a month to finish a manuscript. NANOWRIMO ain’t that kind of party. It’s a race to completion kind of thing, and opportunity to put your inner editor on hold and let the ideas flow. We’ll call the editor in later. But NANO is a great opportunity to just let yourself tell a story.

If you struggle with that inner editor nerfing your ideas, NANO can really help. It creates a reason to put that editor on hold.

It’s not for everybody, or every book. But it’s worth trying.

For fiction, NANOWRIMO works for me. For non-fiction, it really doesn’t. Even if you only get started on a manuscript, you’ve gotten something out of it. If you learn it’s not for you, you’ve gotten something out of it. You’ve learned more about how you write. But… how do you know it does (or doesn’t) work for you before you try?

The ‘prize’ depends on what you do with it

‘Winning’ NANOWRIMO is a personal achievement. There are ‘prizes’ for finishing, for toping 50,000 words. Most of the rewards are software discounts, free trials, and other benefits intended to draw your business to NANOWRIMO backers. Often the biggest prizes are the ones you give yourself.

  • If you win, you’ve got a completed manuscript (or at least a sizeable chunk of it).
  • You’ve learned something about yourself and your writing. Every manuscript is different, so I learn something every year.
  • You’ve gotten to be the first one to experience a story! Yeah, it’s your story, but it’s a new story (or at least a new telling) and you got there first. Nobody, not even your inner editor, got to spoil it for you.

NANOWRIMO is a wonderful opportunity. But you get out of it what you put into it (and hopefully more). Even if you’re a panters who’s starting with a blank page, some preparation is necessary to succeed. But you can do it!

I’m writing again this year, and I’m inviting you to come along. And, as always, I’ll see you next post.

From the beginning, for a second time…

We’re not born knowing everything. We learn. And, after a while, we forget what it’s like to be a novice learner. We forget that first time experience. This is a problem for writers.

As my theater major roommate used to say, “every time the story is told is the first time for someone.” That means that we should expect it’s the first time for at least someone in our audience no matter what we write. New readers might not be familiar with the language, or the style, or other elements of your work. Unfamiliarity makes connecting harder, it makes it harder for the reader to understand your message.

Connecting with readers is kind of important. They stop reading if the connection doesn’t happen. And if they stop reading, why would they read the next one?

Lessons from language studies

Last year I wrote about learning Japanese. (link) Learning a new language, especially one with a different alphabet and phonics system, is a new learner situation. It’s an opportunity to remember what it’s like to start at the very beginning.

Last year I also made a mistake… I scaled back my Japanese practice while working on NANOWRIMO. I got out of the habit and didn’t get things ramped up again until this week. So, this week I started over. I started Learning Japanese from the beginning for the second time. In some ways, I revisited the new-learner experience. But because I knew a bit more than a true new learner, I also saw things differently. I could focus on details and elements that I didn’t the first time.

As a second time “first time learner”, I wasn’t as overwhelmed and I figured out what I needed to focus on for improvement. Starting from the beginning wasn’t just a restart, I could tune my understanding to a higher level than I had the first time I went over the material. And then, I realized this isn’t just a language learning thing, it’s a writing thing too.

Intros and abstracts

Abstracts and introductions are usually the first part of your work that a reader reads. But, they’re among the last things you actually write (or finish at least). There’s a reason for that.

As writers, we have to come into the work somewhere. We have a starting point. But, it’s probably not where the reader will start. We’ve just started the journey. So, we do not know where the end of the journey really is. We’re not prepared to write an abstract or introduction that will send the reader in the right direction. Generally, the place a writer starts won’t be the place the reader starts (at least not unless you want them to suffer the same headaches you do…).

We both might start with the same questions, but we won’t enter the work in the same place.

As a fiction writer, your entry point might or might not be near the beginning of the story. It’s where you first caught hold of the story, but that doesn’t make it the beginning of the story (often it isn’t). That’s something to be worked out while editing. Don’t worry about it in the first draft, just accept that it’ll happen and work it out when the time comes.

As a non-fiction writer, you may have a more concrete outline; because you have to (it’s for a publisher with a set format for instance), or just because non-fiction is often easier to think about linearly. So, you know where the introduction will be. You might think you know what it will be. But you’ve still got twists and surprises in front of you in the writing process (they’ll happen… eventually they’ll happen). So, even if you tried to start with the introduction, you’re going to need to go back and work on it later.

You have to start somewhere. You have some initial ideas. It’s probably helpful to write them down. You can even put them in a chapter called INTRODUCTION if it makes you feel better. That’s progress. But don’t be surprised if you rework it completely after the first draft is done.

Scrapping chapters and starting again

We hate to do it, but sometimes a chapter needs so much work that it’s better to scrap the whole thing and start over. There are reasons for this. Sometimes you find new information that changes what you need to say. Sometimes it’ll just be less work to start over than to “edit the chapter into shape”. It’s a hard decision, but sometimes it needs to happen.

Look at it as an opportunity. We’re building better and (probably) saving ourselves some headaches. We’re reworking the chapter. But we’re doing it knowing more than we did before.

One thing we shouldn’t do is completely forget the old version of the chapter. We learned something in writing it, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice by not taking away the things we’ve learned and using them to help us with the new draft.

Starting fresh on a chapter, even one we’ve struggled with, is an opportunity. It allows us to start fresh while incorporating new things that we’ve learned. Reworking a chapter may be the best thing we can do for our writing. (Just don’t let redoing chapters become an excuse not to go further in the process).

Learning from your first time (and helping your readers and learners)

Sometimes, going back to the start is helpful. It may mean scrapping a chapter and starting over. It may mean relearning lessons already learned. It may mean writing the introduction to your book after finishing the rest. Whatever your situation, you don’t have to go back to the start cold. You can bring the stuff you’ve learned with you.

When you go back to the start, you return to the space where first-time readers and learners will come into the work. You’ve been there before. Dig up those memories. Use them, and what you’ve learned along the way, to help your readers with their entry to the work. It’ll help them stay with you (and possibly even buy that second book (and the third…)).

Starting over isn’t easy, but it’s an opportunity. We can begin again, knowing more than we did the first time, and we can be reminded about what it is to be a first-time reader and learner. Knowing more and building better makes it easier for our readers to stay with us to the end.

Well, dear reader, I’m off to remember something else I’ve forgotten. Good luck with your opportunities, even the restarts. Sayonara, and I’ll see you next post.

DM and Player, switching gears…

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a live gaming event I took part in. Last Saturday, in my group’s virtual game, we had another unusual event. I took off the mantle of Dungeon Master (DM) and I’m running a character as a player.

I needed a break. One of the others wanted to DM for a while. It worked out, but it isn’t easy. When you’ve been in a role for a while, you get used to it. That makes changing gears hard.

Being a DM

For those that don’t know (or those who play differently). The Dungeon Master is the central, but not only, story teller. He or she handles most of the behind-the-scenes details and primary plans for an adventure or series of adventures in a given world (either the DM’s own or some other (usually pre-packaged) world). DMs know a lot of behind-the-scenes information and act as the judge in terms of what is or is not possible.

Good DMs are collaborative storytellers who share story creation with their players. But even good DMs differ. Our alternate DM has a very different style than I do and a different world. My world is the one in which I write stories and books. Its rules reflect those of my books and the stories I tell. Our other DM is a serious video gamer. The conventions of his world more closely reflect those of MMORPGs than novels. It’s a different way of thinking and the resultant play is different.

As a DM, you’re far more in control than the players are. A DM can make or break a game even when multiple DMs use the same pre-constructed world or adventure. The challenge for the DM is creating a world, creating an adventure and being prepared for the things the players do and come up with (it isn’t easy!)

Being a Player

Players (usually) operate a single character within the game world. That character might be lord (even a king). She might be a high priestess with hordes of followers. He might be a solitary but powerful wizard, creating and using magical devices of tremendous power. Your character might be a master thief. Or your character may be some new kid who just wandered into the goings on of the campaign.

Players control their character (usually). They might control the pets, employees, bonds-folk, and creations of their characters, but sometimes they don’t. The challenge for the players is solving the problems and overcoming the challenges the DM throws at them. Players rarely get to make the big decisions about what happens in the campaign but they should anticipate, plan, and react to those decision (it’s a lot like being a real person… You don’t get to decide whether it rains, but you can choose to water the lawn).

Players are co-storytellers with the DM, their part is handling what their individual characters do while the DM handles the rest of the world

Transitioning (in either direction)

When you change roles, you’re giving up one level of control and taking another. Last session, our current DM kept forgetting that I wasn’t in charge anymore. Several times he waited for me to make calls. A couple of times, I forgot I’m not currently running the game and made them!

On my side of things, the transition was just as challenging. My character needed to fit the realities of the current DM’s world and not my own. I knew the world wasn’t mine, which made it easier. But our other DM doesn’t do things the way I do. It was a real fight to keep from kicking into “editor mode” and “correcting” the problems in the story. I failed once or twice (Blink Dogs teaming up with Bullywugs? Really?).

To succeed in switching off DMs, you have to switch roles. You have to accept the changes and run with it. I also recommend that each DM run a different world or champaign. It makes things simpler and the rules within a given world stay more consistent (even though you have to remember you’ve switched)

Playing fair (with yourself and the rest of your group)

One of the biggest challenges in switching DMs is making the mental switch from one game to the other. It affects all of us, but it’s harder for DMs.

It’s easy to find yourself in a tit-for-tat battle, one DM deliberately messing with and challenging other. Sometimes this means treating the other DM worse than the other players or forgetting the others while you one-on-one battle the other DM. Sometimes one DM favors the other over the rest of the group. Neither position is acceptable, the DM needs to be impartial; no favorites and no peons.

DM’s (and sometimes players) get their hands on a lot of information. This creates problems too, if you let it. As a player you need to play fair in terms of what your character knows. Just because I have a complete set of rulebooks by my gaming table is not license to whip them out and read whatever I want whenever I want.

My current character should have more access to certain information than other characters in the party (he’s a wizard who studies fey and draconic creatures you’d expect him to know more about them than the newly minted street-punk thief). At the same time, there are things my character shouldn’t know (why would my character know about the functioning of priestly magic items?).

As players, we need to separate our player knowledge from our character knowledge. And our characters should act on what they know not what we know.

Both DMs in my group try to play fair with the others in that we’ve warned everyone we have house rules and not everything is strictly ‘by the book’ (he has a thing for variant mimics and my world’s cultures (including those of elves, dwarves, etc.) are those of my books and not the standard rulebook versions). This helps reduce unfair player knowledge, but it doesn’t absolve the players of their duty to play fair.

Sometimes it’s fun to rule the world! Sometimes the ‘simple’ role of a player in someone else’s campaign is more what you’re looking for. Either way, when you shift roles from one to the other, it can be challenging. The main thing is to play fair with your group and play the role you have chosen.

That’s it for this one, dear reader. My wizard and I have to prepare for this week’s game (we’ll be ‘persuading’ a few bandits to give up their plans). Good luck with your worlds and adventures dear reader and, I’ll see you next post.

Side stories and tangents

Yes, dear reader, I’ve been editing again. And editing has gotten me thinking.

Sometimes a book has too many b, c, d, etc. stories. If you have too many side stories and tangents, it’s easy for a reader to get lost. But sometimes there are too few. Some stories are pretty relentless in following a particular line, or heading for a particular event or ‘moral’. If you have too few, it’s easy for a reader to get bored or irritated with the story. Bored and/or irritated readers put down books and don’t pick them up again unless they have to, not a fate I’d choose for my work.

People aren’t usually ‘one note wonders’

They aren’t. Real people and believable characters have things going on in their lives, even secondary characters and the person in the drive-through window. Characters and actual people have interests and challenges. That’s part of what makes them real, believable, and engaging. We as writers benefit from this.

Depressed people often give up on pleasurable activities. You can show your characters falling into depression as he/she/whatever gives up pleasures and interactions in the story and focuses on depression. The same thing happens with your obsessive characters.

People can’t be everywhere and see everything. But sometimes your reader needs to know things that the hero or villain doesn’t (or can’t). The knowledge helps the reader feel like an insider. Sometimes it’s best delivered in a side story, something a secondary character sees, hears, or does that might not seem important now, but is vital later.

Side stories can both help and hinder. They provide opportunities for characterization and reader knowledge. They add length and depth to stories. They also add complexity, which can make them harder to read and manage.

How much is too much? How much is not enough?

The answers depend on your story, your writing style and your intended audience. The simple answers are that you want the right amount for your readers; enough side story to make the book interesting and achieve your goals in a manner that’s appropriate for your audience without confusing your audience, your story, or your own editing efforts.

As the writer/creator, it’s easier for you to keep track of all the side bits (the ones you did or didn’t write). You know the stories you write; your readers only know what you tell them. So, it helps to listen to a little feedback and advice from someone else who’s read it. It also helps to give your story a rest between writing and editing (link) and to read and edit from the perspective of a reader not an author.

Focus your wanderings

The purpose of side stories and tangents within a work of fiction (or non-fiction) is to support the major story you’re telling. You might also be supporting a larger series or world building, but the purpose of the side stories and tangents within the text you’re writing is first and foremost to support the story you’re telling in the moment. If they’re not, it’s time for a good hard think about them: how to change them to support the story you’re telling or whether it’s better to cut them (I know, it hurts). Remember, the bits you cut off from this story can be saved and reused elsewhere. They might even be the basis for a new story all by themselves!

Good luck with your stories dear reader, all your stories. I’ll be working on mine and I’ll see you next post.

Live event, laughs, and lessons

(Note this post also appears at Words Mean Stuff under a slightly different title…)

Well, I survived! Besides a family reunion, I spent a weekend at a live tabletop gaming event. I have to say it went well, but there are always interesting bits and moments.

(For those who might wonder I’ll call it ‘almost D&D’. The game ran using Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition open gaming license material and material from the world of my stories, so I’m not allowed to say it’s compatible with Dungeons and Dragons)  

Here are a few thoughts from the big game

Plans vs what actually happens

When you’re doing a live game, you might (you should) have a plan. If you’re running the game, you should have that plan before the game starts. But people and dice just don’t do what you planned on them doing.

In our live event, the least experienced player at the table cracked a mystery that had the more experienced players stumped. She put together two honestly unrelated pieces of information and came up with an answer that sent the players in a completely different direction than I’d expected. As a result, two players used magic I’d provided to cope with other situations to go prospecting on the ceiling of a giant cavern!

In reality, it was at least partly my fault. I substituted a pair of vampire spawn for a pair of other monsters because I realized the initial encounter would be too tough. That got the new player thinking about the Twilight books, and that jumped to the actual purpose of an ancient machine. And that led to ceiling prospecting…

If you’re running the game, and usually as a player, it’s good to have a plan. But like they say, you make a plan so you know what won’t happen. But therein lies the fun!

The fun and growth are in what you didn’t expect

One of our players is trying to understand improvisation, comedy, and what makes things fun and or funny. I gotta say we had a lot of laughs during the game. Much of the fun and challenge came from players looking at things differently, finding their expectations challenged and finding novel (and humorous) solutions. We had a few laughs based on stuff I threw in too, but it took us working as a group, but not agreeing or seeing things the same way, to make it successful.

Things really get going when the unexpected stacks… First one player (who really gets into character) decided she had an ethical issue with killing orcish women and children. Then, the players decide (correctly) that the only way forward is through the heart of the orc lair. Then, one player forgets a few key points in the plan… The result is most of the party hiding in a bedroom laughing and cringing at the same time while our rouge/druid is running around pretending to be an orcish child throwing smoke bombs, ticking off the adult orcs and trying to figure out how to get past orcs that now surround her to get back to the rest of the party. All the while our fighter is trying to figure out how to get to an orcish smith on the far side of all the action and everyone’s ignoring the one door that would actually lead the party out of this mess.

There were more situations like that. Our player is analyzing recordings of the session trying to figure out what happened and what made it funny. I’m not sure what he’ll do with the information but I can assure him the humor was in the players succeeding despite themselves.

Shared creation and intellectual property

The adventure was fun. It was funny. It was also built in a world I created and recorded for one of my player’s research. But, that’s where we get into problems (or we can if we’re not careful). The world, the adventure, the characters, the research: it’s all intellectual property. Some of it is mine and some of it isn’t.

As an author and researcher, I’m big on intellectual property. It takes time to create quality stuff, and it’s not right for someone else to just come in and take it. For some players that might not be a problem. But, a lot of my players are also writers, researchers, and other ‘creative types’. How do we create together (as one does in roleplaying game) without stepping on toes or stealing ideas?

Well, first we make expectations clear. My players know that my world is the one I write my stories in, and that I protect my copyright to that world and materials in it. At the same time, I set out at the forefront that I will not use their characters or ideas without permission. For my comedy researcher player, that means he can come up with ideas and theories based on what happened but he doesn’t get to borrow my material or the other player’s characters without the permission of the creator.

Second, we practice what we preach. We actually enforce the rules and expectations we set up in the beginning. People learn and follow the rules. (Note: the worky-icky parts of intellectual property and copyright aren’t the point of the post so I’ll save them for another time). We teach and practice respect for each other and our intellectual property, and handle problems before they get big.

Do it again?

Would I do it all again? Yes, I want to. There’s much more to my world that one weekend’s worth of adventure, and more to my players stories than we covered. At the moment I’m passing the mantle of DM to one of the others, who also has a bouncing baby campaign to run, and taking a break from running the world while I get some other writing done. But I will be back. The live events will be back. And I’ll be talking about them here.

One reason I do games and not just books is that stories and storytelling are not meant to be a “one person in a room” process. Playing and creating with others helps keep me in contact with the human element.

Speaking of the human element… Now that I’m home I’d better give my lawn some attention so the neighbor can stop throwing fits… Good luck with your lives and creations dear reader. Stay strong. And, I’ll see you next post!

Postscript: less than 12 hours after the initial writing of this post the group was already working on dates for next year’s live event… (Told you it would happen…)

Life happens…

I had wonderful posts planned for this week and next week, unfortunately… next week’s live event is veering dangerously off course, multiple church and family projects are going sideways, and my blood sugar is kinda like an over-caffeinated six-year-old in a bouncy castle.

I could put out the posts as planned. I can punch things through like that. What I can’t do is produce quality posts while bringing the live event under control, bringing my blood sugar under control, helping the clerks get the audits done, and handling the logistics for the family get together; while also convincing my brother-in-law that covid isn’t turning people into were-bats, convincing my sister-in-law that the covid vaccine isn’t turning people into Pakistani terrorist trained Paraguayan stormtroopers from mars, and simultaneously being part of another family member’s 12-step process.

Bring one or two of those things under control and sure, I can do the research and put out best effort posts you (my readers) deserve. But that’s not where things are at this week. So, for now dear reader enjoy the summer, enjoy the Fourth of July and the freedom our constitution promises us, and I’ll see you next post (hopefully July 9th and with no recovering-bat/stormtrooper/Martian/whatever-they-ares)

No busywork!

In my college days, I had roommates. Occasionally I learned something from them. I definitely learned that you can look very, very busy without actually doing anything….

I’ve also had my share of substitute teachers. Most of them seemed to operate under the theory of “just keep ‘em busy”. I’ve never met anyone that like a sub’s busy work. But it honestly wasn’t as bad as the busy work we give ourselves.

Busywork vs mundane work

Busywork isn’t mundane work. Mundane work is the less than exciting stuff we have to do in order to do the other stuff: the fun stuff, the exciting stuff, our real work. Busywork is working for the sake of working.

The mundane stuff isn’t exciting but at least it has a purpose. By expending time and energy doing it, we move ourselves toward our bigger goals (or at least we should do that…). Busy work doesn’t get us anywhere. Unless our goal is to look busy doing nothing worthwhile… (and why do that).

Question the mundane stuff too (being busy vs being productive)

We need to watch that mundane stuff too… Sure, it’s not overtly pointless. But is it really getting us anywhere, or are we just doing it because we usually do? Are we doing it to avoid doing something else? If we’re doing it to avoid something, or ‘just because’, we’re back in the realm of busywork and that’s not really getting us anywhere.

The mundane stuff might advance our goals but there might be a better, and faster way to do it…

Do you have to do it yourself? Many of us accept that it’s cheaper to cook at home (for a lot of things it might be). We’re paying with our time and effort rather than money. Sometimes that makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. But what about pasta?

I can get a box of spaghetti for about a buck. If all I want is one box, or less, of spaghetti noodles, the time and effort I’ll to put into making pasta probably adds up to more that a dollar. In which case, buy the box and get on with your life. On the other hand, if you love your grandma’s home-made spaghetti, you can’t buy that in a box. It may be worth the time and effort to make. (Note: This is just the pasta… Sauce is a whole ‘nother subject…)

You might hire someone to do the mundane stuff. I know a guy who loves numbers and really enjoys balancing checkbooks and what not. He’s an accountant. I like numbers, but I have other interests and skills he doesn’t have. It’s better for me to pay the accountant to do the accounting stuff and I’ll handle the world creating writing stuff and behavioral therapy with teens and tweens stuff. It works out better for both of us that way. (I don’t like the numbers that much, and he doesn’t ‘interface well’ with teenagers)

Are you using the right tool? I have a hand drill. I also have a power drill. And a drill press. And a flex shaft. And two (2) hand held micro motors. Many of their capabilities overlap. But I still have to choose the right tool for the right job. If drag out my three-inch hole saw and try to cut lath and plaster with a micro-motor, it burns out. The drill press doesn’t fit the situation either… On the other hand, I can do more precise depth cuts with the drill press and finer sanding and polishing with the micro motors. You can save a lot of time and energy just by using the right tool.

Mundane doesn’t mean busy work. But you still have to question the mundane work’s value.

Failing ‘safely’ versus succeeding

Some of us hyper-focus on mundane work, or dive into busywork, because helps avoid risk. It’s safer. Or at least it feels safer. But often the safer path doesn’t really lead anywhere. 

I’ve never gotten a date by not ‘putting myself out there’. (I wasn’t always the one to ask, but I had to at least put myself into a place to be asked) Top tier publishers aren’t breaking down my door begging to publish stuff I haven’t sent out yet. (Maybe Steven King has experienced that but I certainly haven’t) Generally, to succeed you have to risk something. There’s a cost to be paid either way; the risk is that the cost is higher than the payback. Of course, if your goal is to avoid risk, you can do that. At the cost of not achieving anything else (and you may still fail… Doing nothing entails the (fairly strong) risk that the world will move along without you!).

We need to do the mundane stuff. It helps us keep going. There’s boring stuff that’s needed for life to function. But when we focus on the mundane stuff to avoid risk, that’s a warning sign. It’s time to give thought to what we’re really doing and what our goals are.

Do what needs to be done (when it’s needed)

Sometimes we need to do the safe, boring stuff. Sometimes it’s time for excitement. Sometimes it’s time to roll the dice. Sometimes we get to do what we really want to do. Knowing when to do what is key to success.

How do we know when to do stuff? A big step is knowing why we do what we do. Why does what we’re doing matter? What benefit does it give us? How does it move our goals forward? If we don’t know, we’d better figure it out. If it doesn’t move our goals forward, we should do something else!

That’s it for this one, dear reader. Seek after your goals, dear reader. Do the stuff that really matters. And, I’ll see you next post.

Writing group: Success

This week, here and at Words Mean Stuff , I’m sharing a bit about the writing group I’m working with. In this post, we’re talking about the experience from the perspective of someone who’s work is being critiqued. Some say it’s better to give than to receive. Well, that depends on what’s being given and received. And, sometimes it’s better to do both.

The pain


We put a lot of work into our writing (if we’re serious about it at least). Often, it’s fair to call it a passion, or labor of love (for those of us who’ve moved beyond our “I have to write this paper to pass the class” days). When you love something, when you’ve really put the work into it, it’s not a lot of fun to hear that people don’t see it the way you do.

It straight up sucks when your reader isn’t getting what you meant with that masterful metaphor or perfect prose. It’s hard to hear that you’ve misspelled the word “deaf” (yes, it’s deaf not deft…) multiple times over 10 pages. It’s annoying when you hear the reader likes your villain more than your hero. (These things happened to one or more of the members of my group within the last week). But, as my partner in prose said: It’s better to hear about it in writing group than from a submission editor, or worse, from a reader after you’ve published.

We have a rule in our group that, unless you’re asked a question, the author holds his/her comments until the end, after everyone else has spoken. That’s difficult. You want to step in and defend your baby. But, in the long run, actually listening instead of arguing helps us become better writers.

We don’t have to do everything the others say. By our rules, when critiquing we speak from our reader perspective and not “you should do this because that’s what I would do.” We as authors still have the responsibility and the right to make our own decisions. But others input can be really helpful. It can also be hard to hear.

The anxiety

Sometimes that “hard to hear” material isn’t directly about the text.

Within our group, I’m one of (if not the…) most experienced. One of the people joining us next month has had a 10-year journey with the story she’s working on (so it’s not just me and a bunch of new kids…), but I have at least three books out and others submitted for publication (I’ve learned over the years too…). I also have a master’s degree in psychology. So, when others see something in my writing that I didn’t, it can be painful. But, when one of the new folks cites research, or brings up something they learned in a writing class, writing book, or some other authoritative source that I hadn’t thought about, that can really hurt.

I spent a little time this week licking my wounds over one of those. But then I remembered something a professor told me once: there is more information out there and relevant to what we’re doing than one person can read, hear, and process by him/her self!

The reality is, I’m doing this in part to help other writers in their journeys. If I do I am succeeding (and in this case I believe I am). If the person I’ve helped helps me, so much the better!

Sometimes the writing group experience can cause us to question our selves and our abilities. That’s ok, a good group should do that, constructively. What matters is that we learn from that questioning and keep improving.

The payoff

In our last meeting, I shared the prologue and first chapter of a story I’ve been working on for a while. The prologue was the last thing written. When I wrote it, I’d been striving with my characters for at least a year. I wrote a prologue that threw too many character names and too much stuff at the reader at once. It was obvious to me who everyone was. But it wasn’t obvious to the reader.

Because I practiced what I preach and listened to my group, I’m restructuring the prologue, moving some information out to other places and incorporating information from later chapters that my group hasn’t seen yet. I am making improvements to at least three parts of the work because someone spoke, and I listened.

The changes I’m making will make the book more readable and easier to publish. My group’s feedback means more work, but also mean’s I can fix the parts that are actually broken. By sharing and by receiving constructive criticism gracefully, my work becomes better. And I get to help others.

It’s not easy, dear reader. If there isn’t a group that works for you, you may need to build your own. That may mean organizing and managing, actually being a leader. It can be humbling and even intimidating. But in the end, if done with the right spirit and intent, you and yours can gain a lot from a well-run writing group.

What are your experiences with writing groups? Leave a comment and let us know. Either way, I’ll see you next post.