The Authorial Short Leash

What happens when you bring your new canine companion home from the pound and take him on his first walk?

That furry little bastard gets the scent of nature in his nostrils and goes wild, that’s what. He feels the breeze of the great outdoors across his fur and he bolts. He tugs you this way and that. Darts into flower beds. Takes off after squirrels and rabbits (man, my neighborhood is lousy with rabbits right now — it’s like Watership Down in suburbia). Scrambles into the weeds to poop. Runs off into more weeds to sniff at some other dog’s poop.

You’re trying to have a nice, leisurely stroll with your own personal man’s best friend, but you’ve got a hellhound yanking your arm this way and that, tangling your legs in the leash, and, depending on the size of the animal, threatening to pull your shoulder right out of its socket. And suddenly, your nice, relaxing walk is nothing like nice and a rough shot away from relaxing.

The only way to reclaim your walk — to get the critter under control and take back the calm you set out for — is to break out the short leash. You take all the slack out of the rope and keep him locked in step right there at your heel. He tries to get ahead of you by a step? You tug him back. He veers off course? Yank. He so much as lifts his head to sniff after a squirrel? Doublebig yank.

The point is not to be cruel, the point is to demonstrate to the animal — which is only operating on the same basic evolutionary programming that’s served its species well for eons (chase, hunt, kill, survive) — that there’s a new game in town. That there is a new master. No longer does he answer the beckoning call of nature, now he answers to the man on the other end of the rope. It is only by the grace of “I” that he’s even outside to begin with.

And slowly, slowly, with the patience of the glacier, the dog begins to learn. The instincts, the darting this way and that, the bolting — they curb and decline. Then you can let the slack out a bit. Allow him to sniff at the root of that tree. Let him lock in on that bunny scampering across the neighbor’s yard. Only now, he’s not just doing it — he’s checking with you first. He knows where his food comes from. He knows that the walk through nature is conducted on your terms.

You break him on the short leash so you can break out the long leash again later.

That guy (or gal!) who wrote the first draft of your novel? He’s the rescue dog that’s never breathed the free air. Writing the draft was his fly-the-coop moment: he got into the neighbor’s rose bushes with his deviation into needless character development. He chased squirrels into trees with those bizarre plot turns. He went shoving his nose up another dog’s butt with that trope he borrowed from that wicked sci-fi novel he was reading at the time. He shat on the sidewalk when he just stopped writing that one character two-thirds of the way into the story.


Editing time is time to break out the short leash. Correct those errors your drafting self makes the moment he starts to make them. Can’t let these things fester, or they’ll keep pulling your arm out of the socket. Nip it in the bud now and he’ll get the message quicker.

Of course, we can’t cut out all of that bad behavior — after all, it’s when the story does unexpected things, when it goes off into the weeds and comes back with a dead rabbit in its jaws, that we enjoy story the most. But our story can’t be one long, unleashed romp through the neighborhood. Much as we love the unbridled id that our authorial selves bring to the table, we also need the structure that only the editorial self can provide.

So by all means, take your inner author out for a walk. But keep that thing leashed up. That way, when you finally do let him loose, he’ll know it matters.


And here’s one more dog meme, just because they’re awesome.


This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.

The Weekly Re-Motivator: Panning for Gold

I remember, when I was in school, learning about how during the gold rush — you know, old west, Manifest Destiny times — people would pan for gold. Scoop some water out of the river, sift through it, see if any nuggets were floating in the runoff. Or they’d just take big handfuls of dirt, toss them on these screens, and slowly sift away the big rocks, then the little ones, and so on, in hopes of separating out something priceless from the junk.

And I always thought that was kind of BS. You dunk your little pan into the river, hoping to get rich off some crumbs floating downstream? You dig up your backyard, hoping that in there among the rocks and the sand, there’s a gold nugget, just waiting to be discovered?

It’s the sort of ridiculous hope that keeps people buying lottery tickets. The overwhelming odds are that not only will you not find gold, but you will have wasted hours — if not days or weeks or worse — of time which you could have used for, you know, useful things otherwise.

Not incidentally, one of my favorite snippets from Sam Harris (a prominent atheist/philosopher/neurologist and pretty smart guy) has to do with a guy who spends his weekends digging in his backyard for an enormous diamond. “It gives me great pleasure, seeking this diamond,” the guy claims, though there’s no evidence that the diamond exists, nor is there any good reason to believe that it might. And regardless of whether this diamond does exist, the believer “wouldn’t want to live in a world where there wasn’t an enormous diamond buried in my backyard.”

Panning for gold in that way takes something maybe even stronger than an act of faith.

But lately, that metaphor strikes me in another way.

If the first draft is the rushing mountain stream, then there are definitely some gold flakes floating in it, lost amid the smashing rapids and festering cesspools of word vomit. (This is, incidentally, why I’m not totally soul-crushed after losing about twenty thousand words of my latest project; because I know that most of it is crap.) Problem is, there’s no knowing where they are ahead of time. And there’s no guarantee that, if I dive into that stream of bland, meandering word salad, I’ll come away with anything approaching usefulness.

But I keep doing it. Every day I wade into the waters and pan for gold, screening the water and the dust and the lumps of calcified cow crap in hopes that somewhere among the detritus is a nugget that I might one day parlay into a car payment.

You know. The sort of blind, hopeless faith that I usually rail against.

But with one key difference.

The poor saps panning and sifting for gold or digging for diamonds in their backyards are putting their faith in things they can’t see or touch or know in any way. The gold is either flowing in the river, or it’s not. It’s either mixed in the dirt, or it isn’t. The diamond is either buried in the earth to be found, or there is no such diamond. But the words I churn out every day? It may not be much, but at least I’m in control of those words. And I know that, even though most of them may be crap, the potential is there, hiding behind fossilized feces or drifting downstream.

The faith a writer has to have is a faith in himself (or herself!). Some would argue that it takes a hell of a lot of faith to return to the blank page, day after day, to deface it with your imperfection. There’s certainly something of the devotional in it.

But I don’t think it actually takes much faith at all. The stories we’re sifting for are there, hiding just below the surface, winking at us from behind the river of crap.

We just have to have the patience to screen out the garbage.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


I don’t update a whole lot about my projects on here anymore — I can only say the same things about authorial strife and creative doubt so many times before even I get tired of listening to myself — but the current project hit a milestone.

I was typing merrily along today, the words flying from me like so much projectile vomit from my one-year-old’s mouth (okay, that’s a lie, the words have been tooth-yankingly recalcitrant lately, springing forth only when I literally shackle myself to the desk and allow myself to do nothing but write), when I happened to glance at the progress bar.

Glancing at the progress bar is something best done rarely if at all. When you’re penning a 90,000 word novel that seems to be fighting your will to birth it into the world (sort of like, I imagine, the way a honey badger might be born), checking your overall progress is a little bit like watching paint dry. That is, if you left the paint in the can and just waited the long winter for it to congeal into a paint brick. It ticks away, slowly, resolutely, like an inchworm shimmying its way down Route 66, but I’m lucky to get 2% in a day. Some days, it doesn’t move at all, even after an hour’s slavish work in the word mines.

Nonetheless, today I checked it, my eye flopping inartfully across it like a cat falling off the arm of the sofa as it stretches for the fading noonday sun.

And it was at 51%.

Over halfway.

That’s shocking to me, because even though I know the time has been passing, and I’ve been dutifully plugging away on this project all the time, it just hasn’t had the same flow as my first project. If the first project was a traipse trough a neglected, overgrown garden — mostly clearing brambles and weeds but occasionally strolling through patches of still-blooming wildflowers — this project has been more like clear-cutting a path through the rainforest to make way for an interstate bypass. Using a hand axe. I feel every sluggish, seemingly ineffectual stroke of the axe-pen.


51% is a pretty good milestone. One worth bragging about, going into the weekend.

51% is like, I’ve rebuilt the shell of a classic Mustang in the garage, now all I have to do is put the engine back together, reassemble the transmission, rewire all of the electrics, replace the tires, and paint the thing.

51% is like, I’m making a pot luck dish for fifty of my co-workers and I’ve been to the grocery store, now all I have to do is prep the dish, cook it, portion it up neatly, wrap and seal it, and carry it in to work.

51% is like, I’ve cleaned one bathroom in the house, so I might as well clean the other bathroom, and the living room, and the kids’ bedrooms, and the garage, and maybe take down all the blinds that the cats tore up a year ago.

51% means the story is more written than not, and it would be a damn shame not to A) acknowledge that fact and B) really fling myself into the writing of it for this second half.

The pieces are all there. The characters are all there, and behaving as expected (or, if not as expected, at least teaching me how they would prefer to behave). The answers to the questions posed by the first half of the book are lurking in the mist like razor-sharp cliffs and rocks, shapes to be carefully navigated around as I search for the harbor.

Only 44,000 words to go.

A Narrative Sugar Rush

Much of the process of writing is boring. Fun-boring, perhaps, the way that putting together a 1000-piece puzzle is fun if not YEAH LET’S GO FINISH THAT PUZZLE WOOO fun. You spend much of the time silently puzzling out the … puzzles … of how all the little fiddly bits fit together. If I want to have that character jump over a cliff to save his dog later in the novel, how do I foreshadow that moment earlier in the text? If that character has a deathly allergic reaction to oranges in chapter three, can I somehow twist that for the resolution in chapter twenty-seven?  My character seems to want to collect postcards from everywhere she visits by the end of chapter twelve… did I have her collecting the tongues of her vanquished foes instead in chapter eight? Better go back and revisit…

You slog through those moments, creating back story, laying foundations for the future, discovering odd little curiosities about your characters along the way, and meanwhile the story meanders forward not unlike a stream: a little cascade over rocks here, a long slow flow of calm water there, a spontaneous whirling eddy over here (not to be confused with Whirling Eddie, the circus performer)… but stories have a life of their own, and just as a somnambulant stream can turn into a vicious torrent with a summer storm, so too can a story surge to life with the proper impetus.

Like, oh, say, the hero deciding she’s had enough of the idiots around her spouting theoretical scientific mumbo-jumbo about time travel and alternate futures and the dangers of wandering through free-standing space-time portals without observing all applicable safety protocols, then running out of the safehouse she doesn’t believe is actually a safehouse, straight into the cold steel arms of one of the very robots the mad scientist was just warning her about.

Or, you know, something. Purely hypothetical, that. Definitely didn’t just write that in my new novel today, over lunch. Nope. No robots or mad scientists here. What are you looking at? Get away from my non-robot-involving, non-mad-scientist-featuring draft.

I wasn’t planning to write that moment today, but all of a sudden my hero decided she’d had enough of sitting around listening to exposition and decided to blow the story the fargo up by walking out of it (and of course, karmically, [is karmically a word?]) walking right into it.

I’ve enjoyed drafting the new novel, but today I couldn’t stop writing. Just like that moment where you can’t put the book down, I kept saying to myself, just one more sentence. Just one more paragraph. Just see what happens next. And I can’t wait for my next drafting session, wherein I’ll get to find out what does happen to my hero next. Because, while I have the general plot for the story mapped out, her getting captured by robots was not necessarily something I expected. Er, not captured by robots. She was, um. Inconvenienced. By… aphids. In her garden. Tomatoes. Very frustrating. No spoilers here.

But expected or not, I think you have to embrace these little detours when they crop up. Outlines are great, and having the end in mind is a fine way to craft a story, but I firmly believe that stories, like life, have minds of their own, and if authors don’t allow those stories a bit of leeway to stretch their legs and explore the side streets a little bit, well, you miss a lot of the fun along the way.

And, as always, I fully recognize that this particular diversion might suck. It might not work with the narrative as a whole. It might have to get cut completely from the book when I get down to the editing part. The sucky part. The I-want-to-kill-myself-with-white-out part.

But you can fix all that in post, as they say.

For now, it’s time to stop and smell the robots.

Roses. Smell the roses.

No robots here.

*hears the whir of servos*

*goes to investigate*

Little Victories Fuel Big Victories

If you’re like me, a wannabe writer trying to figure out how to make the dream happen, you might be struggling to write every day. I know I did; writing the first draft of my first novel was as challenging as pulling the teeth from an enraged baboon while whistling “Happy Birthday” backwards. Sure, you start off full of chutzpah, ready to slay dragons and save the world every day, but the honeymoon only lasts so long. After a few weeks, you find yourself tasked with churning out more and more words, even though you’ve already used up your good ideas — or even though you don’ t know how to get to the good ideas.

That blank page stretches out in front of you like a wasteland, cruel and without end.

Some days are better than others, but every day is hard. Not just because you have to claim your time from the jaws of your enemies with blood and fire, but because you have to keep the creative engine churning, you have to keep the cursor moving, you have to keep that word counter ticking over like the odometer on a road trip.

Now, I’m not an expert. I’ve yet to make a dime off of anything I’ve written creatively, so I can’t claim to know any better than anybody what you should do to make any money at this endeavor. But I do know that if you aren’t writing, every day, you’re handicapping yourself before the race has even begun. Momentum matters, and if you keep the ball rolling a little every day, you don’t have to kickstart it from a dead stop again. To that end, if there were one piece of advice I’d offer to anybody trying to start writing, it’s this:

You need a daily goal. A set amount of progress that you will, one way or another, put to “paper” one way or another before today turns into tomorrow. Momentum matters. Achieving this goal every day will keep you sliding forward like a glacier. You can’t set out to say you want to write eighty thousand words by November and hope to get there by focusing on the eighty thousand. It’s too big. You might as well be thinking about climbing the summit of Mount Everest when you haven’t even left base camp. It’s a good goal to have, but you’re not going to achieve it today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. And when you fail to achieve that goal, you will lose gumption, you will lose drive, you will lose the confidence that you can achieve this thing. What you need is to focus on what’s in front of you and achieve that, however big or small that goal is. What’s your daily goal? 100 words? 300? 2000? It depends on the kind of time you have available in your days (or, more correctly, the amount of time you can prise from your day’s cold, dead fingers).

I find that, on a normal workday, I can usually find about 45 minutes to write, and that tends to be enough time for about 900 words.

Now, 900 words assumes I’m able to write productively and without pauses for almost the entire time, and that’s not always the case. So my “on paper” goal per day is 600, even though I’m really trying for 900. 600, therefore, is what I want to accomplish so that I can feel I’m not neglecting my writerly duties. 900, however, makes me happy.

How does it go, writing 900 words a day?

A little something like this:

0-100 words: Man, this is hard. Why did I decide to do this, again? I’m not sure what I should be writing at all. (re-reads yesterday’s work.) Okay, maybe this can happen, or maybe this character can set this trap… I dunno, it sounds lame. But if I don’t get to work, I’m not getting my words. Whatever. Just write something.

100-300 words: Well, I guess this is happening. I’m not sure I love what’s happening, but it’s happening. Make sure to keep that character involved. Think about what this character is thinking. Where is this heading? Just keep writing.

300-500 words: Okay, I like what’s happening now, and I see where it’s heading. Maybe, though, it doesn’t make sense for this character to say this thing now, or to take this action now, but I’m not sure how else it could go. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it… fix it later.

500 words: SHARKNADO. I just realized the perfect thing that should have happened earlier to set up the thing I just realized needs to happen now. Do I go back and fix it? Press on and make a note? (This is usually where I get up and walk around for a minute to rearrange my thoughts.)

500-700 words: I’m either going back and inserting an alternate text to something I already wrote, or I’m forging ahead full-speed with today’s beats. Either way, at this moment, I’m in a state of flow, just letting the words come on their own and keeping up with the narrative as quickly as it’s unspooling in my head.I don’t even check word count during this step. It just happens.

700-900: Flow continues and the possibilities for future events are exploding like popcorn, one after another, each one showing a road to the rest of the novel that might develop into something or that might wither on the vine. There’s no telling which one is the right one, though, so I grab hold of one and ride the wave while it’s high. At some point in this range I realize that I’m almost out of time for today, so…

900-1???: I use my remaining time to find a stopping point. I used to try and finish a beat, but now I like to either stop right in the middle of one or just at the beginning of a new one. That way, when I come back to write next time, I still have fresh in my mind some semblance of where this scene is going. I don’t usually want to stop writing at this point, but by this time there are other responsibilities banging on my door, either literally or figuratively.

So that’s pretty much every day. I push through five days a week like that when I’m drafting. I aim for a blarg post about every other day or when I can manage it, but I don’t stress about the length of the posts anymore (I used to shoot for 1000 words… yeah, this post is over 1000 already, but sheesh, that’s a lot in a day).

900 words might seem like not very much to you. Or maybe it seems so lofty as to be insurmountable. Point is, it’s been a sweet spot for me: It’s a challenge to get there, but not so daunting that I have to struggle every day to make it. But it’s not so easy that I can do it without any effort at all. It’s significant enough to give me a pick-me-up when I meet the milestone, but not so significant that I feel I can’t make it. Pick a goal that stretches you a little bit, but one that you can realistically reach from where you are. Little victories fuel big victories.

I’ll admit I’m feeling somewhat at sea with my current story. There are loose ends all over the place, I’m still getting a feel for the characters, and I’m not even 100% sure where I want the story to go. But what I do know is, I’ll be writing about 900 words a day every day for the next few months. If I can keep to that schedule, then long about September, I’ll have my second novel drafted.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.