The Climb up the Hill

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Taking on a challenge like writing a novel can seem daunting. A good novel can range from 60,000 words for a young adult novel or a romance up to 360,000 word for a fantasy novel, with a typical length closer to 90,000 to 120,000 words. For perspective, a paragraph in a five-paragraph essay can be 100 words, so a 100,000 word novel like my first novel, FROST MOON, is like a thousand-paragraph essay. To someone who had trouble getting those 500 words down, that’s incredibly daunting.

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Challenges like National Novel Writing Month can, paradoxically, make it easier. 50,000 words in a month seems daunting, but that’s only half a full-length novel, and even more so, it’s not 50,000 words of a finished novel: it’s 50,000 words of unpolished first draft. You can let yourself write drek you’re not proud of if it gets words on the page. If you’re the kind of person daunted by the thought of writing a whole novel, or paralyzed by perfectionism, National Novel Writing Month offers an easier path up the hill.

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Still, it’s a long hill. And it can be daunting, no doubt. Especially if you tend to get behind, like I do, or if you tend to get trapped polishing your words, as I often do. You sometimes need tips and techniques to help yourself get past the stumbling blocks.

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Here are a few of the ones that have worked for me in the past.

  • Commit to Writing Every Day. This is really hard to do, so you need to make sure you do it. You’ll fail, of course, but if you’re constantly writing every day, then missing a day won’t hurt you. If you’re not writing every day, however, soon, you’ll be a week behind, with no way to come back.
  • Track Your Progress. If you don’t track your progress, you can find yourself far off the path. I use a spreadsheet which tells me how far ahead (or, more often, behind) I am and how many words I need to write each day to stay on track for the end of the month. Other people use the National Novel Writing Month site to track this.
  • Put Writing First. Turn off your Internet until you’ve written. Put off that computer game. Defer going to see that movie until the end of the month. For me, since I read and write over lunch, dinner, and coffee, I have to shut off my internet and defer reading the next scientific paper in my stack until I’ve gotten my word count for the day (with the exception of when my food actually is hot on the plate; I’ll read then as it’s hard to write and eat at the same time).
  • Don’t Edit – Just Write. Editing can come later. It’s not adding words to your document. Get your first draft down, then edit it, or you won’t get your 50,000 words in the month, and if you can’t get through 50,000 words without getting bogged down in edits, you’ll never get your 100,000 word novel done.
  • Don’t Delete – Use Strikethrough. Don’t cut words during Nano, that’s just shooting yourself in the foot. The point is to get through your whole story. If you don’t like something you wrote, strike it out, put it in italics, whatever, just mark it for future revision and write what you want instead as the next paragraph. Trust me, your inner editor can turn on your new idea just as easily as it can turn on your old – so get them both down and move on. I use a special style in Word called “Summary” for this purpose – italics surrounded by dotted lines.
  • Don’t Research – Use Angle Brackets. My writing group uses <angle brackets> to indicate something that must be filled in later. Other people use the copyediting term TK – to come (sic). The point is, use something unique and searchable. Turn off your Internet, resist the desire to chase links in Wikipedia or TV Tropes, and write <TK: for that thing you wanted to fill in here but couldn’t think of at the time> so you can come back to it later.
  • ALTERNATELY. In addition to angle brackets, I use the word “ALTERNATELY” when I realize a scene’s gone the wrong way. Rather than rewriting or creating new connective material, I say ALTERNATELY, or perhaps “ALTERNATELY: Dakota realizes something is wrong” and then pick up where I left off. On the next pass, this is easily fixable.
  • Remember, at some point, you may hate it. Sooner or later, every writer falls out of love with their manuscript. That’s OK. “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” The point is not to cater to your emotions, but to get through your emotions to the end of your project. Let the hate flow through you! And move on to the next bit. Sooner or later, every writer falls in love with their manuscript – and the sooner you write more words, the sooner you’ll get there.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but these tips helped me.

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Writing 50,000 words of rough draft is not writing a novel. You’ve got a lot more to go – between 10,000 and 310,000 words depending on whether you’re aiming at Goosebumps or George R. R. Martin. But if you can get 50,000 words under your belt, you’ll have the pleasure of looking back and realizing you can accomplish quite a climb.

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20 Goes at Nano

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Above you see a big pile of all the words I’ve written in National Novel Writing Month and related challenges, laid out horizontally by day of month and laid down vertically by the challenge in which I wrote them, creating an interesting strata effect, like words deposited by a geological process. This month marks my 20th attempt at Nano, 18 of which were successful:

Deliverance 2002 Nanowrimo WINNER
Frost Moon 2007 Nanowrimo WINNER
Blood Rock 2008 Nanowrimo WINNER
Liquid Fire 2009 Nanowrimo WINNER
Clockwork 2010 Nanowrimo WINNER
Clockwork 2010 December Nano FAILED
Hex Code 2011 Nanowrimo WINNER
Clockwork 2012 Script Frenzy WINNER
Spectral Iron 2012 Nanowrimo WINNER
Marooned 2013 Nanowrimo WINNER
Spectral Iron 2014 Camp Nanowrimo WINNER
Spectral Iron 2014 August Nano FAILED
Phantom Silver 2014 Nanowrimo WINNER
Spectral Iron 2015 Camp Nanowrimo WINNER
Hex Code 2015 Nanowrimo WINNER
Phantom Silver 2016 Camp Nanowrimo WINNER
Phantom Silver 2016 Camp Nanowrimo WINNER
Spiritual Gold 2016 Nanowrimo WINNER
Spiritual Gold 2017 Camp Nanowrimo WINNER
Spiritual Gold 2017 Camp Nanowrimo WINNER

As I’ve noted before, the two in which I failed were “off months” where I tried to tackle Nanowrimo on my own. For me, it’s much harder without the external benefit of the contest, and on the two times I tried it I bombed out after a few days. You can see that in this graph, which shows the number of words I’m ahead or behind at each part of the month:

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This graph means the most to me, because I was involved in the creation of it, and so intuitively understand it; if I see my monthly progress (the darkest line above) below the dotted line of the average, I know to worry; if I see it below my worst track for any part of the month, I know to really get cracking. Looks like the farthest behind I ever got (and succeeded) was 20,00 words behind, on LIQUID FIRE in 2009, and in PHANTOM SILVER in 2016.

But for people not intimately involved in laying down those tracks, the average amount ahead / behind per day is perhaps more useful:

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This shows that a successful Nanowrimo participant can be very far ahead, or very far behind, and still win in the month. Do what works for you! There’s a lot of wiggle room in there.

But if you’re more interested in brass tacks, here’s the maximum and average amount I wrote in each day:

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This shows that typically at the start of Nano I’m writing a little bit less than the needed word count per day, and at the end of Nano I’m writing a little bit more – but that the maximum I have to do each day is radically more than that – once almost 10,000 words (and that was a hell of a push, I can tell you – that was PHANTOM SILVER in July of 2016, and I was down to the wire, writing 7000 words in the last day – and finding the Camp Nano counter was 2000 words off of Microsoft Word’s count, so I had to generate 2,000 more words in the last couple of hours).

I will probably dig a bit more into SPIRITUAL over the last two days of the 30 day challenge (I know July has an extra day, but I can use the break). I’m not quite done – the manuscript is at 171,330 words, but maybe 20,000 to 30,000 words of that are in-manuscript notes that need to be turned into text, and then I have a lot I want to cut. During Nano, if I change my mind about how a scene is going, I don’t cut it and rewrite it, because that defeats the purpose of generating words; I write the word ALTERNATELY on its own line and rewrite the scene. After Nano, all that needs to get edited, merged and/or cut.

Often, I find that I’m not satisfied with the first rough draft text I produce in Nano. There are amazing gems in there, but also drek. But at the same time, I find that I am almost always very satisfied at having a text that flows through all the scenes I wanted to write. The idea of a scene in your head is just that – an idea. It’s not real until you write it. If you don’t write it, you can’t improve it – you’ll either long for it to be written, or you’ll elaborate on your idea of it in your head endlessly, or, worst of all, get caught up in the smug satisfaction of your own unfinished work, admiring the creation of something awesome that doesn’t actually exist.

But once you write it, you can see whether the idea works or not. You can decide to keep it, or refine it, or discard it. Even better, it springboards you – into new alternates for the same scene, or new ideas for what happens next, or new insights into your character, their plot, and the themes of your story.

Don’t just dream your story – write it down. Only by writing dreams down can you turn them into reality.

And Nanowrimo is a great place to get started with that. The 50,000 word challenge may seem impossible. It may not even seem like the kind of thing you want to do. No one is making you, after all: you don’t have to. But if your head is filling with ideas and you can’t get them out, why not take on an impossible seeming challenge to write 50,000 words of them down.

Believe me, it’s possible.

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-the Centaur

Viiictory^18

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So, for the eighteenth time, I have won a National Novel Writing Month challenge … this time, the 50,000 word challenge for Camp Nano of July 2017!

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The cafe I’m in is about to close, but I’m proud to say I (a) finished the 50,000 words a few days early so I can relax this weekend and (b) solved some problems in my manuscript, making it easier for me to reach that final finish line for Dakota Frost #6, SPIRITUAL GOLD!

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More tomorrow when I have more time to reflect on getting this much closer to the end …

Onward!

-the Centaur

Mining that SPIRITUAL GOLD

Well, we’re getting ahead of the curve at last on SPIRITUAL GOLD … two days ahead.

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My writing retreat this weekend has paid off. I spent some time hanging out with the Treehouse Writers at the Linde Lane Tea Room in Dixon, California, then holed up in a hotel in downtown Davis, hanging out in bookstores and coffeehouses in an attempt to make some progress on SPIRITUAL GOLD. The actual day of the drive was a wash, but after that, I managed to get more than two days worth of words done in each day, and almost that today.

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Now at last I’m ahead of the curve, and if I can stay there for a few more days, I’ll win Camp Nano. More importantly, however, I’ve marched forward in the manuscript so I’m around Chapter 37 out of roughly 50, with much of the text of the remainder partially written and merely needing some ironing out. With luck, I’ll finish SPIRITUAL GOLD at the end of the month, and shortly thereafter, and then can begin editing Dakota Frosts #4-#6 together as one big trilogy.

Onward!

-the Centaur

Getting Momentum on SPIRITUAL GOLD

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As usual, it takes me some time to get back into a book, especially if I’ve spent the first few days of the month distracted by something like, uh, I dunno, scouting locations for the book.

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But, now, after about a week of concerted work, I’m getting my legs under me. Blood remains in the water, but it is receding.

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Should I include an excerpt? Ah, sure. Raw stuff, still needs more research, but, here you go:

“Hey, hey, hey,” I said. “Why would you want me to use the isolation tank?”

“Because Carrington got infected after a spirit journey she took here,” Heinz said. “A journey which just might have taken her into faerie, given our current theory. And since I have the magical affinity of a wet noodle, and wouldn’t know a faerie from a star on Broadway—”

“Troglodyte,” I muttered, glaring at him. “Fine, fine, fine, I’m the best suited for this … this suicide mission—”

“No!” Wilz said. “If you really think this will hurt you, no go. I don’t need the liability.”

I sighed, then stared at Heinz.

“In my professional judgment,” Heinz said, “if this was a normal infection, one of the hundreds of people who’ve used this isolation tank would already have been infected. If this was a magical infection, you would already have been infected by your prior exposure. And if there’s magic here at all … you’re the most likely one to find it.”

“Fine.” I said. “Fine—”

“I … will show you to the showers,” Wilz said.

Ten minutes later, I returned from a quick splashdown, holding tight to my body a big, warm, white fuzzy robe provided by Wilz, as Heinz looked at me with quite the smirk. I glared at him, then turned the glare on Wilz, who recoiled in a mix of surprise and curiosity.

“No commentary!” I said, peeling off the robe quickly, bare to my metal bikini. “Zipit!”

Wilz took the robe, then drew his hand across his mouth, glancing at Heinz.

“Okay,” Wilz said. “We’d rather not have to flush this water after each use, so—”

“Don’t say don’t pee in it,” I said, pointing at him. “I know that already! I’m an adult!”

“Yeah, well,” Heinz began.

“And you’re not!” I shot back.

“I didn’t personally put Doctor Orleans in the tank,” Wilz said. “I don’t know what was said, so I don’t know how to recreate the conditions that she, er, he, experienced while in there. All I can tell you is to lie down, to relax … and to keep your head above water.”

“I hope there’s a headrest,” I muttered.

“There is,” Wilz said. “Let me help you in—”

The Epsom salt laden water of the tank was warm, thick, almost tacky as I went in. The tank made soft booming noises as I moved, strangely muffled by the outer padding. Wilz helped me straighten out to level, then guided my head down to a horseshoe-shaped rest.

The door of the tank closed … and I was left in darkness.

Onward!

-the Centaur

SPIRITUAL GOLD in Progress

So this is NOT the cover for Dakota Frost #6, SPIRITUAL GOLD …

… but it is what I’m using as a cover for my Camp Nanowrimo page for July.

For those not in the know, much of the Dakota Frost series is written during National Novel Writing Month and the related Camp Nanowrimo challenges. For each of these, I take on the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month. This month, I’m working on Dakota Frost #6, SPIRITUAL GOLD.

Now, this may seem far away, as the latest Dakota Frost out is, #3, LIQUID FIRE, available wherever fine books are sold. But, to reduce the gap between books – and to increase the coherence between books, I’m writing the next three Dakota Frost books and the first three Cinnamon Frost books together, as one, giant, loosely-connected, six-part novel.

Dakota Frost’s next adventures have the working titles SPECTRAL IRON, PHANTOM SILVER, and SPIRITUAL GOLD. Running just behind each of these will be Cinnamon Frost’s first solo adventures, HEX CODE, BOT NET and ROOT USER. I’ve finished rough drafts of SPECTRAL IRON, PHANTOM SILVER, and HEX CODE, and hope to finish the rough draft of SPIRITUAL GOLD this month.

At that point, I’ll start trying to get the Dakota Frost trilogy beaten into shape, even though it will take me two more Nano pushes (at least) to finish up the slightly shorter Cinnamon Frost novels.

Regardless, hope to get these in your hands soon. Wish me luck!

-the Centaur

Taos Toolbox in the Taillights

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So I and my wife have an agreement: if it isn’t a public appearance, I don’t blog about travel until it’s over. Well, Taos Toolbox 2017 is over, and I can say that this was one of the greatest writing experiences of my life.

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Run by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, the Toolbox is a “graduate level” workshop for writers who’ve either gone through another workshop like Clarion, or have published something on their own. It was two solid weeks of instruction, critique and writing, complicated by a simultaneous deadline on my part for the Conference on Robot Learning; even despite staying up late many nights working on that paper, I had an amazing experience learning science fiction.

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I’ll flesh out more about the workshop over the next few weeks as I digest it, but as for now, let me just say that this boot camp for writers was a transformative experience which really gave me a much deeper appreciation about how to construct stories and how to tell them. And now … time for a little rest!

-the Centaur

Books of Secrets

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I used to believe that the secret is that there are no secrets. There’s no special diet that will evaporate away the pounds overnight, no special pencil that will instantly make you a great artist, no special practice that will solve all your problems at software development. There is, in short, no mystical food or enchanted pen or silver bullet that will take the place of the diligent application of hard work when you’re trying to solve a problem.

I used to believe that about books too – that there was no magic book filled with secrets.

I didn’t come to believe that overnight. I read a lot, and collect books even more; as a child I’d come home from the library tottering with piles of books, and when I got older and got tired of paying for late fees, I began amassing a library. I scour my home cities for volumes, and when I travel I harvest new places for their used bookstores, where obscure volumes are kept.

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In particular, I’ve collected books in my subject areas – artificial intelligence, cognitive science, robotics, physics, writing, alternative culture, science fiction, and urban fantasy. Now, decades later, my library’s grown to ten thousand volumes, over fifty bookshelves spread out over three different locations, filled with almost every conceivable tome on the areas of my interest.

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But there was a point, maybe not even five years ago, when I despaired of finding books that had the information I truly wanted. I’d searched and searched and could not find books that answered the questions I needed – usually technical details about problems in artificial intelligence. Eventually, I decided, there were no books of secrets which would help you quickly solve the problems that really mattered to you – that there were no magic books.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

There are books that are special. There are books which will quickly help you solve your problems, or which will rapidly help you gain insight into the world, or which will deeply enrich the quality of your life. There are, indeed, books that are magic.

I call them grimoires.

Now, the truth is, there still are no secrets. The word grimoire means “a book of magic spells,” but just like the spellbooks of legend, you can’t simply crack open one of the magic books I have in mind and get an instant result. You can’t even crack one of these books open and get an instant bad result: unlike the comically unfortunate Sorcerer’s Apprentice, if you flip open the master’s grimoire and attempt to apply the recipes unfiltered, you won’t get a runaway army of water-carrying broom-Terminators, but instead just some broken sticks and damp straw.

No, grimoires are books that you have to engage. Earlier I said there’s no magic diet, pencil, or practice that will solve all your problems. However, there are diets superior for losing weight, pencils that are great to draw with, and best practices which will prevent software problems. Unfortunately you can’t take advantage of them without willpower, effort and training.

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So too with grimoires. Intuitively I’d known they existed for a while, because even as I was giving up on grimoires, I still populated my shelves with them – Misner, Thorne and Wheeler’s Gravitation , Russel & Norvig’s Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach , Joyce’s Ulysses , and so on – and had even read some cover to cover, like The Feynman Lectures on Physics , Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science , and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged . I’d even started to recognize my mistake as I was reading the “GBC Book”: Goodfellow, Bengio’s, and Courville’s masterful Deep Learning tome.

But it was a book called The Springer Handbook of Robotics that brought the point home.

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I’m a roboticist, and I’d been struggling hard with a recalcitrant robot – not physically, of course, nor mentally, but programmatically: I was trying to get it to drive straight, and it was ramming itself straight into a wall. Once I spent more than a day and a half tearing apart its drive controller until I figured out the mathematics of what it was supposed to be doing well enough for me to figure out what it was actually doing wrong so I could ultimately figure out how to fix it.

Then I cracked open a chapter of The Springer Handbook of Robotics, Second Edition . This big red book came across my radar at my previous robotics project, where half a dozen people had the first edition on their shelves – and my officemate, Torsten Kröger, turned out to be the multimedia editor of the new edition. I had more than enough books to read, so I resolved to wait for the new edition to come out, to buy it to support my buddy Torsten, and to get him to sign it.

Eventually, the Handbook of Robotics landed on my doorstep, all 2,200 pages of it – the book is thicker than most books are wide and some books are tall. After getting Torsten to sign it – just carrying the book around caused the spine to crack a little – I decided to spend a little time reading a few chapters related to the work I had been doing before putting the book away.

I cracked open the chapter on navigation … and found the math for my robot problem.

This wasn’t something I had to dig at: it was right in front of me. The book had a chapter on my problem, and almost right at the start it reviewed all the math needed for a basic approach to the problem. Had I read it before I worked on the robot controller, I would have immediately understood that the code I was reading was implementing those very fundamental equations, and would have solved my problem in a half an hour rather than a day and a half. I realized that this book – which I discovered by going into robotics – is something I needed to have read before going into robotics.

Now, realistically, no-one can read a 2,200 page book prior to solving their problem … but, as Torsten explained to me, there’s something else going on here. Most of this enormous book isn’t relevant to my interests … but what is in the parts that are relevant to my interests are just the foundational results that are needed to understand that area of interest, and those results are annotated with references to the papers in which those results are derived and applied.

A true grimoire isn’t simply a comprehensive collection of all possible information on a topic – we call that a manual, and while grimoires are often comprehensive, and there are manuals that count as grimoires, manuals in general lack a true grimoire’s other attributes: focus, insight, and orientation. A true grimoire doesn’t just comprehensively exhaust its subject; it’s focused on some aspect of the subject, brings insight to bear that you can then use to orient you to the broader field.

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Inspired by my experience with Goodfellow, Bengio and Courville’s Deep Learning book, with The Springer Handbook of Robotics, and to a lesser extent my experiences with fictional grimoires like James Joyce’s Ulysses, I’ve decided to start reviewing them here.

Next up: my criteria for reviewing a Canonical Grimoire … and how they differ from Grimoires by Reputation, Classic Reference Books, Thin Little Volumes, and their fictional counterparts, Tours de Force.

-the Centaur