Jeff James

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Tracking your writing can be kind of brutal after a while, especially if you have a month where it feels like you didn’t hit your goals. March was one of those months despite the fact that I was actually very productive in a few important ways.

First off, a lot of my writing time in March was devoted to several weeks of my screenwriting class. We read scripts (written by class members) and watched a few movies to understand their structures. We were also given the occasional homework assignment specific to our script ideas.

I counted my time spent in class or working on assignments under the “Related Work” column of my spreadsheet, because it was a valuable use of my time that required a decent amount of mental energy. That time spent also tended to preclude any other kind of writing work.

Additionally, because I needed to devote my time to class (I did pay for it, after all), I made a point of setting aside my short stories until class was finished. This meant that my fictional output was almost non-existent in March.

As for my non-fiction writing, I published four book reviews over at Full of Words and four posts on this site. Those eight posts amount to 4171 words altogether, which means I did around 1552 words of journal-writing.

I’m actually pretty proud of myself for writing eight posts in one month - that’s an average of two posts a week. It’s a rare month when I blog that consistently, so good on me.

Even though I wrote a good number of blog posts and spent a lot of time working on assignments for class, I felt like I wasn’t productive enough because my fiction word count was so low.

Maybe it’s just a psychological hang-up that I need to get over, but it doesn’t really feel like I’m achieving my writing goals if I’m not producing a quantifiable number of words (or pages).

Fiction writing feels like a more achievable goal than screenwriting, so that’s probably why I’m so focused on word count as a metric.

I don’t really want to start producing screenplay pages before I have an outline ironed out. I know for a fact that I’d have to throw out a bunch of work if I started writing without planning. I know it’s a delaying tactic, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Ghost of a Friend is a good example of what happens when I write without planning. I’ve reworked it significantly after every rewrite, and I don’t think I discovered the core of the story until after multiple rounds of feedback and rewrites. That’s kind of an inefficient process… but somehow it produces results, flawed as they may be.

I know in my heart of hearts that outlining improves my writing, but for some reason I still freeze up at the thought of planning out a story. Some stubborn idiot part of my brain rebels and I don’t get anything done.

I’m not really sure where to go from here other than trying to tip the balance towards outlining instead of just pantsing everything.

My final counts for March 2016 were:

  • 26.5 hours of related work
  • 0 script pages
  • 559 words of fiction
  • 5723 words of non-fiction
  • 6282 total words

To recap, these were my goals for March:

  1. Finish a draft of an outline for my screenplay.
  2. Do a final pass on my newest short story and submit it for publication.
  3. Fewer journal entries and more fiction.

Here’s how those goals actually played out:

  1. I didn’t draft an outline, but I did come up with a list of ten set-pieces that feel really solid. I can see a potential through-line for the movie in those pieces, so it’s just a matter of formalizing it. I made measurable progress, but I didn’t end up with a finished product like I’d hoped.
  2. I made it halfway through a final pass on Ghost of a Friend. I stopped at the point when I realized that I needed to rewrite a huge chunk of the story. I’d also spent almost four hours working on the rewrite and it was time to leave the coffee shop.
  3. I feel like I whiffed on this one. My only attempts at fiction-writing were fitful stabs at starting a new short story. I’m not really happy with any of those fragments, so it’s back to the drawing board with my new ideas. I also resorted to writing in my journal way too many nights.

Here are my goals for April:

  1. Finish my final rewrite of Ghost of a Friend and submit it to at least one market by the end of the month.
  2. Create my outline board (i.e. draw lines on the board and lay out the sections) and outline at least one sequence of my screenplay.
  3. Find more ways to get concrete wins that make me feel like I’m progressing as a writer.

As an experiment, I decided to start using Hemingway to proof my blog posts and work assignments. Hemingway is a free web-based tool that catches a few common grammatical sins and rates the “readability” of your text.

My corporate writing is meant for a wide audience known for their short attention span, so making sure that my newsletters and documentation are clear and simple is a priority. Hemingway works really well in this scenario, and it’s okay if the results come out a little bland.

As for my blog, the most common posts I make are book reviews meant for a general audience. If someone finds my site from a Google search, it’s important that my content be accessible. That said, I do tend to make the occasional rhetorical flourish when I’m passionate about a book, and those are oftentimes my favorite posts. I’m confident that my best writing would never pass Hemingway’s readability standards.

After a few days of using Hemingway for my writing, I started feeling stifled by its rules. I need all the help I can get when it comes to avoiding passive voice, but I’m not sure I think that complex sentences are such a big deal, and adverbs do have their place now and then.

Unfortunately, whenever Hemingway highlights something in my writing, my instinct is to rewrite that section obsessively until the highlight is gone. This means that I massage complex sentences until they are uniform in length and simplicity. This might make my writing easier to read, but I also think it removes a lot of what makes me unique and interesting as a writer.

When the app first launched, one of the first things people pointed out is that even Hemingway wouldn’t pass all the app’s rules 100% of the time. The dirty little secret of English grammar is that a lot of the rules are just suggestions to ignore whenever your writing style calls for it.

For example, I recently read You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which has such a high rate of adverbs per paragraph that it was clearly a conscious stylistic choice by the author. Whether that choice was successful is another question entirely.

For now, I’ve stopped running my day-to-day writing through Hemingway. I suppose I could always use it to check for passive voice and ignore all its other suggestions, but that would take a bit of restraint on my part.

I’ve Kickstarted a few things over the years, but I’m much slower on the trigger these days. There aren’t any projects I regret funding, but there are definitely categories I don’t fund any more.

I have more than enough games to play, for example, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the ones I funded through Kickstarter. Instead, I put most of my funding dollars towards fiction magazines and anthologies. They always seem like worthy causes even if I never get around to reading the stories. Also, magazines tend to deliver their rewards on time.

I’ve also shifted most of my funding towards Patreon instead of Kickstarter. Most of the creators I want to support release content on a regular schedule. They’ve all realized that it makes way more sense to send them a few dollars every month instead of hoping they reach full funding for their newest campaign.

One of the first people I supported on Patreon was Jeph Jacques, who created Questionable Content, the only webcomic I still follow.

When I first started reading QC, I read maybe a decade of his strips in a few days’ time. I enjoyed them so much that I bought the collected editions as a way to pay him back for all of that entertainment. Patreon is actually a much better way to support him because his comics never really looked right in print. I can also show my support on an ongoing basis instead of whenever I decide to order a book from him.

One of the creators I’ve supported on both Kickstarter and Patreon is Fireside Fiction, a magazine that has been around for a few years now. I support Fireside because they pay really nice professional rates, and they publish authors I enjoy. I want Fireside to stick around long enough that I have the chance to submit a story.

When they were doing yearly Kickstarters, there was always the danger they might miss their target and close up shop. Now that they’ve transitioned over to Patreon and reached a sustainable level, there’s a much better chance they’ll stick around for a good long time.

The final creator I’m funding is Strange Horizons, another magazine. If I remember correctly, I started funding them because they were having a fund drive and authors I follow on Twitter were advocating for them. I really just like supporting fiction markets because I want more chances to submit my stuff to some cool places. Also I always want to read more good short fiction.

In the future, I’ll probably favor Patreon over any new Kickstarters. I think the only project I’ve funded over there recently is a blu-ray collection of Don Hertzfeldt’s short films, which seemed like a worthwhile thing to own.

I think I’d rather put my money towards things I’m already enjoying instead of projects that might pay off two years down the line.

Writing is a bit of a contradiction: the physical act of writing usually happens in solitude, but the only way to succeed at writing is through collaboration.

When I say that, I don’t just mean the sorts of collaborations where two people sit down and try to write one story. I also mean collaboration in the sense that everyone who gives you feedback or helps you brainstorm is a collaborator.

The people in your support system can be some of the most important collaborators you’ll ever have, even if the only credit they’ll ever get is in the acknowledgements or a thank you speech at an awards ceremony.

There is this romantic idea of the writer who disappears into a cabin somewhere and whips up the Great American Novel, fully formed. It’s complete bullshit.

Even masterpieces needed a good editor, and all of the classic authors worked with one. Most of them probably also had beta readers, friends, and spouses who read their work and gave them feedback.

I’ve been working hard to develop my craft by doing something writing-related every day, but making a habit is just the first step on my path to development. Whenever I finish a new unit of story, I can’t just send it out into the world and try to win awards or get it published. Instead, I need the reality check of some good feedback from people I trust.

In fact, I’d say that I need the help of others at all points in the process - before, during and after.

  1. My writing turns out much better whenever I have someone to use as a sounding board for my ideas.
  2. I’m far more motivated to write when I know people are waiting for my work.
  3. My stories are only ever improved by the cycle of feedback and rewrites.

The biggest problem I’m facing right now is that asking for feedback is an imposition on someone else’s time. Everyone who reads my story is doing me a favor, especially if they read it quickly.

I recently sent my newest story out to a few friends and asked for their feedback. More than one of them was kind enough to do me the favor of reading my story and providing a thoughtful, detailed response. Everything they’ve told me is going to be a huge help once I actually get around to doing my final rewrite, but even as I appreciated their feedback, it occurred to me that I can only ask my friends for this kind of favor so many times.

I mean, sure, I have great friends who are more than willing to help me out, and I’m definitely willing to do the same for them whenever I can, but I don’t want to abuse that relationship. If I’m using up favors every time I ask for feedback on one of my stories, it feels like I should save those favors for when I really need them.

What I really need is some kind of arrangement that doesn’t rely on the kindness of my friends. Finding a writing group would be the ideal solution. Writing groups are founded on the principle that everyone has to give and get feedback on a regular basis. I wouldn’t feel guilty about asking a group to read my stuff because I’d be earning my keep by reading their work in return.

The problem with writing groups is that I can’t seem to find one to join, and I haven’t had any luck trying to found one. I talked to a few writers from last year’s screenwriting class about starting a group, but I couldn’t get anyone to commit to actually getting together for a meeting. Eventually everyone just stopped responding to my emails and I wrote off the whole thing.

I’m planning on trying again with my newest class, but I’m not sure how much more successful I’ll be. At least one person in class seems driven enough to actually make good on a writing group, but I’m not sure about everyone else. That also wouldn’t solve my problem when it comes to getting feedback on short stories; any group I found with the people from class would naturally focus on screenwriting.

I’d also like to figure out how to find myself a writing partner. Writing The Leet World with Eddy is the closest I’ve ever come to a true writing partnership, but he’s a busy dude and I think we have different priorities for our writing. It would also be a big help if I could find a partner who actually lived in the same place as me.

For now, I’m going to keep plugging away on my own while I work on building up that network of collaborators.

The second month is usually where it all falls apart. My dedication to a goal starts slipping and I start coming up with more and more reasons why I don’t actually need to keep doing it.

The last few times I’ve tried to commit to a daily writing habit, I’ve given up pretty quickly after that first month. I’m sure that one of the reasons I’ve had a hard time sticking to my goals is that I made it very easy to fail. This time around, I’ve done what I can to give myself more ways to succeed, and so far it seems to be paying off.

I had a bit of a dip in productivity in February, but I still reached a few milestones. My overall output was lower versus January, but I finished a second draft of my newest short story on February 10th. I sent it off for feedback and received some very thoughtful responses, but I haven’t actually sat down to start my next (and hopefully final) revision.

Instead, I’ve been trying to focus on work for my screenwriting class, which does take up a decent chunk of time every week. I’m still stuck in the brainstorming stage, but I’m hoping to make some concrete progress soon. i want to turn in my outline and get some feedback. I keep telling myself that I’m going to sit down and devote a solid chunk of time to some serious brainstorming, but I’ve been bad about setting aside the hours.

I feel like I used journaling as a fallback more in February than I did in January. I’m also counting my time spent in class or doing homework under the “related work” column. This meant that there were several days in a row where I counted nothing but work for class. Although outlining and brainstorming are crucial parts of the creative process, I’d like to avoid having to count journal entries as my daily writing if at all possible.

My final counts for February 2016 were:

  • 20 hours of related work
  • 0 script pages
  • 2878 words of fiction
  • 5257 words of non-fiction
  • 8135 total words

Here are my goals for March:

  1. Finish a draft of an outline for my screenplay.
  2. Do a final pass on my newest short story and submit it for publication.
  3. Fewer journal entries and more fiction.

I recently finished the second draft of a new short story, and at the moment I’m feeling pretty good about it.

The story was inspired by a prompt from The Five Hundred that I used as a jumping-off point and then ultimately ignored. The story wasn’t finished after 500 words, and I was feeling inspired, so I just kept going.

I finished the first draft on January 17th with a total of 3123 words. I sent it off to a few people to read and got two sets of feedback, both of which were very helpful.

The next step was to print out the draft and read it aloud with a red pen in my hand. I ended up doing rewrites and tweaks throughout. I think the combination of reading it aloud and working from a printed copy helped me get some necessary perspective on the story.

As I read through the story, I changed the narration from present-tense to past-tense. I also decided to delete several unnecessary characters and give two of the remaining characters more scene time. Finally, I came up with something more active for the main character to do, since one piece of feedback I got was that he was very passive throughout.

After I finished the red pen read-through, I let a few days pass before I sat down and incorporated the changes into my Scrivener draft. Once that was done, I got down to the business of writing a new scene in the middle of the story as well as a new ending.

When I finished the second draft on February 10th, it came in significantly longer at a total of 4422 words despite the fact that I’d deleted two scenes. I started the story on January 14th and finished the second draft slightly less than a month later, which is a pretty decent turnaround time.

As soon as I finished the second draft, I sent it off to my beta readers. I included two new people who didn’t get a chance to read it the first time around. My hope is that I’ll get some fresh perspectives on the story from people who never saw the first draft.

Although I feel good about the story, I’m not entirely sure if I pulled off the ending. I’m looking forward to seeing what my readers have to say about it. Ideally, I’d like to start submitting this story before the end of February.

As for what comes next in my writing queue, I need to spend some quality time with my outline for screenwriting class. I let story rewrites take precedence and now I don’t have much to show for myself at this week’s class.

Although I would like to have more than one story ready for submission, I don’t want to neglect my outline. That means I’m going to put a pin in my stories for the time being and focus on getting my outline into shape as soon as possible.

Writing in January went pretty well overall. I started by writing a little bit of fiction every day and I eventually pulled off a streak that lasted through the end of the month.

Right near the end I decided that I needed to figure out a way to count working on an outline, because I spent that last Friday and Saturday getting ready for my screenwriting class and all of my energies were devoted to my outline instead of writing or rewriting.

I updated my spreadsheet so that I could count the hours I spent in class or working on my outline. Problem is, it feels a bit like cheating even though it’s a pretty important part of the process.

Unfortunately, I think I lost a bit of momentum after two days of not adding new words or pages to my counts. I’m sure it’s just a mental hang-up, but I think if I do devote more days to nothing but outlining, it would help me feel better if I also did something like writing a journal entry so that I have some writing progress to count.

Also, I think if I go too many days without taking at crack at writing fiction, I get too much in my head about it and I tend to write a blog post or a journal entry as an avoidance tactic.

And, of course, I have work that I need to do for class. I need to read a script so that I can give feedback, and I need to make some measurable progress on my outline.

When I took screenwriting classes in Austin, I never produced anything. I don’t want to repeat that mistake.

My final counts for January 2016 were:

  • 6 hours of related work
  • 4 script pages
  • 5136 words of fiction
  • 7601 words of non-fiction
  • 12737 total words

Here’s to a solid February full of writing!

I signed up for the 201 level of Tom Vaughan’s Story and Plot class a few weeks ago, and I’m really looking forward to it. The class starts next Saturday, and this time around we’re actually going to be writing script pages. I enjoyed the 101 class a lot, but it’s definitely time I started writing a script of my own instead of limiting my creative energies to short stories and The Leet World.

I have two ideas that feel like feature films, but of course I’m planning on using the idea I didn’t bring to class last time around just because I want to make things difficult for myself.

The idea I brought last time is a contained sci-fi thriller about what might happen if teleporters existed and garage inventors started tinkering with them. The problem is that I couldn’t figure out what the character arcs needed to be; it was more of a philosophical premise than an actual character-based story. I never spent the time necessary to develop it into an actual working script, but I don’t plan on abandoning it entirely. I’ll just come back to it some other time.

This time around, I’ve decided to focus on an idea that I originally thought might work best as a web series. It’s a story about a home-brewer who stumbles into a world of magical beer recipes and secret societies. I have a much clearer idea of the main character’s story arc, so I think I’ll be able to come up with a decent outline pretty quickly and start producing pages.

As for the outline, I’m using Amazon Storybuilder to create a corkboard version. I feel like I have a pretty solid first act mapped out, but I’m not sure where the script needs to go from there. I’m planning on using the rest of this week to complete the handouts from the 101 class and fill out the outline as much as possible before class begins.

After much tinkering, I finally figured out how to make a decent static backup of my old Wordpress site. I kept running into problems no matter my approach - whether I tried the web interface or wget - but I had a brainstorm recently that solved a lot of my issues.

The main problem with trying to create a backup in the Wordpress web interface is that my site is on shared hosting and Wordpress is a resource hog. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to switch to Jekyll in the first place. I’m unlikely to ever be able to afford dedicated hosting, so switching to a static site was definitely an economic choice.

It’s also just a matter of impatience. If you try to do anything involved in Wordpress on shared hosting, you’ll probably hit the upper limit of your server’s memory and your site will crap out.

That’s what happened every time I tried to generate a static copy of my site with a plugin called Simply Static. The plugin would load for a few long minutes and then return an error message.

As for wget, it might just be too convoluted for my purposes. I could never quite figure out the right combination of options to download my site without also downloading a bunch of unnecessary garbage. It was also a pretty slow process. Whenever I inevitably realized halfway through that I’d included the wrong options, it meant I had to start over from the beginning.

My brainstorm was when I realizes that I could use AMPPS (or MAMP, if you prefer) to create my own dedicated server. See, I really only need the server for as long as it takes to spit out a static copy, so it would be absurd to pay for hosting.

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OK, so: I’m writing every day, and doing my best to maintain my streak, which means I have a few different irons in the fire at all times. Options are good! That’s how I’ve met my reading goals year after year - by reading at least a half-dozen books at the same time.

I have three (maybe four) stories that I would currently consider “active” right now. What I mean by active is that I’m actually trying to complete them and get them ready for submission. On days when I’m not ready to dive in to one of my stories, I’ve been trying to prioritize blog posts, although there are a handful of days when I’ve fallen back on writing a journal or rewriting an existing story.

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