Jeff James

Blog

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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If you've met me, you probably know that I love tracking things.

  1. I've kept track of my reading habits on Goodreads (and other services) since 2006. That's almost a decade at this point.
  2. I've owned three Fitbits over the years and am constantly trying to figure out ways to get more steps so that I can reach 10,000 steps a day.
  3. Whenever I decide that it's time to lose weight, I use apps like Lose It or MyFitnessPal to track calories (until I get frustrated and eat all of the calories I can find).
  4. One of the main ways I've tried to get serious about my writing is by tracking my daily output. I've had some success with this in the past, but whenever I've failed, I've failed spectacularly and gone months without writing a word.

This year I'm making an effort to track all of those things again because I'm a masochist. They're basically listed in order of how difficult I find them to achieve.

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After much tinkering, I've finally decided to replace my Wordpress site with a brand-spanking new static version generated in Jekyll.

The Jekyll installation currently lives on an Amazon EC2 instance so that I can rebuild it from anywhere, but if EC2 starts costing too much money, I'll probably configure it on one of my Macs instead.

I generally use a shell script to deploy the site; first, it does a Jekyll build, then it uses rsync to transfer the files from EC2 to Dreamhost via ssh/sftp. It took a little bit to figure out how to get ssh keys set up on both so that rsync wouldn't prompt for a password, but in the end it all came down to file permissions. I've also configured Rake so that I can test my build with html_proofer and deploy the site using my Rakefile.

The coolest part? Thanks to Panic's Coda for iOS, I can deploy the whole thing from my iPhone - start to finish!

The current template is called Skinny Bones. I've tweaked it a little bit here and there, but it's mostly the same.

An archival version of my old site currently lives on at old.unsquare.com. I've only ported over a selection of my old posts, and I may eventually take the old site down completely.

I've only barely watched Girls, but it's clear from what I've seen of it that realistic, awkward sexuality is an important part of the show's DNA.

Accordingly, when Tim Malloy from The Wrap discussed Lena Dunham's nudity at a recent Television Critics Association panel for the show, he set off a miniature firestorm when he said he didn't "get the purpose" of all that clothes-free acting.

Although I definitely don't want to add to the dog-pile that inevitably occurs when someone makes a faux pas that goes viral, I would like to discuss some aspects of Malloy's "question" that may help explain why this incident rubbed so many people the wrong way.

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