Introduction: The Thirteen Weeks Novel Writing Program
Week 2: First You Catch Your Idea
Week 3: The Plot Wars
Week 4: How to Find the Time for Writing
There is this state you enter in writing that is really hard to explain to anyone who has not entered it. However, I’ve found out that it is something that happens to all creatives, and I’ll try to explain it to you here, in case you’re new to this and have never felt it.
It bears explaining because when it first starts to hit you might very well feel like you’ve gone around the bend.
As I’ve confessed here I started out as a very tight plotter. No, not when I first started writing. I know very few authors who are tight plotters when they first start out. You sketch a page, write a beginning, you don’t even have a clue if you’re writing a short story or a novel, and you just keep writing a paragraph after a paragraph, and finally go “Whoa! I have such and such a length.” At which point you look it up – something that in my day involved, of course, going to the library and consulting the writer’s market, but which can now be done on the net – and decide that you have a short story, a novella, a novelette or a novel. (Don’t worry too much if you’re concerned about what on Earth all those things mean. They are mostly marketing categories and are passing from this world even as we speak. Epublishing and print on demand are sweeping all that away.)
What your story was unlikely to have – beyond the words – was a coherent plot. Yes, there are people who are freaks of nature and have read so much that their stories naturally fall into a plot-pattern that makes sense.
I wasn’t one of those people, despite having read about six books a day (give or take) between the ages of ten and thirty.
I started with the idea that in a story things happened. So things happened to my character, but they never led anywhere in particular. People got attacked, defeated their attackers, had breakfast, took showers, went shoe shopping, got attacked again…
I didn’t know that wasn’t a plot. It was, after all, a lot like reality, where – regardless of whether you are afraid of being attacked or not – you still have breakfast, shoe shop, take showers, talk to friends, etc.
But plotting is not reality. Reality doesn’t have to be coherent or presented to any purpose – but a story does, because otherwise, what is the point?
Preparing for my third 13-week season, working to lose weight, control my Type 2 diabetes, and improve my health. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own. A new 13 week experiment starts June 1 2013. Join in!
Okay, this is a long one, just to warn you. Here’s the basics:
I’ve been rethinking these 13 week sessions and how to do them; I’ve written a new explanation.
I’m starting to see how the emotional part plays into the issue.
I’ve used the pattern as I now see it to start planning my next 13 weeks, and provided that as a “worked example” for other people who want to try it.
I’m looking for people to volunteer to try a 13 week experiment of their own, and possibly to try a web site meant to support 13 week experiments. Volunteers should mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Now on with today’s show.
As I said last week, I’m taking a little bit of a vacation from attempting to strictly follow some eating plan while I think about my results and what to do next.
The vacation has been interesting. I gave in to one of the things I’d been missing, and had a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder and large fries for lunch, the same day I was going to my niece’s daughter’s first birthday party. Then at the party, I had a nice piece of cake as well as a bunch of things that were actually low carb.
From this I learned two things: I don’t actually like McDonalds as much as I used to, and I really can manage to drive my blood sugar up to the 230′s with carrot cake. But this was a momentary indulgence, especially since I, sure enough, had some of my old stomach troubles for a couple days afterwards.
As they say in Shangri-La, “Everything in moderation — including moderation.”
In the mean time, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the experiments, and about the emotional/psychological/spiritual aspects of what I’ve been learning. (Let me just say, I don’t really believe there is a difference between the emotional, the psychological, and the spiritual. We’re not made up of a lot of pieces; what we’re thinking is what we’re thinking, and what we’re feeling is what we’re feeling, all together.)
What I’ve realized is that when I started my first 13 week experiment, I was groping toward something that would let me make changes in a way that didn’t scare me with the prospect of endless and unproductive deprivation, didn’t shame me as so many diets had done in the past, didn’t blame me for the lifelong problems I’ve had with weight, and gave me some emotional support in the process.
For me, writing about it has been a good bit of that support — I learned from Twelve Step programs that sometimes the best support you can get is by honestly admitting to the problems and your feelings about them.
Another big part of the support has turned out to be the rooting you, my readers, have been doing for me, and the sense that by talking about this I’m actually helping other people.
I hope to help other people use the things I’ve learned, and that means I need to figure out how to explain them. I’ve made a couple of previous attempts, but in this week’s thought I have what I think is a better explanation.
The First Insight
This is really what got me started: my first insight was not to think of a diet, not to think of of a weight-loss goal, but just to think of performing an experiment. I now realize that this was a first step in insulating myself from the years of fear and shame that had accompanied Dieting.
The end of my second 13 week season: low-carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own. A new 13 week experiment starts June 1 2013. Join in!
So this is the end of the second 13 week season. That’s 26 weeks, six months, on this attempt to get my heath and weight under control. It seems like an appropriate time to summarize what has happened and think about what happens next. I started the first 13 weeks insisting it was an experiment; I think I lost track of that for a bit. Evaluated dispassionately, as an experiment, what we’ve learned so far is that the low-carb diet, in me, is very successful at controlling blood sugar. It doesn’t turn out to have resulted in continuous weight loss, although it did result in significant weight loss. (Charts and tables are at the end of this article.)
- First of all, I’ve lost significant weight, about 10 percent of my body weight. On the other hand, my weight loss has plateaued fairly dramatically.
- My blood sugar has been a definite success: my average blood sugar has been right around 110 mg/dL. Maybe too much of a success, since I’ve been having trouble with hypoglycemic episodes.
- Cutting out wheat has certainly appeared to help my really life-long stomach troubles.
- The intention to get more exercise hasn’t worked out as well so far; in fact, after my accident a few weeks ago, I slacked off pretty well completely.
- Measuring body fat flat out doesn’t work, at least for me and at least on a time scale of 13 weeks. Basically, no two methods have agreed within 5 percentage points, and the range has gone from 26 to 42 percent. This is just nuts; you can’t do anything useful with those numbers.
But what about the experience itself? I’ve been following a pretty radical carb restriction regime for six months now. As a diet, it’s not been particularly difficult. I’ve had few lapses and only rare cravings, usually for chocolate. Even so, most cravings for sweet things have been easily satisfied with sugar-free gelatin. Cutting out wheat has been harder, not because I craved it so much as because it’s freaking everywhere: noodles, bread, soups, sauces, I’m not nearly as sensitive to wheat as a real celiac sufferer, so it doesn’t make as much difference to me if I get exposed to a bit of flour used to thicken a sauce, but it’s given me new sympathy for a friend who really does have all-out celiac disease.
The exercise thing — well, look, I’ve never enjoyed exercise. Long walks bore me, and my knees are too bad for running. Riding a bike makes my, er, man-bits go to sleep. My exercise bike and kettlebells watch reproachfully from the corner of my bedroom to which they’ve been assigned. At least I don’t have clothes hanging on my exercise bike. And frankly, exercise enthusiasts don’t seem to be able to stir any matching enthusiasm in me. Mostly, personal trainers make me want to turn a hose on them.
Still, damn it, I know exercise has good effects and know it makes me feel better when I’m doing it. The Crossfit enthusiasts, like David Steinberg, have what seems to me a basically good basic approach: do things that correspond to real tasks faced in real life. Measure power output — weight moved times distance over duration. (A little algebra tells us that this is basically saying how many calories are expended per unit time, and God this is one of those times I wish we just used metric.) So far, I just don’t think I’ve got a good handle on the exercise thing.
On April 10 I published the next step in my developing self-improvement program, an application of Charlie Martin’s 13 Weeks method to my problem of better organizing my research. I looked forward to diving back into a deep reading routine filled with novels and culture while blogging my results here at PJ Lifestyle so all the wiser, more enlightened souls who make it their business to fill the comments section with their manifestos could tell me what an idiot I was for not seeing the world exactly the way they did.
But then on April 15 — Patriot’s Day — bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, resulting in 3 deaths and 264 injuries. The real world had intruded on the Wonderland of Books I’d constructed for myself. As Charlie has pointed out from time to time in his 13 Weeks series, life has a way of throwing off our plans.
For days the country sat in nervous panic as police searched for the killers. Partisans of every persuasion speculated about the motives of the evil monsters who would load pressure cooker bombs with shrapnel to mutilate the bodies of innocent human beings they had never met. David Sirota of Salon longed for the murderous act to serve as fodder for his goal of demonizing his political opponents. I liked the way PJ columnist Roger Kimball put it on on the morning of April 18:
One of the curious, but also most predictable, responses to the Boston Marathon bombings from the Left has been the fervent expression — amounting nearly to a prayer — that the perpetrator or perpetrators of this act of mass murder be “homegrown,” preferably white, male, Christian, and conservative.
Why? Why does the Left prefer to have its terrorism served up by Timothy McVeigh rather than Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad? It’s an interesting question. That the Left exhibits this prejudice is, like Falstaff’s dishonesty, “gross as a mountain, open, palpable.”
David Sirota, writing at Salon, gives almost comic expression to the genre in an essay with the really special title “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.” Why does Mr. Sirota wish that the Boston murderer of 8-year-old boys be a white American? Because a spectral quality called “white male privilege” operates insidiously behind the scenes. If Timmy McVeigh blows up a government building, says Mr. Sirota, only he is blamed. If Mohammed does it, Muslims are likely to be “collectively slandered and/or targeted with surveillance or profiling (or worse).”
What do you think of that argument? I think it’s hooey.
But how can intellectual and cultural warriors do battle with hooey level arguments? PJ Media Legal Editor J. Christian Adams offered advice to the Benghazi whistleblowers that is just as applicable to every American striving to fight for these issues in their own way:
I know a thing or two about being a whistleblower. I appeared on the Huckabee show this weekend (see video below) and explained how simply telling the truth is the way to shield yourself from the sinister deceptions from places like the Huffington Post and the George Soros-funded Media Matters. They can try to smear you, but the truth of your testimony will rise above their smears.
All we can do is present the truth about the nature of the enemy. If that doesn’t work, then what else is left?
You have your killer opening, you’ve polished it nicely. At least if you’re like me, you can’t help polishing a bit every time you look at it. You’re now fifty pages in, and everything seems to be going too slow, and you’ve lost track of where you were going, and you start to panic and think you’re doing it wrong.
This happens whether you are a plotter and had everything exquisitely planned in advance, or you’re flying by the seat of the pants and have clue zero what actually works.
Once you have the first few pages of the book ready, and you are aimed more or less in the direction you will go, you start feeling everything went wrong and the idea you had to begin with is completely impracticable, and… and… and…
Keep calm and carry on. Take deep breaths. The experience you’re having is uncomfortable but completely normal. It’s sort of like having a root canal. Just because it’s unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Trust me.
What is happening at the psychological level is that you’ve now set yourself on one course to write your novel, and part of you – you know, the part that thought writing should be a really exciting adventure – is sitting back there going “What? This is all there is? This is not fun.”
It’s bad enough if you’re making it up as you go along, because you can just have the nagging feeling something has gone wrong, and not know what.
It’s worse, if you’re an outliner, you might have had that opening happening much faster. Writing an outline is much like dancing would be if there were no gravity. You can make your character do anything and – because it’s impossible to plot all those details without making the outline longer than a novel – you don’t know what the opposition is doing precisely.
Then you come to write, say a jail escape scene, and gravity hits you with a thud. Your character can’t do that unless you wish to make the opposition almost comic-opera stupid. So you have to make her escape more difficult, every step more negotiated.
The bad news is that at this point, you can’t tell. All of us professional novelists have read a third or a half of a novel we started long ago and put down unfinished and thought “How in heaven’s name did I think this made a good beginning?”
On the other hand, we’ve also all read beginnings we abandoned long ago and thought “Wow, this is really, really good. Yes, I am better now, but this has sparkle and life that pulls me right in.”
The problem here that when you’re less than a third (I’m less than a fifth) into a novel, you truly can’t judge it. Worse, the friends who normally read stuff for you also won’t be able to tell you if it’s any good or not.
Week 13 of my second 13 week season: low-carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.
We’re now in the last week of my second 13-week experiment. I’m planning another 13 weeks and I want to talk about what I’m going to change and why, but first I think it might be useful to look back at when I started this, six months ago:
It struck me just a couple weeks ago. I’m 57, weigh 300 pounds, massively deconditioned, verging on type II diabetes if not actually there, and I don’t want to die.
It’d been a hard year. A year ago this week, my mother had a heart attack, and over the ensuring months failed and died, passing away on 11 January, two days before her 77th birthday. Following that, I had a succession of illnesses that put me in the hospital for a day, four times between January and August. One of those times was with pneumonia, and as my friends all insisted on reminding me, “you can die from that!”
A sense of mortality struck me on my birthday, 57 this year; arithmetic started showing up for me. My father died in 1994, at 69. That’s only 12 years older than I am now. Mom at 77, only 20 years older than I am now.
Now, my Dad weighed in the neighborhood of 450 lbs when he died, and he smoked. My Mom, around 200 lbs and she’d smoked heavily, drunk heavily, and generally been rode hard and put up wet nearly her whole life. I’ve got some advantages, since I don’t drink or smoke; on the other hand, I’ve been struggling with my weight since I was literally 6 years old. You can hear a lot of bad diet advice in 50 years.
The long and short of it is that I want to change this and need to change this, and there’s relatively new science that suggests there are better, faster, more efficient ways to change this. So I’m doing an experiment: for 13 weeks, which I plan to start a week from today, 4 November 2012, I’m going to start an experiment where I’ll be keeping a very low carb, more or less “paleo” diet, and doing “high intensity interval training” and “high intensity strength training” two sessions a week. This scheme has good reasons behind it, biochemically and otherwise.
Then I’m writing about it, and I’m going very public with it, so, frankly, it’ll be too embarrassing to quit.
And I have changed my situation. I’ve lost 30 pounds, 10 percent of my bodyweight. My blood sugar is down, way down. (As we saw a couple weeks ago, maybe a little too far down.) I have been more successful with exercise, if not astoundingly successful. And my health is definitely better, both by objective medical measures and just in the way I feel. But I’d still like to lose maybe another 50 pounds, and I’d like to get completely off diabetes meds. And I’m bored with what I had been doing.
Here’s the basics of the next 13 week experiment:
- I’m going to change over to Tim Ferris’s Slow Carb Diet as defined by his 5 rules. Now, that’s kind of the Reader’s Digest Condensed version of his full diet plan, but I like simple things. Also, his full-fledged diet cuts out dairy and I like cheese. This is still low-carb, although not quite as low, but with the episodes of hypoglycemia I’m hoping to maybe level out by blood sugar some.
- I’m going to pick out two (gasp) goals: by the end of this 13 weeks I want to do 100 pushups in a row, and I want to do at least one unassisted pull up. I’m going to continue to track my Fitocracy points and plan to get 2000 points or more a week.
- I will continue to track weight and glucose, and I’ll make a full set of body measurements at the beginning and end of the 13 weeks. Measuring body fat is going overboard; I’ll talk more about it next week, but basically I don’t think any method I’ve got easily available is turning out to be either precise or accurate.
- I’m going to concentrate more on mental, or if you will spiritual, aspects. As part of that in a way I’ll explain in a minute, I’m going to ask those of you who are inclined to try to change something in your life to join in. We’ll talk a lot more about coaching and support; I’ll also want to know what tools you feel would help you perform a 13 week experiment of your own.
The mental/spiritual idea is, I suspect, a surprise. It sure as hell was to me: Dave Swindle, who edits the Lifestyle section, suggested it to me as an addition for the next experiment and — well, I replied “Hm. I’ll think about it.” but what I meant was “Don’t like it, no.” But there was a chain of events I didn’t know was happening. Dave had put the idea in my head. I recently became enamored of the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coehlo, and was reading his book Aleph. (I recommend Coelho, by the way, even if he did get noticed because Bill Clinton was reading his book The Alchemist.) Aleph is a sort of fictionalized (I think) biography; in a powerful scene, in a ritual in a church Coehlo asks a woman he wronged in the past for forgiveness. Then she continues by spontaneously saying essentially the same words, forgiving herself for past wrongs she had done to herself.
Reading that, I had one of those moments of visceral, pleasurable electricity, and I realized that there had been an emotional theme I’d been working on during the last 26 weeks. Part of it was seeing the ways I’d been hurt by things said about my weight and appearance, general lack of athletic motivation, extreme nerdiness and the emotional distance that comes with long-term depression. I’ve devoted a column on several occasions to various kinds of baggage, including that column about the car wreck, which I found hard to write because it felt like I was admitting to failings.
Reading Aleph, I realized there was a central theme: I needed to forgive myself for sometimes being imperfect.
The Mohammed Code available here.
All the writing books concentrate on beginnings and endings. Very few of them consider the middle, or even the middle of the beginning.
This is sort of akin to concentrating on your flight experience by making sure you have a good take off and a good landing and not caring in the least if your pilot decides to do loop-de-loops in the middle.
There are reasons for this, of course. I read somewhere that most of the fatal accidents in flights occur at takeoff and landing, and the same thing sort of kind of applies to a book.
If you fail to capture the reader’s interest within the first few pages, you are clearly not going to make a sale. And if you end the book so disastrously that the reader feels cheated and wants to throw things at your head, you’re probably never going to make another sale to this person (and might have to wear protective head gear while traveling in their region.)
But just because the moment of takeoff and landing, and the moments of starting and ending a book matter, it doesn’t mean that what goes in the middle is irrelevant.
I mean, consider the idea that you buy a flight to Poughkeepsie in the fine state of NY. Perhaps you have a hankering to visit the historic Vanderbilt Mansion.
Suppose that your plane takes off beautifully, and lands beautifully, but instead of taking you to the Queen City Of The Hudson, the pilot decides it’s less trouble and much better for all concerned if he flies a few circles around the airport and then lands you back where you started.
No one would be that silly, you say?
Ah—you clearly haven’t read some of the books I’ve read.
It is actually a fairly common mistake, particularly of rookie authors, still uncertain of their plot, to put all the might of their limited craft into starting and ending the book, but having what I’ve grown to call “Something goes here” middles.
The problem is that, in writing as in flights, if you’re going around in circles, no matter how entertaining you make the trip, calling out all the landmarks, if your book is going nowhere, people notice. After a while your reader starts asking “is this all there is? Is she running from the bad guys again? Haven’t we seen this before? But… nothing is solved.”
Week 12 of my second 13 week season: low-carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.
You know what’s worse than a day of nonstop meetings? Five days of nonstop meetings. That was my week at the day job, which meant lots of stress and lots of unusual socializing. Still, it wasn’t all bad by any means, and the numbers this week have done well. I lost all of that peculiar bounce and was down to 269 lbs again on Wednesday; this brought the seven-day average down to 270, and as you’ll see in my bodyweight chart I’ve had more and more days under 270 and am still losing weight, albeit slowly.
In a belated rush of intelligence, I got around to setting up my spreadsheet to compute the standard deviation of both my weight and my glucose. For those of you who aren’t statistics nerds, the standard deviation is a measure of how “wide” a distribution of numbers is, or in other words, how much things vary just randomly. It turns out the standard deviation of my weight is about 2.2 lbs. What that means is that if my weight weren’t changing at all, you would still expect to see it vary outside the range of roughly 268 and 272 pounds 3 days in 10.
The point is: when you’re losing weight slowly, it’s going to be hard to tell you’re losing weight at all.
I’ve got to admit right now I’m puzzled what the best thing to tell people might be if they were doing their own program. We all know that weight shouldn’t matter, but it does. A lot of people have suggested just weighing once a week, but that doesn’t actually help much, as you can see in the table. The standard deviation tells us that you have to lose about 5 lbs before you can have much confidence it’s not just random variation for a single measurement.
What you can do, though, is look at the graph:
On the chart you can see that I’m spending more days under 270 than I was before — something between 20 and 25 percent of the time in the last half of the 13 week experiment.
Don’t tell the SPCA, but writers have the oddest relationships with their pet cats (even pet cats they don’t have.)
When a writer is struggling with a piece of work, she’ll tell you she was vacuuming the cat, or he’ll say he was bathing the cat or… I prefer to say I’m rotating the cat, because it’s an activity no sane person would find necessary. It doesn’t accomplish anything and it annoys the cat. A perfect image for writerly procrastination
I once read an article by Terry Pratchett lamenting the demise of the typewriter as a tool of the trade, because it took away one of his favorite ways of wasting time before getting down to writing proper. He apparently used to take a q-tip and alcohol, and clean the little metal raised letters, to make sure the impression was really sharp.
Being of a different generation I could tell him that we young whipper snappers can find just as many ways to waste our time.
For instance, I’d been known to remove all the keys from my keyboard and wipe both keys and base with bleach wipes, an activity good for consuming an hour or two, and give you an impression you accomplished something.
What drives this is a fear of the blank screen. Facing that screen is hard, even for — particularly for — a novel you have outlined, researched, but not started yet.
There is an undefinable sense that once you save that first paragraph the fate of the novel will be sealed for good or ill. Before that you don’t know if the voice will be tender, poetic, funny or brisk, but once that first paragraph or page is saved, some of those options will have vanished. You can no longer think of this novel as the best comic-romantic-tender-brisk-fantasy-mystery-romance-science-fiction ever to grace the world. Choices will have been made, and you are stuck with them.
This is not exactly true. I usually revise my beginnings after finishing the book. But it does limit some possibilities anyway. If you write your beginning as a comedy then in the next scene have your character stumble on a serial killer’s lair and describe it seriously and graphically, you’re going to have people run screaming. (And not just because it’s a serial killer.)
So writers will try to find “legitimate activities” to put off the fell moment of typing in words.
The thing is, most pro writers don’t have to look around for silly activities. When pros – particularly these days – say they’ve been rotating the cat, what they actually mean is that they’ve spent their day in a dozen “little” activities and failed to write.
This is because the writing life is much like herding cats.
Week 11 of my second 13 week season: low-carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own. And yes, I have been slack with the exercise this last couple weeks. Gimme a break, I had a car wreck.
Last week, Glenn Reynolds linked an interesting article in The Atlantic with a fascinating animated map.
Using CDC data, the map shows reported incidence of obesity by state starting in 1985. The reporting didn’t get started uniformly, but as you watch the progress, there is an obvious increase until by 2010 every state is reporting “high” obesity rates.
This image has some obvious problems — among other things, the definition of “obesity” here is using body mass index (BMI), which has flaws we’ve talked about before — but it still makes the point that people in the U.S. have been gaining weight for quite a while now.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Among other things, we’ve gotten to the point that pretty much everyone can afford to get enough to eat. As has been pointed out before, this was the first country in history in which the poor people are the fattest. But I noticed something else: if you watch it carefully, the increase in obesity, first in deeper blue then a sort of funny beige color, and then on to red, starts in the early ’90s. I went looking for historical summaries of the Department of Agriculture’s “food pyramid” and found several (see, eg, this.)
It’s an interesting coincidence that this increase in obesity started roughly at the same time that the U.S. government started to advocate low-fat, high-carb diets. I remember that period pretty clearly, because I thought it was wonderful. Entenmann’s came out with no-fat pastries — the no-fat cherry coffeecake was one of my favorites — I could eat as much rice as I wanted, pasta was good and more pasta was better, as long as you didn’t use butter because of the evil saturated fat and cholesterol. But margarine, rich in transfats made by hydrogenating corn oil, was much better.
Oddly, this didn’t seem to do much about my weight. I was a vegetarian for a number of those years, and while I lost weight during the relatively short interval in which I was vegan, I also had mood swings and health problems until I added back at least eggs and dairy.
Additional Books mentioned in post:
I usually struggle with the “voice” of the novel at the beginning of it. I write and discard several beginnings before I finally find the way it wants to be told.
It’s not always true. The beginning of A Few Good Men came to me loud and clear while I was doing something totally different. The sentences were there, words and all:
The world celebrates great prison breaks. The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.
They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.
Monsters like me.
I knew who the character was at that moment, and what he meant, and the whole novel was right there in my mind.
I wish it were always that easy. My beginnings are usually so difficult that once I’ve got three chapters down I have done half the work needed for the novel.
And not only do I have a particular voice, composed of word choice, setting, and character, but each novel has a particular voice, a tone that brings it the most to life. Again, it is word choice, setting, character, and mood plus – in the beginning – setting the right hook to draw the reader in.
Imagine Tom Sawyer told in the tone of Wuthering Heights and you’ll see what the wrong voice can do to a novel.
Most books aren’t told in the wrong voice – not exactly.
My son is a singer. Not professional, but he sings around the house all the time.
If he knows we’re going to get upset at his singing – say I’ve already told him I have a splitting headache – he sings in a muted half-tone.
Most writing on the market is written in that muted half-tone.
The difference is hard to explain. Oh, the half-tone is obvious when my son is singing, but let’s step it up. Let’s say he’s singing while doing something else, not giving it his full attention. It still sounds pretty good. You might think that’s his best, until you hear him singing and putting his whole soul into it. And then you stand there in awe and go “oh, the other was a pale shadow.”
Writing is like that too, and until you see the real thing you might not realize the other is a ghost.
You get better at finding a book’s proper “voice” as you practice more. This is often observable in the writing of popular authors. (For this, it’s best to choose someone first published more than twenty years ago, when you were still allowed to serve your apprenticeship in print.) They were good enough – perhaps better than most people – when they first were published. But when you read early works, it’s like they’re singing through cloth. The voice you know and love is there, but somehow muted. It’s not till you get to their middle work, when they’re at their peak, that you get their full, glorious voice with no muting.
Click here for the rules of Season 1 of the 13 Weeks Radical Reading Regimen. Image courtesy shutterstock / Patrick Poendl
Week 10 of my second 13 week season: low carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.
On Tuesday the 9th of April, about 2PM, I was at work and feeling very strange. I was sleepy, felt sick and shaky, and couldn’t think clearly. I decided to take off early. But driving home, not more than a mile from my house, well, something happened. I zoned out, I fell asleep, I fainted — whatever it was, I was looking at a green light at the interesection and then I was looking at a red light with traffic starting to cross the intersection. I hit the brakes, I swerved to drive around the front of the CenturyLink truck in front of me, and I almost made it. But not quite. I caught the front bumper of the truck with my left rear fender. I bumped my head against the door frame, and came to a stop crossways in the intersection. After a minute, I pulled off the road.
At first I felt — considering the circumstances — okay. I made sure the other guy was okay (he was) and went to stand by the car and wait for the police.
Then I realized I was feeling really really cold, and even shakier than I had felt when I left the office. I went to sit down in the car and when the police arrived told them I thought I needed the EMTs. Or else it was someone who was calling 911, I don’t remember it very clearly.
Anyway, both an ambulance and a fire truck arrived, and a rather cute female firefighter interviewed me for about 30 seconds before trotting to the EMTs, who came and walked me to the ambulance. I’m somewhat proud of myself for resisting my initial urge, which was to tell the firefighter “Hey, I’m just sick, I’m not on fire.”
I sold my first novel, Ill Met by Moonlight, fifteen years ago at a workshop on the Oregon Coast run by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.
The proposal was created at the workshop as an exercise. This being the dark ages, and the workshop house lacking internet connection, I wrote about something I knew really well: Ill Met by Moonlight (and the three books that followed, now available as an Omnibus) attempts a magical reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s biography.
The problem: my confidence in my knowledge lasted until I sold the proposal. Then I panicked and bought thirty more books on Shakespeare, to keep company with the forty I already owned.
This is because a writer’s need for research isn’t exactly sane or logical.
Part of it is, of course, a search for information. My books always need research, and often more research than is immediately obvious.
Of course when writing science fiction, I buy the latest books on whatever will be in the novel — terraforming, or space flight, or genetic engineering. However, plotting details also often require research. Say there is a battle in the novel – I will read accounts of historical battles for the strategy and the feel. Or say that my character survived some horrible personal event – it helps to ground the novel if I read the biographies of people with similar experiences, or even clinical articles about similar cases.
For the book currently in the works (“Through Fire,” book two of the Earth Revolution), I find myself reading a lot of books about or set in the French Revolution.
The problem when you start doing that kind of research is that there is a nearly infinite number of resources, and you can get lost in them. By definition you research things you’re interested in, so of course you want to keep reading about it. Also, as long as you’re researching, you can claim to be working really hard, and you can delay having to face the blank page (or screen).
Twenty years ago, I knew people who had spent fifteen years researching a foreign country, had traveled to that country, and owned enough books on it to stock a large municipal library. All without writing so much as a word of their proposed opus.
Periodically I run into these same people at writers’ events or local libraries. They will accost me with the enthusiasm of new converts wishing to share religious revelation: they just discovered a fascinating fact about the country where their novel will eventually be set; the history of this or that region works wonderfully with their plot; did I know that such and such a ruler had a horse exactly like the main character’s horse?
Week 9 of my second 13 week season: low carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.
When I started off on this second 13 week experiment, I decided I was going to emphasize losing body fat as well as glucose — and yes, my weight, I just can’t resist. There are a lot of ways in which we can measure body fat.
You can measure your waist and neck size and apply an empirical formula. This is the method the Army uses, and studies have shown it’s reasonably accurate.
You can take skinfold measurements with a calipers, and compute the result with a different empirical formula. This is a bit more accurate than the Army method (although not much).
You can have your body density measured by weighing yourself, and weighing yourself totally immersed under water. This is the “gold standard” method medically, but it’s not very practical at home.
You can go to a radiologist and have body composition measured by taking a full-body X-ray. This is called DXA body composition. (The link is to the radiology practice of which PJM contributor Paul Hsieh is a member. Just a random plug.) This method is very good but has several disadvantages: you certainly can’t do it at home, it means making an appointment and getting the full-body X-ray done, and it costs half a grand. Or,
You can use an impedance method device. This works by sending an alternating current through your body and measuring how the current flows. (I was going to write a description of what impedance is and how this works, but I kept falling asleep.) Never mind how it works, basically current flows more easily through muscle and bone than through fat, so the more fat you have the more you resist.
Here are the tools I’ve been using.
Time And Writing Wait For No Man (Or Woman)
Believe it or not, when you’re a freelance writer, even if you’re working for someone else, you’re still expected to manage your time.
So let’s start by admitting we’re not going to have a novel ready in 13 weeks, since most of you – I presume – haven’t started.
The reason for this is that I was going along and doing preliminaries to the “13 weeks” posts when my editor – wisely – thought perhaps you guys needed to know when to expect the posts. Ahem. Being a writer, this had never occurred to me. One sometimes forgets that not everyone lives in one’s head.
So… we are still in the preliminary posts. I think I have two more, unless questions arise. And then we’ll start the countdown of 13 actual weeks, from beginning page of novel to end.
By then you should have a notion of whether you want to plot or fly by the seat of your pants, what your projected novel length is, and how to plan how much you need to write each week.
See, when we talk about planning your timing, in writing, it means two things: the timing of events in the novel, and the timing of your writing so you can deliver on deadline.
And yes, I’m aware that just like a lot of you will have different preferences when it comes to how a novel is timed – slow and languorous, or a mad cavalcade from beginning to finish – a lot of you will have this idea that you don’t time when you write, it just sort of happens when the muse descends from heaven and sits on your shoulder to whisper sweet nothings in your ear.
For the record, I’ve never met a professional, working writer who works on the muse-installment plan. There are some who will tell you they do in public. This is part of what we call keeping up the mystique, also known as “baffling the mundanes.”
Week 8 of my second 13 week season: low carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.
A few days ago, PJ Lifestyle ran an excerpt from Leonard Mosely’s book Disney’s World, in which Walt Disney, in a letter to his partner Ub Iwerks, expressed his frustration with the his first sound cartoon, the now-iconic Steamboat Willie.
He’s pretty depressed. he doesn’t like Hollywood, he doesn’t like being away from home, and he’s losing confidence in the still-unfinished film. You can see why, when he was having trouble selling the idea, and animation is a frustrating process anyway. This was in the days of the most primitive hand-drawn animation, where every frame of the film had to be hand drawn on clear acetate, with tiny changes from frame to frame. Twenty-four times for each second of film. In this 7 minute 23 second film, that’s something like 10,600 frames. He was tired, and he was bored, and he had trouble seeing any progress.
Why did this strike me, he asked rhetorically? Well, it reminds me of my ongoing glucose/bodyfat/weight project. Here I am, eight weeks into my second season, 147 days since I first started tracking this, and it’s a little frustrating and hard. I’ve been less diligent about the exercise, and I do find myself missing things I used to eat. Like chocolate. And pasta. And bread. And while I have lost some weight, it’s slow and the day to day variations make it hard to see. It’s like Disney must have felt — another 24 frames, another day’s work, and what did he have? Another lousy second of film. That no one wanted to distribute. He was past the initial excitement and into the slog.
Right now, this project feels much the same. I’m actually losing weight, and I can see changes — more muscle coming back to my arms, and to put it bluntly, my boobs are smaller. I’ve lost six inches around my waist, and I can feel that every time I put on a pair of pants that were in the back of the closet because I hadn’t been able to wear them. But at the same time, the progress is a little slow and hard to see, and it’s a little hard to explain why it should matter to anyone — especially me.
But then I got thinking, and a little Excel-fu got me this. Here’s my actual weight, charted over the last sixty days, with a trend line. This is very much like the other charts I’ve been posting.
Trend line is down. This is good. It’s not down very fast, and the added muscle certainly explains that — but also notice that individuual weights vary pretty wildly around that trend line. So here’s another chart.
Week 7 of my second 13 week season: low carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.
You know, sometimes it’s just not your week.
Last week I was happy about breaking through the 270 pound barrier. This week was, well, weird.
I was diligent about the carbs again, averaging something like 15g a day. I ate plenty of protein, and I was oddly hungry all week, but no interesting carbs; my big splurge has been corned beef and cabbage. But nonetheless, my glucose spiked up to 130 one day, my weight went up to 274, even my body fat bounced up.
Oh, and I felt tired and achy all week; I only got like 450 Fitoccracy points all week. All in all, as far as scientific method and careful record-keeping, I’d have to say that this week, I just don’t know what was going on.
Now, the news wasn’t all bad. I’m down to a 42 inch waist — that makes it 6 inches off my waist and 2 off my neck. By the Army’s method of calculating bodyfat, I’m down to 25-26 percent. Interestingly, that corresponds to what the Withings scale shows me at in the evening. I am definitely noticing that the impedance method from the Withings scale is very sensitive to what time I weigh — in fact, body fat on the Withings scale can drop as much as 4 points between 8 AM and noon.
The answer, I think, is I need to get my body fat done using one of the extremely accurate methods, probably the body scan, in order to get an idea of what really is happening. But in the mean time, there is another lesson. Bodies are complicated things, and as the Harvard Law says, no matter how rigorously you control the environment, the organism still just does what it damned well pleases.
|Date||7 day Weight||7 day Glucose||7 day Bodyfat||Sum Fitocracy Points||Weekly Fitocracy Points|
|Δ since 2-1||-0.43||-4.18||-2.46%||N/A||N/A|
Week 6 of my second 13 week season; low carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.
So let’s just end the suspense right away: yes, I am feeling a lot better this week.
At one point or another, the draft of last week’s column started with the line “Okay, ‘despair’ may be a little strong…”. I cut it because as I thought about it, I realized despair was the right word. Look it up and we find “Noun: The complete loss or absence of hope. Verb: Lose or be without hope: ‘to despair of ever knowing’” (via Google.) That’s exactly what I was fighting against — the feeling that there was nothing to be done, that there was no real hope. That’s the real enemy of any attempt to change, or to do anything extended really — that moment of no hope, when you don’t see the end in sight. It’s not just diets, either — it happens to me in writing, when I hit the point at which I think “oh, this is awful, no one will want this.”
That’s why I started this on the basis of a 13 week “season” — it was long enough to see some real changes, short enough to be bearable. Even so, about the fifth and sixth weeks of the first season, I’d reached the point where I was wondering if it was going to really do any good.
So look at the results this week: my 7-day average weight is down 3 pounds, my 7-day average blood sugar is down 16 points. What happened? I don’t know for sure, but I can tell you one thing I did differently, based on a lot of suggestions from others who’ve done the low carb thing. I broke training. I got out of the no carbs jail for a couple days. I had my ice cream, and I had some congee (zhou, Asian rice porridge). I didn’t go real far off the overall diet except for violating the carb rules, and based on calories I was actualy doing fine.
So now I’m back on the low-carb diet. What did I learn?
First, yes, you can break the diet for a day or a few days and get back on. What’s more, for me at least, if you do it with rice and ice cream, you don’t get sick like I did after Thanksgiving.
Second, your body can get used to anything. In weight training, they tell you to change routines fairly often if you want to keep making gains. The trick is to watch what happens. I broke the rules a little bit, up to maybe 100g of carbs one day, and didn’t have my blood sugar go nuts, didn’t gain back lots of weight. (Right now, I’m on a little bit of a bounce, but I’m basically up to where I was complaining about not being able to break in the downward direction.)
And third — there’s a new-ish idea in the nutrition world: orthorexia. It means an unhealthy fixation on a healthy diet. Maybe, just maybe, an occasional 4 oz cup of ice cream (26g carbs) is good for you.
|Date||7 day Weight||7 day Glucose||7 day Bodyfat||Sum Fitocracy Points||Weekly Fitocracy Points|
|Δ since 2-1||-2.64||-14.57||-3.00%||N/A||N/A|
The Run Up
Or, In Which Things Have Already Gone Wrong
What happens very often when one decides to write a novel is: everything goes wrong.
It is a well-known fact to those who participate in National Novel Writing Month in November* every year that it seems to attract bad luck. One year, I had a pet die, a relative die, the roof over my office leak, and the printer develop a fatal short. I haven’t participated since because I’m afraid my livestock will die — I don’t have livestock.
The last two weeks haven’t been quite so bad, but I’ve got a lot of unexpected work, ranging from short stories to blogs to promoting my new book A Few Good Men, at the same time as one of my sons brought home something “interesting” from school that made 15 hours of sleep per day irresistible.
So — and this is part of successfully writing a novel or completing any project — we’re adapting to changed circumstances and carrying on.
Let’s start with frequently asked questions which, hopefully, will lay out what you need to know before tomorrow, when I will explain my method and schedule. And then we’ll have a post on ideas and how to work an idea.
Week 5 of my second 13 week season; low carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy and follow my daily exercise.
It was hard this week. On Friday morning, I got up and found my 13-year-old Abyssinian cat Radar, apparently peacefully asleep in his favorite spot — except he didn’t look up when I came down the stairs. He had died during the night.
Now, i’m one of those people for whom my cats are like my kids, and Radar hadn’t shown a sign of distress the night before — he met me at the door as usual, fought me for bits of chicken before I was ready as before. So it was a shock. I took care of him, but I was useless the rest of the day, and in fact all weekend. The other two cats — Ali’i and Kaleo — were clearly missing him too, and they’ve been very clingy all week. Still, I think we’re all recovering, finally.
But the week continued to be ridiculously stressful, with work issues and all, and then — the depression I always have to watch started creeping up on me, probably as a result of stress and poor sleep (and like the old Catskills joke, not only was the sleep bad, there wasn’t enough of it!)
And here I am, on week five of the second season.
Sticking to the diet and exercise plan when I feel like this is really tough. I took to putting my workouts in Fitocracy before I did them, because then I’d be too ashamed not to actually do them. Even so, I only worked out four times this week. The stress also apparently affects blood sugar — the morning Radar died I had the highest blood sugar I’ve had in weeks at 127 and it’s stayed high.
All in all, if I could take a week off from the column I would.
The thing here being that I didn’t, and I haven’t slipped on the diet anyway — and really haven’t slipped far on the exercise, as I still got in 1093 points, or just 61 fewer than the week before, thanks to having raised the weight I did on my heavy lift days. So my blood sugar is up a little, my weight is actually down a pound from last week (but still basically flat) and my body fat hasn’t changed much in a week either.
Week 4 of my second 13 week season; low carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy and follow my daily exercise.
I haven’t published new charts recently, so I think it’s time. Here’s the first one, my weight.
OH, NOOOOOES! My weight is going up! I’m a failure! Eeeek!
Well, maybe not, although certainly if all I was tracking were my weight I’d be mildly hysterical. (And I have to admit I get qualms looking at it this time, even though I swear I’m not primarily interested in my weight. But 50 years of dieting doesn’t go away quickly.)
The thing is, that weight in general isn’t really our primary interest. I asked whether weight itself was a primary concern over at my Facebook page, and got a lot of different interesting answers; almost none of them included weight. “Feel better”, “better health”, “more attractive”, “sexier” all did show up. Now a couple of people with bad knees and backs did say weight in itself was a problem, but for most people it’s more a symptom of something else that troubles them. Certainly so with me — blood sugar, health in general, and as I realized during the first 13 weeks, simply feeling ugly and disgusting were my major issues.
What people use as a proxy for all this is weight, of course, and especially with daily weighings, this can be very disheartening.
What’s worse, I’ve been at least as diligent with the diet — in the last full week, according to LostIt!, I’ve been 8200 kcals in deficit, with an average of about 9g carbs a day net of fiber. Being diligent with the diet isn’t so awful, but still I’d sure like a chocolate bar or a plate of spaghetti sometimes. In anything, I’m doing better with the diet plan that in my first 13 weeks.
Add to that I’ve been pretty diligent with the exercise — not every day but at least five days a week (I’ve got more to say about the exercise, below) so I’m lots more active than I was in the first 13 weeks — and probably more than I’ve been in the last 13 years.
But still, I’m actually gaining weight.