Development diaries, 1-28-2015: The Pomodoro method

theClaimDevNormal day, the first of its kind in two weeks. Didn’t drop off the kids, but started at 9:00 anyway—took some time to walk around in the cold and plan the chapter in my head. It feels like it worked, but it also feels like something else worked. After nearly an hour bereft of focus, I tried the Pomodoro method, or my own adaptation of it: Write without interruption for 25 minutes, read A Game of Thrones for 5. I averaged over 500 words in each of those 25-minute intervals. I think repeated Pomodoros may be conducive to mental exhaustion, though; after five, I’d written almost 3000 words, but then I took an hour break for lunch and exercise that metastasized into another hour of useless Internet meandering. Two more intervals left me at about 4100 words for the day—which would be below quota, if quota meant anything at this point, but is a decent figure. (This, BTW, is why I have so many bracketed word counts in the day’s words—tracking my efficiency.)

This is the first day I’ve approached my SEPTA rate of 1000 words in 50 minutes; actually, I’m almost precisely there. Which makes me think that I have the determinants of my writing speed exactly wrong. I’ve been assuming that I could write fast on SEPTA because of Pavlovian conditioning: train <> writing. But it may be that the important thing isn’t the association, it’s the fact that there’s an endpoint. When I have the whole day ahead of me, with just lunch and evening to structure my time, it’s hard to write hard and hard to limit my breaks. Writing hard for 25 minutes is pretty easy, and five minutes of reading time is fun enough not to be frustrating, which actually kind of surprised me—AGoT is the kind of book it’s easy to get sucked into. Anyway, maybe it’s all down to novelty—and I’m sure the outlining in my head on the morning walk played an important role as well—but I’m pretty optimistic about using this in more time-limited contexts in the future. If two Pomodoros can reliably bag me 1000 words in an hour before or after work, that’s amazing. Apimac Timer has stopped working on my computer, so I used Timer-Tab, which was great.

I’m headed to London next week for my first week at the new job. I need to start modulating my expectations now. A week without kids feels like it’s going to be all free time, even with eight or more hours a day at work, but (a) I may wish to socialize or explore in the evenings, (b) westbound jet lag is the worst, and ( c ) I should sleep while I can. Remind me of this if you find me posting 2000-word updates at 0300 GMT, please. Also, (d)—and I always forget this—although being free of kids and family is fun and liberating, it is also almost always depressing. This may be yet truer in a strange city where I can’t afford to use my phone.

Development diaries, 1-26-2015: Moar murder ballads

theClaimDevEarly school closing today. Managed 1561 words in about three hours, which isn’t bad when you consider there were two old guys cussing each other out and threatening violence over whether you’re allowed to talk in a library.

I’ve been teaching myself to play “Far From Any Road” on the guitar. I need to learn more murder ballads. I think murder ballads will help me tell this story. That and possibly Drew Faust’s THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING, which is a book about how America dealt with the horrible death toll of the Civil War. I’ve also started rereading A Song of Ice and Fire, mostly so I can get another read of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS under my belt before the next season of GAME OF THRONES begins. In terms of inputs, this may be a mistake. Writing fantasy patterned after George R. R. Martin comes too naturally to me already. Whereas THE PLACE OF DEAD ROADS was supposed to make more of an impression, but feels like it hasn’t. I don’t know if I have enough Burroughs in me to make that sort of hallucinatory storytelling work. (“You look like you have a little Burroughs in you. No? Well, would you like some?”)

I’ve just realized that various disruptions have made me seriously delinquent on posting the essays. So: “The War of Songs,” next, says a bit about the setting that I’m writing in.

Development diaries, 1-23-2015: Snow and plague


R. still has the Lovecraftian shits. Hence radio silence—I’ve gotten basically no writing done this week. I’ve posted the last seven weekdays’ effort as one update to THE CLAIM.

At the moment, I’m sort of psychologically banking on something that ought to happen but isn’t guaranteed, namely the normalization of R.’s digestion once he’s out of the grip of the meds. If I can write 15,000 words or so next week, I can at least finish THE CLAIM. It’ll be a better product than any NaNo novel I’ve created so far, and I’ll still have the next two books planned out… so, after a few weeks or months, I’ll be prepared not to look at this as a failure.

The wedding feels like it’s dragging on. This is probably a bit true and probably not as true as it feels—I’ve been stuck on it for days, and I’ve only just gotten to the high-tension bits. The rest has been slow, a lot of figuring out what the ceremony ought to look like, how familiar to make it and how strange.

I’ve bought a few pocket-size notebooks and a not-quite-dirt-cheap pen to try to make ubiquitous writing a reality. One thing I knew intellectually but have only recently realized in my bones is that I got a lot of Pavlovian juice from my commute—I’d trained myself really well to write on the train, abetted by the lack of wifi. I’m not so much hoping that interstitial writing will boost my word count during those interstitial times; it’s more about trying to train the habit of sinking deeply and immediately into the story, rather than having this laborious mental spin-up. I did get a couple of hundred good words into the notebook during one of R.’s naps yesterday; maybe I can actually make this a thing. (Maybe I should transition to notebooks completely, honestly. The question is whether the waste of time entailed by transcription is worse than the waste of time brought on by distraction.)

I’ve just listened to the Nick Stephenson interview on The Creative Penn and I’m now in the middle of the Nick Stephenson interview on the Self-Publishing Podcast. The emphasis of both is email marketing—how do you get a bunch of subscribers? And one of the amazing things he suggested is to promote other authors. The analogy was: Nonfiction marketing is easy because you know your readers have a problem they’re looking to fix; that’s why they came to you. In fiction, the problem is getting entertained. People came to you because they like your work; if you don’t have new work for them, give them value by pointing them to work they might not already know. (He also discusses stuff that’s a bit more standard in the indie author space, namely the use of permanently free books as traffic drivers and sign-up incentives; I need to get on that with my own list.)

These notes are dated “1/23” but as of this sentence I’m writing on 1/25, which is how I know that there’s a king-hell snowstorm scheduled for tomorrow and Tuesday, in which case I may be housebound with the kids. So much for my earlier thought, that there was no way I could fail to finish THE CLAIM in January. This feels like God punishing me, except that last January was exactly the same—between snow and plague, I missed teaching at least three classes, maybe four. So I guess it was just a poor choice of month to try to write.

This was meant to be an eyeroll at fate, but the words are starting to stick in my throat. At some point I described myself to my wife as “grief-stricken” by the loss of so much time I’d set aside for writing. I said it in more or less a deadpan; obviously it’s hyperbole. But the grain of truth is starting to feel more like a pebble. Maybe a full-sized rock.

Anyway, if you don’t hear anything from me on Monday and Tuesday, that’s why.

Development diaries, 1-19-2015: Thin green sewage


I have written 2300 words in the last three working days, due to R.’s sickness and my wife’s coming down with what I can only assume is Chagas disease; even when it’s just the two of us and R., she is usually asleep, and thus no words can be written. This puts me behind by more or less 15,000 words, and has mired me in a vicious black funk that’s making me a bad husband and father. R. is, as I’ve written, 15 months old, and his brain is just starting to come online in big, amazing new ways—he sasses me, he understands complex commands, he adores and imitates his big sister. But he’s not complicated the way she is—not because he’s a boy, just because he’s younger and hasn’t learned how to get emo about shit. In consequence, when he’s not about to dive into the garbage or drink bleach, he’s the single most fun thing within 50 miles.

This all segues into a long reel of half-baked new-dad philosophy where I worry that I’m pushing U. to grow up too fast and R. to stay a baby too long, because the experience of the first kid is all about development and pushing boundaries and the experience of the second kid is about re-experiencing the littleness of the first kid, which should give you an idea of the levels of bougie white angst I’m capable of generating with a few spare cycles—I could power starships—but the point today is that I take a Monday afternoon to play with the single most fun thing within 50 miles and I do it grudgingly. Because, after the biggest bender I’ve endured in my lifetime, I’ve written 2300 words in five days and I’m getting the fucking shakes. I’m resentful of my wife doing exactly what she needs to do to get well. I’m resentful of my three-year-old daughter being three. I’m resentful of the fact that R. has to stay out of school at least another day, because the rule is you can’t go to school until you’re symptom-free for 24 hours, and he’s still shitting thin green sewage. Because the medicine gives him GI issues.

Oh yes. The medicine that is supposedly (and, I imagine, actually) getting my son well is keeping him out of school.

He has to be on it through Sunday morning.

My wife reported a “solid” poop this morning, but we were back to form by the next diaper.

The solitary thing—the solitary thing—standing between me and finishing a novel in January is the quality of my son’s shit.

I’ll laugh about this in a month, I don’t doubt.


A year, anyway.



Here’s my beautiful boy. I love him and his sister more than anything, and if I have to lose seven days of writing time so the family can get well, then that’s what I have to do. But it’s hard, at least for someone unaccustomed to real hardship, and I’m not a good enough person to deal with it gracefully.

I could write more tonight, of course. But I need to sleep.

Development diaries, 1-15-2015: ALL THE DISEASES

R. is sick. The symptoms appear to be a frothy mix of stomach bug, pinkeye, and ear infection; the Internet would suggest these can all arise from a viral ear infection, which would make the antibiotics the doctor prescribed yesterday possibly worse than useless.

I learned of this at about noon on the 15th, so I’m stalled at 1300 for 1/15 and have yet to write on 1/16. I probably won’t post yesterday’s words for a bit. My wife and I are both home with R., so I may be able to work a bit, but definitely not to quota. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Development diaries, 1-14-2015: Out of the Tungsten Kid’s camp alive


I wrote 500 words yesterday. Combined with the 800 I still owe from last week, that put me 4900 words behind. 4900 words divided among the 13 writing days remaining in January is 374 per day; round it up, and I’m at +400, or 5100 for today. A quota I did manage to hit today, albeit around 11:30 pm. We’ll see if I can continue to do this.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a marriage proposal before. It makes me feel a lot worse about what Esker and Hasina are going to go through. Actually, I’ll have to get through most of that tomorrow… once I figure out how to get Esker out of the Tungsten Kid’s camp alive.

Speaking of which, Chapter 5 has burst the confines of the beats like a Scott/Giger alien out of its host. I’d never planned a meeting with the Kid, never planned any of Esker’s doomed subterfuge—never planned that he might actually abandon his friends (forget the Epseris brothers) if he could just get the Kid’s permission to search for the voice-crystal and nothing else. It all makes so much sense, and the fact that it’s shoehorning in Mayet’s revenge plan that collapses the whole lie—or, rather, that makes it a lie; the rest of it is pure truth—seems to fit in a way I can’t quite get my head around yet. I like this a lot better than what I had planned. But I need to figure out what I’m going to get back to. There has to be some kind of showdown moment in Chapter 7. And, actually, since Esker’s trick has failed, it could be rather similar to the one in the beats. I guess we’ll see.

I think there are spots where I forget that Jaidari women (well, not all Jaidari women) are mute but not deaf, and Esker uses sign for no particular reason. At some point I should think about what it might mean, when he does and when he doesn’t. I think of using it as a little more intimate, extending himself into Iseret or Hasina or Mayet’s world; using vocal speech is a little more retrograde, a conventional mode of male-female interaction in this society, and one that highlights the asymmetries of the relationship.

Need sleep. No more.

Development diaries, 1-13-2015: How do I take these hours seriously?


Today’s challenge:

I’m starting writing at 11:40. I’ll quit by 2:30. Then it’s a dentist appointment, then pick up the kids, then nighttime routine.

The challenge is not “How will I make quota?” I’m not writing 4600 words in the next three hours. I mean, if it happens, that’s great, but I do plan on eating lunch, and it’s not the kind of thing that would exactly fall out from my writing rates in the last six writing days.

The challenge is: “How do I take these hours seriously?”

I’m in the Princeton Public Library. Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons of Babel is right in my field of view. I’ve got prep work for the new job that I could do, and I just re-downloaded Civ IV a few days ago, and there’s an amazing ice cream place a few blocks away. But it’s a weekday, and I said I would write during the weekdays. And if I get enough words out I can maybe recover. And even if I can’t, the point is that it a word I’ve written is better than a word I haven’t written.

I should be starting now, but since development diaries are part of the work, I’m going to take a couple of minutes to say something related. On a Facebook update announcing this project, a friend posted to say “You should come play during NaNoWriMo!” And I was, of course, all “YEAH!” NaNo would be the perfect way to close out the first part of the War of Songs series; 50,000 words is exactly the target length for The Crescendo, and I’d have a month to do it instead of two weeks.

Here’s the thing, though. In theory, NaNo is 1667 words a day. In practice, though, I probably can’t write that much on weekends; I will still have two kids, they will still be little, &c. So I’ll probably have to wake up early and do lunch breaks and stuff on weekdays. If we’ve got 20 weekdays in November, we’re at 2500 words a day. Take Thanksgiving and the day before and after out, and… that’s 7500 words, divided by the remaining 17 days, that’s about 442 words a day extra… and, adding a bit of padding for safety, we’re at 3000 words a day. Which, at current rates, is something like four hours of work.

I’m actually not doing this to be pessimistic about NaNo. None of the assumptions going into that 3000/day calculation is necessarily set in stone. I could try to get some weekend time to catch up; I could probably write 500 words a day on weekends even when I don’t have any special time, either before the kids get up or after they go to sleep; I could work out arrangements for the days around Thanksgiving. 500 words each Saturday and Sunday buys me 4000 words on the month; maybe I can grab another 4000 words on one Saturday, which gets me to 8000; now we’re at 2500 words for each of the 17 days that isn’t Thanksgiving, and if I can count on 1000 words for each of those days, it’s more like 2300. That’s still three hours of work, but another way of thinking about it is another hour of sleep a night, which for me is huge.

The details aren’t necessarily important—by which I mean, they’re critical, but only to me. The point is that this exercise is already helping me think about how to get a lot of writing done around my life. Thus far, I’ve sort of pantsed it; this worked OK before kids, but for the last few years, it hasn’t.

It was the amorphousness of January that initially led me to lay out my word count quotas and plan my time. But what I hope I’m seeing is a glimmer of the possibilities for a life where I can work for a living, but still write at something like the rate I want to.

11:58. Let’s do this.

A brief note out of sequence

Due to unforeseen circumstances, the words I meant to write last night after the kids went to sleep have been replaced with a blitzkrieg campaign by my proxy ruler, Cyrus of Persia, against the Japanese, Aztec, and Roman civilizations in quick succession. The hostilities stretched into the wee hours of the morning, but all three enemy civilizations were eradicated and their cities annexed with acceptable casualties, especially after I discovered Construction and turned Pasargadae into a catapult factory.

I regret the error.

Development diaries, 1-12-2015: None of you fuckers loved me enough to tell me


Spent most of the weekend indoors with the kids, although they got out a bit on Sunday afternoon when it was warmer. My son R. is 15 months old—old enough to get into, over, or around almost anything, young enough to have at best a schematic sense of what one does not do if one wishes to continue breathing, which means he needs constant watching. My daughter U. is a very loving sister and daughter, but she gets stir-crazy pretty easily, which means she needs pretty regular amusing. And their naps are out of phase, which makes it very difficult to get out of the house until mid-afternoon as a rule. Anyway, this all makes for a weekend where everyone gets wound a bit tight. Definitely a relief to return to Metu and Jagaag today.

Work is still slow, but not nearly as bad as Friday—I took an hour for lunch and exercise (kettlebell swings, pushups, goblet squats) and still was done before 4:00. Possibly that’s down to resting my writing brain on the weekend, possibly due to using the Noisli productivity mix? I didn’t make up my 800-word arrears from Friday, but I hit quota for today. Tomorrow is going to be a shitshow—we have stuff at the kids’ school until 10:00, then dentist appointments at 3:00. I may or may not get up at 5:00 and see if I can cram a thousand words in before sunrise. I really want to keep the ball rolling.

Most of my process thoughts are notes today. I’m noticing that my diction varies wildly, even (especially?) in the characters’ speech—sometimes they sound quite contemporary, sometimes they’re using standard Western diction, sometimes they’re in Charles Portis-esque heightened Western diction. The latter is what I’m striving for, but I’m not sure I can do it at this pace. I’m also not sure I can go back and paint it on like varnish. Que sera, sera.

Chapter 3 is maybe just a little over budget? I’ve got 4900 words in it now, but probably Kem and Esker’s conversation from Chapter 1 will go in, which will add a few hundred words. I deviated from the beats here—ended on Mayet’s disappearance, rather than on Ruth arriving. This may necessitate an edit of my “outlining” post.

I think I like “prefectures” better than “provinces.” I still haven’t figured out how Esker gets his swordspear back from Ma Sennu. I should get the math texts mentioned in Ch. 4 to Esker in Ch. 1 or 3. Ciudad is feminine and none of you fuckers loved me enough to tell me.

I honestly can’t believe I’ve sustained my output this far. One part of me is saying “What a great start to 2015!” The other part is saying “Why didn’t you do this for a whole year back when you didn’t have kids or a wife or expenses?” I suppose it’s a psychological necessity to be a bit fatalistic about this stuff. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this level of planning and commitment when I was 23, or 25, or whatever. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like this has always been in me, waiting.

Development diaries, 1-9-2015: I chose the paint color for the room with this in mind


Today has been horribly slow. At 11:30, I’m 800 words behind, which is not so bad in light of a quota of 21,000 on the week… but I would finish them if I could keep my eyes open. I literally can’t, not for fiction. And I have nothing to say about the day’s process. Walking didn’t work, coffee didn’t work, pre-outlining the scene didn’t work. I know what the major plot beats are, and unless I’m as wrecked as I am now, those write pretty easily. It’s the connective tissue that’s hard. Or boring. Or something.

Or maybe it’s just that I’ve written more fiction in this week than any other week of my life.

I wanted to say a little something about my workspace in here, but I’m too tired to go take a picture, so let me instead talk a little bit about its heart. A while ago, a friend of mine turned me on to the work of Luke Chueh. I like everything he does, but there was one painting that I just had to have a print of:


I chose the paint color for the room with this in mind. My print is framed, and it sits on my desk, right above my computer; one of these days I’ll get it on the wall.

I do like my metaphors unromantic. They’re useful for a day like today. This painting is framed, Let’s just hope that element symbol on the barrel is more or less right.