A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 1: What made me start writing again?

black click pen on spring notebook
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The title of the piece is the big question. I might have alluded to this turning point, at different times during this blog. But I really haven’t described the process behind going from someone who talked more about being a writer than actually someone who wrote. It’s probably about time I talked about that, right?

In the movies – hell, in plenty of novels – there usually is some sort of turning point scene, one moment when the protagonist’s life pivots and moves in a new direction. It is one moment of clarity, after which that person’s life has forever and irrevocably changed.

It wasn’t really like that for me. In looking through old word document files in my “fiction” folder, I see several starts and stops among the last decade. Some of them I talked about before; others fell stillborn after a few months of typing and procrastination. Then there was the anonymous blog I ran for a few months somewhere in the past decade. However, it really didn’t have any focus except as an emotional purge, and I eventually decided that I needed to shut it down to avoid any static in my real life.

But like St. Augustine once prayed during his youth, “Oh, Lord, make me chaste… but not yet.”

I think things started to coalesce in my head right around 2010. That was an interesting year, to be frank. I’m not planning to get into in here, but there was a bit of turmoil and uncertainty in my professional life. For a brief moment, I had a dream of becoming a college writing instructor full-time rather than teaching for a couple thousand per class. I say a dream rather than a goal because I only had a vague idea of what the job involved and how I would achieve it. (After a few years and different circumstances, I’d set that idea aside. An earlier version of me – maybe the guy featured in Volume II of this series – would have been disappointed. Nowadays I barely remember the idea.)

Recently, I had a chance to read through a notebook I was writing in for about three months or so back in 2010. I tried to read all of it, but it was a cursive scribble stream of consciousness. It was lists and lists of various things I was both positively and negatively obsessed with, among other things.

In reading through that notebook, I think I did what we used to call in journalism “burying the lede.” Others, like writing teachers, might call it an implied main idea. What I think I was describing in those entries was being addicted to distraction. Anything I could use to procrastinate from doing anything, thinking about anything, I’d be into.

I’ve discussed those tendencies before. But there was a time in my life that they would dominate me. For several years of my life, it seemed being entertained, being satisfied in whatever way, was more important than anything else that wasn’t my family.

Around 2007-2010, right after I moved back to Muscatine, I really started heavily surfing some backwaters and little-known areas on the Internet. It may have given me a couple of writing ideas, but mostly I was looking for, as I normally did, for a distraction.

Back in those days, I often read the web site Postsecret. It allows people to anonymously send it postcards on which they write their deepest and darkest secrets that they would not tell anyone. Around 2010, I read this postcard on the site:

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For me, that had two effects. First, it gave me hope that it really wasn’t too late to get started (or restarted, whatever you want to classify it as) on my dreams of becoming a writer of novels. I always heard about people like Frank McCourt writing their debut books when they were in their 50’s, 60’s, or beyond.

Secondly, it was a prod in the butt, something that said yeah, if you’re about as old as this guy, why not get started now?

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So, did Liegois actually take the postcard’s advice and Rollins’ advice and move forward?

As I said at the top of the article, nothing that dramatic happened. Someone’s personality and habits – at least, not my own for sure – is not something that can change direction like a fighter aircraft or speedboat. The process more resembles having to maneuver a jumbo jet or mega-tanker a few degrees off course.

Did your life actually change?

Over time, yes.

It was soon after that time that I began to reminisce about some of my days in journalism, what was happening to newspapers in this country, and the weirdness of the time specifically around 2008. Going by my computer file history, I’d have to say that I started to play around with the idea of doing a journalism/political thriller around 2011. By 2013-14, ironically when I was taking one last adventure into journalism, was when I finalized a rough draft.

It was somewhere around 2013 that I began keeping track of the word count that I was getting done on a daily and weekly basis. Although not effective at first, I think that having to keep track of what I am actually writing or revising has helped me be accountable to myself and have goals to work for, even though I rarely have weeks where I meet my daily goals throughout the entire week. (This is probably worth a separate post at some point.)

It took me until 2016 to get another draft of the piece I was now calling The Holy Fool done – I had to do a little bit of cutting to trim it to well under 100,000 words. By 2017 I had revised it into its current form and had begun shopping it around to agents and publishers. I’m now awaiting the publishing process.

Also by 2016, I had worked up the courage/willingness/audacity to write a novel about someone who played a sport I hadn’t played myself since elementary school and located in both a state I hadn’t lived in since I was five and another country I had never visited, much less lived in. However, I was ready for the challenge, and by the next year, I already had a rough draft in the bag for my next project. By this year, I’ve gotten deep into the revising process with it, and I’m liking how my refined techniques have sped the writing process along.

Would I say that I have fully defeated my addiction to distraction and procrastination? Not by any means. I still exhibit those behaviors today, in doses both big and small. However, I’ve just started to get to the point where I’ve been able to manage this addiction to the point where I’ve become a productive writer. And I want to stay that way. I’m not exactly sure how long I have or how many books I have in me, but I want to make that time count.

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(Btw, I take horrible photos so I put them through some weird effects like what you see below. Enjoy if that’s your thing.)

Tuxpi photo editor: https://www.tuxpi.com

Anyway, welcome to the start of the current writing experience. That’s it for now; I’ll write more later.

On Revising (Part 2)

How often should you revise your work before it goes to a publisher or agent?

My advice on that is this; pick a number that seems reasonable, then add at least two more to it.

One of the things that I noticed about software is how they keep putting out new versions of older programs. Windows 1.0 becomes 5.0, Firefox is 1.0 first, and now, I believe, it’s on to 42.0 or something of that nature. (I remember a joke in Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs, his study of Silicon Valley tech culture in the early 1990’s, where coders call their kids 2.0. That’s still one of my favorite books of my 20’s.)

Inspired by this, I decided that whenever I write manuscripts, I will stick to this numbering format to keep track of which versions are which. With The Holy Fool, I am now technically on version 3.6. That reflects four revisions of various levels and depths from the original rough draft.

As far as your work goes, I think there should be a reasonable medium between the one revision that kids might reluctantly do for a school project and the 20 different revisions that happen to some Hollywood movie scripts. (Part of the reason behind the latter situation is that those often have multiple authors).

I think that four revisions is a decent number, a good minimum if you are doing the primary work of revision on your own. Each of those revisions should have a different purpose, as well. You should never try to do everything in a single revision, or you could easily lose track of problems you have with the manuscript. Here are different types of revisions that I go through on my projects.

  • Word count. There are plenty of writing advice articles on how big your manuscripts should be. The general consensus is that genre books and most fiction should be under 100,000 words or less. If you haven’t been watching your word count, that could result in a lot of sentences, paragraphs, or even scenes and chapters that have to depart from your work. You might think it’s impossible to cut a 160,000-word manuscript down below 100,000, but trust me, it is possible.
  • Continuity issues. I remember a scene from the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando where a car is trashed rolling onto its side, Arnold rolls it right side up, and he drives away in a perfectly maintained car. You want to avoid similar silliness, which can come from calling one thing by two different names or having one thing in two different places. I changed the name of a soccer club halfway through my rough draft, so I wound up having to change pages of description. It was worth it, but you have to be meticulous when you do it.
  • Big ideas. Is your main character unlikable? Do you need to give more or less background on your story? Are there subplots that are just fizzling out? This is where your heavy lifting happens.
  • Editing and proofreading. Basically, all the mechanics, grammar, and formatting. (I actually consider this to be part of the separate editing process, although I include it here just so people remember that you have to do it.) If you can get a good reader to help you out with this, it is a part of the writing process that truly benefits from another pair of eyes.

I’ll get into the ins and outs of those different processes in a later post. For now, just keep in mind that revising is truly the heart of the writing process and the most complicated part of that process. It’s not something you’ll be able to knock out over a long weekend, that’s for sure.

On Revising (Part 1)

At this moment, I’m a special education teacher. It’s something that I’ve really enjoyed doing, a new step in my education career. It may be the field that I end up teaching in for the rest of my professional life.

However, I got started as a language arts teacher, at the secondary level. I also taught composition at the college level. There was one, bright, shining moment where I had fantasies of working as a full-time college professor, spending my days grading papers at the local coffee shop while tooling around on a new writing project. However, opportunities for full-time work, even at the community college level, were rare or non-existent, and the economics of adjunct college teaching make it the educational career equivalent of entry-level fast food work.

I do still teach writing – not usually full-time, but in short bursts to those kids I have writing goals with, and the occasional college class, although the last time I did that was a year and a half ago. I’m still open to taking on the occasional job, but I don’t see myself doing it for a career anymore.

During the time that I taught in the college environment, I always wanted to lay out what the writing process looked like, in a similar manner that Vince Lombardi would explain to his players what a football was before beginning practice. As part of that, I’d include a graphic in my PowerPoint to the class where I would illustrate that writing process to the class. It looked like… well, it looked much like what you see as the featured image for this post.

So, kids… :). That writing process involves:

  1. Prewrite – coming up with your idea and making initial plans for what it will look like.
  2. Draft – putting the first version of your writing down on paper/computer screen/etc.
  3. Revise – reviewing your work for possible improvements regarding its ideas, organization, or style.
  4. Edit – reviewing your work for grammatical, mechanical, or formatting errors.
  5. Publish – putting your final version of your work out for the general public to see.

For most people, those who don’t study writing carefully, steps 1 and 2 are usually the only ones they do personally, or that they have heard of. You think of something, you write it down – easy enough.

But it’s not that easy, is it? Even the diagram only hints at that complexity. For example, right after step 4, we could easily loop back to step 3 for another go-around, and then yet another. Professional novelists usually go through several revisions and edits for a single book; I’ve heard of some screenplays that see a dozen or more.

For me, both my personal experience with writing and teaching writing for the past 20-plus years has left me convinced, more than ever, that revising is the absolute key step to the writing process. It’s the engine that drives everything else in the writing process. It’s where you look at all of the drivel that you’ve dribbled onto the paper and screen and try not to recoil in horror. If drafting is taking a whole stack of 3×5 cards covered in notes, flinging them into the air, and letting them scatter across a table, revising is sorting all of those cards out and seeing how they relate to each other.

Since I’m getting closer to the revising part of my latest project, I thought I’d get into some of the things that I’ve noticed about the revising process and try to discuss some of the things I do in my own revisions. This blog post will be the start of that, but I’m not sure how long it will take for me to get through all of it. It’s kind of like these book projects that way.

Anyway, check my blog for the Revising tag and you’ll see those posts. Next one will be coming… soon. See you then.