Ben Crowder /blog


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I’ve learned lately that I quickly lose interest in the fiction I’m writing unless it has the following:

  • A strong narrative voice. This seems to be more important for me than anything else. I didn’t realize it was so critical until this morning, when the bland porridge of my current WIP grew too boring to continue (because it lacks a strong voice).
  • A concept that piques my curiosity. What this means in practice is flexible — it can be about a character, a relationship, the setting, a plot point, a mood. It just needs to be concrete enough that I can think about it.
  • A plot that runs on the rails of change. Meaning, dynamic scenes where the world and characters are in a different state at the end than they were at the beginning. Outlining appears to be the best way for me to get there, at least at this point. Dwight Swain’s book has been helpful here.
  • Theme, possibly. I sense that I do need it as a unifying force and to help me in scene selection, but I’m not positive it’s a requirement. (I did just read Libbie Hawker’s book on outlining and the theme part resonated with me, so it may just be that, though — an untested resonance.)

These aren’t massive, groundbreaking revelations, of course, but I’d somehow lost sight of them over the years or wasn’t fully aware of them before. Now that I’ve tugged them back into my conscious mind, though, I’m ready to start finishing stories again.

A quick update: I was stuck for a while on the Dagh story, but I’ve started spending my lunch hour working on it, and it’s coming together nicely. I should have a complete first draft done soon. (I’ve got 7,000 words on it so far.)

I’ve spent the last few months avoiding the heck out of writing the novel (Edge of Magic). The plot changed several times — completely changed, that is — and then I abandoned it and started on a short story which I then also abandoned.

The good news, however, is that I’ve written a thousand words a day every day solid since the beginning of December. The habit is securely in place.

Tonight I realized that for some reason, when I’m working on a story I can’t do other projects at the same time (art, typesetting, coding, etc.). Whether it’s because I use those other projects as avoidance or something else, I don’t know. But during a writing project — at least the planning stage, not sure yet whether it applies to the drafting stage — I need to put all my other projects on the back burner. That gives me enough mental space to let the story grow.

The plan right now: finish the aforementioned short story (featuring Dagh and María Bonita — I don’t have a title yet), then decide which novel I’m actually going to write, outline it, and write it as fast as I can, to get it done before self-doubt slashes my tires.

One problem with the novel, by the way, was that Makrannan’s character was never very clear or interesting to me. He never came alive to me. Thus his part of the book was always weak, even after several re-outlinings. With this current story, however, Dagh and María Bonita feel much more alive to me, and it’s making all the difference. (And hopefully that will make the story much more worth reading than my earlier stories.)

Goal: finish the first draft of the Dagh story by May 21, and release the edited story on my site by May 31.


To help me with my thousand-words-a-day goal, I’ve been using a tool I wrote called Speed. It’s a desktop app, written using Electron, and it looks like this:


As you can see, it’s fairly simple. The code is on GitHub.

Back on December 3, I made a goal to write a thousand words of fiction a day, every day (skipping Sundays). I made up a chart with sixteen weeks on it, ending March 19, printed it out, and taped it on the headboard of our bed.

And that chart is now full. I’ve written exactly 100,000 words since December 3 (I wrote a little extra each day), which is crazy considering that I used to be unable to get myself to write at all. I don’t know what actually made the change, but I’m writing every day and it’s great.

Today I tried doing my daily writing via phone dictation, and it went surprisingly well. I had to correct a fair amount of mistranscribed words, but there weren’t as many as I had expected. And I think it might have actually been faster than typing on my phone (considering that I often have to fix autocorrected text when I’m typing).

I’ll say, though, that I’m not at all used to writing things by speaking out loud. Very different. I suspect it may grow on me, though.

The state of the novel: avoiding outlining.

I ended up shelving the Cria/Iresha storyline (it’ll be its own book) to focus on Makrannan’s, which then made it clear that Makrannan’s storyline was weak and problematic. So I threw most of it out. The worldbuilding was flimsy as well, leading me to spend the last month fleshing it out (magic systems, history, surrounding cultures, etc.), and I now have a much more solid grasp on the world. I’ve also been learning more about Makrannan’s character and backstory.

All that prewriting has gotten me to the point where the next step is writing the full outline. I’ve done an amazing job avoiding that, however, because I don’t have a good ending yet and the middle is completely vague and muddy — nonexistent, really.

My goal this coming week: figure out a better ending, and plan out the overall structure of the novel. Once I have the boundaries and shape of the forest in place, so to speak, planting the trees should be much easier.

One of the things I’ve run into is that there is an overwhelming infinity of choices at almost every step of the plot. Having a solid structure will, I believe, help with making better design choices in plotting the book.

Sidenote: yesterday marked thirteen weeks solid of writing a thousand words a day. A lot of those words have been prewriting or random freewriting, but establishing the habit has finally given me the confidence that I can manage the day-to-day writing load necessary to finish a novel.

Edge of Magic update

I’ve decided to stop serializing The Edge of Magic and pull it from my site. I’ll keep writing it, but serializing my first novel in public was a fool’s game, and my hubris has been given its due. Perhaps I’ll serialize something once I’ve actually learned how to write novels, but there’s still so much I need to learn and it’s hard to do it well in public.

My plan now is to finish the book (including at least a couple good rounds of editing) and, if I’m not utterly ashamed of the result, release the completed novel on my site later this year.

For the few who were reading it: I’m open to having more alpha readers, so if you’re interested, let me know.

What I’ve learned so far

  • The way I write, I need a better plan before I start drafting the book. Far more detailed worldbuilding, a cohesive plot, clearer characterization, etc. — a really good outline with scenes that move things forward.
  • That said, outlining gives me a literal headache every time I do it. Not sure what’s up with that.
  • At any given point, there are so many possibilities, so many choices. Having a clearer structure will help those choices support the novel instead of veering off on tangents, so things actually happen for a reason.
  • Next time, I think I’ll only have one POV character. Juggling three while also trying to learn how to sustain the weight of the story over the course of a novel is…difficult.

The good news, of course, is that I’m learning a lot about writing novels, far more than I expected (cf. hubris). Still a lot left to learn, but the progress is visible.

The Edge of Magic


For the past two months I’ve been working on a fantasy novel, The Edge of Magic, and I’ve recently decided to serialize it on my site (reasons below).

The first three chapters are up. Every Friday from now on I’ll post an installment — one to three chapters, which comes to around 2,500–3,500 words per installment. On that page readers can also subscribe to updates via RSS or email.

I’ve released fiction on the web before, of course, but this is the first time I’ve done it without being able to edit the whole piece in advance. It’s terrifying. I do have an outline as a security blanket, and I’ve already written the first eight chapters, but writing a novel in public (more or less) makes me feel even more naked and vulnerable than I expected.

My main reason for doing this somewhat unprudent thing: I have a bad habit of endlessly tweaking the beginnings of my novels and never getting past that point. By putting the chapters online as I write them, I’ll feel forced to resist that urge and finish the book. A psychological gimmick, sure, but I think it’ll work.

The secondary reason: writers generally need to write a few bad novels before they can write good ones. While I hope The Edge of Magic isn’t too terrible, getting reader feedback earlier on — with analytics to see where people stop reading, etc. — will help me learn faster. Consider this an open beta.

Once the novel is finished, I’ll do another editing pass and put it on the Kindle store for a couple bucks, with the free version remaining available on my site as well. I plan to serialize another couple novels after that, then try my hand at the traditional publishing route. I’m not going to submit these serialized novels to any publishers, though, since they’ll have already been published.

Whew. To be honest, I’m still surprised I’m actually moving forward with this — the past few weeks have been a blur of incessant insecurities and fears. But sometimes scary risks are good for the soul. Here we go…

A thought on writing novels

As I’m now starting to get more serious about writing novels, I recently made a list of the next few books I want to write after the one I’m working on, and I ran into an unexpected side effect: knowing what the next few items in the queue are has somehow made writing a novel feel far more doable. It’s now a task that has an ending, rather than being something with no end in sight.

Sidenote: I’m not sure how much I’ll talk here about the novel in progress, at least not until I finish a full draft, but I do plan to talk about tools and process. (For example, I’ll write more about this later, but I’m using Vim with a Git repo and a post-commit hook that generates a print-ready proof PDF of the full book via TeX whenever I commit.)