Joel Kelly's Blog

Joel Kelly's updates about his latest writing, his process, and his life as a Halifax-based author and marketer.

My writing process

As I work on my new book, "Scolding the Winds," I've been putting a lot more thought into my process. Here are my thoughts:

I try not to be too precious about my writing process. If you give yourself too many necessary routines, or put too much emphasis on your "muse," you won't be able to write when you really need to. So much of "writer's block" is really the inability to power through when you're not feeling inspired. But inspiration isn't necessary, only will and time are.

Of course, that perfect sentence, that great idea that turns the story around, those are things that you often can't plan for. But so much of your story won't be made up of those moments. So there's no use waiting around for inspiration to strike — if you have a path forward, keep going.

But, of course, that requires that you actually do have a plan. If you don't plan, then you'll always be waiting around for your brain to figure out where the story should go next. That's why I plan things out ahead of time.

I keep a notebook with me at all times, so I can write ideas, bits of dialogue, observations, etc.

I keep lots of notes, and plan out scenes ahead of time, in my trusty Field Notes.

As I've written about before, I'm a big fan of Dan Harmon's Story Circles. I use those to give myself a basic guide for the story as a whole, and individual scenes.

Here's what the story circles help me figure out:

  1. Where my characters are right now (emotionally, physically, mentally)
  2. What they want
  3. What it takes to get what they want
  4. What price they pay for it
  5. How that changes them
  6. How they'll now react to new situations, based on this change

So, the story needs to have this arc, or else it's not really a story. But individual scenes should have an arc, too, so the reader feels like they're along for a ride, not putting in work.

I write in the evenings, since I have a full-time job. I pick the time of night, not based on "inspiration," but energy. So sometimes I'll feel energized and write as soon as I get home, or sometimes I'll get to writing after dinner. And then on weekends I'll spend as much time as possible writing.

I try to write in 1,000 word chunks. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but it gives me a goal. And I completely agree with Hemingway on this one:

"You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again." - Link

You want to stop when you know what happens next, so that when you finally get time to write again, you don't waste the whole evening trying to figure out where to start. You should already know where to start, and your subconscious should already be putting together some ideas for the rest of the scene.

Finally, I write my actual documents in Google Drive, since I use a Chromebook at home, and I want to be able to access my stories wherever I am.

Do you have any questions? Any advice of your own? Leave them in the comments!

How to crowdfund a book

Thinking about crowdfunding your book? Use this link and Inkshares will put $50 toward my book!

UPDATE!! My book is now 80% funded, by 26 backers, with over a month to go. Help keep it going here.

My new book, an ebook novella called Scolding the Winds, is now 63% funded! Can you believe it? I'm having a little trouble believing it.

I've received 20 backers, some contributing $15, some (including my mother-in-law, and my friend and colleague) contributing hundreds. It's incredible to have so much support from so many.

Here's what things are looking like right now:

As you can see, we're very much outpacing our projected targets. But my backers per day are already dropping, and things are slowing down. Plus, any extra money we raise goes toward the costs I've already put into the project, and into making the book's marketing and distribution that much better. So I'm going to keep trying to get this in front of people.

How do you crowdfund a book?

Here's what I've learned so far:

  1. Tweet, tweet, tweet. You might annoy people. But those people weren't your friends anyway. And not everyone who follows you will see every tweet, so you need to get it out there several times, every day. Plus, you don't have to ask for money, just that people share the link. They will.
  2. Email! I had an email list from marketing my last book, so I reached out to them and asked for their support. Email your friends, colleagues, contacts, and ask them to share the link with their friends.
  3. Persistence! Several days will pass without a backer. That's okay. In some cases, it just means there's lots more on the way.
  4. Update your backers. My last funding update blog post got me a few more backers. This one might, too.
  5. Have an installed base of friends/supporters. Luckily, I already have a following on Twitter, some forums, Facebook, etc. I was able to reach out to those friends and ask them to help me out. Plus, I have a popular podcast. Using your existing networks is key.
  6. Advertise! I haven't spent much, yet ($50 on New Disruptors), but I'm thinking about advertising on my favorite podcast, MBMBaM, which has proved very successful for me before. As long as you don't spend more than you raise, it's worth it.

So, those are just a few ideas about how you can crowdfund a book. Do you have any suggestions? Leave them in the comments!

Nightmares as writing fuel

I get a lot of nightmares. Sometimes, night terrors — waking up screaming, moaning something incomprehensible, sweating and thrashing. Fun stuff to wake up beside, my fiancée informs me.

I don't like having nightmares. But I find them useful. They're unpleasant, but I can turn them into something interesting, something that can help my writing and help my stories. "The Obstacle is the Way," and all that.

Last night's nightmare involved a gas leak in my hotel room, which I became convinced was not something physical — making me sick and clouding my thoughts — but a demon attempting to possess and control me. In that moment I knew that God was real, and that there was still a chance for me to gain salvation, because if a demon was attacking me, it meant I was a threat.

After sorting that out (I switched rooms), I went into the elevator, which began to plummet. The other people in the elevator were panicking, but we knew there was nothing we could do. By the time we hit the ground, we were at peace. We had become a family, tied together by our deaths, somewhere halfway down. We managed to survive, but none of us would be the same, after that. 

Are those dreams worth including in a short story? No, not as they are. But perhaps there are pieces worth hanging onto. Perhaps the meaning my subconscious mind found, in the strangest events, could be used as metaphors, or could be used to uncover some of the pieces of my characters that would be impossible to simply spell out. Show, don't tell, etc.

For instance, in my latest short story, I'm including this part of a nightmare I once had: 

The wind had pushed the barbeque a foot or so from the wet, slatted patio wall. The rain had filled the heavy glass ashtray until it had spilled over the side. It had dripped the grayish water down onto the rusting metal bistro table.

Down onto the pine two-by-four floor.

Down onto the neighbors’ patio.

Down onto the ground and grass.

Water had come in through the slightly open window in the living room. The wind had blown it against the screen until it made its way down onto the windowsill.

Down against the wall.

Down onto the old wooden chest on the floor, painted green a year ago. It had been a child’s coffin, once. But never used. The coffin was a gift from a family friend who was a woodworker. The order for the coffin had been canceled.

Riley slept on the couch in the living room with the coffin. Her feet were tucked under the corner of a heavy wool blanket, but the rest of the blanket draped off of the brown leather couch into a pile on the dusty hardwood floor.

She enjoyed the sound of the rain against the window, against the roof and walls. It helped her sleep, and reminded her of camping with her mother and father when she was eight or nine. They camped every year on Prince Edward Island, in an old canvas tent that would leak if you touched the sides.

So she slept deeply, now, as the water seeped in, more and more.

And it rained in her dream. She was walking toward her office, early in the morning. Too early, too dark. Her auburn hair was getting much too wet. But there was nothing to do about it. She had forgotten her umbrella. Forgotten her coat. But her feet were warm, and dry.

The coffee shop she usually stopped into wasn’t there anymore, in her dream. It had never been very good. They served coffee out of those giant thermoses, some off-brand generic roast, poured half-heartedly into a white styrofoam cup. But it was on the way.

Now, though, it was replaced with something else she couldn’t see, and didn’t want to. A part of her, something deep, and hurting.

She tried to walk away, but every step brought her closer. She tried to run, but her feet wouldn’t hold the ground. She bent over, tried to pry at the sidewalk with her fingers, to propel her forward but she only went back. Back and back. Toward something like a shard she couldn’t see but feel.

She felt something pierce her back, carve slowly through her skin. She felt it slide through muscle, wedging in between her vertebrae, and sending pain to every corner of her body. The shiv moved so slowly and so deep she could almost hear it.

She listened to herself die.

And then she fell. Down to the ground. Down past the sidewalk and through it. Down into the earth.

Down and down.

She fell until her she was traveling upward again through the earth. Toward the sky, toward heaven.

Up and up.

And then she woke.

So is that exactly the same nightmare I'd had? No, but the important pieces are there. The inability to run, the impotence of her escape. The inevitability of death, and a painful one. The worries she wrestles with every day, manifested in a dream about nothing. But at the same time everything: life, death, God, heaven, hell.

My point is really this: everything you experience can help your writing. Even if it's painful, even if you'd rather not think about it. It's going to happen to you anyway, so you might as well get some use out of it.

Love you,
Joel

Why I hate adverbs

Previously posted on my old blog, "Start As Close to the End As Possible".

Adverbs kill ideas. If you are trying to express an action, or demonstrate something meaningful, adverbs will often weaken the sentence. It feels like you’re intensifying it, while you’re writing, but when it’s read all the oomph is gone.

Some examples:

“He ran quickly to the store, hoping to get the last copy.”

Well, obviously he ran quickly. That’s the point of running. Phrased as, “he ran to the store, hoping to get the last copy,” we’ve saved a word, and preserved the urgency through parsimony. Even better, by this point in the story we probably already know he wants the last copy. So, “he ran to the store,” leaves us hooked, and we’re hoping he gets the last copy.

“She screamed, angrily.”

Again, the story to this point will have already shown us why she is screaming. “Angrily” hushes it.

“He stopped abruptly.”

Stopping is typically abrupt.

There are times when adverbs like these can be useful, but it’s worth considering if they are necessary. If the sentence works just fine without them, it probably works better without them.

Adverbs, along with adjectives added to dialogue tags, slow the reader down, and usually provide them with no new information. So don't say:

"I hate you," she whispered softly.

When you can say:

"I hate you," she whispered.

The second one is even more fierce, because we're filling in the "softly" ourselves, knowing that whispers are typically soft.

And if a word in your story doesn't provide new information, you should cut it.

Here's an extreme example to show you just how much you can communicate with limited adverbs and no adjectives in your dialogue tags:

“They didn’t find anything, but I’m not sure how hard they were looking,” he said.

“Well, I guess they didn’t have a reason to. Which is good,” she said.

“Yeah, but we really need to get things cleaned up.”

“I can’t today, but give me a shout tomorrow, and we’ll see.”

“Um, okay.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I just can’t make it. You know this.”

“It can’t wait, so I guess I’ll just do it.”

“It can wait. I’ll help you tomorrow. It’ll be fine.”

“No, no, I’ll just do it,” he said.

“Fine.”

“It’s fine, we’ll catch up tomorrow and I’ll let you know if I end up needing help.”

“Okay, fair. Sorry.”

“Really, it’s cool,” he said.

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

So here we have two characters talking about a mess that needs to be cleaned up. It may not be serious, but it’s clear that it needs to be done. You can also see that it goes from calm, to somewhat tense, to an amicable if not perfect resolution. And then we find out how close their relationship is. All without spelling out any of those feelings.

It can be done. In a real story there would be some description, some nested exposition, and maybe even an adverb or two to help the reader along. But they are not necessary to demonstrate emotions.

When possible, show, don’t tell. It makes your story cleaner, more engaging, and more sincere.

Cut, cut, cut

That's my primary writing advice.

My writing style in No Greater Love Than This has been described as "haunting," "sparse," "brutal." That's on purpose.

If you want to write a similar way, here's how:

Cut it. Cut it until there's barely anything left. Until you can't cut anything else. Then, add back in where you need to.

This isn't chipping away at marble. If you go too far, you can reverse it. Once it's gone, it's not gone forever.

So, cut.

Keep a separate version, if you must. The big one, the bloated one. But cut away until the only thing that's left is your story.

Get rid of those adverbs, and that sentence that says the same thing as the one before it.

You probably won't even want to add anything back in, when you're finished. Because you never needed it anyway.

Use a tool like Hemingway or iA Writer Pro, if you need to.

Just cut, cut, cut.