More Thoughts on Character Conflict in Storytelling

I finished my Game of Thrones rewatch on Monday and caught up with the newest episode on Tuesday—and without spoiling anything (well, nearly anything) about the series, I’m struck by how well my recent “discovery” that conflict between characters is an essential part of storytelling holds up.

Here’s the part that might be a teeny-weeny spoiler: this last season of Game of Thrones comes down to:

  1. Fighting the Big Bad.
  2. Deciding who wins the Iron Throne (assuming it is not destroyed in the big fight).

Okay. At this point, I doubt many fans are hugely invested in the boss fight. I mean, sure, people want to see explosions and whatever, I understand that part, but… there are basically two outcomes here.

HUMANS DEFEAT EVIL

or

EVIL DEFEATS HUMANS.

Of the two, I am pretty sure I know which one is going to happen.

So why keep watching—or, for that matter, why watch any of the series, since we knew from the very first scene that EVIL HAD RETURNED TO THE LAND and SOMEONE WOULD NEED TO DEFEAT IT AT SOME POINT, probably WITH EXPLOSIONS?

Because, eight seasons in, we want to know how the character conflicts will be resolved.

It’s super easy to thwap fireballs at a bad guy until he goes down.

It’s much harder to tell someone, particularly someone you love, that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. There were plenty of reviewers and bloggers and Redditors arguing that the penultimate season of Game of Thrones felt “contrived” or “boring.”

Not because much of that season was about people preparing to fight a giant evil supermonster, which is literally the most contrived thing ever.

But because the interpersonal conflict didn’t make sense.

Again, teeny-weeny spoiler: the show did the thing where one character finds a letter written by another character, misunderstands the contents of the letter completely, and launches the type of conflict that could have been solved in two seconds if the two people involved had just talked to each other.

The conflict, between two characters who had previously been allies and whom we correctly predicted would be allies again once the misunderstanding got cleared up, felt forced. Unearned. Boring.

This, by the way, was coming from a show that had previously been so nuanced that it made multiple child murderers sympathetic.* No human was fully good or fully evil (with perhaps one exception), and no family was fully on the right side of the argument. People did the best they could with the information and resources they had.

And then the storyline outpaced the books that were its original source material and the characters started acting more like one-note action heroes (and coincidentally uninformed romantic comedy heroes) than people.

Which meant the conflicts became less interesting, since—just like the fight against the Big Bad—we already knew how they were going to end.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about, as we enter our final season of Game of Thrones and I continue drafting NEXT BOOK.❤️

*Yes, that means both “multiple characters that murdered children” and “characters that murdered multiple children.”

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Why I Love Les Mills Classes

I didn’t always hate gym class.

During elementary school, I maintained the delusion that if I tried as hard as I could, I’d hit the ball instead of flinching at it. If I ran as fast as I could, I’d win the 100-yard-dash on Track and Field Day.

By middle school, when gym began to include lockers and showers and bullying, I gave up. I still dressed out and hustled and did whatever the gym teacher said I should do, because I was that kind of student—but I did it badly, was made fun of, and (like many seventh-graders before me) decided I wasn’t a Gym Person.

In my junior year of high school, a new gym teacher saved my butt—literally. If we didn’t want to play flag football or basketball or whatever sport he’d set up for the day, we could walk the track. I began taking 90-minute walks twice a week, realized how mentally refreshing a long walk could be, and kept up the habit long after that gym class ended.

This year I picked up a new gym habit: Les Mills classes at the YMCA.

If you aren’t familiar with the Les Mills method, it’s essentially a cross-training system: one day you do weights, one day you do Pilates, one day you do cardio, etc. I started with just the weights class because I read Casey Johnston’s Ask a Swole Woman columns and thought I’d try weightlifting, and now I take all of them.

Here is what I’ve learned:

I love gym.

I did not expect to become a Gym Person. I never imagined myself voluntarily purchasing a YMCA membership. I’d always been “reasonably physically active,” in the sense that I walk and I bike and I do yoga, but I’d strategically avoided the kind of physical activity that makes you sweat.

Now I love it.

What changed? Probably the fact that we’re all adults now, and nobody’s bullying anyone else, and none of these activities involve a ball being thrown at my face. (I still have a chipped front tooth from a sixth grade gym class and a basketball I couldn’t block.)

Here’s what hasn’t changed:

I am still bad at gym.

When our teacher says “run,” I am always at the back of the pack. When she says “sprint,” I can only get halfway across the room. There are some activities I do pretty well (like tuck jumps), and others that I do extremely poorly (like lunge jumps).

I have made some small improvements since I started Les Mills classes, mostly in the amount of weight I can bench and press and squat. I do not see myself ever becoming a better runner, nor do I predict that I’ll be able to increase the speed at which I currently burpee (I can only do one in the time everyone else can complete two).

I do not care—and more importantly, no one else cares either. The Les Mills ethos, as our teacher keeps reminding us, is “keep moving.” The Les Mills system includes a number of options for people at varying levels of fitness and ability; if you aren’t running today, for example, you can always jog or walk. If you can’t do a particular exercise, you can march in place until it’s time for the next one. Just keep moving, and fitness will happen.

Which brings me to:

I have gotten more physically fit than I previously thought possible.

My fitness metrics, from resting heart rate to body fat percentage to muscle visibility, have improved dramatically since I started taking Les Mills classes. Despite the fact that I can only do 80 percent of the exercises and am the slowest one at many of them.

This is making me rethink the way we teach people how to be fit—or, for that matter, the way we teach people anything.

There are plenty of kids going into middle school who have already decided that they aren’t a Gym Person or a Math Person or a Music Person or a Writing Person. There are plenty of adults who realize they like group fitness classes a lot more than flag football, or that they can play most of the pop songs out there by learning four (okay, six) chords on the guitar. Why can’t we start teaching this kind of stuff—low-stakes, do what you can, just keep moving classes—to young people?

The first obvious reason is that adults who take group fitness classes want to be there, while young people rarely have a choice. This means you need external stakes to keep young students motivated, e.g. grades and peer-to-peer rankings (even though many students ignore that type of motivation and spend their school days checked out).

The second obvious reason is that we want to give at least some students the opportunity to master a subject. Yes, a lot of that mastery happens outside of the classroom, whether in sports practice sessions, private piano lessons, or robotics clubs, but—well, I can play six self-taught chords on the guitar. I had sixteen years of piano lessons. There is a huge difference in mastering vs. dabbling.

The third obvious reason is that I can’t find a good analogue for math. Sure, you can do 80% of the math you need in life once you understand basic arithmetic, the same way you can play 80% of the pop songs out there once you learn four-to-six chords. But you can get physically fit without being able to do a lunge jump. You can’t learn algebra without learning algebra.

I don’t know where to go from here—like, there’s no way I can legitimately make pompous statements about education reform, the only classes I teach are group writing classes for adults who want to be there—but now that I’ve discovered how much fun gym can be, with the team camaraderie and the pumping soundtrack and the teacher who encourages us to keep moving, just keep moving, I feel kind of cheated.

Now that I know that gym class doesn’t have to be terrible, even for the haplessly slow and uncoordinated, it makes me wonder why I wasn’t able to get that experience as a child—and whether other educational experiences can be made less terrible as well. ❤️

Lessons Learned From a 67-Hour Game of Thrones Rewatch

So here’s how my 67-hour Game of Thrones rewatch has gone so far:

Season 1: This is so much fun! I remember why I used to love this show. Look at all the visual detail! The foreshadowing! The impressive amount of history and backstory and emotion these actors are able to communicate in a single glance!

Season 2: Heh, this is a lot of television to watch at one time! Still going to be totally worth it, though. I’m participating in a cultural phenomenon!

Seasons 3–5: I NEVER WANT TO WATCH FIVE HOURS OF TELEVISION A DAY AGAIN.

At this point, the primary reason why I’m still watching Game of Thrones is because I’ve watched too many episodes to quit now. I am almost done with Season 5, which means I’m finally getting to the episodes I haven’t seen before*, and I should be very nearly (if not completely) caught up by the the Season 8 premiere on Sunday.

However, every other life metric over the past week has gotten worse.

This isn’t, btw, because I’m canceling other plans to spend more time with Game of Thrones. In the eight days since I started this watch-a-thon, I rode bikes with my dad and had lunch with my parents and met up with friends and went to multiple choir rehearsals and so on. I kept up with my exercise and my sleep; it wasn’t like I was watching these episodes into the wee hours of the night or anything.

But my sleep got worse, even though I spent the same number of hours in bed—probably because I skipped my usual “wind down with a book” time to fit in one more episode.

My mood got worse, even though I was doing something I theoretically wanted to do, probably because I was spending too much time focused on a single activity (and a single laptop screen). Sometimes I chose to give Game of Thrones partial focus while I did the dishes or whatever, and that just made me worry that I was missing something important, either with the show or the dishes.

My creative output (and the NEXT BOOK drafting process) got way worse, probably because I eliminated all free time that might have gone towards making creative connections. There was no opportunity for new thoughts to occupy my thoughts. Any spare minute was spent staring at Game of Thrones — and although I hoped it would teach me something important about storytelling, it mostly taught me about how formulaic these episodes actually are, when you watch them one after the other.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s a very effective formula. Cliffhangering every scene, for example, is a great way to keep people watching. So is having a character reveal a profound childhood memory right before making a big decision or launching into battle… until you see it happen 40 times in a row. (Then you start wondering why none of these people ever learned anything important after the age of 10.)

I am not going to use this as an argument for television being bad or anything. There’s a lot of really great television out there, and I’ve seen my share of it.

The real lesson is, of course, about balance — and I have lived a very unbalanced life over the past week, and have a few more unbalanced days to go. ❤️

*As you might remember, I stopped watching Game of Thrones after the first episode of Season 5, due to a combination of heartbreak and a disastrous season premiere party.

On Storytelling and Perspective and Re-Watching Game of Thrones in Two Weeks

Last Wednesday, I made an extremely foolhardy decision: I was going to re-watch Game of Thrones, in its entirety, before the final season.

Here’s the background: in 2012, I dated this guy who was all “you haven’t seen Game of Thrones, let me fix that for you” and so I watched the first two seasons and read all of the books.

I continued watching Game of Thrones after that relationship ended, in part because I started dating another guy who was also a GoT fan, and after that relationship ended—and after going to a Game of Thrones Season 5 premiere party by myself and getting inadvertently alcohol poisoned*—I was all I am done with this show, it has only led to heartbreak and vomit.

But I’m a sucker for cultural phenomena—especially when it’s related to storytelling. I started showing up at Harry Potter midnight release parties not because I cared about Harry Potter (I enjoyed the series, but it didn’t shape my soul the way other stories did), but because I cared about experiencing this story simultaneously with the rest of the world.

So I decided I didn’t want to miss out on the pleasure of discovering how Game of Thrones ends at the same time as everyone else, which meant I needed to get myself caught up.

I have re-watched 30 episodes of Game of Thrones in the past five days. (Yes, I could have started with the first episode I hadn’t yet seen, but I figured that if I was going to do this, I wanted the emotional experience of the entire epic.) Turns out you can watch a lot of TV, without cutting back on any of your other commitments, if you just leave the TV on all the time. I’ve been making dinner while watching Game of Thrones, folding laundry while watching Game of Thrones, etc.

It has been surprisingly exhausting to pay 30 hours’ worth of attention to a story in such a short period of time—and I have 40 hours left to go before the Season 8 premiere on Sunday. (I suspect I won’t get fully caught up until the second episode of Season 8, which is fine by me. As long as I’m ready to watch the series finale with everyone else, I’ll be satisfied.)

But none of this is the point.

The point is that, a day into my rewatch, Maggie Stiefvater posted an analysis of contemporary storytelling that focused on our relatively recent shift from single-POV narratives to massively-multi-POV narratives.

The shift from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, as it were.**

Now, I know that A Song of Ice and Fire was written before the Harry Potter books were published (though not by much; the first ASOIAF book published in 1996, and the first HP book published in 1997). But Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon before Game of Thrones did, and in between 2007, when Deathly Hallows released in hardcover, and 2011, when Game of Thrones premiered on HBO, the type of stories our culture valued had changed.

To quote Maggie Stiefvater:

Readers and viewers no longer believed in the straightforward hero’s journey. No one was that simple. Batman got rebooted, James Bond got some consequences. Heroes got more and more morally gray. The world was getting more and more morally gray, too, after all, and narrative kept up. What was the price of privilege? What was the price of winning? Was this really a happy ending?

Narrative answered the question by glancing at the situation from other points of view, and those glances got longer and longer and longer. One POV became two. Became three. Became four.

One of the responses to Maggie’s blog post identified television as the impetus for this trend-shift:

The format of television shows almost REQUIRE several multi-character arcs, because the main goal of a show is usually to stretch the story into as many seasons as possible, and you can’t easily do that with just one protagonist. You need viewers to stay to watch every episode every season, and you need a lot of different types of stories to keep their interest. Of course, this leads to a big cast that grows as the show goes on, and viewers get more and more used to connecting with several different characters. Think of Friends, which started with Monica as an everygirl kind of protagonist with a group of eccentric friends, and then gradually morphed into a show that gave equal weight to every character in the main group, because that’s what the show needed to be to keep its viewership. 

If we’re citing television, of course, we have to go further back than Friends; this type of narrative has propelled soap operas, for example, for as long as they’ve existed.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the internet, with its ability to provide us with thousands of points of view at once, has made us more interested in telling stories that feature a multiplicity of perspectives—and if authors don’t provide us with these perspectives (and even if they do), we write them ourselves, fanfic-style.

The other point of all of this is that I am currently writing a novel that is told entirely from a single character’s perspective. I have asked myself, more than once, if I should pop into someone else’s head for a bit, or if I should do the thing where I divide the book up into multiple sections and give each section to a different character.

But that doesn’t feel like the story I want to tell, even though that’s what the SF&F genre is all about these days. I want the readers to have the same experience my main character has: to be given the call to adventure, to have to choose whether to follow that call, and then SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.

To write a chapter from the perspective of the character who asks my protagonist for help, for example, would feel like giving my reader more information than my protagonist has, which would make her emotional journey and her discoveries less compelling.

I’m not even jumping to the omniscient viewpoint; you only get to experience what the protag experiences, and her limitations are your limitations.

One of the reasons I made this choice was because I just finished writing two books from a multi-character perspective and wanted to try something new.

The other reason, I think, was because I wanted to cycle away from stories like Game of Thrones, where we follow multiple characters and multiple plots and ask the audience to choose where their alliance lies and create surveys that determine which house we belong to.

I wanted to explore humanity by focusing on one human, the same way other writers wanted to explore humanity by focusing on many different people.

We’ll see if I made the right choice. ❤️

*The party was at a bar, and every attendee got one free cocktail with their ticket. I was not aware that the cocktail, which was handed to me as I walked in the door, was nearly pure alcohol (think Long Island Iced Tea but with a Game of Thrones-inspired name). I knew something was very wrong about five minutes after finishing the drink. I generally vomit after three ounces of liquor, which is why I try not to drink more than two at any given time. That night, I puked so much I had to throw away everything I was wearing including my purse.

**Yes, I know there are these little blips in Harry Potter where we step outside of Harry’s POV, but the books are still Harry’s story.

How to Create the Systems/Structures in Which to Do Your Best Work: Part 3

Okay. To catch everyone up:

THE THESIS: Setting aside time in which to do your creative work will get you 90% of the way there — or 80%, if we want to make the Pareto Principle comparison. (Percentages are not meant to be, like, 100% accurate.) Creating a structure that helps you be ready to do your BEST WORK during your creative work timeslot is the other 10–20%.

THE PREVIOUS DISCUSSIONS: The importance of planning for the experience you want to have and the value of aligning your disparate goals so that they support each other.

In other words: if you want to bring your best self to your creative work timeslot so that you have the best chance of doing your BEST WORK, it helps if you figure out what needs to happen in the rest of your day to support that goal. Also, it is possible to align a few competing goals (do well at your job, spend time with family, complete a big creative project) within a structure that supports and balances all of them.

WHAT WE’RE DISCUSSING TODAY: How I do it.


I will begin by acknowledging that I stole this idea from Ben Franklin, who famously made a list of both the ways he wanted to behave and the emotions he wanted to feel and then tracked both his actions and his moods to see if he was living up to his goals.

I, in turn, created what I call my Daily Spreadsheet.

The Daily Spreadsheet lists what I want to have in my life on the day-to-day level. Some list items are binary; “reading,” for example, is either a yes or a no. (Technically, “reading” means “reading a book, not just the internet,” but that would take up too much space in the spreadsheet cell.)

Other list items are metric-based; for “sleep,” I include both the hours I slept and the percentage spent in deep sleep, according to my Fitbit.

Other list items are subjective, like “mood” and “energy,” and I use a lot of colorful and descriptive words to describe both. Interestingly, these are the items that are the most out of my control; as Ben Franklin must have discovered, you don’t actually get to choose what mood you wake up in or how energetic you feel.

I’m pretty sure he also discovered that working towards the rest of the items on his list helped increase the chance that he’d wake up in a good mood. (Or a contemplative mood, or a generative mood, or a joyful mood.

EDIT: I should note that the mood/action connection doesn’t always work, especially if there are other mental health or neurotransmitter issues present. If that’s you, go read about what Maggie Stiefvater did when her neurotransmitters got all bunged up and she realized that she couldn’t “do” her way to the work she wanted anymore. (Also yes, there is a Maggie Stiefvater blog post for just about every situation.)

I color-code my spreadsheet, every day; “reading” and “music” and “human connection” turns green if I did it and red if I didn’t. For metric-based stuff like “sleep,” I go green if I get more than 7-and-a-half hours, a pale red if I get between 7 and 7-and-a-half, and a darker red if I go below 7 hours.

Here’s the other important thing: there are no fully green days.

This isn’t completely true. Sunday, March 10 was my last fully green day. They do come up once or twice a month.

But most of the time, I have to make choices about what to prioritize, and that means one or two cells go red every day.

It’s when the same row starts showing a string of red that I know something in my life is out of balance — but usually I don’t let it get quite that far. However, I have made a few big changes in my life based on what I’ve learned from my Daily Spreadsheet, and so far those changes have all made my days better.

Will all of this help me create my BEST WORK? I’m not sure yet. My NEXT BOOK draft is only 21,404 words long, and some of those words are really rough.

But, four days out of five — there’s that Pareto again — I’m coming to my draft with good energy and a good mood and enough sleep, so I’m hoping that’ll count for something. ❤️

On Writing That Scene

I wrote that scene this morning.

You know the one.

The piece of the project that inspired the whole project.

The piece of the project that you’ve been carrying in your head (and in your heart) this entire time. Imagining how someone else might react when they get to it. What you hope they might think or feel.

And then you have to write the scene or, if you’re working in another medium, create the moment, however you do it, and it’s never quite what you felt, just like a retelling of a memory is not the same as feeling that memory which is not the same as having that experience the first time.

And part of you is like “Yay! I did it! I got so far into the project that I finally got to write the scene!

And the other part is like “Oh. This is the best I could do at this scene, and it’s already disappointing me, and even though I know I can always revise it I also know that it’ll never be the thing I imagined in my head because you can never make anything exactly like you imagine it.

But hey, I’m 18,547 words into this project and I finally got to write the scene.

And I’ll get to write again next Monday, and add another thousand words to the story. ❤️

The Work You Do While You’re Waiting

So after getting really excited about Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign (and his plan to give every American a $1,000/month Freedom Dividend, plus Medicare for All) I began picturing the future.

I saw myself going to Yang Gang meetings in Cedar Rapids.

Attending the Iowa Caucus, which I’ve never done before.*

Standing in a room filled with balloons and pizza boxes and all the friends I’d made along the way, watching election returns.

But it’s going to be a long time before any of that happens, if it even ends up happening. The Iowa Caucus isn’t until February 3, 2020. A year from now.

A year from now, I might be sending advance copies of NEXT BOOK to industry reviewers. I’ll be one year closer to my goal of being financially independent by 47.** I’ll have been part of at least three and maybe four Chorale Midwest concerts, including our upcoming performance of the Brahms Requiem with Orchestra Iowa. I’ll have taught more classes and written more articles and connected with more people and done many of the things I’m currently hoping I can accomplish.

And my mind has given me pictures of what all of this could look like, down to what I’m wearing and how long my hair might be.***

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that generating a highly detailed mental image of the future you want for yourself actually eliminates that future from the realm of possibility.

Every conversation you rehearse in your head is a conversation that will never take place as rehearsed

You’ve had those conversations in your head, right? You imagine yourself saying something, and then you imagine someone else saying something, and so on?

At some point — and I don’t know exactly how I put this together — I realized that every conversation I imagined was a conversation that would never take place in the real world.

Because people aren’t ever going to follow the script I wrote in my head.

So every time I imagined a conversation where I set a boundary and then someone else got really angry with me (for example), I reminded myself that by generating the conversation in my brain, I had pretty much guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen in real life.

This isn’t to say that the other person might not be upset or disappointed with the boundary I set. But they probably wouldn’t react at the level I had imagined, and they definitely wouldn’t use the exact words I had written for them.

Likewise, I might in fact end up wearing a Yang 2020 T-shirt to an election party, but the party will never look exactly like the one I’m currently dreaming.

Nor will NEXT BOOK look exactly the way it did when I first thought it up. I can follow the plot structure I outlined for myself, and build an emotional journey for the reader that’s similar to the one I had when I told myself the story I wanted to tell, but it will still be a different book than the one I initially imagined, because exposing something to the world always changes it.

(This is why so many stories include antagonistic forces — parents, governments, societies — that try to prevent people from learning about the world.)

You can’t have the future you imagine, but you can work towards the future you want

So. Creating some mental image of my sitting at a table with a stack of NEXT BOOK next to me, ready to sign copies for a queue of readers, does in fact guarantee that this particular scenario will never happen.

But it doesn’t prevent a similar scenario from happening.

It doesn’t prevent me from doing the part of the work that might someday get me to that table with that stack of books, e.g. spending one hour, Monday through Friday, working on my current draft.

And when that part of the work is done, turning that hour into editing-and-revisions time.

And, because that part of the work isn’t so far in the future that I have to imagine what it might be like, I can decide what it will be like. Right now. When it will happen and where I will sit and whether I’ll turn my phone and email off while I work.

Likewise, I can decide that today I’m going to do my bit for Yang 2020 by sharing the link to Andrew Yang’s Reddit AMA (which will take place at 2:30 Eastern today, go ask him anything), and I’m also going to share a fun article with my mom on Facebook, and tomorrow I’m going to ask my sister and nephew if they want to do a FaceTime call this weekend.****

HERE’S WHERE IT GETS REALLY INTERESTING

This method works for the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. That terrible scenario you imagine happening to your job or your loved ones or your small business? Those hours/days/weeks you spend waiting to hear back from doctors or lawyers or potential employers? Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Whatever horrible thing you just imagined will never happen. Or, at least, not in exactly that way. No, it won’t happen in the slightly different other way you imagined either. It might still be stressful and difficult and complicated and a lot of work, but it won’t be whatever you just visualized. It can’t be.
  • You can still do small things, every day, to get yourself closer to the experiences you want to have right now — the tasks you want to prioritize, the connections you want to strengthen, the time you want to take to care for yourself, etc. — and those experiences will help you deal with the hours/days/weeks ahead.

I’ve found this to be one of the truest things about life I’ve ever learned. The balance of what you can’t control and what you can.

So that’s what I’m thinking about this morning, mostly because last night I was thinking about how long it was between now and next year, and how I didn’t want to have to wait for what I wanted.

Then I reminded myself that I didn’t have to wait to write another 1,000 words of my draft, or pitch another client, or send my mom something nice on Facebook, or any of the stuff that I thought I wanted in the future but actually wanted — and could go after — right now. ❤️

*I grew up in the Midwest (before leaving to bounce from one coastal city to another and then decide to move back), but I did not grow up in Iowa. My hometown is actually in rural Missouri, a two-hour drive from where I live now.

**My current projections indicate it’s more likely I’ll hit financial independence — aka “the point at which I can live off my investments” — by 50, but that’s just incentivizing me to try to beat that target.

***I’m growing out a pixie cut. “How long my hair might be” is a relevant concern.

****Why not do all of this stuff today? Because you can’t do everything today. Nobody can.

On Drafting and Clearing the Path

The NEXT BOOK draft is currently 2,648 words long, which — since I’ve had three scheduled work sessions so far — is coming out to roughly 883 words an hour.

Since this type of book tends to be around 80,000–90,000 words long, I could be finished with the draft in as soon as 90 hour-long work sessions, or 17 weeks from now.

Late June.

Part of me wants to turn this into a goal, and it may end up being something I achieve simply by virtue of consistent output, but the other part of me is all just find your way through this draft. Don’t force it.

Because I know, three sessions in, that the process of drafting NEXT BOOK will be very different from the process of drafting The Biographies of Ordinary People.

For whatever reason — and I think part of it was because I tried to write Biographies five different times before I actually wrote it — the Biographies draft came out fully-formed. It needed a little revision, of course, but no major restructuring. The writing process felt like walking down a path that I had already cleared for myself.

My current writing process feels like clearing the path.

In both cases I went in with an outline and a bunch of character work, so it’s not like I don’t know where the path leads, or who’s on the path.

It’s more like I’m discovering what the path looks like as I find it, one step at a time.

Which means that the 811 words I wrote this morning gave me new clarity that I need to go apply to the previous 1,837 words, although I don’t want to do too much revising yet because I bet that the next 800 words will also clarify details that should be included in the preceding 2,648 words.

For lack of a better metaphor, it’s kind of like me saying “the path is covered by leaves,” and then 800 words in it’s “the path is covered by red oak leaves,” and then it’s “the path is covered by red oak leaves that have turned brown and started to decay at the edges,” and then “the path is covered by decaying red oak leaves and patches of new grass,” and so on. Add in what it smells like and whether there are any birds and what the sunlight is doing and… you get the idea.

The more time I spend on the path, the more I understand what it’s made of.

So that’s where I am, three writing sessions into NEXT BOOK. I already feel like writing this story is like slipping into another world, which is the best part of writing for me. (I felt that way about Biographies, too.) At this stage, it is play; exploring, creating, describing, experiencing, feeling, seeing. The same immersive experience I used to have with my Barbies and paper dolls, making up stories with my sister and my friends.

But NEXT BOOK isn’t just about me getting to play my way through it. It’s also something I am creating for you, which means I need to go back and add in all the detail I discover as I’m working on it, so you’ll get a similar immersive experience when you read it.

That’s what I’m thinking about, this morning. ❤️

The Morning After

I started writing NEXT BOOK this morning.

I know I’d been hinting that I was going to start writing, and that I was ready to start writing, but once I knew what was going to happen with The Billfold I realized that the best way to transition from “my life as it has been for the past five years” and “everything that might come next” would be to finish up my work with The Billfold and start my novel the following morning.

(Not that The Billfold’s work is finished, precisely. I still have to close out The Billfold LLC, but that’s just shutting down a handful of accounts and filing some paperwork with the state of Iowa. And paying for it, because you can’t open or close a business without paying a bunch of people.)

My most recent tarot reading — which was finally not about death — suggested that I pull back on the WORKING SO HARD ALL THE TIMES and, for the next lunar cycle, focus on my dreams and creating new things and being emotionally open with people.

The reading also suggested that I finish up all of this outstanding business-and-tax stuff and stash any money left over in my SEP IRA, which I was already planning to do.

So, in the name of being emotionally open with people, I’ll share the two pieces of music I had on constant repeat during this whole Billfold shutdown process.

Time is an illusion that helps things make sense
So we are always living in the present tense

It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends
But you and I will always be back then
You and I will always be back then

This one is pretty obvious. I put it in my earbuds and played it on my piano over and over. There’s a back then that will always exist, first as a memory of a place we wish we could return to, then as a memory of something fun we used to do together, and then just a memory.

Here’s the other one.

Everybody knows how this goes so let’s get over it
And let’s get this over with

After all the spelling mistakes
After all the groping in the dark
Can this page of strange gibberish
Get a final punctuation mark?

It shouldn’t be news, per se, that my experience of shutting down The Billfold has been a little different than the Billfolder experience. (And it’s not even completely over yet.) I went through the stages of grief about a month earlier than everyone else — and yes, you can go back through my emails and Slack chats and tick off every individual stage — but what isn’t popularly advertised is that there’s a seventh stage that comes after “acceptance,” and that stage is called “a bunch of administrative work.”

So yeah, I listened to “Let’s Get This Over With” a lot. Even though the thing I was trying to hasten to its end was something I loved.

But the other stage that comes after “acceptance” is “a wide open space that can be filled with dreams,” whether that’s an emotional space or, in my case, a literal space as well.

So I started writing my next book this morning. ❤️