Writing Productivity vs Burn Out

Being an Indy author is tricky. You must learn to market your own novels. You need to find others to help with proofreading and editing, and you need a circle of friends to encourage you to keep writing when sales are low.

More than anything else, however, you need to write books. Many books.

If you listen to Amazon KDP presentations and classes given by successful Indy authors, you quickly learn that their fiction writing tends to share two characteristics: quantity and rapidity. They usually have multiple books for sale and they are capable of writing a novel or novella fairly quickly, sometimes in only a few months.

During the middle of pandemic last year, I decided to see if John and I could write a novel in six months. In order to do that, I wrote at least 500 words a day…every day…seven days a week. Between the time we started last fall and the time we finished the book this spring, I only missed one day of writing (due to a death in the family). I even wrote on holidays. During that time, John and I discussed the ongoing story constantly, often using the white board in our game room to plot the upcoming chapters.

It worked. We finished the first draft of the novel in six months. We were able to proofread it, revise and edit it, and publish it less than one year after we first started writing.

That all sounds great. (I hope the final product is great as well, but that is up to all you readers to decide.) There was just one downside. The constant writing became very difficult after a while. Writing every single day meant I never got a day off. On days when I had other activities, I sometimes would not finish my 500 words until 9:00 at night.

I did it somehow (because I am stubborn that way), but it was not easy. More importantly, it was not sustainable. Keeping up that pace would burn me out of fiction writing eventually.

Since that time, I’ve been trying to think of a compromise – a way to produce books at a rapid pace, but not suffer burn out.

For the latest novel, I am trying a modified version of the at-least-500-words-a-day plan. First, with John’s help, I outlined the novel beforehand, so we would not have to discuss it constantly. Second, I am limiting my at-least-500-words-a-day to four days of each week (Monday through Thursday). Then I get a three-day weekend off. Obviously, I can also write on those days off, if I feel inspired to do so, but I no longer have the pressure to produce.

So far, the plan has worked well. I am currently on Chapter 3 of our new novel, and I am able to enjoy the writing process with minimal stress. It will take longer to write this book than the previous one, but we still should be able to finish within a year.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, if any of you wonderful readers out there happen to finish either of our current novels, I would love to hear your thoughts. Obviously, Amazon and Goodreads reviews are greatly appreciated, but if you prefer something more informal, my email address is listed on this website.

Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 8/6/2021

p.s. I suppose I should include the link to our latest book. It’s part of that marketing-your-own-books thing I mentioned earlier. You should be able to find it at: Amazon.com: Prophecy’s Malignant Son: A high fantasy novel eBook: Ruff, Susan and John: Books

If that link does not work, please leave a comment and let me know. Thank you!

Writing Inspiration Destination: Heidelberg, Germany

(Note: as mentioned in an earlier blog post, one of my friends suggested that I write about some travel destinations that had a direct influence on my writing. This is part 2 of the series.)

The old section of Heidelberg, Germany is a fantasy author’s dream destination. Fairytale sights abound: a ruined castle, narrow streets, beautiful churches, orange-tiled roofs, and an idyllic riverfront complete with a stone bridge.

Photo taken inside the ruins of the castle. Do you ever get the uneasy feeling of being watched?
Doors within doors inside the ruins of the castle.

Heidelberg Castle is particularly intriguing, with its broken towers and grass-encroached grounds. I am sure that the memory of exploring that castle has influenced my fantasy writing over the years.

However, another building that John and I visited provided a far more direct influence on my writing.

The stone staircase leading up to the church tower.

On our first day in the city we crossed the plaza from our hotel (the Hotel Zum Ritter, which is itself a historic wonder) and explored an old stone church. I believe it was probably the Church of the Holy Spirit, but after 30 years, I no longer remember for certain.

Even though I can’t recall the church’s name, I will never forget the old, spiral staircase that led up to the church tower. The climb up that musty passage, so narrow that you could touch both the central pillar and the block wall as you ascended, has stayed in my memory and my imagination ever since that day. It became the “Platonic ideal” of a fantasy staircase for me — the image upon which so many staircases in my writing are based.

In the early drafts of 60th Hour, a spiral staircase led down from the Chamber of the Hours to the ancient vault beneath the mountain. Unfortunately, the spiral shape had to change in the later drafts of the novel, because it would not let Loria see the light vanishing in the final chapter. So, it was replaced with a straight staircase. (If you’ve read the book, but don’t remember the scene, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. I don’t want print any spoilers for the novel here.)

Looking out over rooftops in the old city.

Another feature of the city actually survived into the published version of 60th Hour. Remember those tiled rooftops that Loria sees as she peers down at the darkening city of Lavay? Although that description was a composite of numerous cities that John and I visited over years of travel, the old section of Heidelberg was unquestionably one of the places that influenced the scene.

My beloved co-author with the castle in the background. (Yes, we were both much younger then. Hard to believe it has been 30 years!)

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/30/21

Writing Update for July 2021

A lot of exciting news from Emerald Cove today. First and foremost: John and my new fantasy novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son is now for sale on Amazon. You can find it at: Amazon.com: Prophecy’s Malignant Son: A high fantasy novel eBook: Ruff, Susan and John: Books

The book is available in both paperback and Kindle format. Here is the back cover blurb:

The Prophecy of Lenar promises that a glorious ruler will arise to replace the dying monarch of Aullor. Fabren Lacalian, the half-human apprentice of a dead wizard, knows the terrible truth underlying that promise. That truth murdered his master and, if revealed, could destroy Fabren’s life. Fleeing in terror, he encounters Daraline Graciel, the archivist who first uncovered the prophecy in an ancient tome. Working together, they must stop the prophecy’s deadly march across the land. For corruption has already spread to the royal capital and the situation grows more desperate by the day.

The second piece of good news is that Emerald Cove’s writing critique group is back to live meetings again. We will gather at our favorite Denny’s tonight after more than a year apart. The Zoom meetings during the pandemic were helpful, but nothing replaces actually sitting around a table and talking about books. I can’t wait to see everyone again!

Emerald Cove’s shared world anthology is nearing completion. I’ll probably know more after the meeting tonight, but the last time I spoke with Sue, the cover art was coming along well. While we don’t have an official day for publication yet, we’re getting there.

And finally, John and I have started working on our next novel. More details to come in future posts.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/23/2021

When Travel Influences Fantasy Literature

The iconic Merlion statue in Singapore.

A friend (who also loves to travel) suggested that it might be fun for me to blog about how I draw inspiration for my fantasy stories from the real-world places that I visit and photograph. It was a great suggestion, and really got me thinking about the ways in which visiting new places inspires my writing. Overall, I’ve found that travel, and particularly foreign travel, excites my imagination with a sense of “other-worldliness.” Stepping off the plane in a different country can feel like entering a whole new universe with amazing and unexpected sights.

A street in Singapore. I wish I could say more about it, but I didn’t caption the photograph.
Note to self: Always caption your photos!!

In my experience as both a reader and author of fantasy novels, the art of writing fantasy involves a balance between the familiar and the unique. My favorite fantasy novels to read have been those that create original landscapes and cultures, very different from our mundane world. At the same time, the characters in the fantasy story must be familiar enough to allow the reader to empathize with them and care about their world. Travel can inspire fictional works that meet both of those elements.

A pathway in the Bukat Timah nature reserve.

In addition to the general concept of how travel influences writing, there is the more specific topic of which real-world places have influenced my fantasy writing and why.

When I first considered this question, Singapore came to mind immediately. A city with a merlion for its mascot has to be a great influence for a fantasy novelist. It was not that mythical beast, however, that truly caught my imagination during the week that John and I spent visiting the city.

Likewise, the beautiful Bukat Timah Nature Reserve (where I was warned to beware of monkeys accosting tourists to steal food) was not the place that inspired me the most. Both of those sights were very nice and certainly caught my imagination.

The greatest inspiration for me as a fantasy novelist came during a walking tour of the city. The guide took us to see the “wet” market, a collection of vendors selling fish, produce, and spices. As I walked among the stalls looking at the exotic wares, I was amazed. Not only had I never seen many of the food items for sale, I could not even put a name to them.

I am far from a culinary expert, but I have done some cooking and generally know my way around the grocery store produce section. The vegetables and fruit for sale in the Singapore wet market were so far beyond my experience that I might as well have been shopping in Narnia or Chalion.

The memory of wandering among the food stalls, staring in wonder at the strange items has stayed with me over the years. That experience provided part of the inspiration for the food scene in the short story Hospitality, which is scheduled to appear in Emerald Cove’s upcoming shared world anthology.

Apparently, I was so astonished by what I saw, that I never even took a photograph of the market. (Hard to believe, considering I usually take photographs of everything, including the interior of our hotel rooms.) Because I only use my own photos in this blog, I cannot include a picture of that wet market. So I will close this blog with a picture of the not-quite-so-exotic-food-establishment that John and I also visited during the trip. While I cannot say that the food there inspired any fantasy stories, the “Fish McDippers” were tasty and I wish they had them in the U.S.

There is a reason that John and I always eat at least one meal at McDonalds in every country we visit, but that is a story for another day.

-Susan 7/16/2021

p.s. Sue is still working on the cover art for the shared world anthology mentioned above, and it looks great so far!

Fortifications, Walls, and Battlements

A portion of the Great Wall of China.

After I wrote the blog post about castles a few weeks ago, I started considering other types of structures that can be important in fantasy literature. One of the easiest to overlook (no pun intended) is the stone wall. Ranging from hastily constructed piles of rocks to elaborate edifices seen for miles, fortifications can provide both defense for the characters of a story and interesting background landscape.

A portion of Hadrian’s Wall in England.

Even in the real world, old stone fortifications often carry a mythic quality. At one time, it was said that the Great Wall of China was the only man-made structure visible from space. Hadrian’s Wall in England has been included in works of fiction. The “long walls” that connected Athens with its port city of Piraeus are the stuff of legends.

Fortifications around the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Fortified cities are common in fantasy literature. Who can forget the seven levels of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings? I often think of the scene of Pippin and Beregond eating lunch beside the battlements, when I visit fortified cities during my travels.

One of the old towers on the Island of Rhodes.
Battlements on the Island of Rhodes.
A portion of Themistocles’ Wall in Athens. (My scanning software “restored” the color of the old photograph, but I am not photo-editing savvy enough to remove the glare from the display glass. Sorry!)

Fortifications can sometimes be found in unlikely places. When my beloved co-author and I traveled to Athens many years ago, the first archaeological site we visited was not the Acropolis. Instead, it was the portion of Themistocles’ wall on display behind glass in the basement of our hotel.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/9/2021

p.s. People seem to be enjoying these photo-blogs so far. Would you like me to continue with them or would you prefer that I return to the more nuts-and-bolts discussions about writing? Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts. Are there any other fantasy-related topics you would like to see in a photo-blog?

Keeping Honest with those Writer’s Resolutions

We’re now half-way through 2021, and it seems like a good time to review your progress on all those writer’s New Year’s resolutions that you made. How is your writing coming? Are you satisfied with your progress? If not, are there things you can do to get back on track? Even one or two little things can be very helpful. The wonderful thing about writing is how patiently your unfinished books wait for you to come back to them.

After giving that advice, I guess I should review my own author resolutions from my January 1 blog post. I’ve actually done a lot better than I thought I would.

So here is my update:

1. I resolve to write at least 500 words of fiction per day until I finish the current fantasy novel that John and I are writing: Prophecy’s Malignant Son. Completed. The galley proofs are currently being reviewed and the book is nearing publication.

2. I resolve to learn more about advertising and marketing our fiction books. I think it’s fair to say that I completed this one. While I still have a lot more to learn, I definitely know more than I did on January 1, 2021.

3. I resolve to develop a marketing strategy before the next book is released to help improve its visibility and to attract potential readers. *Sigh.* I’ve got some ideas for marketing the upcoming book, but my ideas only count as a “marketing strategy” in in the broadest, most generous definition of those two words. I guess it’s time to follow my own advice and get back on track with this resolution.

4. I resolve to come up with a more complete outline for the next novel that John and I write and to start writing that new novel before the end of June. Completed. The outline was finished in June and I already have a very rough draft of the first chapter.

5. I resolve to keep writing and publishing this blog every Friday for the rest 2021. So far, so good. All you wonderful blog readers will have to judge how I do with this one.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/2/2021

Visiting the Stones that Speak

Carvings on a stone pillar at Karnak, Egypt.

Last week, my blog discussed ancient ruins and fantasy novels. Today, I want to write about a special subset of that topic: carvings and rock art.

A portion of the Alta rock carvings in Norway.

Humans have been communicating by leaving words and pictures on stone for thousands of years. As a fantasy writer, I find petroglyphs and rock art particularly intriguing. There are stories hidden within the carvings, some of which we can only guess at.

Petroglyphs at Ginko Petrified Forest State Park in Washington.

If you are an aspiring fantasy author, it can be a great experience to visit the places where people recorded their messages for later generations. It is easy to imagine that those ancient people were story-tellers, just as we are, with tales every bit as fantastical as the ones we love.

The Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, Hawaii

One of my favorite ancient “stones” is the mysterious Phaistos Disc. (It’s actually made from fired clay, not stone.) I’m sure there is an interesting story behind the stamped glyphs on the disc, but its symbols remain enigmatic and very different from other ancient writing and rock art that I have seen.

The Phaistos Disc at the Heraklion Museum on the island of Crete.

Petroglyphs and ancient writings don’t even have to be real to catch the imagination. The “writing” on the walls of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, for example, always adds enjoyment to what would otherwise be a boring time standing in line.

-Susan 6/25/21

p.s. As always, all photos in this post are mine. The Phaistos Disc picture is almost 30 years old and was scanned from a print of a photo shot in available light with a 35 mm camera. I am embarrassed by the picture quality, but even more embarrassed that I managed to cut off the top of the disc when I took the picture.

The Literary Lure of Ancient Ruins

One of the structures in the archaeological reserve at Cahal Pech, Belize.

“On the top they found, as Strider had said, a wide ring of ancient stone-work, now crumbling or covered with agelong grass.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Looking out from one of the cliff-dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado.

Ancient ruins, both real and fictional, have always sparked my imagination as an author. They combine the mysteries of centuries past with the excitement of modern discovery. Their half-standing structures carry a multitude of stories within them, both new and old.

In fantasy fiction, ancient sites can serve as setting and background (as in the Tolkien quote above), or they can be an integral part of the story (as they are in the Indiana Jones movies).

Doorways at the Chaco Culture National
Historic Park, New Mexico.

The addition of ancient ruins can add history and depth to a fictional world. They raise a host of questions, just as they do in real life, that even the characters in the novel may not be able to answer. Who lived in those structures? What were their lives like? What ended their civilization? In fantasy novels, you can also add the query: did humans live there or someone else?

The sun going down at Luxor, Egypt.

When a fantasy author includes an ancient site in a novel, how much of the background behind the fictional ruins does the author need to know? Clearly Tolkien knew the complete background of every site he included in his stories, but is that required for every fantasy novel?

Reconstructions of storage jars at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini.

The answer depends on the purpose for which the author has added the ancient site to the story. If it is used as background or setting, the author should know enough to make the location plausible in the fantasy world. If the ruins will serve as an integral part of the plot, on the other hand, the writer probably needs to develop the history underlying the site.

The Terracota Warriors, Xi’an, China

Given my love of archaeological sites, it is not surprising that part of the plot in 60th Hour includes discoveries made in a hidden chamber below a set of ruins. It is far more surprising to me that our soon-to-be-released novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son does not include any ancient ruins. Clearly, John and I will have to work on that in the sequels.

-Susan 6/18/2021

Five Places to Inspire Writing

Venice, Italy, one of my favorite “storybook” places in the world.

Readers really seemed to enjoy the “Castles!” blog a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve decided to try a short series (maybe the next two or three Fridays) of places that can inspire writing and, in particular, fantasy novels. As I’ve mentioned in the past, travel can be a great inspiration for fantasy world-building and for writing in general. Even though global travel is still mostly off-limits at present, we can all look forward to a time when the world will open up again.

So, to start off the series, I’ve chosen five places that made me feel as if I was walking through a story when I visited them.

Venice, Italy– Yes, the city really does have canals…and gondolas…and beautiful piazzas. The first time I stepped onto a stone bridge to cross over a canal, I knew I was in a magical place. The city seemed to be full of twisty alleys with new things to discover at every turn.

One of the many carved structures in Petra, Jordan.

Petra, Jordan– If you’re like me, you first learned about Petra from a fictional archaeologist who didn’t like snakes and once got chased by a giant boulder. There is more to Petra, however, than the “Treasury” (which is the place used in the movie). Just walking through the narrow gorge to reach the famous site is an adventure. There are also many other beautifully carved structures, although the Treasury is the best preserved.

An artifact in the British Museum. I’m think it’s from the Sutton Hoo collection.

One cautionary note: Remember that you have to climb back up the gorge once you are done. It almost killed my dear co-author to walk back up the trail too fast in the heat of the day!

London, England– I love London! The city has always seemed like a larger-than-life place to me. You can’t walk for ten feet without seeing a street name or locale with a literary or movie reference. The British Museum, alone, is the stuff of legends.

Looking down on the beautiful village of Cesky-Krumlov.

Cesky-Krumlov, Czech Republic– Over the years, I’ve visited many beautiful, fairy-tale villages. Cesky-Krumlov is definitely one of the best. The river winds around ornate, old-fashioned houses and shops. As you walk through the streets, you can easily imagine yourself in another time or place.

A photo taken somewhere along our snowy route to Triberg. (Sorry for the photo quality — it was scanned from an old photo album.)

The Black Forest, Germany– “John, are you sure we’re on the right road?” Sometimes you enter those fairy-tale moments unintentionally. Back in the days before cell phones, when tourists still relied on paper maps, John and I were trying to drive from Stuttgart, Germany to Triberg. We had planned our route in advance, only to learn that there were long delays on the main road due to construction. A helpful person at a restaurant told us of a route we could take via backroads to arrive at our destination more quickly.

Of course, he gave us the directions in German. John understands some German…some…enough to get us on the correct road…I think. It was a little, windy, one-lane road through the mountains, with snow-covered forests on both sides. After driving for a while, we realized two things: first, we were the only car we had seen for a long time, and second, we had no idea where we were. It was very beautiful, with snow drifting down from the tree branches, but part of my mind was thinking of all those stories that ended with the words, “And they were never seen again.” Maybe not the best type of fantasy story to land in.

Fortunately, the directions were good and we did eventually reach our destination. In retrospect, it was a lovely adventure. Triberg is definitely worth a visit.

-Susan 6/11/2021

Fighting Writing Procrastination

When I told Danny Atwood, my good friend and fellow Emerald Cove author, that I wanted to brainstorm ideas with him about ways to combat writing procrastination, he said, “We should schedule a time to talk about that later.”

Despite that inauspicious opening, we did eventually discuss the topic. Here are some of my take-aways from our talk:

The methods to combat writing procrastination may differ depending on the cause of the procrastination. Often the tasks we put off are the ones we don’t want to do. For example, I can put off housework for years. While that non-preferred-task explanation could apply to writing projects like a school or work assignment, it should not affect our fiction writing. After all, those of us who want to be novelists must like writing or we would not do it. We’re certainly not doing it to get rich.

So why do so many authors who like to write find it hard to sit down at the keyboard?

Feeling the Muse: We all write our best when we are inspired. That’s wonderful when it happens, but if waiting until you “feel the muse” is preventing you from writing, perhaps it’s time to adopt a new strategy. Writing can be a joy, but it is also a discipline. Don’t wait until you’re “in the mood” to write. Set yourself a writing schedule and stick with it. I’ve heard of people who choose a particular time of day to write or block out a certain amount of time, such as an hour a day. My preferred method is to set a word count, such as writing 100 words a day.

If you are going to try this, I suggest that you start with small amounts. Don’t decide that you will write for six hours every day or require yourself to complete 1,000 words every day. You wouldn’t start a home jogging program by running in a marathon. Try writing 50 or 100 words a day or blocking out a short amount of time to write. The important thing is to develop a writing habit through consistency.

And don’t worry about how good the writing is. You can always rewrite later.

That Busy Schedule: If you’re like me, your daily activities will expand to fill whatever amount of free time you have. If you want to write, then you have to make your fiction writing a priority in your schedule. Of course, there are some activities that must come first, such as children, work, school, and health. I am not talking about neglecting important matters.

But what about the rest of the activities that try to dominate our lives? How often do we endlessly flip through kitten or puppy pictures on social media? Right now, even as I type these words, my phone is buzzing every few seconds with a series of group text messages from friends about an rpg we play once a month. If I keep stopping to read those texts, I will never finish this blog post.

If you are serious about your writing, then prioritize your writing instead of those social distractions. The text messages and social media posts will still be there later for you to review.

The same applies to that “shiny new toy” you just bought. Finish your daily writing first and then play that new video game.

The Overwhelming Task: Over the years, I’ve learned that the projects I postpone the longest are the ones that feel overwhelming. When I don’t even know where to begin a huge task, I keep putting it off until I am absolutely forced to confront it.

My personal strategy to combat this type of procrastination is to break the task into smaller, manageable pieces. I might even list those sub-tasks on a piece of paper, so I can check off each one as I complete it. An entire novel can seem like a mountain of work, so I tend to set my writing goals on a much smaller level. My goal will be to finish a single chapter or even an individual scene. Once that is complete, I work on the next goal.

One Additional Strategy: One method Danny uses to fight procrastination involves setting a deadline to exchange writing with another author or group of authors. Our Emerald Cove writer’s critique group meets once a month, and Danny found that he was the most productive on the days just before the meeting. At his suggestion, he and I started additional weekly meetings (via Zoom) to discuss our writing. This weekly writing “deadline” has helped his productivity.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 6/4/2021