Writing in Scenes
🦊 #58 — Early learnings on writing a book of fables, finding an MVP for writing, re-evaluating creative channels, and a new cat comic
I hope you’re doing well and staying safe. In case you missed it, last week I announced that I’m writing a book of fables. It’s been a little over a month since I joined a community of book writers, and I’ve really been enjoying the process so far. In today’s letter, I’ll explore some of the challenges of balancing creative projects and working in public while writing a book.
Re-evaluating Creative Channels
Overall, the book writing is going better than I expected. I’ve put in a story writing session every single day for the past 6-7 weeks, with the exception of a few days of rest. I’m finding my rhythm with it, and have already completed 3 new fables which I’m pretty happy with as first drafts. This is solid progress, especially given that in the past I used to work on fables on-and-off, and it could take months to finish a single story.
Most importantly, I’m really enjoying it! I think about stories often throughout the day, and am always eager to get back to writing them. Having this book as a creative project to engage with has been really valuable, especially during these difficult times.
That’s the good news.
The not-so-good-but-still-fine news is that virtually all my energy is taken up by writing the book. Building a daily writing habit for my book has forced me to re-evaluate every existing creative outlet I have — this newsletter, writing essays, my digital garden, Twitter and more. There is only so much time in the day and energy in my tank. I know it’s the right prioritization, but it’s not easy to implement. I’m used to sharing my thoughts on all these platforms consistently. Put another way, I have felt “extremely online” for the past year or so, and it feels odd to be so quiet all of a sudden.
I’ve also realized how important consistent activity on Twitter is to my audience pipeline — a lot of traffic to my website posts, newsletters and videos comes as a direct result of me tweeting. Often, it’s not even the content of the tweets, but rather the engagement on them which brings visibility to my account. In turn, that drives folks to check out more of my writing. It’s good to know my tweets can draw this kind of visibility, but it’s also a reminder of how much energy is required to fuel the machine.
By contrast, having my posts perform well with SEO would be a much more hands-off, long term mechanism for consistent traffic. Unfortunately my essays are a bit too ‘artistic’ in design to work well in SEO today — I typically go for a more poetic voice rather a “How to do X thing” style (which works better for search results). Even so, I do hope to rejigger my posts a bit to improve their SEO performance. I signed up for Nat Eliason’s SEO course, and have started going through the first few modules. My early impression is that I need to be very specific about what keywords I want to focus on. This is somewhat tricky given my polymathic interests, but I can probably still make some impactful changes that improve searchability of the posts. The timing isn’t great though — I’m focusing on the book rather than essays at the moment. This may be one of those things I have to come back to.
I think I need to accept the reality that my audience growth will take a hit while I write the book. Honestly, I’m fine with that. Writing a book is no small feat. I’m making a commitment and it comes with certain sacrifices. I really do believe in the vision of the book, which is to help people understand themselves through the lens of fables. I’ll be sharing more on the vision behind the book as my writing journey progresses.
Writing a Book in Public
There are two main things I could share with an audience while I write the book:
Fables from the book
Learnings from writing the book
This newsletter is my first pass at #2, and I hope to keep doing it in a variety of ways. As for #1, I recently read a fascinating post by Elle Griffin on the obstacles of publishing books. I wasn’t surprised or perturbed when I saw the grim numbers she shared about publishing book revenues. I’m not really hoping or expecting for a best-seller with this book, nor am I trying to make a career out of it (at least, not right now). I’m trying to manifest what I believe is important for me to share with the world. If I manage that, I will have succeeded at my goal.
What caught my interest was her approach to share her chapters in a paid Substack prior to publishing it. I briefly considered adding a paid Substack of my own to share individual fables while I write the book. I’ve decided against it for now, for a few reasons:
My current book writing process is going well. I don’t want to mess with a good thing.
The structure, theme, and tone of my book is being revealed to me as I write it. I want to give myself the space to explore and play, without feeling pressured to share everything along the way.
I’m unsure if a reader who has paid for a bunch of stories via Substack will then want to go and buy the book. It seems unfair to them to have to pay “twice”. You could probably fix this with coupons or something, but I don’t think the only issue is price. There is something about a book that can only be experienced as a “complete package”. I believe in this idea. Ideally, I’d like the majority of readers to experience the full manifestation of what I see for this book, not just the piecemeal version.
Working in public is something I’ve embraced quite openly. I aim for my newsletter and Twitter voice to be quite transparent, and I also maintain a digital garden of notes to share more process. But it’s important to consider the goal of working in public, and the degree to which it is helpful to do so.
The point is not to share everything, but rather to be strategic about what you share and why you share it.
Writing in Scenes
As I considered all of the approaches for writing in public, I thought about the process I have for writing the book as part of the Akimbo Writing in Community program. While I don’t post them in public, I do have a community of folks who see and engage with each post. It feels like it’s somewhere between working in private and working in public.
The process: Write a short piece of your book, and post it in a private space for a handful of fellow book writers to see. Do this every single day for 6 months. At the end of this period, publish the book. (Side note: I’m considering many options for how I want to eventually publish this book, from self-publishing to traditional publishing, as well as some new options that marry the two. More on that later.)
What’s interesting about the Daily is that it’s not meant to be perfect — it is only meant to be progress. As I share these paragraphs every day, I naturally find myself ensuring they are cohesive and stand on their own. I want there to be tension and leave readers with a little suspense in each one.
In other words, I’m writing in scenes.
Here’s a preview of a draft scene from the book, taken from a fable I’ve tentatively named Captain’s Orders:
The storm quickly grows worse, and the crew retreats below decks. The turtle stands alone above decks, at the helm of the ship. He’s in in familiar territory, having steered the ship out of countless catastrophes before. His shell shows the scars of many a battle.
“Onward!” he screams, into the seas that swallow all sounds.
The waves take the ship higher and higher into the skies. It is then that he first hears the deep rumble. The fact that he could hear it at all, in the cacophony of a storm, gives him pause. This was something else, something new he had never encountered before.
When the ship is lowered down again, the turtle looks ahead and sights a tidal wave, whose crest soars so high that it completely shrouds the sky. His mind tries to calculate a path to navigate it, while his heart weaves fearful stories of the ship’s doom. His eyes focus in on a disturbance in the wave’s gargantuan belly. Are those… eyes? He dismisses the thought quickly, explaining it away as a symptom of his exhaustion.
It was no illusion.
The wave opens its eyes wide, revealing its mesmerizing pupils, each the size of ten ships. The whitewash of its deep waters begin to form the outline of a mouth. It is about to speak. When it finally opens its mouth, words echo with divine power, like a serene voice channeled through a rhythmic earthquake.
“Who… Goes… There….?”
I write and share a scene like this every single day, so I have to ensure the process is sustainable for me. I aim for polish, not perfection.
The same can be said for the illustrations (I’ve been drawing a few for each story). The goal is for them to capture the emotion of the moment, rather than every single detail of the landscape.
A draft of a story is a path for the reader to walk. I don’t need perfectly polished marble floors. But I do need to sweep the floors so the reader can walk without stepping on debris. The words needn’t be poetry, they just need to be good enough to avoid distracting the reader from the story.
The beauty of this approach is that if I do it with every single scene, I’ll find myself having written a book that is (hopefully) compelling in the steps along the way, not just the overarching flow. If I had tried to simply write each fable all at once, I wouldn’t have paid attention to the scenes within them. They would have been blurred together, each paragraph equivalent to the other. Instead, I can build these daily scenes such that they can link together to form a step in the ladder of a story, with each step doing its best to be compelling on its own.
Great scenes make a great story.
Minimum Viable Writing
When I take this idea of writing in short scenes, and combine it with scarcity of time and energy, my mind quickly jumps to the principles of my startup past — adopting an MVP (or minimum viable product) methodology. This principle (which, I should note, has worked incredibly well for me in product development for over a decade) suggests that you do not aim to build perfection, but instead build the minimum viable thing you can share.
The goal of building is to collect feedback on your work, improve it, and repeat.
Another way to think about it: Don’t try to build the entire cake all at once. Bake a cupcake, share it, learn, and then build a slightly bigger one. With each cycle of sharing, you’d learn about how folks like the flavor, texture, visual appeal and so on. Then, you’d take that knowledge and feed it back into your baking process. You’d do this time and time again, until one day you find yourself baking an excellent cake.
So how can we apply MVP principles to writing? The implementation varies depending on the type of writing, and the goals you’re looking to achieve. For my book’s Dailies, MVP means writing scenes with only a few paragraphs, but ensuring there is fluid prose, tension and suspense. For newsletters, it means having a more informal style but sharing multiple ideas and updates in the spirit of working in public.
Regardless of what you’re writing, you need to decide what goals are most important for your medium. When you do this, you liberate yourself from having to aim for perfection in every avenue. You’ll probably also find that your answers to these questions evolve over time. So, you’ll need to do regular checkins with yourself to figure out what MVP really means for you.
Invest time into deciding what goals matters to you. Then give yourself permission to focus on them, easing your efforts on the rest.
I’ll leave you with a comic I sketched about my two cats. I’m calling it Catalog. If you want to see more cat comics, reply or comment with a cat emoji! 😸
Until next time,