The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).


What am I working on this week?

The bulk of this week is given over to finishing the first act of Hell Track and getting started on the second act. This means I’m well behind on my six-week project sprint, but getting through my PhD confirmation saw me running at high anxiety for three straight days and I struggled to step away from that state once the confirmation was done. In the end, I declared much of last week a wash so I could focus on my mental health, with the goal of re-starting the sprint on Monday.

What’s inspiring me this week?

So Black Panther is pretty phenomenal, and a great example of making an action movie that’s about something other than the action. Just a gorgeously realised bit of SF with a strong, beating heart running underneath it, and easily the kind of story that you watch and aspire to make. The nice part about the last week has been the number of articles about how it was done – not just from director Ryan Coogler, but about the costuming and design that play a big part in the setting.

What action do I need to take?

There’s ten days until the scheduled release date for You Don’t Want To Be Published and I’ve got a list of final proofing notes, in addition to finalising all of the meta-data details that get entered and re-entered at every sale site.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).


What am I working on this week?

The first half of my week will be given over to finally preparing and delivering my PhD confirmation presentation and doing the associated meetings. That’s on my plate after Tuesday, which means my primarily focus shifts back to Hell Track and trying to move into the third and forth sequences.

What’s inspiring me this week?

If you missed Mary Robinette Kowal’s 47th Birthday post, in which she breaks down the process of drafting a story from idea to execution, I’d strongly urge you to go and check it out. There’s little things to pick up at almost every stage that Kowal is writing about, from breaking an idea into a story (which I’ve rarely seen handled in such an efficient, procedural way – it’s something I’m going to steal and start modifying for my own process) through to scene-planning process that she’s using.

As a bonus, I’m also going to mention a specific episode of Writing Excuses season 11 where they talk about the Elemental Genre of Humor. I’ve mentioned season 11 as being a particularly great run of the podcast on this blog and in my newsletter, but this episode has fundamentally changed the way I watch comedy shows by giving me terminology and analytic tools that gives me a way of breaking down and understanding what they’re doing.

What action do I need to take?

I’ve got a bunch of paperwork to fill out and training courses to book into ahead of teaching in a few weeks, and I’ve got two reports to review and prepare responses to ahead of my confirmation meeting on Tuesday. Mostly, this is a symptom of a larger problem with doing the six-week project sprit – because I don’t plan my day and make project decisions in the morning as a default, I haven’t really figured out how and when I do basic maintenance tasks like answering emails and processing inboxes.

This is rapidly becoming something I need to address.

Hell Track Project Dairy: Day Five

Week one is done and it’s been illuminating. I don’t think of myself as a big word-counts-per-day kind of writer. I know I’ve done it in the past, when jamming towards a particularly tight deadline, but it’s always come with an opportunity cost – other projects get neglected and I usually fall into a heap at the end as anxiety kicks me in the teeth.

The intriguing thing about the six-week sprint is that it’s part of an eight week cycle in which I’m intentionally neglecting other projects until I hit the regrouping-and-planning phase in week seven, then intentionally taking a week off at the end in order to recover in week 8.

It’s a really different mindset, and not having to sort through my pile of projects and make decisions about what gets attention at the the start of the day has been incredibly pleasant.


The first sequence of an Arena-of-Death narrative holds a pretty standard narrative task: showcase the world the protagonist exists in prior to the Arena, so we know what they are fighting for. It usually ends once the protagonist is targeted and captured, leading us into the second sequence where we encounter The Show Before The Show. It’s where they learn the realities of life in prison (the Jason Statham Death Race), get someone else embroiled in the conflict accidentally and encounter the studio flunkies (The Running Man) or see how different life is in the Capital while meeting the other competitors (The Hunger Games).

Basically, it’s a chance to foreground the dark heart in which the corrupt corporate exists and introduce the protagonist to the allies and enemies they’ll be engaging with on the ground in the area.

It’s relatively easy to introduce a large number of fellow competitors in a movie or film, because visuals cover a variety of ills. You point a camera at a big, visually distinct competitor for two seconds and you’ve established him as a potential threat, because the visuals contextualise him inside the setting and give you an immediate physical comparison between the protagonist and his enemy.

This is’t so easy in fiction where everything is interpreted and contextualisation happens line by line, meaning you have to take things slower and manage the reader’s attention and the flow of information. In fiction, this means working with a relatively small cast of bad guys, or figuring out a way to identify the major players.

Naturally, I have made some decisions that make this considerably more difficult than it should be, as I’d started out conceptualising Hell Track as a team sport. This means I need the early allies for my protags, but also a team of central antagonists who will math them on the track (plus the various flunkies who exist to get massacred along the way; you cannot have an arena of death without the death, you know?).

I find myself thinking it’s time to go reread some Agatha Christie, since she’s got a knack for doing a sweeping “this is everyone in the dining car at once” kind of scene ahead of a major murder.


  1. Make some gains on the scenes in Sequence Two so that I’ve got the basic shape of it down.
  2. Introducing a host of new characters into the narrative, and figure out how to make them distinctive.
  3. Managing a bunch of interruptions as the details for my PhD confirmation are finalised.


Today is the first day this week that I’m clocking in under four hours of active writing, but I had a couple of things that needed to be done in preparation for my PhD confirmation before it hits next Tuesday. This meant taking time out to answer some emails and phone calls, as well as setting aside a little time to start refining my 20 minute presentation.

It still ended up a pretty solid day’s writing, courtesy of the fact that I’m heading into the Second Sequence and it’s got a lot of scenes that are pretty easy to put together.

Since it’s the end of the week, some other stats:

  1. I spent just over 21 hours writing across the last 5 days, which means I’m hitting my proposed average of 4 hour a day (or 50% of my work time) pretty well.
  2. I average a pace of about 1,107 words an hour, which is both slightly higher than expected and slightly misleading given that I only write for about 50 minutes out of every hour.
  3. I expected to write about 15,000 words on the project this week in order to stand a chance of hitting my six-week sprint goal. Instead, I wrote 19,658 words, which means my average daily word count is 900 words higher than I needed.
  4. This is good, because I predict that Monday and Tuesday next week will be comparatively low word-count days (and Tuesday, in particular, may involve as little as a single hour of writing work).

If you’re curious about how that kind of word count break downs – and where I am in the project – one fo the nice things about Scrivener is the capacity to break this sort of information out in the Outliner view.

I largely use this to make sure I’m not overbalancing on a particular part of the story, especially given my tendency to write looooong middle chapters. The 15,000k on the first sequence is well and truly over my budget, but I expect that to drop once I finish cleaning up scene and eliminating unnecessary beats within them.


  1. Trying to figure out how subtle I need to be about the fact that one of the teams in this book is essentially a gang of killer clowns.
  2. A minor character from the first Sequence, Amos, earns himself the first spot in my protagonist’s team because a) it makes sense that he gets picked up as part of their arrest, b) I can establish him quickly and easily, and c) he introduces some good inter-team conflict given this is all his fault.
  3. While this is the bulk of my writing every week, there’s little things that happen around the edges related to other projects. This week is all confirmation prep, while next Wednesday will see me switch over to getting the next Brain Jar Press book ready for release. I’m also jotting down quick notes for future projects in my lunch breaks every day, figuring out how to adjust my process to take advantage of the things I’m learning during this sprint.
  4. One of the great challenges of writing is figuring out when you’ve done enough, since your work hours are rarely defined and success isn’t reliant on how many hours you work. It’s rare that I get to the end of the week and feel like I’ve earned a weekend, but I think I’ve earned myself a two-day recharge at this stage of the project.

Hell Track Project Diary: Day Four

Day Four of the Hell Track sprint is in the bag, and it’s been another day where working on the project doesn’t necessarily mean charging ahead with word-count. Today and tomorrow, in particular, will be slowed down the shift in focus towards the second sequence (which brings a fresh series of narrative questions to explore) and the need to set aside a few hours to work on my upcoming PHD presentation.


Back on Day One I shared the outline I’d put together for the book’s first sequence, which largely consisted of half-scribbled notes and scene titles dumped into a scrivener corkboard. I also noted that I’m a planner by necessity and a pantser by preference, which is my early outlines are relatively sparse and I have scenes with labels like “MAGGOT DOES SOMETHING SPECIAL,” acknowledging the story beat I need to hit at that moment to get the rhythms right and trusting the details will sort themselves out by the time I hit that scene and know more about the character and the world.

The problem with these outlines is that they stop being useful incredibly quickly as scenes are written and decisions are made, because new beats suggest themselves and new world-building details need to get fleshed out. The way I tend to counter this is re-outlining as I go along, doing periodic checks where I revise the front of notecards to accurate reflect what’s happening (or what will happen after I apply rewrite notes), so I can actually see the evolving story in a glance.

This morning I went through sequence one, rebuilding the outline and double-checking the drafted scenes so I could get a more accurate view of what still needed to be drafted and what was ready for redrafting to begin. As you can see, this includes a lot more detail (and may qualify as spoilers). You can open the original outline in a second tab, if you’d like to compare the two.

Doing things this way is kinda like having my cake and eating it too – I don’t have to keep holding every aspect of my book in my head at the same time, like I would if I were pantsing it completely, but the outline revision also helps me lock down new scenes in future sequences and shore up scene ideas that aren’t pulling their weight yet.

For instance, one of the key changes in this the evolution of “MAGGOT DOES SOMETHING SPECIAL” into “TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER,” both of which serves an important purpose – just went Maggot seems like she’s down and out, courtesy of things going spectacularly wrong, she snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.

This is a key trait for a character who is being thrown into an arena-of-death as the ultimate disruption to business as usual, but this version represents a change in how that happens. Originally I flagged this scene as space to showcase that Maggot is a motorcycle bad-ass, but this should be well-established by the time it arrives (assuming I do my job right as a writer). Instead, I get to do something different: touch upon the past that Maggot doesn’t talk about, and provide a solution that is less reliant on what Maggot can do and more reliant on who she is. It also introduces uncertainty into her relationship with Ogre, who is largely there to serve as her foil for much of the coming book.

A good plotter could probably pick these kind of details early in the process, but it’s not the way my brain works. I can’t visualise a scene before I write it, which means I plot analytically. Put something down, consider the choices, look for the gaps that need filling now there’s context to every decision and trust my gut when I see a scene that isn’t pulling its weight yet. The solution to the scene I’m talking about here didn’t come up until I’d locked down a seemingly unrelated world-building detail while drafting the Caxton Street Blues scene.

At the same time that I’m doing this, I start fleshing out my rough notes for Sequence Two As you can see, this is still in scrappy, rough-as-hell notes with scenes appearing as I jot down quick narrative beats I know I’ll need to hit.

It seems a really obvious thing, but the realisation that you could rewrite outlines (and keep rewriting) helped solve a lot of the resistance I had in embracing planning as a writer.


  1. Getting two unfinished scenes done from the first sequence. I’ve allocated seven and a half word days to getting the first two sequences down, and part of that is clearing the first sequence off the decks completely by the time this week is over. This means finishing two of the five scenes still marked TO-DO on the plan, and finishing the rest tomorrow.
  2. Refining some of the existing scenes and fleshing them out. This largely means taking scenes that are a couple of hundred words and rough, then adapting them so that they hold their weight better and foreground stuff that’s been written in later scenes. Act One tends to be heavy with these.
  3. Breaking into Sequence Two. As Sequence One reaches its final stages it’s time to start doing the quick-and-dirty drafting of Sequence Two that will allow for a similar process to occur.


The day broke down a like this:

While yesterday was a comparatively slow day thanks to factors outside the project, today was going to slow down a lot courtesy of the sheer amount of refinement that I was fitting into the process. Even the new scenes that need to be written in sequence one are slow, as they’re effectively the most lode-bearing scenes with regards to the overall plot.


  1. I’ve been struggling with the name Jinsen for one of the characters ever since I first put it down, particularly since they’ll now be sharing scenes with another character with a J-name in Juniper. I’m now in the process of swapping in Tanaki as an alternative after seeing it as a brand-name on a bumper sticker yesterday. It’s working better, primarily because it reminds me of Hodgeson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder.
  2. Caxton Street is the first Brisbane place name that’s settled into the book naturally.
  3. Today’s character who has grown significantly more interesting and fun to write than my notes suggested: Isobel Stark, information broker and well-spoken crime lord with a penchant for tea.
  4. It’s fairly obvious, based on today’s spreadsheet, when I flashed forward to work on Sequence Two and when I was mired down in filling the gaps in older scenes.
  5. I really, really need to go through the first sequence and excise the jagged spars and fragments left behind as scenes changed course. While the word count here reads 18,000 and change, I predict it may be as low as 16,500 once I do that.
  6. Two questions that should always be asked of a scene: what is the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist in this scene? and is there somewhere more interesting it could be taking place?
  7. Neat little side effect of today: Amos, the named character who appeared in the second scene of Sequence One intended as a throw-away, now solves a potential problem for me in sequence two if a I make a simple tweak in a later scene.

Hell Track Project Diary: Day Three

Here is the upside of running this project diary alongside my six-week project sprint: it forces me to be conscious of my process and the things that affect it. This was particularly useful today, because I hit a perfect storm of three seperate things that had the potential to derail my momentum:

  1. Wednesdays are the days I sent out my Notes from the Brian Jar newsletter, which means that part of my day is given over to preparing the weeks content and setting up the mail-out. Ordinarily I budget two hours a week for this – often spread out across multiple days, but lately it’s been happening on the day.
  2. Wednesdays are also my weekly Write Club catch-up with Angela Slatter, which means there is often as much talking about writing. This skews my writing time later in the day, which means I can’t just schedule more short sprints in the event I’m not getting much done. 
  3. I got about three and a half hours of sleep last night courtesy of some unwelcome insomnia. I work far less efficiently when I’m tired, and I’m more prone to give in to on-the-spot rewrites.

I knew days like this were coming, albeit not this early, which is why I aimed to overshoot the 3,000-words-a-day target I need to hit my goal. On the other hand, it’s easy to have two days where you drastically overshoot like I had day one and day two, then assume this is the new normal with regards to your process rather than taking advantage of an opportunity as it comes.

Because I was keeping notes for this diary – and logging my major challenges for the day ahead of the first writing sprint – I had a chance to review what was going on today and make active decisions about what I was going to head for.

And so, we come to the useful bit, outlining the…


  1. Actually getting 4 hours of viable hand-on-keyboard time to conduct writing sprints and looking for opportunities to do shorter-than-usual sprints.
  2. Adjusting expectations given that today’s writing time will be afternoon heavy, with increasingly fragmented attention as fatigue sets in. 3K would be absolutely spectacular today, as it allows me to maintain my lead instead of eating into the extra words I’ve written.
  3. Trying to counter the fatigue problems by mapping out scene beats before I write, as one of the biggest points where I’ll slow down is stopping to figure out what comes next (or how it should look)


In terms of raw time-and-word count, this has easily been a day that was just flat-out hard. Only 7 full pomodoros with a couple of shorter sprints, and a much lower average number of words per sprint compared to the first two days.

On the other hand, today’s a day that showcases the problems with using word count alone as the sole metric of success. Here are three things I want to note about today:

  1. I spend a lot of time on my couch while writing, whole days where the only living creatures I see between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM are a couple of guinea pigs, so setting aside time to engage with the outside world through write club and my newsletter are important.
  2. The prime value of Write Club with Angela isn’t how much work I get done, but the opportunity to talk business and craft with another writer (and catch up with a friend). It clarifies my thinking about what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it.
  3. Although today’s word count was low, it includes the scene I’d skipped yesterday because it was too goddamned difficult to write and I now have rough drafts for all but one scene in the first act (and I figured out how to make tht scene work).

This last goal was hit after bunking out to the local cafe for breakfast and blocking the whole scene out over two notebook pages, incorporating new elements and thinking through the implications of each beat as it arrives. This brought a seemingly unachievable scene into reach, and also served to ease my anxiety a little as I nommed down on a glory bowl of healthy vegetables.

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Some days, one of the most useful steps you can take is recognising its time to go easy on yourself.

Hell Track Project Diary: Day Two

The last time I tried this kind of public writing diary, I was working around a couple of restrictions. These included a day-job that limited my writing time, undiagnosed sleep apnea that was having an adverse affect on my mental and physical health, and the kind of split focus that comes from carrying a lot of projects and bad work habits.

This time around I’m in a very different place: I can devote a large chunk of my day to this project without getting interrupted; I’ve spent the last few years working on the physical and mental problems; and I’ve spent the last five years getting much, much better at planning and process. It’s also a good point to flag that there’s a considerable amount of privilege behind my process, especially given that I’m now doing a PhD that directly ties to my writing.

Which brings us to day two of the Hell Track sprint, where I set out to chase a minor milestone by the end of the day: having a rough sketch in place of all 15 scenes in the first sequence. I cleared a lot of action stuff off the decks yesterday, which means I’m not left with the plot-heavy talky scenes where character dynamics are established and fleshed out.


A couple of people have noted that this project isn’t really starting at the beginning, what with me coming to it with something resembling a plan and a bunch of pre-writing. This is 100% true, as you can see the beginnings of this project back in July of 2017, when I wrote five titles down on a post-it after getting irritated at the 80s BMX movie, RAD. In that respect, the original plan for Hell Track looks like this:

For those wondering how I got to the first sequent plan I posted yesterday, the process went something like this.

First, I studied a whole heap of arena-of-death moviessince they’re the inspiration point. I rewatched The Running Man. I rewatched The Hunger Games. I spent more time watching the live-action Tekken movie than is truly sane, and I acquired a copy of the Death Race remake that came out a few years back.

Once I’d gathered a whole bunch of them together, I started looking for general story beats and common narrative threads. Somewhere along the line, I broke out my copy of Save The Cat and started drawing connections to the Monster In the House genre detailed therein, which gave me a starting point for characters and plotting, because there are essential components to that genre. A Monster in the House movie absolutely needs an evil monster that exists to punish people, an enclosed space in which people are trapped and separated from the outside world, and a essential sin that brings the monster into the house.

What’s interesting about the Arena Of Death sub-genre is that it flips the expectations – while horror movies will have the protagonist sin and bring them to the house to be punished, Arena of Death movies are usually driven when the monster (aka the evil culture surrounding the arena) and their representative (incredibly often, a ruthless executive) engages in the sin of overreaching in the name of ratings/popularity/etc and brings in someone they shouldn’t who proceeds to wreck havoc.

This immediately gave me a number of scenes that had to be filled, and so the characters followed. My protagonist needed to enter the book with the kinds of skills and knowledge that would allow them to wreck havoc on the Arena of Death, and my antagonist needed to be the power-behind-the-throne executive who was overreaching in the name of ambition.

Watching all those films also gave me the general pattern for the first act of an Arena of Death narrative, with the first half of the first act showing us how and why the protagonist gets brought into the arena (as well as showcasing the abilities and qualities that will eventually tear it down), while the second half of the first act is basically getting to know the lay of the land before they’re tossed into the Arena to fight at the beginning of Act Two.

Once I bad all that down, I ran my idea through a bunch of basic plotting processes: a Save the Cat beat sheet; the brainstorming questions in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius; Dan Harmon’s story circle. This gave me a bunch of outlines and synopsii that grew more elegant as I went, along with a handful of drafted scenes, and gave me enough information to winnow out the really bad ideas. Some of those include:

  1. A version where all the action took place with weapon-wielding riders getting about on BMX bikes instead of motorcycles. Sometimes you cling to the source of inspiration a little too strong.
  2. A version where Shenandoah, my evil executive, was actually one of the demonic beings who control the world’s corporations in my mystic-cyberpunk universe. She’s much more interesting as a mortal aspiring to upper management, whereupon she’ll become an immortal being as a reward, as this gives her a reason to take crazy risks and explains more about the world
  3. A version where I attempted to establish the protagonists support crew in the first sequence of the first act, setting up four protagonist-like POV characters who will engage in the arena. This was largely because I’d planned five books within this concept, and I figured I could switch the prime protag spot, but those characters all have very different roles now.

It was then that I put down two five-scene sequences to make up the first act, based upon the most recent synopsis, and looked for the gaps that needed to be filled in order to make the story feel like a story.

Which brought us to yesterday, and the point where this sprint kicked off.


  1. Fitting more movement into my writing routine. One of the downsides of working from home in general, and yesterday’s approach to writing in particular, is the sheer lack of incidental movement in my routine. I did clock up 10,000 steps yesterday, but they all happened in a single hour and half after the day was done. Today, rather counter-intuitively given my goal, I wanted to break up the writing a little more to incorporate shorter walks/chores and get me away from the keyboard to get the blood flowing and try and break free of the afternoon slump.
  2. Incorporating a new POV character subplot. I started this book with four POV character who get arcs across the length of the work, but in writing the first sequence it quickly became apparent that I was going to leave a subplot dangling. I went for a walk early this morning and pondered ways to rectify that, which largely means checking in with a fifth character POV into the rest of the novel.
  3. Working skeletal and fleshing out. I’m writing fast-and-loose today, trying to lay down the frameworks for scenes that get fleshed out as I go. This isn’t my preference, which means my brain keeps sending me distracting thoughts like “oh, this is how we ramp up tension during those various courier-run beats,” and I have to ignore those thoughts and focus on finishing the skeleton before I start adding muscle.


Yesterday blew most of my expectations about how much could be done out of the water, so I was curious to see how today shaped up as I made a few alternations to my practice. I broke up the pomorodos focused on writing a little more, and squeezed in a walk around the block as I pondered sequence details mid-morning.

I didn’t quite get the first sequence fully drafted, as there’s a complex scene at the end of it that I skipped over so I could write the beginning of sequence two. Slightly less than yesterday, but there were also slightly fewer writing sprints due to the aforementioned plotting and taking some time out to manage some stuff associated with my PhD Confirmation (probably) scheduled for next week.


  1. I wrote my first scene that I’m really, truly happy with today, heading into the beginning sequence 2. There is a very high probability this means I’m leaning harder on a specific genre beat that I should be, but that’s perfectly okay at this stage of a draft. On the other hand, it may be the result of putting antagonist and protagonist in the same place at the same time, which is always a high-value scene in narrative terms.
  2. I’m going to need to fact-check every riding scene, because even a little causal research over lunch reveals exactly how little what I’m writing matches up with the realities of riding a motorcycle.
  3. I’m not sold on the mid-morning walk as a useful thing for productivity, although I’m certainly less stiff at the end of the day. A pre- or post-lunch walk would be ideal for resetting my attention, but that’s not particularly feasible in Brisbane summer.
  4. Brisbane place names sound really weird in a cyberpunk setting: The Indooroopilly Enclave; The Milton Road Run; The Mount Coot-tha Arcology. I am not yet sold on any of them.
  5. My first task tomorrow isn’t going to be writing, but going through the existing scenes and making notes about what’s finished, what’s still in progress, and what additions/changes need to happen on redraft. There are currently seventeen scenes in various states of completion and detail, and it’s getting hard to keep the state of each clear in my head.
  6. My writing speed is relatively consistent on a sprint-by-spring basis, which means the basic guideline behind behind writing more is spending more time writing. I’m curious to see whether more detailed planning will speed this up, but that’s an experiment for a future project sprint.