Art to support your art

Writers can be a fickle bunch. We immerse ourselves in our story, falling in love with our characters, daydreaming about our settings. Then we see something shiny in the distance, a new story idea, a really good book, even (gasp) something happening in our own real life and our make believe world can fall away, once again as flat as the pages it’s written on.

This is a good thing. Because a little obsession can help you complete a project, but a lot of obsession makes you a little creepy. And in every author’s life there is a time when they have to let their book, their characters, their make believe world go, whether it’s to the world or a folder on computer, so that they can create something new and life their own lives.

But if you want to get back to that space, whether you’re trying to pick up a story you haven’t completed yet or edit a manuscript that you have left to simmer, sometimes it is not so easy. Sometimes the words don’t flow, the excitement doesn’t pop. Your story remains flat to you and you can’t immerse yourself the way you need to do get the job done.

There are lots of little tasks, projects, challenges you can set yourself, but one of my favorite methods for getting back into a story is to come at it through different mediums. Sketch your characters or landscapes. Write a theme song. Build their setting with blocks or playdough or whatever you have lying around.

Cook the foods your characters eat. Wear the colors your characters wear. Write a poem. Design a logo. Whatever you want!

You don’t have to be good at it. Your characters can look like stick figures and your song can sound suspiciously like “Rebel Yell”, but you are creating withing your world again. And the world will open up to you.

And if your attempts at other art are really getting you down, make a vision board and a playlist (with “Rebel Yell”). Make a pinterest board. Cast the movie of your book with real life actors.

Have fun and let that healthy obsession with your work take you away.

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Talent and Time

There’s two things that can make authors cringe to hear.

“I wish I was talented so I could write a book.”

and

“Oh, yeah, I could write a book, if I just had the time.”

Please stop.

You can write a book, without time or talent. We writers know this because we started out with neither.

We weren’t born with a magical power that allowed us to string words into a story that was a delight to read.

We didn’t come by our “talent” because we were constantly faced with an abundance of free time.

Our first stories sucked. Our first twenty stories sucked. My first one hundred stories sucked, hard.

I wrote them between homework, during class instead of paying attention. I wrote them when my friends were outside playing. I wrote them in college when I could have been at parties. I write them now, late at night when the rest of my family is sleeping.

A writer makes the time and they develop the talent. Because we love it. Because we have to. Because it is a priority.

If you want to write a book, by all means go for it. Get up earlier than usual. Stay home instead of going out Friday night. Take a writing class after work on Wednesday. Read books during your spare time instead of scrolling through your phone.

Your talent will develop slowly. It will take years. But it will come.

If you want to write a book, stop making excuses, and projecting your weird insecurities onto us writers who have done it. You have a high stress job that doesn’t allow you the time? Honey, I work with doctors and lawyers, single parents and CEOs. They make the time, they put in the work. Because they have to get their stories out. Because they love it.

It’s okay if you don’t. Just stop using it to mildly insult us who have done it.

Learning to write short stories to improve your long stories

Writing short stories has always been a challenge for me. My ideas are usually too complicated and require a lot of set up and character development.

or so I thought.

Recently I’ve realized I am not doing myself any favors by refusing to refine this form of writing. After all, just about all my favorite writers got their start publishing short stories. There are so many more opportunities to publish a short story than a novel.

My first attempts were pretty bad. Even with “shorter” ideas, my stories were too complicated, too convoluted, and really pretty boring.

Then I came across an anthology with a theme that I was already writing a novel about.

And a lightbulb went off.

Because I already had the backstory, the world building, the set up in my head, I used this opportunity to write a short, side story about a minor character in my novel. A character that I would have liked to have given more attention, but it would have bogged down my novel.

As a short story though… it worked.

But I still had to edit, clean, and cut down words to make the word count.

Unfortunately the anthology was cancelled, but I did receive an encouraging reply.

So I kept trying. And I kept getting better. Ideas for short stories came easier. Keeping them short came easier.

And then something pretty cool happened.

I had to do some major edits on a novel manuscript. And that came easier. I had an easier time finding run on sentences, cutting out words, making everything clearer and more concise.

Learning how to write short stories made editing my novel easier.

Since this glorious revelations I have shared this discovery with some writing friends of mine. Most of them haven’t believed me. Like me, they feel that they are just no good at writing short stories. I hope they change their minds because I’d love to see what they come up with.

Everyone will find their own path.

Just don’t sell yourself short.

Do you write short stories? What is your best method? Please share in comments below.

The most destructive inclination

It’s been written and rewritten. Hours and days and months years of work and now you really really like your story.

There might be a typo you missed. Maybe an awkward phrase you never noticed, but damn it is good, and you are tired of it. An agent or editor will understand. Nothing is ever perfect, right?

Only a writer knows how much work goes into even a short piece of fiction and how freaking redundant it gets to keep editing.

But while the writer may be DONE with a story, often times the story is not done.

In our exhaustion and our excitement, our inclination may be to release it into the world when we hit this point. What will be will be.

That inclination would be wrong.

Not only wrong, but counterproductive. If you submit work that isn’t up to par, your work will be rejected and that source will never again be available for it. If it’s bad enough you may be putting future submissions with that publication as risk as well.

No matter how done you may think you are, you need a second, third, forth and maybe even eight set of eyes. Because no matter how hard you have worked, your eyes are not objective. Typos and misspellings will hide from them. Plot holes and confusing sections will be filled in by your brain and elude your edits.

No matter how much work you have put into your manuscript, you will be blind to flaws. No matter how long you have done this, you need help. No matter how excited you are about the piece, you have to be patient.

Writing is a long game.

Rushing to submit will only make it longer.

If you have made it as perfect as you can, if you feel like you are literally going to scream if you have to work on it any longer, by all means, take a break! Send it to some trusted readers. Go work on something else.

But stomp on your inclination to release it to the publishing world. It could destroy your chances completely.

 

 

 

Write your first draft for you and your last draft for your reader

I think I’ve been having an existential crisis. Does that qualify as a good excuse for not posting recently?

I’ve been writing much more than average. I polished a final draft. I’m working on a bunch of short stories and really refining my process there. I’ve been catching up on reading. I’ve been brainstorming, outlining, working with other writers and really enjoying myself.

I see a lot of writers complaining about how hard it is to write. I don’t really feel that way. When I’m writing, I’m enjoying the hell out of every minute of it.

For me, editing has always been the challenge, but recently something changed. After receiving a lot of feedback from beta’s who just weren’t getting certain characters, certain elements, major themes, I began to think on how to refine my story to relate to them, rather than clutch to what I thought they should know.

And once I changed my perception, the edits began to flow more easily as well.

Writing a first draft would be a task or a chore if I was trying to make it fit into some sort of mold I thought people would like. It would completely sap any of the creative process I enjoy so much. I let the words flow, whether or not they adhere to the outline. I’ve stopped worrying about what people will think of it and so it comes more easily now than ever before in my life.

I write because I love it.

But when it is done, I want to share what I love with others. And so it needs to be refined to go out into the world. For me it starts tentatively, making the changes I see are needed and putting it out to a select few who’s opinions I trust. Gathering feedback until i can see what is not on mark with readers.

A book is a portal, and not everyone is going to have a key, or even want to open it no matter how hard you try, but if you collect the data and do the work, you can figure out a way to make that lock open for those who want to enter.

A writers first job is to write the story. To commit it to paper. There second job is to clear away the rubble so that story can shine brightly in the dark, provide a refuge to those who are seeking, a hand to those who are struggling, insight to those who want to know.

Write your story. And then give it away.

Pantser Writing

So if you’ve read my last post, you know that I strongly recommend outlining, especially if you want to keep a steady momentum and keep a short deadline. But the truth is, I don’t always take my own advice. I would like to, because when I have outlined my first draft comes easier and is much cleaner.

But stories don’t always work the way you want them to and this is the case with my current project.

A first chapter I wrote way back before I even had children sprang to life last winter, lurching out of the obscure recesses of my hard drive and demanding attention. I wasn’t quite sure where it wanted to go, but the feeling of it began to become clear to me and the characters started speaking.

One late night when I had to go to bed but was reluctant to leave it, I put together a working outline of where I wanted it to go when I picked it up the next night. And the next night, it went in a completely different direction.

I wrote a looser outline of how the story would end, leaving plenty of room for unexpected twists.

When I consulted it next time I hit a lull, I was completely off course.

This story wanted to remain a mystery to me. Writing it was like navigating a heavy fog. I could only see what was going to happen when it was right in front of me.

Some ideas stuck. Some twists I came up with at the beginning remain, waiting for their big reveals. The characters who popped out at the beginning have claimed the personalities that they presented with. But the story, insists on being written by the seat of my pants.

To be honest it’s kind of a mess. But it’s also pretty exciting. I’m still not sure who the villain is. I’m still not sure how the anti-hero will prevail. Or if he will at all.

Seat of the pants writing is not the easiest way to write and when this manuscript is finally done I am in for a whole lot of serious editing, which is not my favorite thing to do. Writers who are dedicated to pre-plotting and outlining may abandon stories that insist on veering so wildly off course.

In my earliest novels, seat of the pants writing was the only way I worked. And those novels are unlikely to ever see the light of day again, but some surprising and exciting ideas and plots came out of them, and this will be the case for my newest work as well. Only this time, I think (or hope) I have learned enough to be able to clean this up into something awesome.

There is no wrong way to write a book, except not to do it at all. A story will tell you how it wants to be written, whether it’s with disciplined pre-plotting or complete chaos. If you let it call the shots in the first draft, it will take the pressure off of you and will actually make the experience of writing it pretty fun.

Tell me what you think. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Have you have had an unruly story that just insisted on going it’s own way?

#NaNoWriMo : Some tips to get er done

I’ve tried to participate a few times and never quite made it. But you can learn from my failures.

If you’ve decided to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo, first off, Congrats! It’s an awesome opportunity to stretch your limits and see what you can do. And you can do this, but the way is fraught with danger! Danger I say!

No, seriously, not danger, but it’s very easy to get off track and fall short of your goal. I know because I have done it myself. In fact I still have an awesome start to my NaNoWriMo manuscript from 2008 sitting on my hard drive, collecting digital dust.

But, I’ve also managed to churn out a few first drafts in a month’s time. Just not the month of November. If I wasn’t already 75% through a manuscript already, I would be participating in this year’s challenge.

So, get your work space ready. Decide that you can do this, and check out these tips to stay on track.

1 Outline

Seriously. Outline this story. You have already been told this so you might have done it in October, but if you haven’t do it now. It doens’t have to be exact. It does not need to be complicated, but having a framework to go off of, and a clear idea where the story is going will keep it moving. Whenever you start to feel the momentum slowing down, refer to your outline and move onto the next plot point.

2. Take advantage of the resources available to you.

One of the most helpful things I have come across in completing my work is having a writing community of real writers to bounce ideas off of, commiserate with, and tap for research. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of NaNoWriMo writing forums. Find one you like and use it! Often, just talking about your novel (with people who’s eyes don’t glaze over when you say “my novel…”) is enough to get the wheels turning again.

3. Turn off Social Media

We all know social media is the dark lord of time wasting. And your time is valuable right now. Don’t let the dark lord suck it away, even in your awesome NaNoWriMo forum, or you will be one of those people who is talking about the book they are writing instead of finishing the book they are writing.

4. Don’t edit it. Don’t even review it. For now.

No spell checks, no clean ups, NO REVISING. Just move forward for now. If you stop to read over everything you’ve written, you will be tempted to start fixing things. If you try to clean it up as you go along, you will never get done. Clean up later. Create now. Forward and not backwards. Even if you changed the MC’s name in chapter twenty.

5. Write every day. Every. Day.

Even weekends. Even Thanksgiving. It doesn’t have to be 5000 words, but try to write a paragraph if you have a busy day. Time off kills momentum and you need to keep momentum to finish this. Every day. I mean it. And yes, I mean you.

6. Have a life.

You can write a chapter a day and still grab a drink with your BFF, go on a date, re-watch all of Stranger Things. You should. Because writing is awesome, but you need to live to have stuff to write about and writing burn out is a real thing that will destroy your motivation if you let it. When your eyes start to cross or you are more stressed about what your MC is getting herself into than your latest work drama, take a breather. Just, you know, write first.

7. Take a Walk or just a brooding ten minutes

I need to write a post about my brooding breaks. They may be one of the most important parts of my process. I usually take one when I’ve completed a scene or a chapter and they allow me to collect my throughts, work through my transitions and start to piece together the next scene or decide it’s time to go to bed. It is imperative you get away from your computer to take a break. Go outside, take a walk, or just go sit in a different chair if need be, but no distractions, no phone, no TV. Just think, or brood. You will return to your manuscript fresh and ready to go on.

8. Outline.

Yeah, I know you thought it didn’t apply to you, but now you’re stuck in your story half way through and have no idea where it is going or how to get to the end from here. So take a walk and work out a rough idea how to get to where you want to go and then write it down. There is no hard fast rule that says you have to outline before you start, but whenever you find yourself stuck, an outline WILL tide you over until the seat of your pants starts flying again.

9. Accept the Suckage

First drafts are bad. It’s okay. I know you don’t want it to suck but the strong difference between those who can write a novel in one month and those who cannot is that the ones who do it accept that at the end of November they will have a completed first draft. It might resemble a flaming dumpster fire but it’s a flaming dumpster fire that can be edited into a diamond. If you try to make it perfect while you are writing it, at the end of the month you will have a beautiful twenty pages.

10. Love what you do

This is your story. This is your voice. It is important whether it’s a space opera about fighting vampire robots or a generational drama about American immigrants. Write what you love and love what you do. That authenticity will carry you and your work further than any other method you use to complete your first draft.

Good luck!

First Draft Climax = Total Trash

Maybe you have this problem too. It’s a trend in my process that I’m just beginning to come to terms with. The rest of my manuscript will be generally logical, clean and coherent, but the climax is a giant, raging mess.

It’s all over the place. It doesn’t follow a rational path. Motivations, descriptions, tone and setting are sloppy at best and there is often some long info dumps revelations that DRAG it down. So over all, my climax is just awful.

Usually by the time I get to the climax, I’m in full blown writing mode, so I have two choices. Power through, let it come out as it is, or beat it into submission.

Now I have to admit I’ve frequently tried to beat it into submission. After all the climax is pretty much the most important part of the novel, the part I have been writing toward the whole time. But pounding away at it has a tendency to sap my motivation. To be completely honest, I love writing, and when I don’t love it, well, I don’t really want to do it any more.

And the truth is, even when I do get through it in this fashion, it’s still pretty bad.

So my newest method is to let it suck. Let is be the heaping pile of hot trash that it wants to be for now. I’m going to have to go in there with a bulldozer during edits anyway, what ever gets me to the end of the story is the method I should take. I will have a clearer idea on what it needs to be concise and effective after the story is done, the theme has emerged and I’ve had time to identify specific problems.

First drafts aren’t supposed to be good. They’re supposed to be finished.  Even something as important as the climax isn’t going to be any good to you if you can’t finish the book.

Finish the book. Let it be trash. Trash can always be cleaned up.

 

When you have writing momentum DON’T STOP!

You will scrape and toil, pecking out a few horrific words and deleting them for days, weeks, months, years. You will stare at blank pages in utter horror as the words in your mind shrivel, unwritten, into dust. Then one day you still start to write and it will flow.

When this happens, my best advice for you is don’t stop.

Your words are a boulder that is rolling down a hill. Let it roll! Let it crash over cars. When it hits a plateau let the force it built up rolling, keep it moving forward,until it hits another hill.

Do not stop the rolling boulder! It was was hard to get moving in the first place.

Skip the Game of Thrones finale, if you have the writing momentum. It’s on Demand. Your words are not. Let them roll out or they will stop.

Skip the early bedtime that you wanted to get. You can hazard through a tired morning if it means you spilled two thousand words onto a page.

Even skip the night out, unless you have amazing tickets, already hired the babysitter, or your meeting a friend who’s only in town for the night. Then, do the night out, but get home and get writing as soon as it’s over.

Skip everything you can skip. Work. Dinner. Bathroom. Life. Just don’t stop!

Okay, well, you may have to stop, sometimes. It’s very hard to pull off mad artist these days.

But put off all the things you can, at least for a couple weeks, if you can keep the momentum going that long. Because it is a gift, and it does not last, especially if you don’t get on that big rolling rock and ride it as far as you can.

Other people will have great advice for you on how to finish a first draft. It all can work, but for me, from me, this is the only fool proof advice I have.

Don’t stop. Keep writing, until the well dries up or you finish the draft.

Things you learn when you’re a writer

You might have gone to grad school for creative writing. Or maybe you’ve just joined your first crit group. You might have written twenty eight novels or still be pecking away at your first short story. Regardless of where you are, there are some things that you need to know. I am going to tell you these things. In fact, many people may tell you these things, but it’s likely you’re going to have to learn them through experience before they really sink in.

So if you’re just starting out, this is just a heads up.

  1. Everything about writing takes time. The writing part, that’s the short part. Editing, submitting, waiting for response, publishing, everything takes time. Lots and lots of time.
  2. Everything about writing takes patience. See above.
  3. Your first works won’t be that good. You can fix them or you can move on.
  4. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to redraft. You may think by editing as you go you are saving yourself time or effort. You are not. Just get the first draft done so that you can get to that second, third and fourth draft.
  5. You are a writer for a reason. Even if you’re struggling to find your voice, it’s there and with time and practice it will emerge.
  6. Not everyone’s suggestions are valid to you. It’s your story. When people try to start rearranging it, they’re trying to turn it into their story.
  7. Most of them time “They just don’t get it” is not a good excuse. You may use it alot when you start to get critiques on your work. The thing is, if the people reviewing your work just don’t get it, neither will your readers.
  8. Only JK Rowling is JK Rowling. We’d all like to have that first manuscript we punched out during a hard time in our lives become an international sensation, but the truth is even JK Rowling’s idea took seven hard years from conception to publication.
  9. Your ego will be crushed. Again and again. Just say goodbye to it. It’s not serving you anyway.
  10. You can do this. Yes. It takes a lot of work and even more perseverance. No one can do it for you, and for a long time, there won’t even be anyone to do it with you, but if you have been gifted with the burning desire to write stories, to share your mind with the world, then there is a reason for that, and if you keep moving it will come together for you.

What are some lessons you have learned about being a writer? Please share!