Browsing Tag

breaking bad habits

Quick Edits: Word Echoes

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

This week we’re looking at word echoes. Word echoes can be used as a writing device to emphasize some aspect of the scene, character, or plot. Therefore, you don’t want accidental word echoes. You always want echoes to be a deliberate choice.

There are a couple different types of word echoes.

One type is crutch words. These are words that, as a writer, you lean on heavily, usually in first drafts. I keep a list of my crutch words (which includes “actually” and “smile,” also “so,” among others) and when I finish a first draft, I search on each of the words to see where I can change them up. Notice I didn’t say “find a different word.” We’ll talk about word choices in a minute.

A second type is words that commonly connect with each other in some way. This is an echo I began to recognize as I edited professionally. Words that have a natural opposite, like “up” and “down,” “in” and “out,” often find their opposites within a few lines. In my experience, it’s very common that if I see “on” somewhere in a sentence, “off” shows up, usually within three lines of it (and vice versa). And that pairing is usually repeated two more times within the next page or two.

A third type is simply when we use the same word too many times in too short a span. I find that I do this most often when I’m not in the zone of writing and just trying to get the words down on paper. I will usually mark it and come back to it later.

But the bigger issue is when we don’t see those echoes on the page. This is where beta readers can come in. I wrote a post on how to best utilize beta readers. One of my suggestions is to give beta readers specific things to watch for or comment on. So you can task one of your beta readers with watching for echoes. That is probably the easiest way to catch them. If you hire a professional editor, they will definitely catch those echoes. (If they don’t, you need a new editor 😉 )

A word about word choices

See what I did there? 🙂

When looking at word echoes and deciding how to fix them, don’t always go for a synonym to substitute for the offending word. Look at the entire sentence. When we echo, it’s a good indication of sloppy writing. Not necessarily bad writing, but when we wrote, we went for the easy words, the expected words. That’s why we echoed.

If you look at the sentence and can work out a way to revise the sentence itself so that the echoed word is no longer necessary, I will bet that the sentence you come up with is much better than the original sentence.

Why? Because the sentence was built with intent, rather than just tossed together in the midst of a writing sprint. Intentional writing is almost always better than off the cuff writing.

My advice: try not to think in terms of synonyms. Think in terms of recreating the sentence to get rid of the echo.

~

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Doing What We Do (Rough Draft Writing – Part One)

Craft of Writing

I mentioned in my New Year post that 2018 is going to be dedicated to writing. I’m refocusing on the words.

I thought it might be interesting to post about how I actually do that. What my “process” is, so to speak. Fair warning: this is going to be a two-parter. This is mainly because as I wrote, it got really, really long! So you’ll get a bit here and you’ll get a bit next week too 🙂

Back before I got into publishing, before I’d even taken one course about writing, I was a dyed-in-the-wool pantser. I came up with an idea for a character or a situation and I’d just sit down and start writing, without any idea where I was going.

This is a perfectly valid way to write. Lots of people do it successfully this way. For me, what I found is that it was really inefficient. I spent a lot of time meandering around, not really sure where I was going. I strongly resisted any suggestion I do anything like outlining, because the story was in charge, not me. I had to go where the story took me.

As I connected with other writers and also worked through my graduate program at Seton Hill, I realized what my problem was and it was inherent in the way I was writing.

My husband is Dutch. When his mom came over to the US to visit us the first time, one of the things she really wanted to do was go to a grocery store.

I know. That seems weird. But in the Netherlands, grocery stores are small, neighborhood businesses. They don’t have sprawling jungles of produce and glaciers of frozen foods.

So she wanted to see a grocery store here in the US. We obliged, of course. We let her loose in a Kroger (I think… maybe it was Publix) and I went around, gathering what I needed from various sections. A little while later, I got to the dairy section and I found my soon-to-be mom-in-law standing in front of a dairy case. This older woman, just frozen there, staring at the butter.

Why do you need so many different kinds of cream cheese?

You know… that wall of butter that is generally four feet wide and six feet tall. She was just standing there, looking a bit dumbfounded. I went up to her and asked her if she was okay. She turned to me, her eyebrows furrowed.

“Why do you need so many different kinds of butter?”

Too Much Butter

I realized that, in having literally no path for my writing, I had way too much butter to choose from. There was too much I could do. Too many paths I could take. And having that much choice, having to make that many decisions (this, but not that; those, but not these) froze me up more than it freed me.

I had so many places I could go, I had no idea where I should go.

Several years ago, I started playing with other ways to write, other processes. I tried out different methods that other people use. Some are pretty well-know, like the Snowflake Method. Others are just systems that writers have devised for themselves. I’m still exploring, but I feel like I’ve found a method that works for me. Not only does it keep me focused on where I need to go for the story, but it also greatly speeds up my actual writing, so I get things done much more quickly. (When I, yknow, actually focus on my writing.)

Writing Like a Hybrid

To give credit where it’s due, I completely ganked this method from Sterling & Stone, which is a trio of writers who not only publish books, but also produce a great podcast on self-publishing that I recommend to anyone interested in that avenue (among many other podcasts).

The method involves creating “beats” for the story as a method of pre-writing. It’s not outlining, so much as it’s note-taking for the story.

How It Works for Me

First, before I do anything else, I make character sketches. For each major character, I fill out a worksheet which details what the character looks like, their background, etc. I don’t necessarily know all the things about them at this point. I leave a lot of stuff blank to be filled in later, as I write. But I get the major stuff down now, early.

Once I’ve got the sheet filled out, then I write a page or so about the character in relation to the story. What is their goal in the story? How do they change? What is their overall attitude to what is happening? How do they feel about the other characters? How do they connect?

I don’t get into details about the story itself here, just the general implications on and attitudes of the character I’m working on. I’ll also note down how the character’s background might affect their reactions to the general plot or other characters. For example, if a character had an abusive girlfriend, maybe that character is wary of women, in general, and so holds the main character at arm’s length and doesn’t trust her.

I do this worksheet and write-up for all the major characters. For minor characters, I will do a more sparse version of the worksheet and maybe write a few lines about who they are within the story and why they are in the story. (I find it’s important for supporting characters to be in the story for their own reasons, rather than my needing them in the story.)

That done, I’ll do something similar for any major settings. I’ll write a few paragraphs with the description of the place, any general significance, and then significance to soecific characters and/or plot.

Westminster Abbey ~ London
An awesome setting 🙂 Photo by Aja.

These worksheets and write-ups are important to do ahead of time for a couple reasons. First, it allows me not to have to worry about figuring out what someone or something looks like when I’m in the flow of writing. I’ve already worked out how they look.

Second, it brings me closer to the characters (and the settings) before I’m actually writing. I get to learn about them as separate entities from the story itself, which, I think, helps make them more realistic. I don’t want characters who didn’t exist before the story and only exist now because of the story. If I connect with the before-story characters, then I will convey them much more richly within the story itself.

Okay! That might seem like a lot of pre-writing, and it is! But it’s not the main pre-writing. This was the pre-pre-writing. But don’t be intimidated. It seems like a lot of work on the front end and putting off the fun of the writing itself. But what I’ve found is that when I do this (and the beats, which I’ll talk about next week), the writing is much easier and goes faster. Honestly, the writing comes 3x+ quicker if I do this stuff first.

And even besides those good outcomes, I’ve also found that because I don’t have to focus on creating all these details when I’m writing, my first draft comes out much more polished. This is because I’m able to focus on the writing itself — the scenes, the plots — rather than the details of the characters or deciding what a place looks like. It cuts down on the decision fatigue happening during the actual creation process.

Next week, I’ll talk a lot more about writing the actual beats: how and why.

What do you think of the pre-pre- writing so far? Do you do something similar? Entirely different?

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

BackSpacing: Pulling myself up by my bra straps

Life Stuff, Writing

No Tool Time Tuesday this week. We’ll get back into it next week!

BackSpacing posts will be personal posts, just as a warning. Consider it me going, “Whoa. Backspace. Let’s figure some stuff out.”

I have been very bad about writing lately. I keep putting it off or finding other things to do that are “more important.” They’re not really more important, of course. They’re just a convenient excuse. But this is also why the blog has gotten off track.

Last year, I spent most of the year in a different state being one of the primary caregivers for my grandmother, who’d broken her neck the November before. Being a caregiver is a lot harder than you realize when you sign up. Not necessarily physically harder (though sometimes that), but definitely psychologically harder.

I spent two to three weeks of every month with her. I wouldn’t change that decision if I had to do it again. I would make the exact same choice. It was absolutely worth it. But the consequence of being away that long is that much of my life at home fell away. Drifted. My relationship with my husband is rock solid, so it wasn’t that. But it was more that my socialness suffered while I was away. And my ability to be social, the energy it takes for me to do that, suffered.

Generally, I’m a very outgoing and social person. But after last year, I found I had fewer spoons for socialness. (If you’re unfamiliar with Spoon Theory, check it out. It’s a very clever way of explaining energy.) My grandmother passed away just before Christmas and so this year has been about rebuilding my life here at home.

What does this have to do with my writing? Well, I’ve found that in times of high stress, I have a lot of trouble focusing on getting words on the page. I have little motivation to do it. And that makes getting anything done very difficult.

National Novel Writing Month is coming up. (We’re prepping at The Writing Tribe, if you want to join us!) So I need to get my crap together. This year I’ve decided that I’m going to be doing short stories, rather than a novel. My reasoning is that I need some quick wins. I have a number of novel projects in varying stages of completeness; I don’t need another novel right now.

What I do need is something that gives me a sense of accomplishment. Writing a series of short stories totally 50,000 words will also give me several pieces that I can submit to markets right away. I can get some wins under my belt. Because forward progress always creates motivation. I am in dire need of both right now.

So I’m planning my stories for NaNo and hoping for a few wins! How are you getting ready for Nano?

Quick Edits: Pronouns

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Pronouns

If you have two or more people of the same gender in the same scene, it’s easy to use pronouns in a confusing way. (I’ll be using male/female pronouns in these examples, but neutral and non-gendered pronouns are also subject to this issue.)

Say Tina enters a room and sees her sister, Marcy, who has been missing since the day before.

She ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and her bag fell onto the floor.

We might assume that the subject (she) is Tina herself. And that the first “her” is Marcy. But think for a moment. Couldn’t the subject (she) also be Marcy? The sentence works that way too. And then the first “her” would be Tina. And we have no idea, either way, which of them dropped their bag. See how that can be confusing?

I generally advise, at the very least on the sentence level, but it’s probably even more effective on the paragraph level, to choose one character for whom you’ll substitute pronouns.

So pick either Tina or Marcy as being the one that can have the pronouns. And the other, you’ll use her name. This doesn’t mean you can only use pronouns for that character.  You can still use the pronoun character’s name. Just don’t use pronouns for the non-pronoun character.

So the sentence could be changed to look something like this:

Marcy ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Marcy’s bag fell onto the floor.

See how the same sentence with ambiguous pronouns could be clarified to mean a lot of different things? We should shoot for clarity in our writing, and this is one that is really easy to flub up! But it’s a pretty simple fix, as you can see.

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

No, Virginia, There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block

Craft of Writing, Writing

Ten years ago, I’d have fought you if you’d told me writer’s block didn’t exist. I would have told you that you were crazy, that of course it existed! Because I experienced it and how dare you tell me I’m a literary hypochondriac!

Now, I realize that people who told me that then — and lit fires of guilt in my heart — were right. Writer’s block doesn’t exist. Now, that isn’t to say that a writer won’t have trouble getting words on a page. Of course, some days are worse (sometimes a lot worse) than others. But there is no real block. There’s not some outside force that is taking away our ability to write. It’s not like there is poison on our keyboards that will kill us when we sit down to type.

I’ve found that “block” is generally one of two things: avoidance or apathy. They can show up together, but it’s usually at least one or the other.

Avoidance

I find that this usually happens when I feel pressured or when I feel guilty or sometimes when I’m afraid I’m going to write crap.

Often the pressure and the guilt are tied together and both relate to when I’ve slacked off or dropped the ball on my writing goals. I feel pressure, mostly internally, but sometimes a perceived external pressure too, because I’m “behind.” It’s like I feel that other people are judging me for being a writer who doesn’t write.

And then there’s the overcompensating for the guilt: I didn’t write yesterday, for whatever reason, and now I have to write twice as much today to get “caught up.”

And, of course, then I feel crappy, because obviously I’m failing as a writer, so guilt starts really eating at me.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I handle guilt and procrastination pressure in the most efficient way.

I stop doing everything.

Because I’ve found that helps with “feeling behind.” *nods* Really. It does. *cough*

As I’m sure you know, it doesn’t help at all. But that stopping is the writer’s block. It’s the avoidance of doing what I need to be doing because of emotions — guilt, fear, pressure.

Apathy

Apathy often goes hand-in-hand with avoidance, but rather than being about my emotions, this one is about the work itself.

Apathy happens when I have absolutely no interest in or excitement for what I’m writing. Have you had that happen? You just put off doing your writing because you’re just not that into it. “It’s not you,” I tell the story. “It’s me. I’m just not that into you.”

Apathy can also happen as a result of outside things. Perhaps you got a rejection letter, or someone close to you gave you bad criticism on something you wrote, an idea you had, or even just the thought that you could possibly be a writer (I hate it when writers have people like this in their families 🙁 ).

So it becomes infinitely easier to not write.

How to get out of the “writer’s block” rut

We all hate this answer, but the best way to get out of the rut is to write. Even if you just open a screen and start writing about how you don’t feel like writing or about how you feel you have writer’s block. The act of actually writing will get you going. Eventually, you’ll be able to shift to something you’re supposed to be working on. But even if you don’t shift today, getting into the habit of doing the writing is a good portion of the writer’s block battle in itself.

Here’s the other important bit here: When you’re writing, give yourself permission to suck.

Go into the writing with the idea that whatever comes out at the other end could very well be the most awful, horrendous, gross piece of writing to ever exist in the history of humanity.

And that that’s perfectly okay.

I find that once I’ve given myself permission not to write the Great American Novel in the first draft, my words come much more easily.

When you're #amwriting, give yourself permission to suck. #writetip #writerslife Click To Tweet

Strike apathy out by throwing a curve ball

Basically, be mean to your characters. Here are two questions that are great at getting you out of a boring story:

What is the worst thing that can happen to your character, from their perspective?

And I mean the worst, barring death (unless that’s a thing that characters can come back from in your story 🙂 ). Is it the death of their partner? Is it losing their job? Is it finding that the treasure at the end of their quest is really just a stone?

Whatever it is, from the character’s persepective, that is the worst thing that can happen, make it happen. Then see how exciting the story becomes!

What is something that your character would never do or want to do?

Perhaps betraying their best friend is something they’d never want to do. Maybe stealing or lying is outside their moral code. Maybe it’s something as simple as going on an adventure that’s completely outside of the character’s normal mindset.

Once you’ve got the thing they’d most likely never do, figure out a way to make them have to do it. Put them between a rock and a hard place such that they must choose to do that thing that is abhorrent to them. You’ll be amazed at how more interested in your story you’ll be (and, of course, you’re reader will be once it’s published!).

In the end, I’ve discovered that writer’s block is really the act of avoiding writing. Writing is simply putting words on paper (or a screen). And I don’t need a muse or brilliant words in order to do that. It’s okay if I write utter tripe. So instead of just staring at the screen or, worse, avoiding the screen altogether, I’ll put tripe on the screen.

Remember: You can fix anything you write. But you can’t fix a blank page.

Remember: You can fix anything you write. But you can't fix a blank page. #amwriting Click To Tweet

How do you handle the urge to avoid your screen? Any tips on battling that thing that people call “writer’s block”? Drop them in the comments below!

 

 

 

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Quick Edits: Passive to Active Verbs

Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Changing a passive verb to an active verb is pretty easy. Have a look:

She was sitting on the barstool.

She sat on the barstool.

 
Drop the “is” or “was,” take the -ing verb, make it an -ed verb, and you’ve got an active sentence.

He was laughing at the clown’s antics.

He laughed at the clown’s antics.

 

Which one would you be laughing at?
My answer: Neither. I’d be running! 😉
(Photo from the documentary, Pennywise: The Story of It)

Advanced tip: Once you’ve made your passive sentence into an active sentence, you might consider revising it to use an even more vivid word. Usually when we’ve written a passive sentence (often without realizing it), we haven’t chosen the most interesting verb, so it’s worthwhile to reassess when you’re rewriting the passive to active verbs.

Happy writing!

 

 

Why and How to Limit Flashbacks in Your Fiction

Craft of Writing, Writing

What Are Flashbacks?

Flashbacks are breaks in the current story that are written in order to give the reader background information, something from the past, usually for what’s about to happen. Flashbacks are a legitimate storytelling tool — don’t let anyone tell you they’re not.

But like many tools in fiction writing (like adverbs, speech tags, etc), their use should be limited. The more background information you can insert into your stories without using flashbacks, the more skilled you are as a writer.

For me, I don’t consider a sentence or two to be a flashback. A flashback generally is a full blown scene, anywhere from a couple paragraph to pages. A flashback is turning your car around and driving back to the place, versus a quick glance in the sideview mirror.

Why Should You Limit Flashbacks?

The biggest reason to limit your use of flashbacks is because flashbacks pull your reader out of the story you’re telling.

Think about watching a movie with someone. Say it’s the second movie in a series. Would you find it distracting if your friend paused the movie every third scene to explain something from the first movie that he thinks would be good for you to know for this movie? It would probably get annoying after about half an hour. And, what might be worse, is you might be more interested in the stories your friend is telling you, rather than the story you’re watching.

When you use flashbacks, you’re essentially hitting the pause button on the story you’re trying to tell and you’re asking the reader to invest in a *different* story for a little while. Be sparse with this sort of request of your reader. Because the more often they’re distracted from the story you’re telling, the more likely they are not to feel invested enough to return to it.

How Do You Limit Your Use of Flashbacks?

When thinking about flashbacks, there are three things you should consider particularly.

Is it necessary?

Does the reader actually need information that you’re conveying in the flashback? Sometimes flashback scenes are ways for the author to convey things that the reader will already have inferred. Sometimes flashback scenes are included simply because the author wrote it and feels like it should be in there.

Think about what your key pieces of information being conveyed are. And then think about whether your reader actually needs them.

Must it be conveyed at this place in the story and in this way?

When I’m editing, it’s not uncommon for me to see a three or four page flashback where there’s only a single piece of information that’s important. That piece of information could have simply been dropped into the current story line in a sentence or two rather than yanking the reader into a flashback. Again, assess what the key pieces of information you’re trying to convey are and think about where else in the story you might weave them in, instead.

Sometimes, the flashback is important but the placement isn’t ideal. Consider your entire story; is there a better place for this flashback?

Is it?

Are you starting a new scene and rehashing everything that happened since the last scene?

If you’re telling the reader about everything that happened since the previous scene, there’s no reason not to start it from the the end of the previous scene, rather than some time later, then flashing back to what happened in the interval. This bouncing around in time can be confusing for your reader and it’s unnecessary. If you’ve decided that what’s happened between the previous scene and this scene is important enough to be on the page, then it doesn’t make any sense for it to be a flashback rather than simply part of the current story line.

The exception is if the actions between the scenes can be done in a sentence or two (which isn’t, by our definition here, a flashback anyway).

As a note before I sign off: one type of writing where you should especially avoid flashbacks is short stories. Most of the time, there just isn’t enough space in the story to support flashbacks. It ends up being a waste of precious words when you already have a limit as you do for a short story. Of course, it can be done, but as a general rule, it shouldn’t, unless you know you can do it very, very well.

How about you? Do you struggle with too many flashbacks or not knowing whether to include one or not? Comment below!

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

New Idea, Wait Your Turn! 3 Tips for Capturing the New Shiny

Writing

So, you’re tooling along, hitting the middle of your story. Things are slowing down a little bit in your production (because middles are hard!). Or maybe you’re a bit stuck; the words aren’t coming, and you’re struggling.

And then it happens.

That voice.

You know that voice.

We all know that voice.

“Hi! I’m a new, shiny idea! Come play with me!”

What do you do? Your good, steady story is a little boring right now. It might be frustrating you a little bit.

And there’s this beautiful, new, shiny idea right there! It’s just right there! Waiting for you. Winking at you. Telling you how awesome it is and how much fun you’ll have with it instead of your old tried and true story.

The current story was once shiny and new too. But the luster has worn off. It’s easy to want to stray.

What do you do?

If you’re like I used to be, you set aside the current story and dive straight into the new-shiny!

Glorious!

And it is glorious!

The characters are exciting. The story is fun and different than the old thing you left sitting in your other window. You’re learning about the world, about what makes the characters tick. It’s just so stimulating! So sexy!

You’re writing and writing and writing. And soon, you’re in the middle. Things slow down. You’ve learned the characters pretty well and the thrill of discovery has faded.

And then it happens.

That voice.

You know that voice.

We all know that voice.

“Hi! I’m a new, shiny idea! Come play with me!”

What do you do?

I suspect all writers have been there. And it’s fun to work with new story ideas, of course. But if we repeat the above pattern (and I’ve definitely been guilty of that!), we never actually get back to the half-finished stories. We never actually finish anything. And if we never finish, we never publish. If our goal is to get our work out there, then that never, ever happens.

So how do you keep that new, shiny idea but still focus on your current project? I’ve got a couple suggestions.

Write it down

This seems pretty obvious, right? Get the new, shiny idea down on paper. Write as much about it as you need to in order to both get the concept recorded and to get it out of your head. I have an entire Scrivener project that’s just for ideas. (Though I only actually have 4 ideas of my own; I steal the rest 😉 )

Give yourself some time to play with it

Allocate yourself a certain amount of time — an hour or a day — to play with the story idea, engage the characters, write a little bit, whatever. You can wallow in the new shiny as much as you want during that time! But once that time is up, you go back to your current project. Because that’s the priority and that’s the decision you made.

Tell yourself the story

Get out a recorder (your phone, computer, an actual recorder if you are one of the few who still owns one 😉 ), and tell yourself the story of your new, shiny idea. Babble about it. Be excited. Talk about ALL THE THINGS. This is an especially good resource too for when you’re able to come back to this idea to work on it, because you’ll have yourself and your original enthusiasm to help you get back into the excitement of it.

New story ideas are what give us longevity as writers. So you shouldn’t ignore them. They can be hard to ignore anyway, so you must give them some attention. Just don’t lose sight of the overall goal.

Do you have other ideas for capturing those wild new-shinys? What’s worked for you in the past?

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

5 Simple Things to Help You Reach Your Writing Goals This Year

Writing

Writing goals. They can be hard to reach, especially if the goal is a novel. Finishing can take so long that we easily lose our way or get distracted by the new shiny idea rattling around in our head. But if you have a publishing goal, whether self-publishing or traditional publishing, you *must* finish. Writing goals should always include finishing the project.

But as we already agreed, it can be hard to get there. I want to share some tips that I’ve learned over the years. Not about setting writing goals. I mean, I think we’re all just fine at setting the goals. But these are things I think will help in actually getting to those goals.

Set Yourself up to win with your writing goals

The work we do on the front end can really impact how (and when) we get to the finish line. And I’m not talking about outlining or anything like that. I’m talking about processes. If you want writing as a career, you should treat it like a business, and that means creating efficient processes for yourself that will help you get things done.

Create time in your schedule

Yes, I know. You can’t create time but you can create space in the time you already have. Even if it’s only 15 minutes, create a space in your schedule that is dedicated solely to your writing. Think about it. You dedicate time to sleep. You dedicate time for meals. If you’re working in a company, there is dedicated time where you’re expected to be working. If you have kids, you likely have dedicated kid-time. All the important things in your life have room in your schedule. The least you can do for your writing is to dedicate a portion of your time for it.

Get important folks on board

If you co-habitate, with parents, significant other, children, roommates, whoever, get them on board with what you’re doing. Let them know how excited you are to be able to dedicate X amount of time to writing your story. Get them excited too. Keep them updated on your progress. And then they will be less likely to interrupt you during your dedicated time. They’ll be more understanding when your brain is a little fried from a productive writing session. And they’ll be ready to celebrate with you when you write The End.

Track your words or pages

Writing a story, especially a novel, can be long, hard work. It’s easy to get bogged down in the process, because you don’t have any quick gratification. Keeping track of your progress via some sort of tracking system will give you visual gratification for how far you’ve come. And if you don’t usually keep running track of how much you accomplish, you might be surprised at how motivating it is. Success breeds motivation.

Create deadlines

There’s a reason newspapers and magazines get to print on time. Deadlines keep people in gear and motivated to get finished. I know that I work my hardest when I know a deadline is looming. And I think most people are the same. A couple things to note:

  • Create a big deadline, like the end of the project, but also create smaller deadlines: chapter 4, due by X date; chapter 5, due by Y date. As noted earlier, success breed motivation, so if you can check things off a list, you’ll be more enthusiastic about remaining on track, because you’ll want to check off those other things on the list

  • Make your deadlines short — and by that, I mean to allow for the least amount of time you will need to achieve the goal. Don’t build in extra time “just in case something happens to throw my schedule off.” If something happens to throw your schedule off, deal with it when it happens. Don’t build in time for something that doesn’t exist.Why? Because of Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Meaning if you set yourself a goal for two weeks, even though you could really finish that thing in six days, it will take you two weeks because that’s the expectation you create for yourself.
    So no long deadlines!

Don’t cater to the muse

I know. You’re probably all O.O at that. Of course, I don’t mean that you should banish the muse. But the muse is capricious sometimes, isn’t she? Be honest. How often have you been in the middle of a project, slogging along, and the muse entices you to start another project? “It’s new! It’s shiny! It will be SO much more fun to write than what you’re working on!” I know you know what I’m talking about 🙂

So when I say not to cater to the muse, I mean: don’t bounce from project to project throughout your writing time. The muse gets to be capricious. She’s a muse. Writers don’t. Well, not writers who want to actually finish anything. And, yknow, reach their writing goals.

When you decide on which project to work with that day, focus on it. If the muse tries to entice you away, jot down her new, shiny idea, but stay on task. You can devote a little bit of writing time another day to sorting out the new project. But for now, you decided on this project, so work on it.

And the other question I know is brewing is: But what about if I’m not feeling that project that day?

To which I answer: I don’t feel like cleaning out my cats’ litter boxes, but guess what?

Writing isn’t always going to be a walk in the park. Sometime it’s going to be hard and sometimes the muse is going to desert you (or, worse, try to drag you away). But if you want to do this as a career, or even just a serious hobby, you need to finish things. And that means slogging through the crappy parts.

Do a review every 2 weeks

Huh? What? Yeah, this isn’t something I see suggested to writers very often. But it’s important. We’ve already talked about success breeding motivation. But sometimes you can’t see the success very easily. We need to close that feedback loop so we can see what we really accomplished.

At the end of a two week stretch, go back and look at your word/page tracker (here’s a handy-dandy one!). Look at the number of words you wrote. Think about the things that happened this week. Did something set you behind? Did you lose momentum? Did something motivate you more than normal? What was good? Bad? How much closer are you to your next small goal? To your big goal? Write all that stuff down.

Knowing where you are makes knowing where you’re going much easier!

Don’t get bogged down in defeat

 

Listen, life happens to all of us. Sometimes we don’t get everything done we wanted to get done when we wanted to get it done by. That’s okay. And I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to ignore the successes and beat myself up for the perceived failures. Don’t do that.

We’re going to talk more about this particular piece in next week’s post.

What things do you struggle with in achieving your writing goals? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

 

 

 

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Memories of My Very First Story Critique or Suck It Up, Buttercup

What I've Learned

I’ve been writing for a pretty long time. I’ve been editing for a long time too. And, truth be told, I edit way more than I write. (Yes, I’m outing myself to you, dear reader!) It tends to pay a lot quicker 😉 My editing style was influenced in a lot of ways by story critique that I’ve been exposed to over the years.

I am a graduate of Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. I won’t go into how awesome it is here (but contact me if you want to know; I’ll totally talk your ear off!), except to say that it is the single best thing I did for my writing.

It was also the hardest.

Giving your work over for a story critique is possibly the most difficult thing a writer can do, on an emotional level. It’s even harder than the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the manuscript itself. Writing a story isn’t easy. Getting feedback on the story can be even harder.

But it’s necessary. Because we, as authors, can’t look at our work with an objective eye — at least, not without a lot of time in between the writing and the revision. And even then, I’m not entirely sure we’re very objective. Getting the feedback of other authors, particularly, can be incredibly useful. So I believe all authors should find good people to give them story critiques.

When I started at SHU, I’d never had a real critique before. I’d had some really nice comments on writing websites, but never a story critique from someone I felt knew what they were talking about. I must have had some raw talent to get in, because lord knows I didn’t know a dang thing about the best practices of writing. I’d never hung out with real writers before. I was both excited and terrified to my bones.

The set up: critique sessions at SHU are something like a roundtable. Whomever’s story is being critiqued doesn’t get to say anything at all until the end, when s/he can finally address any questions or comments that others have put forth. It’s generally a group of 6 to 10 people, including one of the program’s writing mentors as facilitator. Each person takes a turn talking about their impressions of the manuscript (which is usually around 10 pages long), both good and bad, with the facilitator going last. We generally did 2-3 critiques per session.

My very first story critique was in a larger group of about ten people (at least, in my head it seems like a large group!). I volunteered to have mine done first, because — well, let’s rip that bandage right off, shall we?

So, yeah, terrified.

My submission was a short story (that most people were unanimous about it needing to be a novel, which I eventually turned it into) about twin girls who learn that they’re guardians of Pandora’s Box. Everyone had both good and bad things to say, which is pretty normal, as I learned over time. The facilitator for that story critique session happened to be the woman who would be my first mentor in the program, Leslie Davis Guccione. At that time, though, I hadn’t even met her yet. (She turned out to be a lovely woman and wonderful mentor!)

Leslie’s really big on active verbs. I, on the other hand, was pretty clueless about active verbs. (Like I said, raw talent rather than any actual knowledge.) Leslie started by telling me that she agreed with those who were saying it read like the opening of a novel rather than a short story. She also said how much she liked it. She pointed out strengths right away. And then she schooled me about active verbs versus passive verbs.

If you don’t know, passive verbs are any that are “to be” verbs. So “was,” “were,” “been,” etc. Apparently enamored of these sorts of verbs, I had a lot in my ms. Seriously, a lot. When she passed me my hard copy (Leslie, at that time, only did hard copy edits), she’d taken the time to highlight all the instances of passive verbs in the first two pages. Thanks, Leslie! 😉

My first two pages were as yellow as a fluffy chick. There was so much yellow, you might have thought the page itself was yellow. I had no less than 15 — fifteen! — instances of “was” and “were” on each page. Almost every single line. Sometimes twice!

So that’s how I learned about passive verbs.

But here’s the thing — seeing all that yellow made me really aware of the use of passive verbs. So after that, as I wrote, I recognized when I went to type “was” or “were” and I checked myself. Could I find a better way to phrase this so the verb is more active? And, almost always, a better verb was there, just below the surface.

That critique session, all by itself, made me a better writer. It taught me how to create more vivid sentences, more accurate descriptions. Leslie’s tough love about passive verbs stuck. Thanks, for real, Leslie!

Maybe someday I’ll tell you how Leslie failed me on my initial thesis submission for messing up “further” and “farther” continuously (which I also never do anymore!).

Have you participated in critique sessions? Gotten a story critique? How was it for you? Did you learn things? What was your biggest take away? Tell me about it in the comments!

Stay awesome!

 

 

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