Tag Archives: writing tips

The Week 3 Blues #NaNoWriMo

I spent this past weekend at a convention in Portland, which means I didn’t write much. I’ve already validated and won, of course, but the book isn’t done yet, so I’m still working. I just emerged from the darkest part to where the heroes start winning for realsies. The home stretch. The hardest part, in some respects.

If you’re on track, that’s awesome! W00t! Keep on keeping on! Good luck keeping up your word count over the holidays, because that can be rough. Lock yourself in the bathroom for a little while if that’s the only way to escape Uncle Bob who wants to drone about politics.

If you’re not on track, you should know that many folks give up by week 3. Once you fall behind, it can be incredibly challenging to stare at that graph and feel motivation to churn out words and catch up. Especially when your story is starting to grate on you, or it isn’t coming out like you thought it would, or you have another shiny idea you want to flit to like a butterfly seeking cocaine.

Things to consider if you’re struggling:

First drafts suck, especially when you’re new to novel-length storytelling. The vast majority of us who NaNo and have become published hide our first few NaNo novels from the world because they’re awful. And when I say awful, I mean they don’t have enough redeeming value to be worth spending the time revising.

Writing itself is supposed to be pleasurable. Your brain should get a rush when it’s high on storytelling. If you never feel even a smidge of that, maybe you’re trying to tell the wrong kind of story. Storytelling is best when it comes from passion. Your passion, not someone else’s. What do you love? What are you driven to explore? What makes you feel a sense of wonder? Write about that.

If you’re fine with starting things and never finishing them, that’s okay. Not everyone is going to write books and publish them, and that’s perfectly fine. I won’t look down on you for counting all your words from three or four different works you started and never finished. Anyone who does is an asshole.

And that’s the thing. Writing is personal. It’s an individual sport, not a team effort. Publishing is a team effort, but writing is very much not. For some folks, 1667 per day, every day, just isn’t going to happen. 500 per day, 5 days a week except for vacation, is a respectable writing pace that can next you 100-130k per year. 5000 per weekend is also fine, and will get you as much as 260k per year.

If the problem is about how much planning you did or didn’t do, it’s fine to sit down and just let your fingers barf out whatever comes to mind. Grab some pictures and use them as prompts to write some flashfic or short stories. Write some fanfic. Do an enhanced outline, where you get detailed about what you want in the book, but don’t actually write narrative prose.

Have fun. If you’re not having fun, either stop or change up with you’re doing.

#NaNoWriMo Week 1 Wrap #amwriting

It’s Day 7 and you’re in one of three places: on target, below target, or over target.

If you’re on or over target, that’s awesome! Me too! High five! Keep truckin’ and you’ll ace this thing. Don’t forget to ask your fellow NaNos for help if you get stuck so you can keep going.

If you’re below target, let’s talk.

There are a zounds-load of reasons why anyone can be below target right now. Maybe you had a personal or family disaster. You might’ve underestimated the amount of time it takes you to write 1667 words. The story could be refusing to work. This writing thing is harder than you thought. OMG, the news.

And so on.

Here are some important things to think about:

  1. Whatever you have written now, it’s that many more words than you had written on Halloween.
  2. Winning NaNo is not that big a deal. It’s cool and all, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s about as useful as turning in your homework a day early.
  3. Losing NaNo doesn’t mean you aren’t a “real” writer.
  4. Wherever you’re at, you’re probably only one or two super-productive days from being on target again.
  5. The physical and mental health of yourself and your loved ones is so much more important than writing.
  6. Losing NaNo doesn’t mean you aren’t a “real” writer.
  7. If your writing days are getting more productive, you’ll probably be fine, because your creative muscles are growing.
  8. Write-ins are a really great way to meet other people in the same boat. You’re not alone.
  9. Losing NaNo doesn’t mean you aren’t a “real” writer.

And finally, losing NaNo doesn’t mean you aren’t a “real” writer. I know a lot of professional writers, and while most of them have heard of NaNo, less than half participate. It’s not for everyone.

But don’t give up just because it’s hard! If you have a story to tell, tell that story. Maybe your life will only give you time to write 500 words per day right now. Write those 500 words. Get into the habit. If you write 500 words per day, you’ll write 15,000 words by the end of the month. You know what 15,000 words equals?

About 1/4 of a novel. (Also, 2-3 short stories or one novella.)

Get back into those word mines, penmonkey!

#NaNoWriMo #NaNoPrep Is Done, Dude

Halloween. AKA the Last Day Before NaNo.

I have no idea how you get a cat to sit still long enough to do this to it.

Some of you will begin writing at 12:01am tomorrow morning for your time zone. The rest of us have more appreciation for sleep and will begin at a more sane hour. Whenever you plan to start, make sure you get these things done before the end of today:

  1. Create your novel on NaNoWrimo.org. It’s in your Author Dashboard. You only have to fill in a title, and it can be anything, including “This is the Title.” The rest is optional.
  2. Set up your writing document in whatever fashion is most comfortable for you. If you like writing in a particular font, put down “Chapter 1” and change it to that font. Fix whatever else makes you happy.
  3. Put at least a shortcut to the blank document on your desktop (or in your favorites bar if you use an online wp like Google Drive).
  4. Know your plan for backing up the doc. If you’re using a cloud-based program, you’re all set. If you’re not, are you working off a flash drive? Are you going to save to a flash drive every x minutes/hours? Email it to yourself once a day?
  5. Visualize the opening of the first scene. Be ready to start writing when you sit down.
  6. Have at least one day of eating planned. It’s better if you have multiple days, but one day is a good start!
  7. Attend to any chores you’d ordinarily do by the end of the week. If you have something, like laundry, that doesn’t make sense to do early, set yourself up so that chore is easy to get to and easy to get done with minimal interruptions for your writing time.
  8. Set your DVR to record things you’d usually watch and say goodbye to your TV.
  9. Make a firm commitment to stay off social media except to proclaim your wordcount or check in with your region’s accounts (if your region has them). Set up a timer to keep your visits to ten minutes or less.
  10. If you haven’t already, bookmark your home region’s page on the NaNo website so you can update your wordcount, check the write-in calendar, and find local NaNo news with one click.
  11. Arrange your workspace so it’s comfy and welcoming.

May the words be ever in your favor. So write we all.

#NaNoPrep Season: Being Creative When Life Sucks

For many professional arting types, such as writers, this has been a rough year. A lot of us have been exhausted by all the things going on for the past 12-15 months. This isn’t even solely about politics. Natural disasters and terrorism are horrible for creativity. The economy isn’t exactly fantastic if you’re not already rich. I’ve been watching politicians press to take away my health care, either wholly or partially, over and over, and again. As a value-added bonus, my father passed away last November.

This stuff is exhausting. Things which are exhausting are problematic for creative expression.

Here, have a refreshing pic of Supercat, my personal writing helper.

If you like writing, you’ve probably seen quotes about why writing is more important than ever lately. Which is great, but doesn’t help if you’re struggling to put ideas together or if you feel like your work is frivolous in a time that seems to demand seriousness.

This is how I’ve still managed to produce work over the past year:

  1. Stop spending so much time on social media. At least half the crap you find there isn’t even real anyway. Check in, catch up with your friends, and check out. Don’t argue with anyone unless it’s silly or frivolous and you need some silly or frivolous. No one has their mind changed by arguments on FB or Twitter.
  2. Get into a routine. Creativity is a lot like a muscle. Flex it every day at the same time, and your brain starts to expect that. Treat it like an exercise regimen. Go easy on yourself at first, and slowly add more weight (by which I mean time and demands).
  3. When something happens that you don’t understand and/or can’t process, like a terrorist opening fire on a crowd of people having fun, set aside your WIP for the day and write a loose story about how you feel. Write a story where you save all those people through some improbable means. Or tell a story about an imaginary victim who finds true love, or meets their maker, or whatever else pops into your head. Get that crap out so it stops festering inside. No one else ever has to read it, you just have to bleed it.
  4. Don’t watch the news for more than one hour on any given day. Keep up with current events, especially local ones, but pass on all the editorializing and opinionating.
  5. Exercise. Like, actual physical exercise that gets you off your butt for at least an hour a day. Writing is a sedentary job. Break it up a bit. For every hour you spend writing, get up for five minutes and do something that needs doing around your dwelling. Between chapters, take a walk or lift some weights, or whatever works for you.
  6. If you don’t have one already, find a social writing group that you can meet with in person on some regular schedule. This is not the same thing as a critique group. Critique groups are great and important, but you need a few folks you can just chill with and talk to who understand the plight of being a writer. NaNo write-ins are a great time to find folks for this purpose.
  7. Take a day off every week or so. Unplug. Go for a hike in the woods without your phone. Get away from your writing, from the news, from Uncle Bob’s opinions, from everything. If you can’t take a whole day, take as much of one as you can. At the least, treat yourself to something you consider decadent–an activity or foodstuff is a great thing to spend some time savoring.
  8. Make time to experience new things once in a while. Go someplace you’ve never been. Watch a webinar about a subject you’re not familiar with. Try the cheapest possible version of a handicraft you’ve never tried. Play a new game. Taste a new flavor. Take a different way home. Something.

If none of that helps, I strongly suggest seeking professional medical assistance. You may have depression or some other medical or psychological issue standing in your way. Mental health issues are exceedingly common among creative types. Modern medicine and/or psychology can fix a lot of those kinds of problems, or at least make them less debilitating.

As a side note, clever readers will notice I didn’t address the frivolity issue. That’s because it’s not a real issue. Everything doesn’t have to delve into serious, timely topics. Everything doesn’t have to address problems in our current culture. Relationships matter, buttkicking for goodness matters, the struggles of gods and mortals alike matter. Whatever you write, so long as it’s from your soul, it matters.

Next week: Panicking with style.

#NaNoPrep Season: Basics of Writing an Outline

You may think you don’t need an outline, but odds are good that your first draft will turn out better with one. More time spent before the writing on figuring out how to work the plot means less time spent during the writing on that very subject.

What is an outline?

At its most basic, an outline for a novel is a list of notes about the plot in chronological order. Outlines can be vague or detailed, terse or verbose. The right way to outline is the way that provides you with what you need to write the story. Which is to say that there is no right way to outline, there’s only the way that works for you.

Like this, except with plot points.

Of course, that’s not helpful if you’re not sure what to put in an outline to start with.

How Does One Do This Outlining Thing?

To start your first real outline, you’ll have to know some things about your story. You’ll need your genre, basic setting, character ideas, and what story you want to tell. Let’s go back to my ridiculous example of Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim from last week.

The genre could either be fantasy or science fiction. I’m going to go with fantasy, then further refine to modern fantasy. It’ll still have sci-fi elements, but this lets me have teenage wizards and witches, which is kind of the point of Harry Potter. I’ll include giant mecha and kaiju because that’s also required. So, my teenage wizards are piloting giant mecha to fight kaiju created by an evil wizard who wants to control the world. Because that’s what evil wizards do. It’ll take place in near-future Earth where magic exists for some reason I don’t need to identify right now.

Now that I know the basic premise, I can begin an outline. The more information you have, the easier it is to make up a robust outline, but you can start with just this much.

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to work up a full outline for a novel-length story and post it publicly. If you want to write Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim, you’re welcome for the idea, but figure out the story yourself.

We know the plot will center around our teenage wizards working to defeat the evil wizard. We need to decide if they defeat him for good in this story (thus making this book a standalone), or if they only defeat him temporarily (for a series). I’m going to say this will be a trilogy. So the evil wizard gets defeated, but only temporarily.

Now we know the end. How does the story start? Since this is a Harry Potter knockoff, it’ll start with kids in a school. I don’t want to do 7 years and cross age category from middle grade to YA, so we’ll do YA. Our teenage wizards are 14 years old and attending wizard high school so they can learn to pilot giant mecha and fight kaiju. A lot of kids start high school at 14, so let’s begin with our heroes on their first day of magic high school.

Tip: Don’t follow the plot of any existing story with precision unless that existing story is public domain. Ripping off other authors is bad. Getting caught doing it is worse.

I now have two important pieces of my outline: the beginning and the end. Neither has much detail, but knowing where to start and where to end is an excellent way to begin an outline.

From here, you need to make an important decision. About how long do you want this book to be? A 50k word novel is less complex and has fewer plotlines than a 100k word novel. A 75k novel is in between. For my purposes, I’m going to go with 75k as my ideal target wordcount.

Notice how I use “ideal target wordcount” and don’t make it a concrete thing. Don’t be surprised if you pick a target number and shoot way under or way over. Part of the learning process is discovering how many words it takes to tell the story in your head.

Next, you need to decide what kind of story you want to tell. I could take this outline in several directions. It could be relationship-driven, focusing on the connections between the characters and how magic impacts their lives. I could go action-heavy, throwing them into the mecha and onto the front lines for some reason. I could make it a mystery, with the kids working to discover why the evil wizard is using kaiju. There are other options, but these three appeal to me the most. Since my target wordcount is 75k, I’m going to pick action for a major focus, mystery for a secondary focus, and relationships to bubble underneath.

For a 50k work, I’d use only two. For a 100k work, I’d take all three, plus see if I can come up with another one to bubble with the relationships.

This is the part where you start doing the real work.

Figure out the evil wizard’s goals. Why is he evil? (Because you need an antagonist is not a good reason.) What does he think “control the world” means? How does he intend to accomplish that?

Take your major focus and figure out the simplest path to defeating the evil wizard if everything goes right for the heroes. My major focus is action, so my wizards are going to learn to use their magic and mecha well enough to fight the evil wizard’s kaiju and smash his headquarters. The simplest path is for them to jump in, learn everything they need to know on the fly, and wade through the kaiju to reach him.

Which is not a compelling story.

Figure out your evil wizard’s simplest path to victory if everything goes right for him. My evil wizard wants to control the world. He’s using kaiju to lure out all those who would resist him and crush them so he can take control of the weak, who’ll then be his slaves. His simplest path is for the kaiju to wade through his enemies and smash lots of stuff, including that school with those damned kids.

Also not a compelling story.

Those two boring stories, when pursued concurrently, have a lot of potential. The heroes and villain have a direct conflict in their goal. You can now see that the villain has a reason to target the school, which is why the kids are going to be involved in the fighting.

At this point, you fill in the path from the Starting Point to the Ending Point with ideas and notes. Whatever you think of, write it down.

Once you have some basic ideas for that, repeat for your secondary focus, weaving them together. Then slide in your bubbling option wherever it feels right. As you go, get specific enough that you can write a scene from your notes without being so specific that you feel like you already wrote the scene.

Here’s the trick.

Outlines end as a list of notes in chronological order. They rarely start that way.

For example, I think this book should have a scene involving the heroes getting into trouble for breaking some school rules. I have no idea where that fits in my plot, but I’m making a note, and I’ll pull it out when I reach a point where I need one or more of my heroes taken out of commission, or to be in a place where they can do a thing they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Think of Harry finding Filch’s squib letter or the three kids running across the troll.

One option is to write your scene ideas on index cards and move them around until they make sense. If that isn’t your style, figure out what works for your brain and do that instead.

One Last Point…For Now.

There are lots of ways to get into your first outline. If you’d rather have a book, there are plenty of excellent ones to try. I recommend 21 Days To A Novel and No Plot? No Problem! as good, all-purpose guides by people who know what they’re talking about.

And it’s worth saying that every time you set out to write a book, your process will probably shift, at least a little. The important part is to start, not to start perfect.

#NaNoPrep Season: Learning Your Pre-writing Style #NaNoWriMo

There are many writers who claim to pants their stories. That is, fly by the seat of their pants, aka no plan, no outline, no nothing before starting to write. The other option is planning, which consists of drawing up a complete outline, character bios, detailed setting documents, and so on.

Pantser vs. Plotter

I wish to submit two controversial opinions:

  1. Pantsing and plotting are not two options, but rather two ends of a spectrum.
  2. As with many linear scales, most of us fit most comfortably somewhere between the two extremes.

The popularized term for folks who do “both” is Plantser. My argument is that we are all plantsers. Or, at least, the majority of us are.

Planster

The hitch: until you start writing, you have no real idea where you fit on that spectrum. You may think you’re on the Pantser end, then you get stuck on Day 4 with no idea what to do. Or you could Plannerize everything down to the details, then discover you only want to write a few of those scenes because the rest is already fulfilled in your head. Or your plans fly out the window because on Day 3, you thought of something brilliant.

My advice to any writer who isn’t sure where you fall on the spectrum is to aim for the middle. This list is not in order, because no one uses exactly the same process:

  1. Draft an outline focused on the major plot points. Leave out details and keep to the basic facts.
  2. Figure out the broad strokes of your main characters.
  3. Do some pre-writing of 1-3 short scenes that would take place before the novel starts to settle into the characters’ voices and mannerisms.
  4. Figure out what your setting needs to accommodate your plot and characters.
  5. If you have any mystery elements at all, come up with the clues.
  6. Come up with your ideal “It’s this meets this!” line. Example: “It’s Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim!” (I have no idea what that would look like, but I’d read the hell out of it.)
  7. Do your research, whether it’s about a place, a person label, a culture, clothing, technology, or whatever. Bookmark web pages with useful information about whatever topics you need.

For the average writer, this list should cover your prepping needs. You may discover you need more detail. Maybe you’re better with less.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to toss your outline if your brain takes you in a direction than your outline. Be flexible. But when you decide to veer off course, take a little time and figure out why. Is the new idea really better? Does the new journey suit the character/theme/conflict you want to portray?

If you feel good about the new direction, do a fresh set of plot points with it in mind and carry on.

It’s All About You #amwriting #writingtips

Over the weekend, I chanced to have an interesting chatroom encounter with a person claiming to have multiple neurological diagnoses. I say “claim” because it’s a chatroom, and you never really know. I spend a fair amount of time in that particular chatroom, and most folks seem honest. I try to be when I’m not goofing around or being ridiculous.

I’m going to refer to this person as a male called “D”, though I have no idea of their gender, and this is clearly not their real name. I’m just doing it for simplicity.

D had been in the room before, and wanted help with writing stuff. Being myself, I stepped up and offered to help. During his previous request for assistance, he’d announced he enjoyed writing fanfic, and wanted help with mashup ideas.

To be clear, I think fanfic is great. I don’t spend my time writing it, but I have daydreams and such, and my brain wanders through what ifs for characters I like. To those who write and read fanfic, that’s great. If you ever have the urge to use my stuff for fanfic, knock yourself out. Anyway.

It soon became clear this person had a narrow list of ideas, but couldn’t pick one and wanted someone else to pick for them. Of the things on the list, I didn’t know much about most of them, so I didn’t say much once that list was revealed. I will say that I still think Harry Potter vs Predator would be neat. But I digress.

On this second occasion, the one which prompted this post, D entered the room and posted, “I hate writer’s block.”

If you don’t hang out with writers, you may be familiar with only the basic idea of writer’s block as some mystical creature shaped like a wall that writers bang their head against while producing nothing. Some writers see it that way too. In reality, it’s not a mythological beast or even an actual thing. Writer’s block is just another way of saying that you’re tired, overworked, burned out, need a vacation, should eat, could use some exercise, or have some other problematic issue with self-care. Either that, or you did something wrong in the story and your brain knows it, but can’t figure out what it is.

Whenever people try to cop the writer’s block excuse around me, that’s what I tell them, one way or another. As I did in this case. More or less–do some exercise, take a nap/get a night’s rest, and/or eat, then come back and try again. If that doesn’t work, switch to another project for a while. This is what the professional writerfolk (and, for that matter, most artistfolk) do, because we can’t wait around for airy fairy muses to flutter out of the sky and wave a magic wand around our heads with ideas. We hunt muses and seduce them so they never want to leave in the first place.

If you subscribe to the muse theory, that is. Anyway.

Other folks in the room did what they do, which is offer suggestions, none of which seemed to satisfy or appease D. He then did what I later realized was whining with a post which roughly translated to: you’re all jerks, I don’t know why I bother asking for advice here, this is a waste of time.

To which, I, being me, pointed out that yes, it is a waste of time because he doesn’t need outside ideas, he needs to think about what kind of stories he wants to tell and figure this stuff out for himself.

Which apparently made me sound like a sanctimonious bitch, but that’s not the point.

The point is this: any average human can string together words to make grammatically understandable sentences, draw lines and shapes, or arrange elements on a canvas. These are not especially challenging activities to the average human.

What makes writing, drawing, or design into art is the pieces of yourself that you put into it. It’s the tools you select and how you apply them. In writing, it’s about your word choices, the beats of the plot, the nuances of the characters, the descriptive details. It’s about expressing something in a way that evokes emotion.

What a writer needs from the outside isn’t ideas. It’s a sounding board. Someone to whom you express ideas and they help refine or shoot down the really stupid crap. If you can’t come up with an idea in the first place, taking someone else’s won’t solve the problem.

As a side note, this is why there are some specific challenges inherent in writing with a co-author, but that’s a whole different ball o’ wax.

Happy writing!