Learning To Make Choices In Writing And Life

Opposites Attract
Choices: which story would you write?
Photo credit: Wayne S. Grazio


There is still time left this year to meet some of your goals. The question is which ones?

You probably had a list of projects you wanted to write this year, and there are only two possibilities now:

  1. You haven’t made the progress on the projects that you would have liked, or
  2. You blew through your projects and generated a new, longer list.

Either way you have a choice to make:where do you focus your time and creative energy for the rest of the year?

Learning To Choose

 

“Successful people make decisions quickly and change their minds slowly”

-Napoleon Hill

This certainly seem to be a trait in many of the successful people I know.

“The only bad choice, is making no choice”

-Jeff Walker

I’ve been writing long enough now that I’ve seen people come along who were just starting out when I’d been doing this for a few years, who have overtaken me. Whether it’s the success of their website, or their book publishing, they seem much further along on one or other of the paths I want to take.

I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. But why does it happen?

Partly, it’s to do with making choices.

Like many writers I tend to over think things. I tend to get stalled by the idea that there is a perfect choice.

We could beat ourselves up about that, but the reality is, as writers we make choices all the time. We need to get comfortable with that, so that our perceptions don’t hold us back.

Everything About Writing Contains Choices

You choose

  • to sit down and write today
  • when to work
  • what project to work on
  • What decisions you character’s going to make
  • The best words to convey their actions, their feelings, their surroundings.

Every choice you make is a rejection of every other choice.

Scary!

Does The Thought of Closing Down Options Paralyze You?

As a reforming over-thinker and reluctant-decision-maker, I’m here to tell you that, the more you make choices in your writing, the better you become at it.

And in fiction, making choices is always reversible.

 

Decision + Course Correction = Win

Here’s the really important part about choices: you aren’t locked into your choices, but you must review them and adjust your course.

For example, if you decide to kill off a character in your short story, but then find they would have been useful to have around later, you have some choices to make: must you correct the mistake or can you make some other character carry the weight that would have been taken up by the character you killed?

And in your writing life: you decide you’re going to write for two hours before bed every night, but find yourself tired and depleted and unable to create anything worthwhile. Should you continue to do what you think ought to work, or should you review the results of the experiment, decide you’ve learned something useful, and try writing at another time of day?

(Hint: it’s Answer B)

We’re not sculptors, lopping off pieces of marble that ought to have been a nose or an arm. If we accidentally chop off a story arm, we just go back in and add more words!

With words, we can fix everything.

Making choices in your fiction is fantastic practice for making choices on bigger issues.

TASK: Go back to your writing today with a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the fact that your medium is the insubstantial one of words and fiction; and that by making choice in your fiction you get to become better at it.

Don’t Be Too Capricious

The art of iteration (i.e. trying things, adjusting and trying the next, tweaked version) is in trying a new thing for long enough to really tell if it’s working, before you analyze and make changes.

  • If you’re trying to write at night, commit to trying it every day for two weeks (or the equivalent thereof) and only then, make changes.
  • If you change a plot thread or a character, write a good chunk of the story after that decision point, evaluate it, and only then make decisions.

Do not make decision on the fly. Do not change your routine or your decisions every day. Give every experiment time to run, then examine it, and change one little thing, and go again.

Think of these experiments as first drafts. My first-draft version of ‘write first’ allow me to check  email before I started writing. After I had tried the experiment for a while, I got stuck. The experiment (the first draft) had run its course. The outcome: checking email derailed my fiction writing.

So I edited out ‘check email’, and gave the process another try. It went much better.

Limiting Choices

The fact that we commit to writing a story every single day in May, means there is no bargaining. There is no question of ‘am I going to write today?” No mental energy is lost on that decision. Instead we StoryADay-ers leap out of bed in a panic, thinking “WHAT am I going to write today?”

With the writing part assumed, we skip straight to making creative choices, and scanning the world for inspiration.

I advocate taking away as many choices as possible from your writing practice.

Making choices saps your willpower. If you spend your day making choices about your writing practice, by the time you sit down at the keyboard, you’re going to be pretty depleted.

Does your day go like this:

  • Get Up
  • Decide if I’ll write today
  • Decide when I’ll write today
  • Check email — to ‘clear the decks so I can write’
  • Tidy up/run a load of laundry– to ‘earn the right to write’
  • Make dinner
  • Push back my writing time for any of 1001 reasons
  • MAYBE get around to writing, and send the first half of the time allotted, trying to quiet my mind and get back into the story.

I would argue that if your day looks like this, you have depleted your will power so much that it is going to be really hard for you to make all the choices that you need to make in your story world.

Think about Mark Zuckerberg and his omnipresent grey hoodies, or Obama wearing the same blue suit (or multiples thereof) almost every day of his presidency. These people have so many choices to make in the day, the last thing they want to do is waste energy on choosing an outfit.

You have so many choices to make in your story world, the last thing you want to do is worry about reinventing your writing routine every day.

Protect Your Bubble

Now, I know not everyone can write first thing in the morning (it’s extremely rare day when I can truly sit down to write without having to deal with other people’s needs first).

But what you can do, is create a protected bubble of time that is for writing. In order to do that, make a deal with yourself that you will write at a specific time every day (or plan ahead for a weeks’ worth of writing days if your schedule is unpredictable).

And then stick to it.

This removes the self-talk about whether you’ll write today, wether you deserve your writing time, and all the bargaining we do with ourselves to ‘buy’ writing time.

My Current Practice

I have tried to make it, recently, an absolute that I write fiction first thing in the morning. I’ve tried to make it an absolute that I don’t look at email, Twitter, Facebook, or talk to any more people than absolutely necessary, before meet my fiction word count.

The more that has become a habit, the more my fiction output has grown, and the more my output has grown, the more creative breakthroughs I’ve had and, the better my writing has become.

Find Your Routine

You may find that you can write best at the end of the day, when everyone has gone to bed and you will have no choices except the ones in your story world.

Just decide when you’ll write, and stick to it for a couple of weeks. Decide if it’s working. Tweak. Try again. Keep writing!

DON’T BE AFRAID OF ROUTINE

I know we creative types often resist routine and commitment and structure because we’ve been sold this vision of the crazy creative.

We’ve come to believe that routine and structure stifle creativity and innovation, but in fact, routine in your working practices can actually free you up to be more creative in your work.

“Clarity and decisiveness come from the willingness to slow down, to listen to and to look at what’s happening.”

-Pema Chodron

We can’t build the creative space we need if we’re cramming our writing time into the space between all the will-I/won’t-I choices we put in front of our commitment to our writing.

Learning to get better at making choices and sticking with them is a powerful tool both in your stories, in your writing life, and in your life in general.

(Lesson #357 in how writing makes us better people!)

HOW TO GET BETTER AT MAKING CHOICES

Make your choices boldly. Stick to your commitments for a period of time. But remember that, as in writing, you can edit your choices later.

What will you choose to work on between now and the end of the year in your writing life? Something in your writing practice? A particular written project? Leave a comment

091 – Regrouping PLUS: NaNo Rescue!

For all you NaNo novelists out there, deep in the belly of a fast-written novel, I have a suggestion for a way to revitalize your writing and your excitement about your project.

For everyone (else?) I talk about regrouping: it’s November: There’s still time to rescue some of your writing goals for this year, and set yourself up for a successful writing year in 2018.

 

LINKS:

The StoryADay Serious Writers’ Accountability Group (SWAGr) – http://bit.ly/2zPC6l1

Austin Kleon – a sample newsletter – http://bit.ly/2meYazT

Ryan Holiday on how & why to keep a ‘commonplace book’ (AKA Interinsting Things Log) – http://bit.ly/2mfjGEp

 

 

Another new episode of Write Every Day, Not “Some Day”

SWAGr – Accountability for November 2017

Every month we gather here to discuss what we’ve achieved and commit to making more progress in our creative lives in the coming month. We call it our   Serious Writer’s Accountability Group or SWAGr, for short! (We’re serious, not sombre!)

What people are saying about StoryADayMay 2014

Leave a comment below telling us how you got on last month, and what you plan to do next month, then check back in on the first of each month, to see how everyone’s doing.

(It doesn’t have to be fiction. Feel free to use this group to push you in whatever creative direction you need.)

Did you live up to your commitment from last month? Don’t remember what you promised to do? Check out the comments from last month.

And don’t forget to celebrate with/encourage your fellow SWAGr-ers on their progress!

Download your SWAGr Tracking Sheet now, to keep track of your commitments this month

****

Examples of Goals Set By SWAGr-ers in previous months

  • Write a story a day in May – everyone!
  • Revise at least 10 short stories – Iraide
  • Write two short stories. – Jami
  • Attend one writers’ conference – Julie
  • Write fable for WordFactory competition – Sonya
  • Re-read the backstory pieces I wrote in May and see if I can use them within my novel – Monique
  • Research the market – Jami
  • Focus on my serial – Maureen

 So, what will you accomplish this month? Leave your comment below (use the drop-down option to subscribe to the comments and receive lovely, encouraging notifications from fellow StADa SWAGr-ers!)

(Next check-in, 1st of the month. Tell your friends. )


090 – Mastering The Magic of Opening Lines

 Writing the first line of your story is tough. Opening lines must: 

  • Set up the main question the reader is going to be asking all the way through
  • Establish the voice of the protagonist/narrator
  • Set the tone
  • Ground the reader in a time or place

So, how do you make your first line reflect all these things?

Let’s look at some examples.

 

Read more and sign up to get the extra case studies:

Mastering The Magic of Opening Lines [http://storyaday.org/opening-lines]

 

Another new episode of Write Every Day, Not “Some Day”

Mastering The Magic of Opening Lines

Get the full report here

Opening lines are hard to write because they have to do so much:

Ask the story question; establish the voice; set the tone of the story; establish the scene

What Opening Lines Must Do:

  • Set up the main question the reader is going to be asking all the way through
  • Establish the voice of the protagonist/narrator
  • Set the tone
  • Ground the reader in a time or place

That’s why I advocate writing the first lines last—or at least tweaking them after you’ve finished the story, when you know what it’s about.

So, how do you make your first line reflect all these things?

Let’s look at some examples.  Continue reading “Mastering The Magic of Opening Lines”

[Writing Prompt] Don’t Fight With Strangers On Social Media

Fighting creativityA few days ago, I commented on a Twitter post about a hot-button issue. I don’t normally do that, but I thought I was making a neutral, expanding-the-argument kind of comment.

You can tell where this is going can’t you?

Yeah.

Someone read my comment and assumed I was saying something I wasn’t; pigeon-holed me as someone from the completely different end of the ideological spectrum; and proceeded to make snarky, personal comments every time I tried to defuse the situation.

I had that hot-and-sweaty, blood-pounding-in-my-face, pit-in-my-stomach sensation we all remember so well from the injustices of being a misunderstood 12-year-old.  I wasted hours constructing careful answers and psyching myself up to open up my Twitter feed, wondering if I would find an olive branch or a minefield.

It wasn’t fun.

It sucked all the creativity out of my day.

It was such a waste of time.

And the irony of it was, I had, that very morning, reposted Austin Kleon’s advice not to pick fights with strangers on social media!

The Prompt

Find an issue that you COULD have a fight with someone about on social media and instead, write a story.

Tips

  • Make it something you really, really care about.
  • Have a protagonist and an antagonist who feel strongly about either side of the argument.
  • Give the antagonist a legitimate reason to feel that way — don’t make them a cardboard cut-out/cartoon villain.  (This might be hard, but will result in a better story, and a better you!)
  • You don’t have to be sympathetic to the opposing point of view, but you do have to grant some humanity to the person who holds that view. Grace them with some nuance. It’ll make for a better story, and it’ll intrigue the reader.
  • It will make your story and its outcome surprising and  memorable.
  • Consider leaving the story slightly unresolved. Life usually is. Maybe there is a moment when one (or both) characters have a glimmer of understanding (or of seeing the other person as a real human), or maybe they miss that moment entirely.
  • When working with two sides of an issue, you can show how the ‘good’ character could easily become the ‘bad’ character if only they…{insert the line your character will not cross here] and vice versa.
  • Because this is a short story, focus on one angle of an issue, one comment, one moment in the character’s lives.
  • Maybe let the exchange play out on a simulated social media exchange.
  • Maybe have the characters in another time and place, debating face to face, or through some completely different medium.

 

I promise you that, if you write a story instead of picking a fight with a stranger on social media, you’ll have a better day than I did last week 😉

 

[Write On Wednesday] Four-Part Story

I’m currently fascinated by a short story experiment being run by Penguin Random House.

They’re running a series called “The Season of Stories“. You subscribe, and they send you a story every week.

But that’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that they serialize the story.

Every day, Monday-Thursday, you receive part of a story.

It’s how short stories were read in publications back at the start of the golden age of short story writing, and it’s something we’ve moved away from. Instead of making them bite-sized treats, we sell short stories by weight, packaged into collections. Then we try to sell them to readers who have been trained on novels.

(No wonder short story collections don’t sell well!)

With a novel, you, the reader, carve out some time to plunge yourself into a story world, allow yourself to be pulled along by cliffhangers, spend time getting to know the characters.

Short stories aren’t like that.

Readers, in general, don’t know what to do with a short story collection, but anyone can open their email and read a quarter of a story. Especially one that has been well-crafted.

Today I want you to practice crafting a story that will keep bringing a reader back for more.

Stories naturally break into four parts: inciting incident, rising action, midpoint shift, then climax/conclusion/resolution.  Each part must end with a kicker that leaves the reader wanting more (yes, even the end).

The Prompt

Write a story that can be read in four parts. Focus on creating mini-cliffhangers at each quarter point.

Tips

  • The Seasons of Stories shorts have ranged from 600-1900 words per installment. You can choose a length that works for you.
  • This is a great way to promote your other writing. PRH’s emails come with a ‘if you enjoyed this, read more in this book’ ad at the end. But it never feels ‘salesy’ because they’ve given me a free sample and are simply letting me know where I can find more, if I liked it. Sometimes this link is to a novel by the same author. Sometimes it is to a collection of short stories containing stories by the author. (Now that they’ve trained me to read shorts, they can sell me their collection!)
  • Don’t forget to raise a big story question at the start (remember: you can do this in revisions), that won’t be addressed until the climax/end. Do this in addition to the mini-cliffhangers at the end of each section.
  • If you need some examples, check out The Season of Stories. It’s free.
  • I heard about this from Daniel Pink’s newsletter. If you like this, consider subscribing to that. It’s a short read and he shares interesting stuff like this, every other week.

Now, go and write your story.

Come back and tell me how it went!

 

SWAGr – Accountability for October 2017

Every month we gather here to discuss what we’ve achieved and commit to making more progress in our creative lives in the coming month. We call it our   Serious Writer’s Accountability Group or SWAGr, for short! (We’re serious, not sombre!)

What people are saying about StoryADayMay 2014

Leave a comment below telling us how you got on last month, and what you plan to do next month, then check back in on the first of each month, to see how everyone’s doing. Continue reading “SWAGr – Accountability for October 2017”

089 – StoryADay September Week 4 prompts

In This Week’s Podcast

Writing Prompts [1:44] http://storyaday.org/stadasep17-04/

What To Do If It’s Getting Harder To Write [4:08]

Book Review: Windy Lynn Harris’s Writing and Selling Short Stories and Personal Essays [6:08]

How’s Your SWAGr? [12:18]

Come and leave a comment or question at the blog: http://storyaday.org/stadasep17-04/

And listen next week for more information about an upcoming critique opportunity.

Another new episode of Write Every Day, Not “Some Day”

Five Last Prompts for StoryADay September 2017 – Week 4

Subscribe Now:iTunes | Android | RSS
Past Episodes
Use these prompts any way you wish. Change genders, change tenses, quote them, or not. Or, ignore them altogether and use your own story sparks.

The Prompts

Continue reading “Five Last Prompts for StoryADay September 2017 – Week 4”

[Reading Room] Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays by Windy Lynn Harris

Normally my Tuesday Reading Room posts review a short story I’ve read, but I’m breaking with tradition this week to tell you about a fabulous — and much needed — new book, Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays, by Windy Lynn Harris, a writer and the founder of Marketing Coach for Creative Writers.

A Handbook For Today’s Writer

Windy Lynn Harris knows the industry and she knows the craft of short fiction and essay-writing. She breaks it all down for you, and this book gives you confidence to enter today’s writing market. Continue reading “[Reading Room] Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays by Windy Lynn Harris”

088 – StoryADay Sep17 Writing Prompts and: Don’t Quit!

This week I give you five story starter prompts and an excitable sermon on not quitting. Enjoy!

The Prompts [0:52]

Progress Report [1:46]

Don’t Quit (with bonus Cassini shout out) [3:36]

Checklist and Feedback info [12:38]

You can find the prompts online here: http://storyaday.org/stadasep17-03/

You can find the checklist for StoryADay Sep17 here: http://bitly.com/2fkPe5M

You can take the survey (with last week’s checklist clutched in your hot little hand) here: goo.gl/forms/O8fHSMfWAlDbrtBw2

And you can always make your public commitment to your writing at the first of the month at http://storyaday.org

Another new episode of Write Every Day, Not “Some Day”