When I started StoryADay May back in 2010, some of 100 or so people who took part really stuck with me. One was Gabriela Pereira, who had just finished up an MFA and was transitioning from student to working writer. We shared an enthusiasm both for writing and for the hair-brained scheme.
Back then, I was a couple of years ahead of her in the online, community-building, content-marketing , writing-for-pay experience. Now she has soared into the writing world as a leader, a teacher, an inspirer and, in her own words, Chief Instigator at her project: DIY MFA.
This afternoon I tuned in to her latest webinar, sort of as a favor. I’ve heard the talk before, live and in person, and was really just showing in case no one else did. Of course, there were tons of people on the call, loads of questions from attendees, and Gabriela fired people up and sent them away with tools and techniques to make their writing better, as always.
But — it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did — what I hadn’t expected to happen was that I had a breakthrough about my own novel-in-progress, while listening to Gabriela talk. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the turning point at the mid-point of my novel needed to be. More than knowing it, I could *picture* it.
I rushed off to my office and scrawled three pages of notes, opened up Scrivener and started adding scene cards to the second half of my novel’s file. I got super excited, and then realized how much writing I had to do…then chose to see that as exciting too!
Did I mention I’ve heard this talk at least twice before?
Lesson learned: when you find a teacher/mentor/friend whose words you really connect to, stick to them. Revisit their lessons. Re-read their books. Get on webinars and conference calls with them. Ask questions. Go over and over their lessons at different stages of your development and the development of each of your projects.
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:
You haven’t made the progress on the projects that you would have liked, or
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”
This certainly seem to be a trait in many of the successful people I know.
“The only bad choice, is making no choice”
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
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.
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.
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:
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’
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.”
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
To stick to our good intentions and create good writing practices, we have to stay excited about our writing. Meeting a word count goal or an hours-in-chair goal isn’t always enough of an incentive to break through our resistance to sitting down and creating something out of nothing, every day.
So, in this article, I’m offering you some alternative ways to get yourself jazzed about your writing practice.
Of course, being me, I’m going to recommend you incorporate short stories into your writing practice, but you can use these ideas even when you’re working on a scene in a longer work.
I’m going to show you how you can stay excited about your writing practice by:
Understanding the purpose of your story and how it affects the final form,
Experimenting with new formats and new ideas,
Focusing on your audience (but not too much)
I’m also going to give you one foolproof way to make sure you finish your stories, every time.
And then I’m going to invite you to make a very specific commitment to your writing this year—if it seems right for you—one with built-in accountability and support.
This month’s theme here at StoryADay is: Make It Better.
Here’s some recommended reading from around the web on various aspects of making your writing life better.
MAKING YOUR WRITING BETTER
Here are three articles on how you can make your writing better to read, easier to sell, and impossible to put down.
Confessions of A Slush Pile reader – really useful article on why one reader rejected stories from a publication (even if your’e not submitting stories to publications, this is a great list of ‘what will put your reader to sleep’ and help you improve your writing)
Hunting Down Story Goals Plot holes are deadly to your story, but just as deadly are the other ‘holes’ that you might not be thinking about. This article tells you what they are and offers up a handy, printable template for keeping track of the important details. This might be overkill for short-short stories, but could be really useful for longer short stories, novellas and definitely for those of you working on novels.
All writing is not created equal, argues James Scott Bell, while Ruthanne Reid shares advice for not quitting even when you can’t write.
The Five Modes of A Writer’s Life James Scott Bell talks about the five types of writing day you might have (from the inspired ‘flow’ state, to the solid reliable quotas of the “pro”). This is an encouraging article to help you make your commitment to your writing better: understanding that every day is not going to be blissful, really helps you stick to your priorities!
3 Steps to Writing When Life Goes NutsWe all have them: weeks (months?) when life gets away from us and writing seems impossible. This encouraging article from Ruthanne Reid commiserates, then gives you some concrete steps to take, to keep your writing life alive.
REVISION WITHOUT TEARS
Two tools to help you revise without drowning in a vat of your own words (and tears).
The 7DayStory – This email course, that I created with Gabriela Pereira of DIYMFA, takes you through the process of writing, REVISING and releasing a short story in seven days. It’s free and, if you’re looking for a methodical way to work through the revision process, pay particular attention to days 3–6
Critique is a funny thing. If you get lucky, you find a great group and you’re all mature and experienced. If you’re not so lucky, you get newbies or jerks. If you’re thinking of starting a group (or want to make yours better) start by showing them this video: Professor Puppet’s Writing Critique instructions.
This short, funny video by my buddy Gary Zenker, is a great introduction for anyone new to critique, or who needs a refresher Air this video at the start of your group, to set the ground rules in an entertaining way!
How To Ask For — And Act On — FeedbackIf you have other writers willing to read and critique your work it can be really valuable. Here’s are some of the right, and the wrong ways, to deal with feedback.
I hope these evergreen articles will help you Make It Better this month and in the future.
Do you have any tips for things that have made your writing or your writing life better? Share in the comments!
If you want to read more like this, let me send future articles straight to your inbox:
Every word of that title is important, so go back and read it again.
Doesn’t that sound appealing?
The first time I came across Stuart Horwitz, I was struck by the way his writing instruction bridges the gap between Pantsers and Plotters, and how he provides actual processes and methods for getting from ‘wannabe writer’ to ‘someone who can polish and finish their work’.
His latest book comes out today and provides a powerful, user-friendly guide to getting work done, while LOVING what you do.
It takes you through the process of writing a book in three drafts and includes extras like PDFs and stop-motion animated videos that illustrate the lessons in the book. It’s really delightful and powerful stuff.
I had a chance to interview Stuart Horwitz about his books, his editing work and his own writing this week, and he had some great advice for us, as we work on short stories and perhaps move on to our longer, book-length projects.
Finish Your Novel In Three Drafts. Really?
JD: Why did you want to write this particular book? What problem are you trying to help writers solve?
SH: We only have a limited number of books in us — mostly because our time here is limited — and so it becomes a matter of figuring out what are the best books for us to work on, and how we can bring the most excitement to that work and then, how we can get through it, while we still have that energy and affection for it. (Like I say in the subtitle “while you still love it”.) And then move on to the next thing.
And I know this very well because, little-known fact: I trained as a mortician. I walked out of there knowing for a fact that I was going to die. We all are.
Before that time comes, how about we accomplish some shit, you know? That’s all I’m saying.
JD: So how do we do that?
SH: Having a ritual while you write is crucial. There are times when it’s not possible [to fit in everything from your ritual]. We have to recognize that its value doesn’t lie within the ritual itself, it lies in its ability to bring you to a joyful state. It helps us penetrate beyond appearances and figure out why we’re doing this…what we’re doing.
And every writer has to have a process. It doesn’t have to be my process. You can get some from me, four from this other person, and make up 2 of your own and there’s your process. But if you stick to it, it will help you on the less-excited days.
PANTSER OR PLOTTER?
JD: You take a very moderate approach to the whole ‘Write by the seat of your pants’ vs ‘Outline everything’ debate. You sound terribly reasonable.
SH: We like to call it The Middle Way in Buddhism.
There’s always a reason to bend the rule and there’s always a reason to practice discipline.
KNOW WHAT DRAFT YOU’RE IN
JD: The thing that helped me immensely, every time I read your books, is the concept of “Knowing What Draft You’re In”. Can you explain that a bit?
SH: The first draft is just getting it down – The Messy Draft. The second draft is the Method Draft which is about making it make sense. The Third Draft is the Polish Draft which is about making it good.
So, when you sit down to start, it’s all First Draft.
And when you do action steps to figure out what you’re actually working with and then take the best parts up a level, it becomes the Second Draft.
And then you go through your beta-reading process, bring in outside input, and use that to get to your third draft, which is your polish draft.
And I’m talking about a real draft. I’m not talking about tweaking. Like: these five scenes are all going in trash. And: I need scenes that aren’t here yet. Adding three commas? That’s not a draft. That’s just ornamentation. That’s chasing perfection.
The secret to the three drafts is that when, during the second draft, you uncover holes and start writing that scene, remember that new scene is in its first draft. If you stare at that new piece and say, “Why aren’t you as good as everything else already?” it’s going to be madness.
Keep in mind, every time you encounter new material it’s first draft.
JD: How do you know what to work on next, in revisions?
SH: There are action steps [in his books – JD] that you can take between drafts which will reveal to you what you are working on, more clearly.
Mapping the journey we’re on at the same time that we’re on it, gets kind of dizzying/confusing.
We need a separation between the viewer and the subject matter.
I’m a big fan of grids [Here, I refer you to Stuart’s books and his website because this is a big, meaty and really useful subject – JD]
JD: How can a short story writer avoid overwhelm at the thought of writing a novel?
SH: I like to break it down in to writing sessions. The question is “how many writing sessions does it take”? From my own experience: I have a short story that is probably one session away from nailed and that is Number 5.
So it’s the same concept. My second book, Book Architecture Method, took 60 writing sessions.
You show up to one of those 60 sessions, you necessarily have to reduce the scope of your expectations. What am I doing today? I’m not writing a novel today. I’m writing a part of a chapter in a draft today.
I’m going to take the rest of that junk out of my mind and I’m going to sit down and write, and I’m gonna write what I was thought I was writing, and I’m going to discover new stuff, and I’m going t write stuff that isn’t good, and I’m going write stuff that is good, and I’m going to keep going, and I’m going to get to the end of this session.
When I get to the end of the session, if I’ve made progress, that’s a win.
ON WRITING WITH CONFIDENCE
JD: It’s easy as writers to judge ourselves as having failed. You idea of grids and process and ritual take the emotion out of the revision process.
SH: Self judgement is a very complex phenomenon and has many many faces. There may be a reason why that never really goes away: a tension exists where our need to constantly slay that dragon helps us bring forth our best work, or brings us to our edge. But the nagging, griping voices in our heads are, for the most part, not contributing to the forward motion.
You have to believe in yourself first. That is probably the hardest thing about writing. It’s probably one of the harder things about living, so practice in one helps with the other.
JD: I stress finishing stories during StoryADay. Your books are all about helping writers finish books. Why do you think so many writers never finish their projects?
SH: There are a lot of reasons why people don’t finish. [Sometimes] there’s some pretty deep psychological stuff going on. Somewhere there was a message that was encoded that ‘you are not good enough’.
Then the people who didn’t get that message, and who actually suck a lot worse with you, are filling up the airwaves with what they did. And now we’re having to read ten books by them before we get one book by you.
The fact is if you have 10 people who are reading what you have to say you can write something great. you can even write something great if one person is listening to you.
(Actually, you’ll probably go big and go home, but that’s OK too)
I applaud everyone who is still turning up at this point in the challenge whether or not you’ve written every day, whether or not that all your goals, the fact that you’re still turning up here makes you a winner in my book.
Write a story with a Cinderella story structure: try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, life-changing moment.
We’re starting our week of Story Elements prompts with a deep dive into story structure.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Write A Story With a “Cinderella Story Structure
The Life-Changing Moment
I come to believe that short stories revolve around one life changing moment.
It doesn’t have to be literally life-changing, but it has to change something for the characters (temporarily or permanently).
If you’re writing quiet internal literary fiction, the moment is going to be something small, like realizing you can’t go on in this relationship, or this job.
If the story is a big action thriller then the life-changing moment could be anything from the moment you decide you need to take action, to the moment when you win or lose.
A Cinderella Story Structure
In the story of Cinderella our heroine wants to find happiness. She tries and fails and tries and fails. A lot.
She tries to find it by being nice to her sisters and stepmother, but they just treat her terribly.
She tries to find it by going to the ball, but she’s not allowed to go.
She tries to find it from her fairy godmother. This one almost works, but there are time limits and she fails. When the love-struck prince can’t find her, all is lost.
Eventually, the life-changing moment comes at the end of the story when the prince finds her and Cinderella gets to choose her happy ending.
(In most versions she says yes and marries the prince; in every version, this choice is the first time Cinders has had any power. This is when her life changes.
So, this is where the story ends because the character’s story arc is over: She has her chance to reach her goal, at long last.
How To Write A Cinderella Story
Write a story with a Cinderella story structure: try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, life-changing moment.
Let you character want something. In Cinderella’s case she wants happiness. Your character might want anything from fulfillment to a piece of chocolate cake!
Start the story with the character in a place where they don’t have the thing they want.
Let us see the character trying to achieve their goal once, twice, three times.
The first failure can be pretty small. (She drops a perfect piece of chocolate cake on the floor.) The second failure should be a little more discouraging. (She goes to the shop and discovers they’re out of cake.) The third failure should seem insurmountable.(The government bans chocolate cake!)
These failures have taught the character how much they want their goal and that the only way to achieve it is through using their unique talents. Now the climax is on. (In my story, for example, my witty and feisty heroine decides to run a political campaign and get elected to office in order to strike down this terrible anti-chocolate cake legislation. Your story could be more serious.)
The story ends when the character realizes what needs to be done and makes the decision to pursue it or to walk away. In a short story you don’t have to show was the rest of the events. The arc, the journey, for the character is over at the moment when they see the path to pursuing their goal.
Of course this is not the case in every story structure but in this story structure, the Cinderella story structure, the character’s journey — and the story — ends here.