Mastering The Magic of Opening Lines

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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”

Video FAQs – Where Do I Post My Stories?

StoryADay May FAQs

Posted by Story A Day on Friday, April 28, 2017

Here’s a FB Live I did earlier to address this question. If you don’t like video, there’s a written answer below.

Also, I’m around all weekend, answering questions and soothing nerves. Just post questions in the comments here or in the community (or at Facebook) and I’ll get to them on and off over the weekend. Consider this my “Office Hours”!!

The Short Answer

Continue reading “Video FAQs – Where Do I Post My Stories?”

Writing Flash Fiction Gems – Small, Precious, and Slower Than You’d Think

What Is Flash Fiction?

There are, of course, as many definitions of Flash Fiction as there are writers.

Flash Fiction image

Continue reading “Writing Flash Fiction Gems – Small, Precious, and Slower Than You’d Think”

How To Set Exciting Writing Goals for Next Year — And Actually Meet Them, This Time!

This time next year, you could be staring at a list of achievements that are directly related to the goals that matter to you…

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The Allure of the Fresh Start

I love the idea of a fresh start, don’t you?

It doesn’t matter when it happens (New Year, the first day of spring, the start of a new academic year), I’m always ready with my list of “this time it’ll be different” resolutions.

  • This time I’ll get my assignments done ahead of time!
  • This time I’ll write every day, even if I don’t feel inspired!
  • This time I’ll floss three times a day!

    And What Happens Next?

    You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?

    I’m excited to follow through on my plans for about three days.

    Then I start to force myself to stick to the new regime.

    Then I start to miss a day here or there…

    …and suddenly it’s June and I’m flipping through my journal and I find that massive, guilt-inducing list of Things I’m Going To Do Differently This Year, and my shoulders slump, and I spend the next three weeks in a slump, wondering why I can’t get anything done.

    Sound familiar?

Continue reading “How To Set Exciting Writing Goals for Next Year — And Actually Meet Them, This Time!”

Beyond Word Count – Other Ways To Log Your Writing Progress

I’ve made a case for logging your word count to keep yourself accountable, to give yourself a pat on the back, to encourage consistency and good writing habits.

But it doesn’t have to be word count.

WHEN WORD COUNTS HELP

Setting a word count goal makes sense if you’re working on a novel and want it finished by X date.

It also makes sense if you want to become a faster writer.

WHAT IF THAT DOESN’T WORK FOR YOU?

It might not make sense to set a word count goal  if you’re still struggling to create a writing habit. Or if you’re writing flash fiction.

And what if you’re int he editing (or marketing) phase of a project, but still want to feel productive?

In these cases, you might want to to track the number of days on which you worked, to see how your writing practice is becoming part of your life.

HOW TO LOG YOUR DAYS

Set a goal for the number of days a week that you will Write Something (or Work on Project X).

  • Make a new column in your StoryADay Writing Log. Call it “Days Worked”
  • Any day when you work, just type “YES” or a “+” in that new column.
  • If you want to get fancy — set up conditional formatting to turn the cell green when it finds that text in the field).

If you like to keep your logs in a more tangible form:

At the end of the month, step back and gaze at the ‘heat map’ of your work progress. Hopefully there’ll be enough ’stickered’ days to make you smile. If not, make a commitment now to do better next month.

KEEPING YOUR GOALS REALISTIC

If you can make an unbroken chain of those days that’s great. But bewarE! Setting so high a bar can backfire. What happens the first time life gets in the way and you miss a day? You feel terrible. You get demotivated. You quit.

Rather, I’d suggest setting a goal to write on a certain number of days a week.

WHAT TO DO WITH THE INFORMATION

At the end of the month, look back at your log see how much you achieved and if any patterns emerge (are weekends good or bad for you? Do you write more when you’ve had more sleep? When the kids are in school?). You can see where you might make changes or improvements.

NO GUILT

Again, try to not use the log as a weapon to bludgeon yourself with guilt. Use it to analyze and study (and to face) what’s really going on.  Try to increase your goal a little from what you actually achieved this month (not some abstract and possible unrealistic ‘ideal’).

Whatever type of log you choose, use it to keep yourself accountable, spur positive changes, and reinforce good work habits.

Because all of these things get you closer to where you want to be: writing.

Are you logging your writing days or word count? What methods do you use, and how do you use it to help you progress? Share in the comments, below!

10 Tips for Writing A Story A Day Without Losing Your Mind

You’re trying to write a story a day. Some days will be harder than other.

For those days, here is some tried-and-tested advice from the StoryADay archives.

[tl;dr version: The world needs your story. You need to write. Don’t quit.]

10 Tips To Help You Keep Writing Every Day, Not ‘Some Day’

Lessons from 5 Years of StoryADay Writing Challenges

 

  1. …from How To Write A StoryADay Without Burning Out graphic of excerpt from linked article, about the brink of desperation
  2. …from It’s Only Painful Until You Start
    graphic of excerpt from linked article, list of best practices for storyaday
  3. …from Help! I Missed A Day, What Do I Do?
    graphic extract from linked article, advice to let it go, if you miss a day in storyaday
  4. …from How To Write A StoryADay Without Burning Out
  5. graphic of excerpt of linked article
  6. …from How To Set Your Writing Rules
    graphic extract from the article, how to set your writing rules for the storyaday writing challenge
  7. …from Writing With Confidence
    graphic extract from the article writing with confidence, imagine your perfect reader
  8. …from 6 Reasons You’ll Never Be A Writer
    graphic extract from the article six reasons you'll never be a writer; 5, your writing sucks
  9. …from The Difference Between You And A Published Writer
    graphic extract from the article The Difference Between You And A Published Writer
  10. …from The Price Of Quitting
    graphic of excerpt from linked article, about why the world needs your story

Now, go and write something!

 

Writers’ Conferences: The Introvert’s Guide

Conference season is upon us! Here are 3 essential tips for surviving a writers’ conference, as an introvert.

Writers’ conferences are wonderful places for learning, connecting, being inspired and reminding yourself to take your writing seriously.

They also have cringe-making moments of high-school flashbacks, with you cowering in a corner, wishing the earth would swallow you.

After the event you’ll remember and value the connections you made and the people you met. In the moment, for introverted writer-types, all that enforced socializing can be torture.

But if top spies can withstand torture with a little training, why not us?

1. Stop Thinking About Yourself

When I think about my favorite people in the world it strikes me that they are not just my favorite people. They are a-lot-of-other-people’s favorite person too. They attract people to them. How? By being interested in us.

Take a leaf out of the book of the most charismatic person you know: make eye contact, ask questions about the other person, have a response ready (or a follow-up question — and yes, you can rehearse these things at home. That’s what successful sales people and successful charmers do!), smile and do whatever you can to make the other person feel great about themselves.

Here are five ways to make the people around you feel great, courtesy of Dale Partridge (click for a bigger view)

5 Ways To Make People Feel Great
Text: Dale Partridge Photo: Linda Owen

2. Find A Bubbly Friend

(Use this with care. You don’t want to be a parasite.)

If you can connect with someone whose skills complement your own (i.e. an extravert), do so. Ride their coattails. Let them introduce you to people as you go around the conference.

The best way to do this without becoming an actual pest, is to hang with this person a little bit, then give them some space, and connect with them again later. (Maybe you can find two or three extraverts and float between them).

Think about what you can do for them, to repay them for being your ice-breaker: once you’re in a new group of people, tell other people about your friend’s writing, or talents or ask them to tell that funny story you heard them tell earlier to a different group. You can also ask them about their work or their challenges, and keep an eye out for information and opportunities that will help — especially if you’re attending different sessions. Pass on information, contacts and resources you think might help your friend.

How to find your bubbly friend: see if any of your internet friends are going to the same conference. Arrange to meet up, at least once. If none of your friends are going, check out the conference’s hashtag on Twitter (smart conference directors will always have one). Follow the bubbliest Tweeter and, if you make a connection online, suggest meeting up at the conference too. (Naturally, the same rules apply here as in real life: only approach if you sense a real connection. Don’t be creepy. Don’t smother people.)

3. Understand Your Introverted Nature

Don’t berate yourself for needing to crawl off to a dark, quiet space from time to time during the conference.

We introverts need quiet time to recharge. If you need to get out of the hotel for lunch alone, or if you need an afternoon power nap, go for it. Just get back out there when you’re refreshed.

Also, don’t think that just because you’re a bit of an introvert, you can’t be sociable. Some of the most charming people I know are introverts. But they do need to take time to recharge or they become cranky and unhappy. Be yourself. Pay attention to your body. If you’re getting fidgeting and cross, take a break. Alone. It’s OK.

Keep In Touch After The Conference

If you’ve made a connection with someone, keep in touch after the conference.

The good news is, you’ll probably be able to do it online, which will be a relief, won’t it?

How To Write A StoryADay in May Without Burning Out

Writing a story a day is hard. No doubt about it.

In fact, I had long been scared to commit to writing a novel, but after completing my first StoryADay back in 2010, I said, “Surely writing the same story every day for a month has to be easier than that!” and plunged into NaNoWriMo later that year and ‘won’. (I recently completed that novel – my first!)

So Why Keep Writing A StoryADay Each May?

Writing 31 short stories in a month drives you to the brink of desperation…and it’s right at that brink where interesting things start happening.

  • You stop caring about whether the story is good and just get it written.
  • You try crazy ideas that sometimes turn into highly original stories.
  • You find yourself seeking out story ideas all day, every day, because you know you’ll need a new one tomorrow.
  • You discover that the more you write — the more ideas you use up — the more creative you become. You never run out of ideas. There’s always another one coming along right behind it.
  • You discover you can write more than you thought you could. Even if you’re exhausted every day, it’s only one month. You’ll be amazed what you can do with a deadline, a community and little bit of stubborn. And it will feel exhilarating.

Keeping Things Fresh

Past participant Sarah Cain had just finished a novel and was deep in the business of revising the manuscript and looking for an agent, when she found herself in a creative slump. She heard about StoryADay and was intrigued.

“[I thought] would be a change,” she says. “Give me a chance to get some creative energy flowing, which it did. I had great fun with it, and now write quite a lot of flash fiction.”

In addition, she went back to her novel revisions, refreshed and reinvigorated. The following year she landed an agent and signed a two-book deal for that novel and its sequel.

So How Do You Write A StoryADay Without Burning Out?

There are lots of ways to keep writing. Here are some that other StoryADay writers have used:

Accept that these are first drafts — Don’t revise as you write. Just keep moving the story forward, every day until you get to the end. No revisions, no backtracking. Finish with a flourish, drop your pen and walk away. You have the rest of the year to revise these things!

Finish each story — Do your heroic best to get to the end of each story. Even if you have to write something like “[get Frank from the school to the roof of the hospital. Car chase! Explosions]” and skip to the resolution, get to the end of the story.

Resolve as many loose ends as you can and put it on the ‘to be revised’ pile for June. There is an energy about finishing a story that buoys you up for the next one. “You can do this,” it whispers in your ear as you sit down to write the next day. “You told a complete tale yesterday. No reason you can’t do it again today.”

Allow yourself to experiment—Write short-short stories, longer stories, stories that are all dialogue, stories that rhyme, retelling of old stories, retellings of your own stories (in a different point of view, or setting…the possibilities are endless).

Some days you’ll need to do what feels like ‘cheating’ by rewriting a fairytale or reimagining a story of your own, just so you don’t have to work out all the detail. That’s OK. It worked out fine for Gregory Macguire and for Walt Disney…

Allow yourself to fail — You will have some days when it is torture and you when you get to the end of a story and think “what was that?!”. Learn to laugh it off. If you can, figure out why it didn’t work. (Did you forget to give the character something to root for? Did you not know enough about the exotic setting you tried to use? Did you start writing when you were too tired?)

Write down the lessons learned and save them for future reference.

Have A Backup Plan To Help You Start Again—There may be days when time gets away from you and you don’t finish a story. Or whooosh! The whole day goes by and you just forget to write. Prepare for this by having an “if/then” plan in place (an idea I came across in Gretchen Rubin’s excellent new book Better Than Before). Tell yourself “If I miss a day, then I’ll pick right back up the next day. I won’t try to catch up, I’ll just move forward”. Or maybe you can say “If I miss a day, then I’ll confess my sins in the StADa community, and get back to it the next day.” Or some other (positive) “If/then” cycle. All is not lost when you mess up if you have planned for what you’ll do after the inevitable slip.

Join the community — Yes, yes, I know. There’s a danger here. You could spend so much time reading other people’s posts that you never get around to posting, yourself. BUT, there is nothing like a little pat on the back, or a little peer pressure, to make us better than we think we can be. At least post in the Victory Dance group every day after you write something. Congratulate a few other people who have posted, and post a micro-update about your own day. Use the other boards to ask for help, or find a shoulder to cry on when the day didn’t work out as you had hoped.

Don’t ‘quit’ — If you get to day 14 and your life implodes, don’t quit. Change the rules. Admit that life got in the way and you can’t write a story a day this month, BUT commit to writing at least two more stories this month, or one, or whatever you feel you can manage. Come back to the challenge at least one more time.

You’re not failing. You’re learning. Write down what you’ve learned about your writing habits, needs, preferences, struggles, successes, so far this month. Post them somewhere you can find again (a blog is a great place, since it’s archived). Then commit to writing at least one more story before the challenge ends.

Make a note in your diary to check in to the community before the end of May and celebrate the progress everyone has made. Print out your winner’s tiara and wear it with pride, because you showed up. You wrote. You win.

 


 

Tomorrow we’re going to talk about story sparks, writing prompts and what you can do NOW to make sure you have the best chance possible of writing 31 stories during StoryADay May. I’ll also be reminding you that I’ll be releasing I have published the StoryADay Guide: A Month of Writing Prompts 2015 on Monday, April 20. Until May 1, 2015 it’ll be selling at a steep discount, so don’t miss that!

Hint: it’s going to look a lot like last year’s edition, but with all-new prompts, tips and pep-talks.

 

If you want to make sure you receive the rest of this series and notifications about the discounted ebook, and the opening of the StoryADay Community for 2015, join the Advance Notice List:

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From Idea To Story: 7 Ways To Develop Great Stories From Sparks

So far this week we’ve talked about How To Decide What To Write and How To Justify Your Writing Time (To Your Friends and To Yourself).

Now that you’re all keyed up to write, we turn to the tricky question of how to take all your good ideas and turn them into story drafts.
angelou-untold-story

From Idea To Story

Ideas are great.

Story Sparks are great.

Writing prompts can be great.

But anyone can have an idea.

It takes a writer to develop and idea and turn it into a story. Yeah, uh, how do we do that, then?

The Right Way To Write A Short Story

There is no one right way to write a short story.

That’s the beauty of the short story. It can be anything from a classic three-act narrative to a loosely connected collection of nouns verbs and prepositions.

There are as many ways to write a short story as there are writers. The only right way to write a story is to tell it the way you want to tell it.

Writing a short story that readers want to read, however, is a little more limiting.

1. Play With Structure

Short stories don’t have to follow a particular structure. With a short story you can forget about plot diagrams and character arcs and still end up with a satisfying story.

Why? Because short stories exist to immerse a reader in a moment in a character’s life. Or to make them question an assumption by illustrating its absurdity in miniature.

A list can be a short story. A diary entry can be a short story. A tweet can be a short story. But none of them work without the active participation of the reader.

Think about it: in writing short stories, you have to leave a lot out. You can’t spend a lot of time describing the six layers of undergarments worn by ladies of the court, the way you can in a novel. You can’t give much (any) backstory. You can imply, hint and leave spaces.

It’s up to the reader to slow down, pay attention and supply those details. In that way, the short story is a lot like poetry. Even as you play with the structure you must write for the reader.

2. Write For Readers

I don’t mean ‘write for acquisition editors and publishers’. I mean write for your ideal reader.

Readers expect certain things in a story. They expect setting and character and something to happen. Depending on your reader’s preference and tolerance level, they may expect suspense (or not), character development (or not), and a resolution of sorts (or not).

Literary fiction can get away with more of those ‘or not’s than genre and mainstream fiction. Mainstream readers tend to be looking for a less intense escape from reality than literary readers who are willing to study every line as if there’ll be a test on Friday (which they intend to ace.)

But it’s OK for even mainstream or genres readers to expect their readers to participate in the story.

What Do You Mean, Readers Have To Participate?

Read this oft-cited example of the shortest-short story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

So what? On one hand, it’s just a classified ad. But if you, the reader really start to think about it, you start filling in the details: why the shoes were never worn; who might have placed the ad; and inevitably, how they must have felt, doing so.

You, the reader, are telling the story in cooperation with the author.

This is a pretty extreme version, of course. But you should be aiming for the same effect in every story you write, no matter its shape or length.

I’ve been hosting StoryADay since 2010 and I’ve read a lot of stories in that time. The stories that immerse me in a character or a world or a moment are the ones that stay with me. The stories that ask a question and make me care about the answer (whether or not they supply it) are the ones I seek out and re-read.

So how do you take an idea (either from your own head or from a writing prompt, or from some combination of the two) and make readers keep wondering about it long after they’ve stopped reading the words on the screen?

3. Ask Questions

If you start with in idea about a particular character or setting, next ask yourself “who cares?”. Who will be interested about a story about that character or setting?

Then ask “why”? What makes this situation different? What makes this person interesting?

For example, The Care And Feeding of Plants by Art Taylor, opens with two people who are having an affair, one is married, the other is not. Ho-hum, right? Except that “During one of their trysts…Robert told Felicia to bring her husband over for a Friday night cook-out.” Wait, what? DURING? What kind of people are these? I don’t know about you but I had to keep reading!

Next take your idea and ask yourself “if…then” questions.

In the example above the author might have asked himself: if the husband does come over, what could happen? If the wife refuses to invite him, then what happens? If the lover changes his mind, then what? Follow this line of reasoning down its most interesting, tangled alleys and see what you can come up with. (If you’re like me you’ll need to start writing round about now, because you’ll be too excited not to!) 

4. Leave Gaps

Not literally (though maybe, depending on your story). But leave gaps, as in the six word short story above, and readers will start to ask the questions you leave lying around for them to find.

It might not be necessary to tell readers in the first sentence why your character is standing on a bridge, wind whipping her hair around her tear-stained face, one hand on the thin guide rail behind her. Just put her there and then make us care. You can supply the reasons (or not) later.

You might not need to walk through your character’s entire day to make poignant the moment when they walk through the front door of their home, mussed-up and frazzled.

Think about the minimum amount of information you can give the reader in order to pull them in, and keep them interested, yet still give them room to search for clues in the context as to what’s really going on in the story.

In “Orange” by Neil Gaiman, the entire story is told as a set of responses to questions that the reader never hears. Bob Newhart did a series of comedy sketches based on a one-sided phone call (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnO1lnPH3BQ). He never tells us what happens at 1:41, but I’ll bet you, along with the laughing audience, can guess. You can replicate these ideas or you can use them to remind yourself to leave some things unsaid in your stories, to draw the reader in.

5. Try Something New

If you always write narrative stories with a character encountering an obstacle that clashes with their desires/needs, take a break. Try something different. Instead, write a story made up only of dialogue, or in the form of a memo to the staff, or a series of social-media posts or voicemails.

Challenge yourself to create complete characters or illustrate an absurdity, without talking directly to the reader.

As you write, keep asking ‘what if’ and ‘so what’ questions of your ideas.

6. Getting Unstuck

There’s a point, somewhere in the middle of every story, where it’s very easy to get stuck.

You’ve set up the characters and the situation, but now you’re starting to get tired and the thought of fighting your way to the end (with all the digressions that crop up as you think of objections and things you’ve left out, and things you want to explain) is just too much to bear. (A bit like that sentence.)

At this point, we go back to the questions.

If you don’t know what should happen next, ask yourself: what does your character want? What is standing in her way? How can you make it worse? What is she not prepared to do? Can you force her to do it? How can you resolve the reader’s question of “does she get what she wants” as quickly as possible?

If you’re really stuck, simply finish your sentence then write the words “But then” Finish that sentence and write: “And so” Finish that sentence. Repeat as necessary. You can edit out these phrases and clean up the prose in the rewrite (what else do you have to do in June?), but sometimes a crude, structural approach forms the foundation of a what turns out to be a strong story.

7. Keep Writing

If you are really stuck, the only thing to do is to write. Not brainstorm. Not diagram. Not sketch ideas. And certainly not turn to the next, bright shiny idea.

Write your way out of the problem and get to the end of the story.

It’s a short story. What do you have to lose? No one dies if you get it wrong. No one even needs to see it. But by finishing it, you will have learned so much more than if you give up.

I promise you, from bitter, joyful, exhausted experience, this is the truth.

Use the tactics in this article to blast past your fear, push through the mushy middle, and get to the end of today’s story. It might be a mess. It might be the foundation of something great. It might be a complete mistake.

But the biggest mistake of all is to stop writing.

Fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living.

-Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide To Getting Lost

 

Tomorrow we talk about how the heck you keep doing this over and over again for 31 days in a row. With tips from past “winners” (Plus: how to be a winner even if you don’t write 31 stories)

At the end of this week I’ll be telling you about how you can get your hands onAvailable now a tool to help you sit down and write every day: the 2015 StoryADay Month of Writing Prompts ebook.

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How To Justify Your Writing Time (To Friends and To Yourself)

Yesterday we talked about how to decide what you’re supposed to be writing. You can read it here, but the big lesson was: write a lot. Try new stuff. Don’t let your inner-anti-cheerleader stop you.

Well that’s all very well, but what if your life is busy? When are you supposed to find the time, not to mention the discipline, to sit down and write?

The Lie That You Can Find Time To Write

You can’t.

No one finds time to write. Or to play the guitar. Or to be a rockstar. Or to be a successful investor.

You make time.

Everyone successful, fulfilled person who ever lived, made time for the thing that was important to them.

Justifying The Time

I could give you all kinds of tips for scraping together some free time to write (delegate chores, turn off the TV, say no to invitations to go out) but that’s not the hard part.

The Hard Part

The hard part is convincing yourself that you are allowed to take the time to write.

Writing is personal. You do it alone. You don’t look like you’re working hard. You look like you’re surfing the internet or sulking in your bedroom or shirking your responsibilities.

Worse still, you might feel that way inside.

But I’m here to tell you: if you want to write, you must write.

When you’re writing, no matter how hard it is, you are more truly yourself than at any other time.

And when you finish a writing session, no matter how exhausted or wrung-out you feel, the rest of your life seems just a little bit easier. You are fulfilled. Your mind is clear. You have a sense of achievement. You are a better person when you’re writing.

And that’s the real payoff.

Not internet celebrity. Not publishing contracts. Not the legions of fans. Not the multi-millions in movie-rights sales.

The actual payoff for writing is that you are happier.

Which makes you a better person to be around.

Convince Yourself, Convince Your Crew

You have to try this for yourself to really experience it. And once you have, feel free to point it out to the people around you. If they’re smart, they’ll become accomplices in making time for you to write. If you keep at it long enough, there will come a day when you’re rampaging around the house barking at everyone and, instead of barking back, one smart housemate will say, “Hey, why don’t you go and grab a notebook. You need to be writing.”

Trust me. It happens. And if it doesn’t, perhaps you need to surround yourself with smarter, kinder people.

Resources

Here are some resources to help you convince yourself that your writing is not only important but vital to your continued existence — and some suggestions on how to overcome three common obstacles.

If you’re wondering why you can’t get anything written when you’re setting aside a whole 20 minutes every lunchtime, watch this video from John Cleese. It’s his process for being creative. There may be times when 20 minutes can be productive for you, but there are other times when you will need to listen to Mr Cleese’s advice. https://vimeo.com/89936101

If you can’t get past the suckiness of your first drafts, you need to watch this interview with Ira Glass (again). I get the impression he’s a bit bemused that this is rapidly becoming what he’s most famous for, but it’s because it is so very, very true. (Hint: You need to write a lot!) https://youtu.be/PbC4gqZGPSY

If you don’t believe me that your art is worth doing for its own sake (for your sake), then you need to watch this talk by last year’s StoryADay Guest of Honor, Neil Gaiman. Watch it now. https://youtu.be/ikAb-NYkseI

When The Pencil Meets The Paper

Of course, having bought yourself time to write, doesn’t make it go easily.

If I’ve convinced you that you need to write a lot and that you need to make time for your writing, your next question is probably going to be: but how do I turn all this time and dedication into actual stories?

Tomorrow we’ll talk about The Care and Feeding of Ideas, and how to turn those ideas into fully-fledged story drafts.

Until then: do you have a friend who’s always talking about wanting to write, but never quite getting around to it? Why not share this post with that person? Maybe, between the two of us, we can get them to where they need to be and you two can spend blissful afternoons on writing dates, instead of kvetching about how much writing you’re not doing. Share this now!

How To Decide What You Should Be Writing

This week I’m posting a series designed to help you through the emotionally-charged business of deciding whether or not to commit to writing a StoryADay in May this year.

(Actually it may not be emotionally charged for you. Maybe you already know ‘heck-yeah, I’m onboard’  or you’re sure you can’t/won’t/don’t need to take part this year. Good for you. Also, you’ll probably still enjoy the series. You just get to read it without the angst!)

We’ll be talking about:

Then I’ll be telling you all about how you can get your virtual paws on all my writing prompts for StoryADay May before it even begins!

How To Decide What To Write

You feel, in your gut, that you should be writing. You know it’s something you want to do. But how do you know what you’re supposed to be writing?

To non-writers, that sounds like a stupid question. Have you ever tried talking to a non-writer about this?

You: “I want to write but I don’t know what to write.”

Them: “Can’t you just, like, write about a wizard or some vampires or a sex-crazed billionaire and become a best-seller and split the profits with me? Can I start planning our round the world cruise for next year?”

Or, more likely.

You: I want to write but I don’t know what to write.

Them: So stop whining and do it. ‘K?

But what should you be writing?

The problem is you could be writing about ANYTHING. And that’s paralyzing. You know you need to pick something, but what?

And The Answer Is…

I don’t know.

I don’t know you. I mean, on some level I kind of do, because you’re probably a bit like me: someone who thinks a lot, worries about other people’s feelings, and finds yourself standing in the middle of the kitchen with the phone ringing and no idea why you’re there but you know that damned phone has just interrupted the Best. Daydream. Ever. And that if you could just get some time to write it down you’d be happy and fulfilled and probably rich and famous to boot.

But on another level I really don’t know you. I don’t know what you like. I don’t know what matters to you. I don’t know what gets you so wound up you stay up all night blogging or researching or fretting about it. I don’t know what makes you laugh, or what you love to read, or what kind of writing makes you throw books across the room (then pick them up and smooth out the cover apologetically because, hey, it might be terrible, but it’s still a book, you know?)

I don’t know who your favorite writers are; what genre you couldn’t live without; what you like in a hero; what you love in a villain; whether a galloping plot or deep introspection is more important to you; whether you like a happy ending or prefer something that feels more like real life.

But oh, look. I just gave you a list of things you might use to find a way into writing your own stories.

(If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend digging out your copy of the Creative Challenge Workbook. It walks you through a lot of this and helps you build a roadmap for the future. You can download another copy here if you need to.)

The Big Secret…That Isn’t Really A Secret

Here’s the thing. Even with all of that information you’ve just gathered about yourself, there’s no way to be sure what you should be writing until you…yup, sit down and write.

The best and only way to find your way to your best style/topic/length/tone is to try everything.

Write A Lot, Write Quickly, Finish Everything

How StoryADay Can Help

How many stories did you write last month? How many last year? What did you learn from writing them? Do you even remember? I know I don’t. (I do remember for 2013 though. 2013 was a good year. I wrote a lot in 2013 and I learned a ton!)

Trust me when I tell you: if you write and finish even 20, even 12 stories in on month you will win so much more than bragging rights. You’ll win a free pass into the Secret Society of I’ve-Discovered-What-I-Want-To-Write.

Write Quickly To Defeat Your Inner-Anti-Cheerleader

Writing quickly and writing every day over a sustained period exhausts your inner-anti-cheerleader.

Sure, on the first day, she’s all perky and energetic. She jumps up and down telling you how worthless you are and how you can’t write and you shouldn’t try.

But your anti-cheerleader thrives on attention. When you turn your back on her and start writing, she can shake her pompoms all she likes, but she can’t really do anything more than distract you and make things difficult.

The next day, she’s looking a little less fresh. Maybe her hair’s not quite as neat. Maybe her jump-kicks are a little sloppy. She’s still trying, but you turn your back on her and ignore her once again.

By the fourth day, she’s getting frantic. Frankly, she’s a mess. Her eyeliner’s smudged and her hair’s all poufy, and the only reason her pompoms are shaking at all is because of her rage that you’re ignoring her.

You’ll think you’ve defeated her, but beware: she’s going to rest up for a few days and let you think she’s gone, but really she’s just waiting for you to get tired. Somewhere in the second week of your writing surge, she’s back: revitalized and vengeful. Don’t listen to her. Keep going. This is where you pull out the big guns:

Finish Everything

There is a power in finishing stories that you need to experience for yourself. I can tell you about it but you won’t believe me until you do it.

Finishing teaches you what each story is about.

Finishing shows you that you’re not a terrible writer, no matter how desperate you felt in the muddy middle of your story.

Finishing gives you a first draft you can revise.

Finishing each story gives you a biochemical surge that triggers your brain’s reward centers and makes it more likely you’ll finish the next.

And sitting down, every day*, to start the next story is what defeats your inner-anti-cheerleader. The routine of it tells her firmly that you are going to ignore her again today. She can’t stand up against that kind of ritual snubbing.

(*’Every day’ doesn’t mean ‘every day’. But having a routine is a powerful thing. More about that later this week…)

It’s all very well for me to tell you to sit down to write every day, but what about the rest of your life? You have responsibilities, right? People who rely on you? Deadlines and obligations unrelated to your writing. How on earth are you supposed to find time to write as well?

Stay Tuned

Tomorrow we’ll talk about the big lie in that question, along with a shift in thinking that will allow you to make your writing a priority at long last.

Make sure you’re on the Advance Notice list (check the “Creativity Lab” group option to make sure you receive this series every day), or check out the blog tomorrow to find out how to justify your writing time to friends, family and yourself.

At the end of this week I’ll be telling you about how you can get your hands on a tool to help you sit down and write every day: the 2015 StoryADay Month of Writing Prompts ebook.

P.S. If you found this useful, why not forward it to a friend? You know, that friend that’s always saying they want to write, but never actually does…

A Month Of Writing Prompts – The eBook!

writingprompts2014coverlarge

A Month Of Writing Prompts 2014


Writing a story a day for a month is a crazy endeavour, but one that hundreds of writers have signed up for every May since 2010. During month of courageous creativity, writers learn how to write every day (not ‘someday’), how to craft a story, how to write in different forms, how to fail and dust themselves off, and write again.
Are you ready to join them?
The StoryADay Month of Writing Prompts book shares the daily writing prompts for StoryADay May 2014: 31 writing prompts, meditations, lessons and pep talks to accompany on your journey to becoming a more prolific, creative and fulfilled writer.
Use these prompts during the StoryADay challenge, or any time you need a creativity boost.


Making Time To Write – Success Stories

I find it useful to read case studies from people who have actually WRITTEN books (and possibly had them published and worked on a sequel). Theory is all very well, but hearing from someone who has actually done it? Much more inspiring. They also tend to be more passionate, less forgiving and much, much more practical.

Here are a bunch of articles from working writers who answer the second-most-asked question they hear. [1. The first, of course, being “where do you get your ideas?”]

Jon Scalzi is a speculative fiction writer, Hugo award winner and creative consultant on the SyFy Network’s Stargate: Universe. He wrote an energetic answer to the time question which includes this choice paragraph,

There are lots of things I think I’d like to do, and yet if I don’t actually make the time and effort to do them, they don’t get done. This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them. So I guess in really fundamental way I don’t want them, otherwise I’d make the time. C’est la vie.

Jackie Kessler has written 12 novels (not all of them published, but hey, that’s a lot of writing time) and refuses to apologize for taking time to write.

Screenwriter John August shares his work-a-day experience of becoming a professional writer. It’s not sexy, but it worked.

Chip Scanlan talks about writing in small chunks, lowering your standards, rejecting the Soup Nazi.

And to finish things off for today:

Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn (@creativepenn on Twitter) shares this personal story, which debunks the ‘if I only had time’ myth a bit:

I once decided that I needed time to write my book. I had some money from the sale of my house, took 3 months off and tried to write every day. It didn’t work. I didn’t have anything to show for it, and went back to work disheartened at my inability to write. It was 4 years until I actually decided to try again.

Then I wrote “How to Enjoy Your Job” in 9 months of evenings, weekends and days off while working fulltime.”.

You can find the time – you just need to re-prioritise!


Finding Your Ending

Just a quick tip, today, from my own writing experience.

Five Minute FridayToday I was writing a story for Five Minute Fridays[1. Yeah, I love a challenge. So what?!]. I wrote my first sentence and then a second.

As soon as I tried to write a third sentence I realized I had already written my last line. I had the essence of the story in those first two sentences. I had simply arrived at the end too soon.

So I put my cursor in between the two sentences and filled in the rest of the story.

Having the last line — the destination — already in place made it so much easier to stay on track in the middle.

 

Why not try this as an exercise?

Write “Once upon a time there was a _________”

Then write “And in the end_________”

Then go back and fill in the middle.

If you like what you wrote, leave a comment so we can come and have a look.

 

Paper or Plastic? How do you write?

I’m often asked how I write—how, physically, do I write? Pen and paper? Computer? Portable device? Onto my blog?

This is a question you, too,  should consider for yourself before you set yourself any kind of writing challenge (like, for example, writing a story a day for a month!)

gadgets

How will you:

* Write whenever and wherever you get the chance?
* Keep track of everything you’ve written?
* Find a way to work that is comfortable for you?

So should you commit to writing in a notebook? ON a netbook? At your trusty (or flaky) computer?

Honestly, the answer for you (as it is for me) is probably a mixture of all of them. So here are my tips and tricks for:

* Using all the writing technology at your disposal for maximum productivity (without losing your mind)
* Keeping and retrieving your masterpieces for later editing.

Paper and Pen(cil)

The pros and cons to this are pretty straightforward.

Pro:

* You can get a paper and writing implement pretty much anywhere.
You don’t need batteries, a network.
* Nothing pops up on your page to distract you.
* Editing as you write is difficult. You’re pretty much limited to crossing things out and writing in the margins. Getting to the end of a first draft before editing, should be easier than on a computer.
* You can do it pretty much anywhere (except, perhaps, in the dark.)
* Handwriting fires up areas of your brain that are associated with deep understanding and memory. It is a very different experience from typing.

Cons:

* You need to have a paper and pen(cil) handy. What if you can’t find your favorite pen? Will you spend so long looking for it that you don’t write?
* Editing after the story is finished is going to require you (probably) to transcribe the story into a computer or write it all out longhand again. Not necessarily a con though, as that can help with the editing process. Definitely a con if your time is severely limited.
* Scraps of paper are easy to lose and hard to find once they’re lost. This is less the case with computer files.

Tips for Working With Pencil And Paper

* Set up a system now for retrieving your work later. Some options include:
** only using one notebook (or series of notebooks) for each project. Don’t write a little bit here and a little bit there.
** Designate a StoryADay notebook and carry it everywhere. Only use that blue-covered copybook from Staples that you like, for your novel.
** Using looseleaf paper can be helpful if you write in different places or like to edit on paper. You can get hold of binder-sized paper pretty much anywhere. When you get home, file your stories in one binder, and you should be able to keep track of things. This requires some discipline in promising you’ll always file the stories away but it’ll be worth it three months from now when you try to find them again!
* Find paper that is a joy to write on, if you’re that way inclined. Have a cramped notebook with lines that are too dark or too light or too far apart, and a spine that doesn’t crack open far enough, or pages that are so small that you have to turn them every couple of sentences? This is just one more way to make it easy to skip today’s writing. Make writing a physical pleasure as well as a mental one, by treating yourself to some paper that you love and will want to spend time everyday caressing.

Desktop Computer

Again, the pros and cons are fairly straightforward:

Pros

* You know where it is and how to use it (you do, don’t you?)
* You probably have a decent word processor built right in and, chances are you are very comfortable typing at a decent speed.
* Even if you can’t remember how you decided to organize your file folders last week, you can easily search your computer for errant stories.
* You can easily edit and save multiple versions.

 Cons

* It is all to easy to get distracted by the Internet
* It is very easy to edit, leading to you fussing with bits you have already written and never moving forwards.
* It is tempting to play around with formatting when you’ve got a nice powerful word processor that you can use to show you exactly how your story will look when set in the format used by Glimmer Train or The New Yorker (not that I’ve ever…oh shut up!).

Tips for using a computer

* Designate a folder for all your fiction writing, another for non-fiction, another for semi-thought-out blog posts. File your work.
* Save often. Seriously I cannot stress this enough. And still you’re going to need to experience the pain of losing a masterpiece before you put this into practice. But Save OFTEN. Train your fingers to mash the ‘ctrl’ and ‘s’ buttons together every paragraph or two. You’ll be glad you did.
* Use the simplest program you can. I use IAWriter when composing (I’m using it now). Use the full-screen mode in your word processor-of-choice.
* Turn off the Internet (Unplug the LAN cable, turn the sound down, turn off wi-fi, whatever you have to do). Do nothing but write when you are writing. No checking email, Facebook or Twitter. Ever.
* Name your files sensibly. You can call them all “StADASept12 The One About The Woman And Her Garden”, “StADaSept12 The Dog In The Ditch” if you think that’s likely to help you remember which is which, and where you put them. If you are writing a series of stories about the same characters always name the file with the same character’s name “Sarah stories – fishing in the creek with Grandma” “Sarah stories – Going to the corner shop”

 Using A Laptop/Netbook/iPad/Tablet

If you move around a lot and are comfortable with a mobile device (and don’t want to hand write) it probably makes a lot of sense for you to use one of these devices.

Pros

* They are with you all the time or easy to move to wherever you are.
* You don’t need good lighting.
* Spellcheck.

Cons

* Battery life.
* If they are connected to the Internet you risk getting distracted.
* Comfort. Smaller keyboards and screens can make for a frustrating experience. Though I find them great for writing, less so for editing.
* Version control. If you’re using a mobile device and a desktop you run the risk of having (and working on) different versions of your story at the same time.

Tips for Using Mobile Devices

* Decide on how you are going to handle version control. If you work both on an mobile device and a desktop, consider saving all your work to Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud or some other remote location (not your computer’s hard drive). This way, you’ll open the same file on either machine. By all means periodically copy all the files to an archive folder on your machine but call it something like ‘archive’ so you don’t get confused about which file is the latest version.
* Pick programs that play well together. I tried using Scrivener on my desktop and iaWriter on my iPad and ended up spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to learn/figure out how to sync the two. (My fault, not theirs, but not something I was willing to spend the time to learn properly during a challenge!). If you have Word or Pages or Scrivener or a simple text program on both your machines, use it. You can always export them to something else when it’s time to edit and submit.
* Get a bluetooth keyboard for your tablet. Yeah, yeah, they have onscreen keyboards and hand-writing recognition and speech-recognition, but a neat little keyboard still trumps all that for most of us.
* If it works for you, consider downloading something like Dragon Dictate which will transcribe your stories. (Way back, the desktop version of this was quite good because I could train it to understand my Scottish-American mongrel accent. The iPhone app version doesn’t seem as versatile, so this doesn’t work for me).

On A Blog

Some people post their stories every day to a blog. They may even write them write in the blog-software window. There are some fairly big (and non-obvious) pros and cons for this one.

Pros

* You get to share your work immediately – especially good if you have a writers’ group or a bunch of dedicated readers.
* You can easily find your stories again. Even if your hard drive dies.
* There is a off-the-cuff, relatively uncrafted esthetic to blogging that might help you write with abandon every day.

Cons

* Publishing your work on a blog may cause some editors to consider the work ‘previously published’ and render it invalid for inclusion in magazines and competitions.
* Writing in the blog window leaves you at the mercy of your internet connection and the host’s servers. One blip and your whole story can be lost otherwise.

Tips For Writing On Your Blog

* Consider writing offline and then pasting the content directly into the blog window. Write in a plain text program and then pretty it up once you’re in the blog window.
* Save drafts obsessively as you work on them.
* Use your blog software to set up categories and tags for your stories. That way it’ll be really easy to find all the stories you wrote during StADa Sept ’12, or all the stories your wrote that were autobiographical, or all the fairy stories…
* Consider password-protecting or marking as ‘private’ any entries you think you might rework for submission to magazines or contests. If no-one else can see them, no-one can consider them ‘published’.

 

So how do YOU write? Have any tips for keeping your writing flowing?