This time next year, you could be staring at a list of achievements that are directly related to the goals that matter to you…
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.
Decorate your calendar with a sticker every day you write.
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.
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!
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)
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?
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:
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.
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)
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
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.
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!
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!)
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:
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?
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…
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.
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?”]
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.
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.
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!)
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.
* 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.
* 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.
Again, the pros and cons are fairly straightforward:
* 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.
* 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.
* They are with you all the time or easy to move to wherever you are.
* You don’t need good lighting.
* 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.
* 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.
* 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?
The point of doing this challenge is to push yourself to do more than you thought you possibly could.
The point is to unleash the flood of creativity that comes when you have to write every day.
The point is not to give you yet another way to fail at a creative endeavor.
So yes, you should set yourself a goal that seems momentous, preposterous, monstrous even. And maybe for you that will be: writing 30 stories in 30 days. But maybe it will mean writing a story on five out of seven days.
The StoryADay Rules say there is one rule, “Write and finish a story every day. That’s it.”
They then promptly go on to talk about all the ways you can add to — or subtract from — that absolute.
I know it’s a bit confusing. It’s my fault. I appreciate rules, but I’m just not very good at being told what to do and I fail to see why I should expect other writers to be any better. Hence…
So, here follows my attempt to make sense of the part where the site says “set your own rules.”
What Do You Mean “Set Your Own Rules”?
The point of doing this challenge is to push yourself to do more than you thought you possibly could.
The point is to unleash the flood of creativity that comes when you have to write every day.
The point is not to give you yet another way to fail at a creative endeavor.
So yes, you should set yourself a goal that seems momentous, preposterous, monstrous even. And maybe for you that will be: writing 30 stories in 30 days. But maybe it will mean writing a story on five out of seven days. Or limiting yourself to 100 word stories. Or taking Thursday’s off.
If you know that your Saturdays are packed with people and obligations, sun-up to sun-down; or if you have tried the challenge before and noticed that you always failed to finish a story after five days of successes; or if you are a member of a religious group that takes the holy day extremely seriously, don’t torture yourself. Write it into your rules that you get to take certain days off.
How Do I Know What A Good Set Of Rules Is, For Me?
And if you haven’t done the challenge before (or if you haven’t written anything for a while) I strongly encourage you to stick to the basic rule: write and finish one story every single day for a month.
I know that sounds ridiculous in itself: surely if you haven’t been writing you should warm up a bit, ease yourself in? No. Sorry. This is not like running a marathon. You’re not going to pull a muscle or ruin your knees.
If you haven’t pushed your short-story writing before, you have no way of knowing what your boundaries are. Only by trying to write a complete story every day for 30 days can you know whether or not you can do it. Or how close you can come. And the effort is its own reward.
If, however, you took part in May, you’ll have a good sense of how much time you could make for writing, and what your goals need to be.
Just be honest with yourself. If you wrote 12 stories in May you might be secretly disappointed in yourself — or you might be thrilled. It all depends on you, and your circumstances. Just set yourself a goal that’s a little more ambitious than whatever you accomplished before and promise yourself you will push and push to get to it.
The Second Rule
The second absolute rule you should set yourself is to treat every day as a new day until the end of the month.
No going back to finish yesterday’s story – until next month
No berating yourself for yesterday’s shortcomings
No looking ahead and saying “I’ll never make it!”
Try your utmost to stick to your writing rules today. Forgive the past, and forget the future. Just write today.
What If I Fail?
Well, first of all, I have a problem with that word: “fail”.
Did you try? Then you didn’t fail. Did you complete a story every day for a month? No? Hmm, well, did you learn something about your style or your voice or your writing method? Did you write more than you wrote the month before (or in any month before. Ever.)?
There may well be days when you fail to finish a story. Forget it. Forgive yourself and move on. You are in pursuit of a great challenge here. Keep after it.
It’s entirely likely that some of your stories are great steaming heaps of passive voiced, prepositionally phrased, tedious prose peopled by heroes who wouldn’t know a plot point if it pointed right at them. Don’t give up on them. Keep writing until you get to the end. Even if you have to kill someone (in fact, that can be kind of fun). Pushing through to the end of a story teaches you so much more than giving up and starting afresh. Finish.
And if it gets to midnight (or whenever you go to bed) and you simply cannot finish today’s story: get some rest. Let it go and vow to start afresh tomorrow.
When the month is over, you can revise what’s worth saving, and learn from what’s not. While the challenge is still running, just keep writing. Strike the word ‘fail’ from your vocabulary. So long as you are writing, you cannot fail. Pat yourself on the back. You wrote. You got complete stories out of your brain — where you didn’t even know they were lurking — and on the page. You are courageous and to be congratulated.
Can I Adjust My Rules?
Yes. Absolutely. This is your challenge. I’d rather you adjusted your rules than gave up. Just don’t be too easy on yourself. This is meant to be a, er, challenge!
Set ambitious goals
Try to meet them. At the very least, put some kind of ending on each story.
Be hard on yourself every morning and kind to yourself at the end of every day.
Treat every day as a new challenge (don’t look back!)
Last week we talked about the importance of writing even when you don’t feel like it. Well, enough theory. This week I bring you seven practical strategies for making it happen.
Goals, rewards and accountability buddies form part of the big picture in this scheme. They are sensible parts of your writing’s career plan. But as for the actual “starting writing” part? That’s when you need to be a bit more tricksy.
Try some of these tricks to shake loose the “sensible”, lose the “logical” and get your brain into that devil-may-care creative zone you need for writing.
1. Give Yourself Enough Time
I’ve always loved a deadline — as long as it came with a sleepless night between the two of us. But sit down to write knowing I have to have something completed in an hour?! That’s enough to induce a mammoth case of writer’s block (aka panic). Comedian John Cleese talks about this in this fabulous video on creativity (it’s long, but worth watching). He recommends no less than 90 minutes as a window for creative work, asserting that your brain will try to sabotage you for at least the first half hour…It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it does point out the necessity of allowing more time than you might otherwise plan, for creative ventures.
2. Letter To a Friend
If you’re really having trouble knowing how to get into your story, put all thoughts of readers, editors and publishing out of your head. Instead start writing a letter to your best friend, explaining what this story is going to be about. Write it as if you were describing something that had really happened. You don’t need to finish the letter (or mail it) because the act of writing it out will help you find a way into the actual story, and start writing.
3. Switch Up Your Writing Method
If you usually write on a computer, try turning on the microphone and dictating your story instead (you can transcribe it later). If you usually dictate stories, grab a good pen and some nice paper and write a few paragraphs. If you habitually write on paper, pull up a keyboard. Just the act of writing in a different physical way forces your brain to fire in different ways. You may find yourself “writing” in a different style than usual, or you may simply jump start your writing day. (This will feel awkward. That’s kind of the point. Try it.)
4. Stand Up
Sitting down is not a natural attitude, in evolutionary terms. Humans are made to be upright, to be walking around. So stand up for a while. Pace the floor, muttering like a mad person about the plot point that has you foxed. If you can swing it, put a plank across the arms of a treadmill and balance your laptop on it (I recommend walking very, very slowly until you get the hang of this). Either way, regular movement-breaks help you write by getting your blood pumping and letting your mind wander. Creativity requires thinking-time as well as working-time.
5. Write Nonsense
Some days getting started feels like torture. It feels like a physical impossibility. Put your pen on the paper, put your fingers on the keyboard and just talk. Talk about anything. How hard this is, how much you hate it, what sounds you are hearing outside your window, the feeling of your hair sticking to your neck in the summer heat, anything. Eventually you will relax (and get sick of the navel-gazing, self-absorbed, pity-kitty you have become and start writing the damned story).
6. Outline one scene
Every story has scenes. The bit where we walk in to the characters’ lives. The bit where they are forced to make a decision. The bit when they have a big fight. Take one scene and outline it. Promise yourself that you’ll write this one scene today even if you don’t manage anything else. Figure out who is in the scene, where it takes place, what the characters want, why they can’t have it (yet) and what function the scene plays in the overall scheme of the story (is it a set-up scene? Does it contain the inciting incident? Is it the climax?). Don’t worry about how you’ll write the rest of the story. Outline this one scene. Then write it.
7. Visualize Success
This is the most hippy, nebulous piece of advice I will give and its a bit more ’big picture’ than the other techniques here, but used in conjunction with them it can be extremely powerful. We are a product of our beliefs about ourselves, so let’s make sure we spend some time on the positive ones. Yes, writing is hard. No, we’re not big successes yet. So why do we do this to ourselves? What do we want? Answer this question then spend some time imagining how it will feel when you get there. Use those anticipated good feelings to propel you towards your goal.
Your goal might be as grand as seeing yourself doing book signings and readers to adoring fans. Or it might be as simple as remembering the thrill you always feel when you finish a piece.
And remember, you’re a writer. It is your job to imagine things all the time. If MBA candidates and captains of industry can use this technique, how much more successful will you, a writer, be?
What techniques do you use to jump start your work on a day when you don’t feel like writing?
What’s a writer to do on those days when your inner writer is being a cranky toddler, plumping it’s big fat bottom down on the floor, screwing up its face and wailing,
“I dun wanna wri-i-ite!”
Today I bring some tough parenting love for your inner child-writer. Next week: seven practical strategies to jump-start your writing on the days when even The Mommy Voice won’t cut it.
Tough It Out
D’ya think the dairy farmer always leaps out of bed before dawn, whistling and praising the winter wind that whips away his breath on the way to the byre? Nope, but you need milk for your coffee, so he drags himself out of bed.
Readers, no, the world needs your stories, so get your fingers on the keyboard.
But Julie, you say, writing is a creative pursuit! How can I be expected to turn out something wonderful if writing feels like work?
In answer I say: how will you turn out something wonderful if you aren’t sitting down every day and learning how to get through the reluctance, the fear, the slog? You don’t have to write something wonderful every. You do, however, have to write. Whether you feel like it or not.
Do whatever it takes to get yourself past the reluctance and into that happy place where the words flow. Stay in your chair until you are happy to be there. Your readers will thank you.
If you are not writing for a steady paycheck and legions of crazed fans, you need another reward structure.
It IS hard to start and finish a story. It IS hard to face the revision process. You DO deserve a reward for putting in the effort – beyond the satisfaction of knowing you did it.
So, set up some incentives for yourself. Be generous, but canny. Your rewards should enhance your creativity rather than take the edge off.
Examples of creativity-enhancing rewards:
-a call to a like-minded friend,
-a new notebook,
-some guilt-free time contemplating a thing of beauty,
-a walk in the woods
Stodgy, counterproductive “rewards”:
-a half-pint of ice cream,
-two hours flipping through the channels,
-a free-flowing bitch-session about how hard it is to be a writer.
Yes, goals. Set regular goals and meet them.
Any or all of the following – especially when you pair them with the accountability of telling a more-bossy friend about them – can help you break through the barriers on a day when you just don’t want to write:
-a daily word count or ’scene goal’. Commit to write X number of words or complete scenes every day. You will progress, even if you end up revising heavily later.
-a weekly goal can make the whole ’goal’ thing less stressful than a daily goal. Struggling on Tuesday? Make up for it on Wednesday, Thursday AND Friday.
-write down mid-term and long-term goals: “finish three stories this month”, “revise and submit stories to ten markets by October”, “self-publish a story collection in 2013”.
Refer to your list as you sit down to work. Remind yourself it’s not just about the slog or the word-count: you have goals for your writing.
And if one of your goals is “support myself through my writing, full-time” then it’s even more important that you figure out, now, how to write even when you don’t feel like it.
Next week: seven specific techniques for getting yourself in the mood to write even when your inner child-writer is saying “I dun wanna!”.