Learning From Your Writing Heroes

So you’ve decided you can be a better writer, you’ve listened to feedback and now you have resolved to act to strengthen your skills.

Now, how do you do that?

Seek Out Knowledge

If you’re a self-starter, consider the feedback you’ve had and plug those terms (“realistic dialogue”, “character deveopment”) into a search engine. Seek out insightful blogs and articles to help you improve those areas in which you are weak.

Read blogs by successful writers who are further along the path to you. Many published writers are extremely generous (if sporadic) in their blog posts. Check out the blogs (and their archives) by Neil Gaiman, Jane Espensen, and more.

Read/Listen to interviews with writers and podcasts about writing. You can find some of my favorite podcasts for writers, here.

Commit to reading about writing over the long term, and dismiss the urge it raises in you to whine “I’ll never be able to…” or “I’ll never be as good as…”. If you do keep reading and listening for months and years, you’ll find that you’ll learn more and despair less.

Classes

If you like classroom learning there is no shortage of writing classes, workshops and ebooks to help guide your way.

Don’t be afraid to specialize. Don’t take a generalized ‘short story writing’ class if you’ve come to realize that what you need help with is dialogue.

Likewise don’t be afraid to reach outside your specialty. If you see an interesting drama workshop or screenwriting class about “action and suspense”, give it a second look. If you are interested, you’ll get much more out of the class than if you are taking it because you just feel you ought to.

If you like the classroom feel, but can’t get to an online or real-world class, look out for ‘home-study’ workbooks and e-books that are structured on a class format, with weekly (or daily) assignments and lessons. Set yourself a deadline and, better yet, see if you can get a writing friend to go through the course with you, to simulate that in-class experience.

CopyCat Writing

This is one of the most popular segments of the Warm Up Writing Course that I run each year before StoryADay May.

During the Renaissance — the great flowering of European art and culture during the 16th and 17th centuries — great artists and artisans enrolled apprentices to train with them. The apprentices learned the principles of their craft not by creating their own unique works but by painstakingly copying the works and style of their masters.

We can do this in writing too (just as long as we don’t attempt to get any of our trainee copycat work published. That’s a plagiarism scandal just waiting to erupt!).

Take a story by a writer you really, really admire — preferably a short short story that won’t take for ever to reproduce. Analyze it in minute detail: from word choice to sentence length. Now, choose a different setting and different characters with different dreams from that of the originals, and write a copycat story, following the exact structure and tone of the original.

(If you want more details about this, and examples to follow, consider signing up for the Warm Up Writing Class I run each April, or try the home study version, available year round.)

Keep Learning

Nowt hat you have some great sources for how to learn from the greats, there is one final thing to realize:

You are never going to be finished.

You will grow and change as a writer as long as you keep doing…and every stage is going to require more learning, more inspiration and new heroes.

Commit to learning about your craft for as long as you are doing it, and you’ll be firmly on the path taken by all your writing heroes.

This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

If you’ve enjoyed this series and want to read more, let me send more like this to your inbox:

How To Ask For — And Act Upon — Writing Feedback

Critiquing
If you want your writing to improve, it’s always a good idea to set a piece aside for a while and come back to it later.

But sometime, not even a month’s Time Out in the dusty recesses of your hard-drive is enough to separate your story from your hopes for it, and the only way to get some perspective is to show it to  someone else.

The real benefit is not just in plucking up the courage to show your writing to another soul (though that’s powerful). It’s in knowing how to listen to and act upon their feedback.

How Not To Take Feedback

Recently, at my Real-World Writers’ Group’s critique session,  I listened as a high-energy, opinionated novelist read out a sample of her novel, which was similarly high-energy and opinionated. It was also funny and well-crafted and she was clearly at the stage where she needed feedback only on errors, omissions and clarity. So we waded in: “You said she was standing on the other side of the minivan so how did he see her?”, “Oh, I do that hobby and there’s a detail you missed.”

It was good stuff and just what she needed. But every time someone offered a critique or asked a question, the writer cut them off with a defense of why she had written it that way and prefaced most of her comebacks with, “Well, what you don’t understand is…”.

I started to wonder a, why she had come to the group, and b, how she ever hoped to get this promising manuscript published if she was unwilling to take feedback. (I had a sudden vision of her trying to follow all her readers home from the bookstore, calling out “Now, don’t forget, when I say that Marianne is biting her lip, that means she’s happy, not that she’s nervous. And the dog is symbolic. Symbolic!!”)

If It’s Not On The Page, It’s Not In The Story

If readers ask you for clarity about a story detail, a character or an event, it means something is missing. Listen to them, make notes and then go away and figure out a way to include more information or clues right there on the page.

If your story has too little (or just as likely: too much) of something, remember that this is not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you stink as a writer. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be any good. It just means you have some more (re)writing to do. And that now you know what you have to do.

Rejecting Feedback

Just as important as listening to and acting on feedback, is the ability to decide you’re not going to act on it.

I like to write stories with twists at the end. I like science fiction. I like humor. So I took along a funny (I hoped), twisty, vaguely-sci-fi story to my writers’ group’s critique night recently. I was pleased to get a few laughs and some smiles, but I also noticed that one of the women in the group was smiling extremely politely and blinking a lot. I gave her an encouraging look and took a deep breath. When she prefaced her remarks with,

“I’ve never read any science fiction and I really prefer slice-of-life stories…” I knew what was coming next. She didn’t get it and had no clue what had happened at the end of my story.

Of course I was disappointed. And of course I wondered if I should make the twist in the tail more obvious. But I also happened to have another person in the group who knew exactly the kind of story this was supposed to be and who enjoyed those kinds of stories. That feedback was, naturally, very different.

I was interested in the feedback of the more ‘general fiction’ reader, but I gave more weight to the critique of  the group’s lone sci-fi fan with the great sense of humor who thinks the ending was skating on just the right side of ‘predictable’.

Listen. Take notes. Consider the source. Go with your gut.

How To Find Critique Partners

If you’ve read this far and are thinking “well, that’s all very well, but how do I find these thoughtful, insightful critique partners?” here are a few idea.

Connect With Other Writers

Readers are wonderful people (I’m one of them), but if you pass a story to the most avid reader who doesn’t write, you’ll likely end up with a fairly unhelpful critique: I liked it/Hmm, it didn’t really work for me.

Avid readers know when something works, but they don’t tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the technique behind good writing: character arcs, if/then cycles, opposing characteristics. And why should they?

Finding Writers To Connect With

Writer Unboxed – This blog has spawned a friendly and passionate writers’ group at their Facebook site. Most of the writers are novelists but many write short stories too. Join the conversation, make some writer friends and see where it takes you.

Meetup.com – I found a fabulous writers’ group in my area through Meetup. Check the listings and see what other people say about the group. In my experience a great facilitator makes all the difference, so see if you can send a private message to some members to see what they think of the group’s leadership and make-up. Also, try to find a group where at least some writers are fans of the genres you write in.

Backspace – A serious writing organization for serious writers. There’s a subscription fee to join the group, which tends to weed out the dilettantes. I’m not a member but several people I respect have raved to me about the forums.

StoryADay.org — leave a comment here on this article saying what you write and that you’d like to form a critique group. If there’s enough interest I’ll set something up in our very own forums and get things rolling.

This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

If you want to read more like this, let me send future articles straight to your inbox:

One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer

national museum of american art and portrait gallery-51

Supreme Court Justice and life-long overachiever, Sonia Sotomayor was a C-student until she decided she wanted to do better. Disregarding questions of talent and opportunity and what was expected of her, she simply went to the top kid in her fifth grade class how she got all those gold stars. And then Sotomayor listened as the girl taught her how she took notes, studied and used tricks to trigger her memory. From then on, Sotomayor was a straight-A student.

Until she reached Princeton and a professor gave her a C.

Once again, she asked for help, listened to the answer and then (and this is crucial) took action to correct her defects. She spent her summer at a bookstore, teaching herself remedial grammar. Each year she faced a different challenge and worked with her professors to overcome them[1. This story comes from a couple of interview with Justice Sotomayor by NPR’s Nina Totenburg. You can find them here and here].

And now she’s a justice in the highest court in the US, where telling a compelling story and choosing the right words are perhaps more important than in any other job but that of a writer.

Believe That You Can Improve

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking writing can’t be taught. Of course it can.

Every time you read a great book you’re learning how to write. Every time some great author talks about writing, you pick up a thing or two.

True, Sonia Sotomayor was not striving to write great literature, but she was willing to learn from people who knew more than she did. We must be willing to do the same.

Examining Your Writing Will Not Scare Away Your Muse

We’ve all experienced that magical moment when everything is flowing and it seems like the words are coming to us from some mystical well. We can start to believe that if we look too closely at what’s going on we’ll blow the whole thing.

But if you’re to make any progress, you must discover and internalize a simple truth that makes all the difference between the ‘wannabe’ writer and the seriously satisfied writer:

You must be willing to believe that writing can be taught.

And when I say ‘taught’ I simply mean that more experienced writers than yourself can share tips and techniques that help you find the fastest path from ‘beginner’ to ‘accomplished’.

Even more importantly, you must believe that you can absorb these lessons and put them into practice.

Sonia Sotomayor (no matter what you think of her judicial views on any subject) demonstrated an attitude and a pattern of behavior we should be racing to copy.  If you’re not writing brilliantly now, figure out what you’re doing wrong and what you need to do to change it. Then work on making those changes.


This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

What To Do When Your Writing Just Isn’t Good Enough

rejected

Every writer with any measure of skill will, at some point, worry that their writing isn’t good enough

Happily, you can find any number of articles and books telling us why you shouldn’t worry about it, how to break through the blocks it causes, how to ignore other people’s subjective opinions, and how to deal with rejection.

But what if your writing really isn’t good enough?

What if your stories are always being rejected?
What if your critique partners always have tons of notes for you, or worse, nothing but a blank stare?

It may mean your writing really isn’t good enough and you need to do two things:

– Work on your skills and become a better writer
– Adjust your expectations[1. You’ll notice I don’t offer ‘give up’ as a choice. You can’t. You’re a writer. You might as well accept that and drop the fantasy that you can quit whenever you want to. You can’t, so instead, work at it and set your expectations appropriately]

Stay tuned for the next few days for a StoryADay.org series on What To Do If Your Writing Just Isn’t Good Enough. In this series I’ll show you how to harness the same tools that took a poor girl from Brooklyn to the highest court in the US, how to learn like a Renaissance master, and how to feel great about your writing again.

This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

If you want to read more like this, let me send future articles straight to your inbox:


Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee


How Do You Invest In Your Writing?

Consider the poor golfer. A cheap set of clubs costs $250, and he quickly finds himself tweaking his collection of clubs (a nice new 3-wood for $179, anyone?). Country club dues are rarely less than a couple of thousand a year. Writing, by comparison, is a cheap gig, but that doesn’t mean you should invest nothing! Let’s talk about how you’ll invest time in your writing this year…

Brandon Jackson Lambeau Leap

Writing is cheap.

All it takes is your brain and some way of recording your creations.

Writing’s low-cost-of-entry makes it the perfect low-risk creative activity …and therein lies the danger.

If you are investing nothing in your writing, what’s to stop you giving up when it gets hard?

I’m here today to make a case that you should consider investing more in your writing this year than you have before.

How To Invest In Your Writing

It might mean you buy more books on the craft of writing.

It might mean hiring a babysitter or a cleaning service from time to time, or negotiating chore-swaps with family members to buy yourself more time to write.

It might simply mean that you spend your time more wisely: actually writing instead of watching TV or browsing writing blogs (a-hem).

It might mean you join a writer’s group, or take an online course, or attend a writer’s conference.

My Writing Investments 2012 – A Case Study

Writing is my hobby, my avocation and my job. And even I don’t spend that much on it.

I consider last year a big year for writing expenditures:

  • 25+ books related to writing, StoryADay (plus well-written books I wanted to read for the joy of it) ($250+ and yes, I could have used the library!)
  • Writer’s Digest Writers’ Conference in NYC – to develop craft and network ($600+ with travel and accommodation)
  • Attended BookExpoAmerica to network ($200+ with travel)
  • Joined ML Writer’s Group (and paid my dues) to hang out with other writers, learn from them, share with them. ($25/year plus cost of dinner at monthly meeting.)
  • Bought notebooks that I enjoy writing in and quadrille paper that I can plan things out on. ($50?)
  • Bought apps to help with note-keeping and planning ($10-20)
  • Hosting for StoryADay.org (I consider StoryADay and the people who hang out there, part of my writing development. So thanks for being part of it!) ($100)
  • Business cards for StoryADay.org ($25)
  • Entry fees for three or four writing competitions ($5-20 each)
  • Used WorldCat to find local college libraries with books I needed for research (free).
  • Participated more in an online writers’ community I find fruitful (free).

My outlays were less than $2000 for the year.

My biggest-ticket items were the two trips to NYC for conferences (particularly the Writers’ Digest one.). I could have replicated some of that with a cheaper conference, closer to home, but for me at that particular time this was the right choice and I was fortunate to be able to afford it.

Happily, the return on my investments was HUGE. In the past year I’ve made massive strides in terms of craft, professional development, networking with fellow writers, in output and in simply  *seeing myself as a writer* (which is not to be underestimated). I made good connections and set up some new opportunities. I expect at least some of those investments to pay off in really interesting ways this year.

The Cost Of Other Activities – Comparative Case Studies

Now consider the poor golfer. A cheap set of clubs costs $250, and he quickly finds himself tweaking his collection of clubs (a nice new 3-wood for $179, anyone?). Country club dues are rarely less than a couple of thousand a year. Hiring a golf cart for every round might be $40 and some clubs have monthly restaurant minimums (use it or lose it). Even if he plays as a guest he’s looking at $50-$100 per round (or more), plus cart fee and dining costs. And what about lessons? And the cost of hitting the driving range in the winter when the course is snowed out?

My spendy year is starting to look kind of frugal, now!

And what about the ardent football fan? The cheapest tickets to see my local football team are $60 a game (if you can get them). If you’re a Green Bay Packers fan and are lucky enough to have a blood relative who’s willing to sign over their season tickets to you, it’ll set you back $1400 per seat just for the transfer after which you are obliged to buy ten tickets a year (at an average price of $260 per seat per game).

It Isn’t All Or Nothing, Is It?

Of course not.

There are plenty of people who tell you going to games is over-rated. They’re happy to party at home and watch the game on their big-screen TV with a few friends, but even that ain’t free (TV: $800-2000, DirecTV Sunday Ticket subscription $199-300/year, nachos and beer, $200+/year).

Or you could watch the game for the price of a couple of Bud Lights (and maybe a babysitter) at your local bar. But I’m willing to be that the most ardent fan in the bar has, at some point, wondered if they might be happier with a season ticket in their back pocket.

And every writer with a pencil and paper has wondered if things might be easier with a word-processor. Every mystery writer has wondered if there might be tricks they could learn from more experienced writers. Every professional in every field needs instruction if they are to progress.

You Don’t Need Season Tickets (But Going To A Game Or Two Might Be Nice)

You don’t have to spend $4000 a year on tickets to call yourself a Packers fan.

You don’t have to spend thousands on courses and books and conferences to develop your writing.

But at some point you’re probably going to feel the pull to subscribe to a writers’ magazine. Or join a group. Or take a course. Or go to a conference.

Deciding What’s Right For You

When my friend told me she’d been offered the chance of taking over some family season tickets to the Green Bay Packers, she told me about the transfer fees and the ticket prices and the hours-in-the-car-with-kids-there-and-back. Oh and the windchill.  My jaw dropped lower and lower and my eyes clearly read “You must be crazy!”.

But that’s because I know nothing about football culture. I’m not from Wisconsin. (I’m not even from the US!). I didn’t know that people sign their babies up to the Packers’ waiting list before they even sign the birth certificate. People deed their place on the waiting list to their heirs in their wills! Season-ticket holders sell unused tickets to other people, and there’s never a shortage of buyers. Oh, and she and her husband are huge fans, who go to games whenever they can.

$1400 a seat for a transfer fee? In that context? She’d be crazy NOT to take on the tickets. I hope my ignorant reaction didn’t color her decision.

Likewise, be careful who you ask for advice when you’re considering traveling thousands of miles and spending hundreds of dollars to attend a conference about writing (which, after all, we all learned to do by the time we were seven, right?).

Another writer may see the value in that. Your golf-playing buddy may not.

Even another writer, at a different stage in their development, may not see the value of the investment you want to make in your writing.

Don’t let anyone derail you.

Likewise, don’t assume that because a conference, or a course, or a book is popular and/or expensive, that it is a ‘must’ for you. My Cheesehead friends had to consider whether, with three small children, the tickets were a sensible investment for them in their real lives not as an abstract idea.

Take some time to think about your goals. Interrogate every opportunity to spend time or money on your craft as it comes along.

Ask yourself:

  • Does this get me closer to my goal of being a fiction writer? And what kind of fiction?
  • Does this conference focus too much on trying to ‘be published’ and less on developing my writing?
  • Have I taken all the classes  I can stomach on “better dialogue” and should I be moving on to figuring out how to submit to magazines?
  • Do you have a good writing friend you can correspond with (like Emily Dickinson) or do you need to join a writers’ group (think: Shelly, Byron, Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Keats!)

How Will You Invest In Your Writing This Year?

What have you been doing to develop  your writing and what will you do to step it up this year?

  • Been writing a few stories here and there? How about committing to a story every month (or even, dare I suggest, a story a day in May?)
  • Reading only fiction? Why not add some non-fiction, to expand the knowledge you bring to your fiction?
  • Are you writing and reviewing your work alone? Perhaps its time to join a critique group or sign up for a writers’ conference.
  • Read enough inspirational blogs and books about writing? Perhaps its time to try something that has a curriculum (a workbook,  or home-study class.)

Parting Points

You are allowed to spend time and money on writing. It’s as important to you as football is to people who claim to ‘bleed green’ (or ‘blue’ or ‘orange’ or whatever). And probably cheaper.

You must make your own decisions about what you need in your writing life right now, and pursue those things.

You — and your stories — are important. Do whatever you can to stalk those stories, capture them, and share them with us. We need them.

 

Keep writing!

 

 

 

Treating Writing Like A Job

After four rounds of StoryADay, three NaNoWriMos and several decades of being in various stages of writerly success, avoidance, denial and productivity, I think I’m finally getting the hang of treating my writing as a job…

After four rounds of StoryADay, three NaNoWriMos and several decades of being in various stages of writerly success, avoidance, denial and productivity, I think I’m finally getting the hang of treating my writing as a job.

Pursuing The Craft

I’ve developed a three-pronged approach to this ‘course’ I’m taking in writing. I’m sharing it because if you aren’t doing all of these things, you will want to add them to your writing life. And because if I’ve missed something, I’d love you to share it in the comments.

Commitment

If you vow to write a certain amount every day, or at the same time every day, or to finishing a thing by a certain date, that’s commitment. You’re not just messing around. You’re practising your craft. Whether or not you start off each writing session in the mood, you write when you said you would. You’re taking it seriously.

That in itself is a big step.

But better than that, if you really writing, committing, finishing, you will be learning and improving and progressing towards a point where you can be proud of what you write.

Study

Learn from other writers.

This is a lesson I resisted for a long time. Let’s face it I don’t like to be told what to do. And in a way, it is dangerous to read about what other writers do, unless you read voraciously. Read, listen to podcasts and interviews, take it all in.

At first you’re going to get depressed because all the writers you love are doing it differently from how you do it. You’re going to try to write 2000 words a day, every day, like Stephen King or you’re going to think you can’t finish a book without a writer’s retreat in Taos, New Mexico. And then maybe you’ll find that your writing method is frighteningly close to that of that jackass writer whose books you wouldn’t read if they were the last words on earth.

But the more you listen, the more you’ll realize it doesn’t matter. You’ll find your own way and you can try out tips from other writers. Discard them if they don’t work. Hoard them if they do. And you’ll start to realize that all writers have slumps, all writers find the middle difficult, all writers think they’re writing garbage at some point in the first draft. And all the successful writers keep going anyway. They finish. They send their work out there. They move on and write the next thing.

Read, listen, learn.

Get Out There

Showing your work to your mother or your spouse is all very well (and a necessary stage to give you the courage to move on to the next bit). But a biased reader-review is nothing to the power of a review from another writer.

Get out into the world and find yourself some other writers. (Try Meetup.com for real-world writers groups in your area — I found an awesome group this way. Hang out in the Writer Unboxed community on Facebook, or at one of the billion other online communities (including this one!)

There is nothing like hanging out with other writers to help boost your confidence in your writing and in your decision to embrace this writing thing that pulls at you. Suddenly, you are not alone, and that feels great.

Even better, their feedback will come at you from a different angle. They won’t say your writing is ‘nice’ or ‘fine’. They’ll talk about character arcs and shading and plot archetypes, and you will learn from all the things they’ve read and learned as they study their craft.

How about you? Are you writing if and when the muse strikes or are you laying traps for her by writing every day, studying up on the craft and hanging out with other writers? What else are you doing to develop your writing career?

How Was Your Writing Year?

Worksheet Alert! I have a new, free worksheet for you! Take a few minutes to look back at what you’ve done this year. Spend a little time patting yourself on the back on this new worksheet for those of us who like lists but aren’t linear thinkers…[read more]

Worksheet Alert! I have a new, free worksheet for you!

We all love the New Year: the retrospectives, the ‘where are they now’s, the ghoul pools, the feeling of starting afresh and of possibilities.

Well, the end of the year is nigh and it’s time to take a look at your writing life. And I have a printable worksheet to help you do just that.

 

Introducing The StoryADay.org “My Writing Year” Quick Planner

It’s a one-page, 8.5″x11″ printable form without any straight lines — perfect for those of us who like lists but aren’t linear.

(If you’re not using a US printer and paper, you’ll need to check the ‘resize to fit page’ box in your printer options, but it should work out OK.)

Take a few minutes to look back at what you’ve done this year. Spend a little time patting yourself on the back as well as taking note of opportunities missed, or where you could do better next year. Capture where you were and how far you’ve come. Scribble down a few plans for next year.

Get your free copy now!

 

If you discover any surprising truths or want to share anything you put down, leave a comment here.

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Why Write?

Seriously? Why tell stories?

No-one’s beating down your door to pay you money for your stories.

There are billions of people in this world. Why are your stories any better than theirs? Who’s going to listen?

You’re Asking The Wrong Questions

Humans are storytelling animals.

Laughter And Photos

Imagination and emotion are what keep us from skating through life, forever on the surface, never going deeper and finding out what matters. Stories are all about imagination and emotion.

Why not write?

Isn’t that a better question?

The Storytelling Imperative

We tell stories every day.

All of us.

Even the people you wish wouldn’t.

You know the one, right? The one who starts to tell you about her journey in to wherever you are right now, but has to back up to tell you about what her husband asked her to cook before she left and how the car used to have heated seats but the mechanic messed it up and she’s still trying to get some satisfaction for that but she bets she never will…and you know there is something she is trying to tell you but now you’re standing there with your coffee gone cold and your boss’s increasingly frantic phone calls rerouting to voicemail, and still she doesn’t seem to be able to bring herself to the point of her story. And you can’t walk away because you know she’s building up to a point and you’re too well-bred to lean in and scream into her face, spittle flying, “Get to the freaking point, woman!”, so you stand there, following her down seemingly endless diversions and side roads hoping against hope that one of them will put her back on the road towards the point of her story.

And how do you know there is a point to her story? Because it’s how we communicate. You have a lifetime of experience in this stuff. You know that once someone has set a scene and introduced some characters (“Me, in my car, driving here”) they have entered into a contract with us to provide not just information but a story: something happens, some conclusion is reached, maybe there’s a moral, maybe not, but you both walk away having learned something.

The Contract

That’s the deal: I’m telling you a story. It will take you somewhere and give you something to take home with you at the end.

If you break the contract you are either a really bad storyteller and a bore, or you’re a comedian. (Think of why Steven Wright and Henny Youngman are so funny: they set up the expectation of a story and then subvert it. They aren’t wasting our time. They are entertaining us, so we forgive them.)

But back to your narratively-challenged office-mate. She didn’t just say, “Wow, it took me a long time to get here today.” She set the scene. She reeled you in. She has declared that she has a story to tell and you can’t help but stay to find out what happens in the end. (Unless, of course, you’ve heard her stories before.)

Why Write Stories?

If nothing else, to practice. To get better at it. To avoid being the person at a party or in the office corridors that everyone is scrambling to get away from.

By telling stories over and over again, in the safety of your notebook, you begin to see how story structure works: the set up, the missed opportunity, the payoff, the conclusion. You begin to learn how to make characters compelling (whether they are real or fictional). You learn how to pare back on the extraneous detail to keep your reader (or listener) interested.

By telling a lot of stories in a short amount of time, you learn these lessons quickly.

Don’t Wait

Dig in to the writing prompts and commit to writing a handful of stories this month. Then come back here and let us know you got on.

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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?

Don’t Write! How ‘Not Writing’ Could Save Your Story

It can be a struggle to find time to write, and yet here I am, bringing you a post on fitness? What’s up with that?

Well, the facts speak for themselves: making time for fitness is like an investment in ourselves that pays us back in increased concentration, productivity and creativity.

Today I’ve asked Lisa Johnson from LisaJohnsonFitness to give us some pointers about how to integrate exercise and creativity without derailing our writing schedules.

I particularly like her 10-minute burst idea – check it out below.

Also, Lisa has offered to answer any questions you might have about integrating fitness into your routine. (Normally she charges people handsomely for the privilege!) Just post your questions below.

Thanks Lisa!

How ‘Not Writing’ Could Be The Best Thing You Ever Did For Your Writing Career

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Joy In Motion!

Hunched over our laptops, tapping away on the keyboard, writers feel like we have to be writing to be productive.

But, to get those creative juices flowing, maybe what we really need is to push away from the desk, slap on those sneakers and head outside.

Taking a break to get your body moving will:

  • Decrease stress
  • Increase productivity
  • Improve time management
  • Improve mental sharpness
  • Boost creativity

The 30 minutes that you spend in motion will be more than made up for through increased creativity and output. I promise. )

So pick an activity that you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be a prescribed fitness routine with weights, reps, and sets at the gym. It doesn’t have to be the “Om” of a yoga class, but it can be if that’s what you like to do. Some options to consider:

  • Just go for a walk; nature helps us calm down and declutter our brains.
  • If you’ve got the cardio endurance, go for a run.
  • Take a yoga or Pilates class for weight-bearing strength work and a little Zen.
  • If you like group exercise classes or watching TV while you do cardio, go get a gym membership.
  • Buy some free weights for your home (cuts out all travel time).
  • Watch fitness DVDs; stream them on your computer or use your local cable company for free routines.

Also, if the idea of being away from your writing for an hour just seems completely unfathomable, you can always break workouts down into 10-minute bursts. I tell this to clients regularly. When you’re transitioning from one task to another, do a quick 10-minute burst of cardio. This can be as simple as running in place or skipping rope or throwing on some tunes and dancing around your living room. The brain break will give you a clean slate as you start your next task. It’s amazing how well this works.

If you’re looking for overall guidelines, you want to do a minimum of 150 minutes of cardio per week; anything above that is gravy. Your heart will thank you, your doctor will thank you, and your readers will thank you!

If you have any questions, just ask below, and I’ll answer them.

Cheers,

Lisa


Lisa Johnson has been a certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor since 1997. She owns Modern Pilates in Brookline, MA and has been a fitness blogger for three years at Lisa Johnson Fitness.com. She also blogs for FitStudio.com (a Sears company.)

http://lisajohnsonfitness.com
http://modernpilatesboston.com