When I started StoryADay May back in 2010, some of 100 or so people who took part really stuck with me. One was Gabriela Pereira, who had just finished up an MFA and was transitioning from student to working writer. We shared an enthusiasm both for writing and for the hair-brained scheme.
Back then, I was a couple of years ahead of her in the online, community-building, content-marketing , writing-for-pay experience. Now she has soared into the writing world as a leader, a teacher, an inspirer and, in her own words, Chief Instigator at her project: DIY MFA.
This afternoon I tuned in to her latest webinar, sort of as a favor. I’ve heard the talk before, live and in person, and was really just showing in case no one else did. Of course, there were tons of people on the call, loads of questions from attendees, and Gabriela fired people up and sent them away with tools and techniques to make their writing better, as always.
But — it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did — what I hadn’t expected to happen was that I had a breakthrough about my own novel-in-progress, while listening to Gabriela talk. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the turning point at the mid-point of my novel needed to be. More than knowing it, I could *picture* it.
I rushed off to my office and scrawled three pages of notes, opened up Scrivener and started adding scene cards to the second half of my novel’s file. I got super excited, and then realized how much writing I had to do…then chose to see that as exciting too!
Did I mention I’ve heard this talk at least twice before?
Lesson learned: when you find a teacher/mentor/friend whose words you really connect to, stick to them. Revisit their lessons. Re-read their books. Get on webinars and conference calls with them. Ask questions. Go over and over their lessons at different stages of your development and the development of each of your projects.
There is still time left this year to meet some of your goals. The question is which ones?
You probably had a list of projects you wanted to write this year, and there are only two possibilities now:
You haven’t made the progress on the projects that you would have liked, or
You blew through your projects and generated a new, longer list.
Either way you have a choice to make:where do you focus your time and creative energy for the rest of the year?
Learning To Choose
“Successful people make decisions quickly and change their minds slowly”
This certainly seem to be a trait in many of the successful people I know.
“The only bad choice, is making no choice”
I’ve been writing long enough now that I’ve seen people come along who were just starting out when I’d been doing this for a few years, who have overtaken me. Whether it’s the success of their website, or their book publishing, they seem much further along on one or other of the paths I want to take.
I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. But why does it happen?
Partly, it’s to do with making choices.
Like many writers I tend to over think things. I tend to get stalled by the idea that there is a perfect choice.
We could beat ourselves up about that, but the reality is, as writers we make choices all the time. We need to get comfortable with that, so that our perceptions don’t hold us back.
Everything About Writing Contains Choices
to sit down and write today
when to work
what project to work on
What decisions you character’s going to make
The best words to convey their actions, their feelings, their surroundings.
Every choice you make is a rejection of every other choice.
Does The Thought of Closing Down Options Paralyze You?
As a reforming over-thinker and reluctant-decision-maker, I’m here to tell you that, the more you make choices in your writing, the better you become at it.
And in fiction, making choices is always reversible.
Decision + Course Correction = Win
Here’s the really important part about choices: you aren’t locked into your choices, but you must review them and adjust your course.
For example, if you decide to kill off a character in your short story, but then find they would have been useful to have around later, you have some choices to make: must you correct the mistake or can you make some other character carry the weight that would have been taken up by the character you killed?
And in your writing life: you decide you’re going to write for two hours before bed every night, but find yourself tired and depleted and unable to create anything worthwhile. Should you continue to do what you think ought to work, or should you review the results of the experiment, decide you’ve learned something useful, and try writing at another time of day?
(Hint: it’s Answer B)
We’re not sculptors, lopping off pieces of marble that ought to have been a nose or an arm. If we accidentally chop off a story arm, we just go back in and add more words!
With words, we can fix everything.
Making choices in your fiction is fantastic practice for making choices on bigger issues.
TASK: Go back to your writing today with a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the fact that your medium is the insubstantial one of words and fiction; and that by making choice in your fiction you get to become better at it.
Don’t Be Too Capricious
The art of iteration (i.e. trying things, adjusting and trying the next, tweaked version) is in trying a new thing for long enough to really tell if it’s working, before you analyze and make changes.
If you’re trying to write at night, commit to trying it every day for two weeks (or the equivalent thereof) and only then, make changes.
If you change a plot thread or a character, write a good chunk of the story after that decision point, evaluate it, and only then make decisions.
Do not make decision on the fly. Do not change your routine or your decisions every day. Give every experiment time to run, then examine it, and change one little thing, and go again.
Think of these experiments as first drafts. My first-draft version of ‘write first’ allow me to check email before I started writing. After I had tried the experiment for a while, I got stuck. The experiment (the first draft) had run its course. The outcome: checking email derailed my fiction writing.
So I edited out ‘check email’, and gave the process another try. It went much better.
The fact that we commit to writing a story every single day in May, means there is no bargaining. There is no question of ‘am I going to write today?” No mental energy is lost on that decision. Instead we StoryADay-ers leap out of bed in a panic, thinking “WHAT am I going to write today?”
With the writing part assumed, we skip straight to making creative choices, and scanning the world for inspiration.
I advocate taking away as many choices as possible from your writing practice.
Making choices saps your willpower. If you spend your day making choices about your writing practice, by the time you sit down at the keyboard, you’re going to be pretty depleted.
Does your day go like this:
Decide if I’ll write today
Decide when I’ll write today
Check email — to ‘clear the decks so I can write’
Tidy up/run a load of laundry– to ‘earn the right to write’
Push back my writing time for any of 1001 reasons
MAYBE get around to writing, and send the first half of the time allotted, trying to quiet my mind and get back into the story.
I would argue that if your day looks like this, you have depleted your will power so much that it is going to be really hard for you to make all the choices that you need to make in your story world.
Think about Mark Zuckerberg and his omnipresent grey hoodies, or Obama wearing the same blue suit (or multiples thereof) almost every day of his presidency. These people have so many choices to make in the day, the last thing they want to do is waste energy on choosing an outfit.
You have so many choices to make in your story world, the last thing you want to do is worry about reinventing your writing routine every day.
Protect Your Bubble
Now, I know not everyone can write first thing in the morning (it’s extremely rare day when I can truly sit down to write without having to deal with other people’s needs first).
But what you can do, is create a protected bubble of time that is for writing. In order to do that, make a deal with yourself that you will write at a specific time every day (or plan ahead for a weeks’ worth of writing days if your schedule is unpredictable).
And then stick to it.
This removes the self-talk about whether you’ll write today, wether you deserve your writing time, and all the bargaining we do with ourselves to ‘buy’ writing time.
My Current Practice
I have tried to make it, recently, an absolute that I write fiction first thing in the morning. I’ve tried to make it an absolute that I don’t look at email, Twitter, Facebook, or talk to any more people than absolutely necessary, before meet my fiction word count.
The more that has become a habit, the more my fiction output has grown, and the more my output has grown, the more creative breakthroughs I’ve had and, the better my writing has become.
Find Your Routine
You may find that you can write best at the end of the day, when everyone has gone to bed and you will have no choices except the ones in your story world.
Just decide when you’ll write, and stick to it for a couple of weeks. Decide if it’s working. Tweak. Try again. Keep writing!
DON’T BE AFRAID OF ROUTINE
I know we creative types often resist routine and commitment and structure because we’ve been sold this vision of the crazy creative.
We’ve come to believe that routine and structure stifle creativity and innovation, but in fact, routine in your working practices can actually free you up to be more creative in your work.
“Clarity and decisiveness come from the willingness to slow down, to listen to and to look at what’s happening.”
We can’t build the creative space we need if we’re cramming our writing time into the space between all the will-I/won’t-I choices we put in front of our commitment to our writing.
Learning to get better at making choices and sticking with them is a powerful tool both in your stories, in your writing life, and in your life in general.
(Lesson #357 in how writing makes us better people!)
HOW TO GET BETTER AT MAKING CHOICES
Make your choices boldly. Stick to your commitments for a period of time. But remember that, as in writing, you can edit your choices later.
What will you choose to work on between now and the end of the year in your writing life? Something in your writing practice? A particular written project? Leave a comment
To stick to our good intentions and create good writing practices, we have to stay excited about our writing. Meeting a word count goal or an hours-in-chair goal isn’t always enough of an incentive to break through our resistance to sitting down and creating something out of nothing, every day.
So, in this article, I’m offering you some alternative ways to get yourself jazzed about your writing practice.
This month’s theme here at StoryADay is: Make It Better.
Here’s some recommended reading from around the web on various aspects of making your writing life better.
MAKING YOUR WRITING BETTER
Here are three articles on how you can make your writing better to read, easier to sell, and impossible to put down.
Confessions of A Slush Pile reader – really useful article on why one reader rejected stories from a publication (even if your’e not submitting stories to publications, this is a great list of ‘what will put your reader to sleep’ and help you improve your writing)
Hunting Down Story Goals Plot holes are deadly to your story, but just as deadly are the other ‘holes’ that you might not be thinking about. This article tells you what they are and offers up a handy, printable template for keeping track of the important details. This might be overkill for short-short stories, but could be really useful for longer short stories, novellas and definitely for those of you working on novels.
All writing is not created equal, argues James Scott Bell, while Ruthanne Reid shares advice for not quitting even when you can’t write.
The Five Modes of A Writer’s Life James Scott Bell talks about the five types of writing day you might have (from the inspired ‘flow’ state, to the solid reliable quotas of the “pro”). This is an encouraging article to help you make your commitment to your writing better: understanding that every day is not going to be blissful, really helps you stick to your priorities!
3 Steps to Writing When Life Goes NutsWe all have them: weeks (months?) when life gets away from us and writing seems impossible. This encouraging article from Ruthanne Reid commiserates, then gives you some concrete steps to take, to keep your writing life alive.
REVISION WITHOUT TEARS
Two tools to help you revise without drowning in a vat of your own words (and tears).
The 7DayStory – This email course, that I created with Gabriela Pereira of DIYMFA, takes you through the process of writing, REVISING and releasing a short story in seven days. It’s free and, if you’re looking for a methodical way to work through the revision process, pay particular attention to days 3–6
Critique is a funny thing. If you get lucky, you find a great group and you’re all mature and experienced. If you’re not so lucky, you get newbies or jerks. If you’re thinking of starting a group (or want to make yours better) start by showing them this video: Professor Puppet’s Writing Critique instructions.
This short, funny video by my buddy Gary Zenker, is a great introduction for anyone new to critique, or who needs a refresher Air this video at the start of your group, to set the ground rules in an entertaining way!
How To Ask For — And Act On — FeedbackIf you have other writers willing to read and critique your work it can be really valuable. Here’s are some of the right, and the wrong ways, to deal with feedback.
I hope these evergreen articles will help you Make It Better this month and in the future.
Do you have any tips for things that have made your writing or your writing life better? Share in the comments!
If you want to read more like this, let me send future articles straight to your inbox:
Every word of that title is important, so go back and read it again.
Doesn’t that sound appealing?
The first time I came across Stuart Horwitz, I was struck by the way his writing instruction bridges the gap between Pantsers and Plotters, and how he provides actual processes and methods for getting from ‘wannabe writer’ to ‘someone who can polish and finish their work’.
His latest book comes out today and provides a powerful, user-friendly guide to getting work done, while LOVING what you do.
It takes you through the process of writing a book in three drafts and includes extras like PDFs and stop-motion animated videos that illustrate the lessons in the book. It’s really delightful and powerful stuff.
I had a chance to interview Stuart Horwitz about his books, his editing work and his own writing this week, and he had some great advice for us, as we work on short stories and perhaps move on to our longer, book-length projects.
Finish Your Novel In Three Drafts. Really?
JD: Why did you want to write this particular book? What problem are you trying to help writers solve?
SH: We only have a limited number of books in us — mostly because our time here is limited — and so it becomes a matter of figuring out what are the best books for us to work on, and how we can bring the most excitement to that work and then, how we can get through it, while we still have that energy and affection for it. (Like I say in the subtitle “while you still love it”.) And then move on to the next thing.
And I know this very well because, little-known fact: I trained as a mortician. I walked out of there knowing for a fact that I was going to die. We all are.
Before that time comes, how about we accomplish some shit, you know? That’s all I’m saying.
JD: So how do we do that?
SH: Having a ritual while you write is crucial. There are times when it’s not possible [to fit in everything from your ritual]. We have to recognize that its value doesn’t lie within the ritual itself, it lies in its ability to bring you to a joyful state. It helps us penetrate beyond appearances and figure out why we’re doing this…what we’re doing.
And every writer has to have a process. It doesn’t have to be my process. You can get some from me, four from this other person, and make up 2 of your own and there’s your process. But if you stick to it, it will help you on the less-excited days.
PANTSER OR PLOTTER?
JD: You take a very moderate approach to the whole ‘Write by the seat of your pants’ vs ‘Outline everything’ debate. You sound terribly reasonable.
SH: We like to call it The Middle Way in Buddhism.
There’s always a reason to bend the rule and there’s always a reason to practice discipline.
KNOW WHAT DRAFT YOU’RE IN
JD: The thing that helped me immensely, every time I read your books, is the concept of “Knowing What Draft You’re In”. Can you explain that a bit?
SH: The first draft is just getting it down – The Messy Draft. The second draft is the Method Draft which is about making it make sense. The Third Draft is the Polish Draft which is about making it good.
So, when you sit down to start, it’s all First Draft.
And when you do action steps to figure out what you’re actually working with and then take the best parts up a level, it becomes the Second Draft.
And then you go through your beta-reading process, bring in outside input, and use that to get to your third draft, which is your polish draft.
And I’m talking about a real draft. I’m not talking about tweaking. Like: these five scenes are all going in trash. And: I need scenes that aren’t here yet. Adding three commas? That’s not a draft. That’s just ornamentation. That’s chasing perfection.
The secret to the three drafts is that when, during the second draft, you uncover holes and start writing that scene, remember that new scene is in its first draft. If you stare at that new piece and say, “Why aren’t you as good as everything else already?” it’s going to be madness.
Keep in mind, every time you encounter new material it’s first draft.
JD: How do you know what to work on next, in revisions?
SH: There are action steps [in his books – JD] that you can take between drafts which will reveal to you what you are working on, more clearly.
Mapping the journey we’re on at the same time that we’re on it, gets kind of dizzying/confusing.
We need a separation between the viewer and the subject matter.
I’m a big fan of grids [Here, I refer you to Stuart’s books and his website because this is a big, meaty and really useful subject – JD]
JD: How can a short story writer avoid overwhelm at the thought of writing a novel?
SH: I like to break it down in to writing sessions. The question is “how many writing sessions does it take”? From my own experience: I have a short story that is probably one session away from nailed and that is Number 5.
So it’s the same concept. My second book, Book Architecture Method, took 60 writing sessions.
You show up to one of those 60 sessions, you necessarily have to reduce the scope of your expectations. What am I doing today? I’m not writing a novel today. I’m writing a part of a chapter in a draft today.
I’m going to take the rest of that junk out of my mind and I’m going to sit down and write, and I’m gonna write what I was thought I was writing, and I’m going to discover new stuff, and I’m going t write stuff that isn’t good, and I’m going write stuff that is good, and I’m going to keep going, and I’m going to get to the end of this session.
When I get to the end of the session, if I’ve made progress, that’s a win.
ON WRITING WITH CONFIDENCE
JD: It’s easy as writers to judge ourselves as having failed. You idea of grids and process and ritual take the emotion out of the revision process.
SH: Self judgement is a very complex phenomenon and has many many faces. There may be a reason why that never really goes away: a tension exists where our need to constantly slay that dragon helps us bring forth our best work, or brings us to our edge. But the nagging, griping voices in our heads are, for the most part, not contributing to the forward motion.
You have to believe in yourself first. That is probably the hardest thing about writing. It’s probably one of the harder things about living, so practice in one helps with the other.
JD: I stress finishing stories during StoryADay. Your books are all about helping writers finish books. Why do you think so many writers never finish their projects?
SH: There are a lot of reasons why people don’t finish. [Sometimes] there’s some pretty deep psychological stuff going on. Somewhere there was a message that was encoded that ‘you are not good enough’.
Then the people who didn’t get that message, and who actually suck a lot worse with you, are filling up the airwaves with what they did. And now we’re having to read ten books by them before we get one book by you.
The fact is if you have 10 people who are reading what you have to say you can write something great. you can even write something great if one person is listening to you.
(Actually, you’ll probably go big and go home, but that’s OK too)
I applaud everyone who is still turning up at this point in the challenge whether or not you’ve written every day, whether or not that all your goals, the fact that you’re still turning up here makes you a winner in my book.
Write a story with a Cinderella story structure: try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, life-changing moment.
We’re starting our week of Story Elements prompts with a deep dive into story structure.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Write A Story With a “Cinderella Story Structure
The Life-Changing Moment
I come to believe that short stories revolve around one life changing moment.
It doesn’t have to be literally life-changing, but it has to change something for the characters (temporarily or permanently).
If you’re writing quiet internal literary fiction, the moment is going to be something small, like realizing you can’t go on in this relationship, or this job.
If the story is a big action thriller then the life-changing moment could be anything from the moment you decide you need to take action, to the moment when you win or lose.
A Cinderella Story Structure
In the story of Cinderella our heroine wants to find happiness. She tries and fails and tries and fails. A lot.
She tries to find it by being nice to her sisters and stepmother, but they just treat her terribly.
She tries to find it by going to the ball, but she’s not allowed to go.
She tries to find it from her fairy godmother. This one almost works, but there are time limits and she fails. When the love-struck prince can’t find her, all is lost.
Eventually, the life-changing moment comes at the end of the story when the prince finds her and Cinderella gets to choose her happy ending.
(In most versions she says yes and marries the prince; in every version, this choice is the first time Cinders has had any power. This is when her life changes.
So, this is where the story ends because the character’s story arc is over: She has her chance to reach her goal, at long last.
How To Write A Cinderella Story
Write a story with a Cinderella story structure: try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, life-changing moment.
Let you character want something. In Cinderella’s case she wants happiness. Your character might want anything from fulfillment to a piece of chocolate cake!
Start the story with the character in a place where they don’t have the thing they want.
Let us see the character trying to achieve their goal once, twice, three times.
The first failure can be pretty small. (She drops a perfect piece of chocolate cake on the floor.) The second failure should be a little more discouraging. (She goes to the shop and discovers they’re out of cake.) The third failure should seem insurmountable.(The government bans chocolate cake!)
These failures have taught the character how much they want their goal and that the only way to achieve it is through using their unique talents. Now the climax is on. (In my story, for example, my witty and feisty heroine decides to run a political campaign and get elected to office in order to strike down this terrible anti-chocolate cake legislation. Your story could be more serious.)
The story ends when the character realizes what needs to be done and makes the decision to pursue it or to walk away. In a short story you don’t have to show was the rest of the events. The arc, the journey, for the character is over at the moment when they see the path to pursuing their goal.
Of course this is not the case in every story structure but in this story structure, the Cinderella story structure, the character’s journey — and the story — ends here.
News & Notes – The Warm Up Course Is Back + Podcast Intern
Featured Articles – Permission To Write
Coming This Month – Productivity
Inspiration – Reading Room and Writing Prompts
SWAGr – Commit to your writing
Podcast Engineer Intern
News & Notes
Welcome, all! (Including the 59 people who joined the list last month!)
It’s already March, which means we have something like eight weeks until StoryADay May! I’m shaking up a few things this year, so stayed tuned for next month’s newsletter that’ll tell you what’s new, and how to be first into ‘behind the velvet rope’ community when it opens up again in late April.
In the meantime, let’s spend three of those weeks together, warming up for StoryADay.
I’m running a LIVE version of the StoryADay Warm Up Course again this year, with (new this year) a private Facebook group.
(And yes, if you’ve ever taken the course before or bought the Home Study version, you can join in this time around, for free!)
It all kicks off on April 2, 2016, so watch your inboxes for more news about that.
Sometimes the hardest thing about writing is getting started…and a lot of that is to do with allowing ourselves to get over our fears and doubts. In these three articles I talked about ways to stop sabotaging your writing dreams and instead, give yourself permission to write.
These articles all have audio embedded, so if you have things to do but can’t bear to stop ‘reading’ click on the “play” button. If you’d like more of these (or if you’d like hem in podcast form — downloaded automatically onto your device of choice) let me know by replying to this email.
That first year about 100 writers joined me in my harebrained scheme, largely due to the fact that the very lovely Debbie Ohi is unable to resist a challenge (or the urge to blog about it), and spread the word.
Since then, thousands of writers have started writing again, written their first-to-be-published story, embarked on careers as novelists and generally had a ripping good time.
We’ve started hosting challenges in September too.
In the middle of the 20th Century “Art” because professionalized, to the point where we felt we didn’t deserve to tell stories unless a New York publishing house was slapping it between hardcovers, or an overpriced university program anointed us “Writer, MFA”.
This was an aberration; a moment in history that did not exist before and does not exist now.
Humans have always sat around and told each other stories, without the benefit of editors or tutors or anyone giving us permission. We told stories to audiences, and we gauged their reaction in order to make our stories better next time.
The success of the “amateurs doing things on TV” genre (American Idol, The Voice, Dancing With The Stars) along with the boom in indie publishing, indie movie making, indie everything making, are signs that the artificial workshop of creative professionals is over. Humans are taking back control of our own creativity.
Tell your stories. Show them to people. Make them better. Write new stories. That’s all there is to it.
You have every right to write. In fact, print out this certificate and write your name on it.
There’s a scene towards the end of the movie WALL-E when the captain of the only remaining human ark-in-space realizes it’s time to go home to Earth. They’ve been away for generations. By any reasonable measure, he’s been successful. His ship is still flying. His people are still alive and procreating. Everything is running smoothly.
But, in his research, the captain falls down a hyperlinked-rabbit-hole of cultural practices that humanity has simply forgotten.
“Computer,” he says, prompted by the previous entry. “Define: dancing.”
Imagine an existence where we’ve forgotten about dancing! Would you consider that kind of existence ‘successful’?
I’m switching back and forth between the ebook and the audio version, because a, it’s looooong, b, it’s huge fun, and c, the narrator, Michael Page, is fabulous.
Set in a densely realized fantasy world, centered in one city, but so deeply developed that I have confidence there’s a whole universe around it. Locke Lamora is a lovable rogue, who, with his gang ‘The Gentleman Bastards’, tries to pull of the biggest scheme of his life and ends up in more trouble than even he could ever have imagined. There is magic in this universe but it is expensive, therefore it is sparely, which makes me happy. I prefer relatable tales of people getting in and out of scrapes on their own wits and training.
It’s an incredible feat, especially for a debut novel. The language is rich and earthy and witty (like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s lovechild, if it had been abandoned and raised in a gutter). It is long though. I kind of wish it was a series of three shorter books, so I could enjoy one, put it down and sigh, and then look forward to he next one. There’s certainly enough story there, for that. But that’s not the choice they made, so I’ll be picking this on up for some time to come.
In spite of the negative connotations of the title, Bill Nye’s book about the mess we’ve made of our planet is far from a downer. In fact, the “Unstoppable” force he’s referring to is not climate change, but us: humanity.
With his trademark chatty tone and irrepressible optimism, he points out all the problems we face and encourages the next generation to be bold, and believe that they can come up with solutions, if only they care enough.
So, those are the last three books I opened. What about you? Leave a comment!
Don’t forget to share the challenge. Here are some updates you might use:
What are the last three books you opened? Take the #Last3BooksChallenge https://storyaday.org/last–3-feb
Dare to share the last three books you opened? Take the #Last3BookChallenge http://storayday.org/last-3-feb
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!
How I used the StoryADay Word Count Logging tool to write 100,000 words last year, and why you should be logging your progress too!
Do you log your word count?
I’ve been logging my word count (on and off) for the past couple of years. Last year, without really trying too hard, I managed to write 100,000 words of fiction. That was the end of one novel, several short stories (a couple published) and the first half of a second novel.
If I’m so productive, why bother logging my word count, you say?
Come closer and let me whisper into your ear…I’m productive because of the word count log.
Not living up to your New Year’s Resolution? Now is the time to reset — to recommit — before guilt and shame derail the rest of your year.
You probably set some pretty ambitious writing goals at New Year. Did they include writing a certain amount every day or every week? And now, are you find it hard to even log your word count because you’re afraid of what you might see (or not see)?
That the sinking feeling you get when you’re disappointed in yourself is not something installed in us by a malevolent designer to make our lives miserable.
To create a regular writing habit (and stick to it), try scheduling it immediately after something you already do regularly…
There is a very helpful technique for creating new habits, known as ‘anchoring'[1. I didn’t make this up. It’s being studied by Dr BJ Fogg, a human-behaviour scientist at Stanford University].
The idea is this: you don’t think about brushing your teeth before you go to bed at night, or showering when you get up. It’s just something you do.
If you want to create a new habit (and stick to it), try doing it immediately after something you already do by rote.
So, if you want to remember to floss your teeth, say you’ll do it after your morning tooth scrub. If you want to brainstorm ideas for stories, say you’ll do it as soon as you’ve poured your first cup of coffee.
This week’s Reading Room is a little different: 10 (+1) books to add to your wish list. Enjoy!
Short Stories & Essays (To Learn The Craft)
I buy this every year and it has yet to disappoint. Curated by high school students and founded by Dave Eggars, this is a collection that is both quirky and keeps me feeling young!
Yes, everyone but British writers (someone idiosyncratically defined, if the reviews are to believed) are excluded from this 2-Volume collection. But I like a little focus in my anthologies, don’t you? (Side note: you might want to complement this with something from the Best American series. I couldn’t, in good conscience, link to their “Best Short Stories” edition because it is so resolutely ‘literary’ and I usually end up hating it, but YMMV. Their Mystery one looks interesting, and I wish they had more fiction genres to choose from.)
There’s nothing quite like reading the well-crafted words of Smart People on Important Issues to inspire you to get back to writing. Lots of essays in here from diverse voices.
ENCOURAGEMENT TO EMBRACE CREATIVITY
This wonderful call to artistic arms was hugely influential in my decision to start StoryADay. Gentle and encouraging it definitely helps you if you’re struggling with the whole permission to write thing. If you think you NEED to be doing stuff for other people before REWARDING yourself with time to write, Ms. Ueland will set you straight….
I haven’t read this one yet, but … Elizabeth Gilbert! Have you seen her TED talk? And she’s fabulous fictioneer in her own right, so sign me up for a copy!
I really bought this to use with my kids, but it turns out it’s a Rescue Pack for adults who have forgotten how to play. There is nothing a writer needs more than to be an Explorer of the World and Keri Smith shows you tons of ways you can have fun out in the real world again, noticing all the little details that fiction requires.
Chuck Wendig at his trademark profane, hilarious, no-nonsense, encouraging best. Not to be missed.
PRODUCTIVITY AND THE WRITER
If you haven’t discovered this book yet, it’s well worth a read. It talks about resistance and why we need to break through it.
If you HAVE read “The War of Art” (above) and are sick of bloody Resistance and want to know WHY it’s kicking in and what to do about it…this is the book for you. I received a review copy from the author Mark McGuinness but liked it so much that I’ve bought it again three times to give away (you can enter for a chance to win a copy here). Seriously. Read it.
If I might be allowed a little self-promotion, this book has 60+ ways to break writers’ block and some REALLY nice reviews on Amazon (thanks, guys!) What would you add to this list? Comment below!
This post is for people who are having trouble getting past the exciting beginning of their story and into (and through) the mushy middle. It works for novelists and short story writers.
Beyond The Beginning
Starting a story can be hard. But once you get started, the excitement carries you through some initial world-building, character-developement and scene setting. Then what?
Then, you get stuck, going around in circles, with your characters doing stuff, but not really going anywhere (either literally or plot-wise).
This is the perfect time to outline the next part of your story and start thinking about where you want to go from here. If you hate the thought of outlining, think of it as brainstorming. You do this in your head, if you’re a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), but sometimes it can be helpful to catch some of your ideas on paper.
Brainstorming (Not Outlining)
If you’re not a natural outliner, don’t go crazy with this. You know you’re going to write something that captures your interest and throw out the outline, or maybe a new character will do something unexpected and interesting. So don’t outline. Just brainstorm a few questions like:
What is my character’s main desire?
What is stopping her from getting to that desire?
What does a ‘victory’ look like, in story terms and for my character?
How can I make things worse for her?
How can I make things even worse for her?
Who does she need to ally with to help her reach her ‘victory’?
Who/what is the antagonist and what does it/they want?
Even if you’re not a fan of outlining, keeping these questions (and the answers you discover) in mind as you write, will help keep your enthusiasm high for your story.
Revisit these questions every few writing sessions, or after every couple of scenes. Map out what needs to happen next to advance your character’s journey. Let future ideas dance around the back of your brain.
Then add another scene to your story.
I’m posting these with the caveat that you should use as few of these as possible and ONLY when you are absolutely, dead stuck. Do not think these will help you if you aren’t actually writing. You must be writing your story for these resources to make any meaningful contribution.
Jill Williamson has a fabulous resource page full of everything from Novel Brainstorming Worksheet and one for short stories, to scene planning worksheets (one and two POVs), to character archetypes, genres & subgenres, even a worksheet for thinking about your characters’ hobbies!
Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula by Stuart Horwitz. Can’t recommend this enough. It takes a fresh look at how to keep your plot interesting, by examining through-lines of themes and imagery and character traits rather than focusing on the old ‘Plot point I”, “Plot point II” “Dark Night Of The Soul” structure, which I find really unhelpful. This book, on the other hand, make small explosions go off in my brain. If you’re resistant to the idea of outlining, this might be the book to help you keep your story on track, nevertheless.
Million Dollar Outlines (Million Dollar Writing Series) by Dave Farland. Unashamedly commercial in outlook, this book is stuffed with examples (mostly from the movie world) of what makes a compelling story, what readers are looking for (even down to age and gender breakdowns) and leaves you feeling totally convinced that anyone with a modicum of talent and the will to persist, can do this and maybe even make a living at it. Why not you? Hoo-ah! Also stuffed with practical advice on how to make YOUR story sing.
Motivation for Creative People: How to Stay Creative While Gaining Money, Fame, and Reputation by Mark McGuinness. This book won’t tell you how to write a novel, but it will help you think about all the ways your poxy brain is holding you back, and how to make it work for you, instead. This is not your average ‘rah-rah, tell yourself you can do it’ book. McGuinness uses everyday examples and his background as a coach to show you how different types of motivation work on you. Grounded in academic studies, this is a chatty, accessible and inspiring look at how you can free yourself to create.
The Snowflake Method – From Randy Ingermanson, this is another wonderfully logical way to avoid the whole inverted-triangle, unhelpful story structure plotting that drives me crazy. It helps you focus on the key points of the story you want to tell (which you’ll discover while going through his exercises). It has the added bonus of creating your story summary and proto-marketing materials before you’ve even written it (which is the part most people say they hate even more than writing the thing in the first place).
This works even if you’ve started your novel. I was stuck at the half way point of a novel I’d been tinkering with for years, when I came across this method. Spent a few hours following Randy’s advice and pounded out the second half of the novel in a couple of weeks!
This is the day Marti McFly travels forward to: 4:29 pm (California time), October 21, 2015.
And this was the moment when I knew I was going to be a writer:
The pure joy that shot through me as the writers unveiled the time paradox, set off a bomb in my brain. I was, on the one hand, delighted that the explanation was so clever (I was a time-travel junkie, but I was only 17 and there was no Internet — at least not available to the general public — so I was not jaded by fandom’s endless discussions of the permutations of every plot trope ever).
At the same time I knew that I wanted to DO THAT: I wanted to give someone that moment of joy and revelation. I wanted to be that clever. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to do it. But that was what I wanted to do.
This is why writers write: to invite people into a collective dream. To show off. To give people a thrill.
StoryADay Sept is over. You did great. You wrote. You participated in the community. You got a real boost from all the creativity.
But now it’s half way through October and you’re not writing nearly as much, if at all. You feel like a failure.
Change Your Point Of View
As with so much of your writing, this too, is a matter of Point of View.
If you’re feeling discouraged, it’s probably because you thought StoryADay was helping you build a great writing practice. You wrote every day. So why aren’t you still writing a story a day?
Because StADa wasn’t about building habits. It was bootcamp. You can’t keep it up.
So Now What?
Now it’s time to ask what you learned from writing a story a day.
What did you learn about the types of stories you like you write?
What did you learn about the time of day you write best?
What did you learn about the value of finishing?
What did you learn about your need for community?
What did you learn about your writing strengths and weaknesses?
How you can use those lessons to improve not just your writing but also to create new writing habits?
What will you commit to doing?
(Hint: think of something that sounds reasonable, then commit to doing half as much.)
How will you track your progress?
(Hint: make it as simple as possible. If you, like me, have a gadget clamped in your hand at any time and think a monthly word-count goal will help you, please help yourself to a copy of my “Writing Log” in Google Docs. Otherwise, every day when you do write, color in a box on your paper calendar with a green pencil so you can see at a glance how you’re doing.)
How will you get other people to help you stay accountable?
(Hint: check in with the very welcoming SWAGr group here, on the first of every month).
Tomorrow I’ll talk about Anchoring Habits and a scientifically-tested process for making your new writing habits stick.
In the meantime, leave a comment sharing how you’re getting on, what you learned and what you will commit to doing to improve your writing habits.