Writing Through The Holidays

ChristmasWritingPic

You’re busy. Or you’re sad. Or you’re conflicted. Or over scheduled. Or delirious with excitement.

Whatever the holidays mean to you, this time of year can be a killer for your writing productivity.

Depending on what you’re working on, that can be OK. Or perhaps you will need to continue to carve out some serious work time even though the 12 Tribes of HisFamilyAndYours are descending on you, daily.

Here are some encouraging words from me to you, on how to keep your inner writer and your outer productive-member-of-society happy together at the year’s end.

What Do You Need?

We’re used to asking what our characters need, but for once, let’s look at what YOU need, as a writer.

If You’re In The Middle Of A Project

If you have an ongoing project like a long short story, a story you’ve just started or a novel, you really will have to make time every day to write. The good news is you don’t have to do much. Even 250 words a day will keep your head in the project and your characters in your head. The even better news is that getting back to your imaginary world for even this little time every day, will be an incredible mood booster. Sneak off to a spare room for 30 minutes, come out smiling (and get the extended family talking about what on earth you keep in there!).

If You’re Between Projects

If you don’t have an ongoing project, my best advice for you is: don’t worry.

  • Don’t worry about trying to craft stories when you’re temporarily overwhelmed with commitments.
  • Don’t worry about writing stories when you have people you enjoy hanging out with.
  • Do keep a notebook or your smartphone nearby and make notes. Capture moments, turns of phrase, jaw-droppingly inappropriate comments by in-laws (note: you may have to excuse yourself and run to the bathroom so people don’t know you’re writing about them). Use this time of enforced activity and sociability to capture all these things and call them Story Sparks.
  • Don’t worry about what these Story Sparks might or might not turn into, just yet. Write them down. Keep them safe.

Keep Yourself Sane By Journalling

We write because we need to get the voices out of our heads, or because we need to know how we feel about things.

Just because you don’t have time to craft short stories over the holidays, don’t let that drive you insane.

Take a pretty notebook with you (keep it safe) and your favorite pen, and just write. At the start or end of the day, or in any stolen moment, write about your day.

  • Write about what pisses you off.
  • Write about what delights you.
  • Write about what scares you.
  • Let your handwriting reflect your mood. Write tiny letters or huge scrawls or in jagged, stabby motions.
  • Try to write at least one sentence in there that uses some of your writerly skills, but mostly, just let the voices out.

You don’t need ever look at this journal again (though it might be useful to drag it out in July when you are both thinking of writing holiday stories for submission to winter holiday markets and making your own Christmas plans for next year!)

Here’s wishing you a peaceful and fruitful holiday season. I hope you get some rest, and manage to keep your inner writer healthy, wealthy and raring to go in the New Year.

Best Of The Web for Short Story Writers – November 2013 Edition

Every so often I post lists like this (like a real, old-fashioned ‘weblog’) of recommended reading from around the web, especially curated for short story writers. Here’s the latest. You can read more like this here.

Write Every Day

http://www.salon.com/2013/11/25/nicholson_bakers_best_advice_writers_must_write_every_day/

Nicholson Baker says you should write every day
(And provides a few ways you can cheat and still succeed!)

 

Four Reasons To Write The Hell Out of What’s Left Of 2013

http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/four-reasons-to-write-the-hell-out-of-whats-left-of-2013/

by Ploughshares Literary Magazine

A funny-serious look at productivity in December (and why not to wait for Jan 1)

 

It’s Alive! When Your Hibernating Story Wakes Up

http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/its-alive-when-your-hibernating-story-wakes-up/

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar …because flash stories don’t prey on your mind the way a novel would, writing them is refreshing rather than exhausting…

 

Finding Focus

http://zenhabits.net/finding-focus/

By Leo Babauta Do you ever have one of those days when you just can’t seem to find focus? When you fritter away your time on nothingnesses, distractions, wandering without really doing something important? Or one of those weeks?

 

Shared Storytelling Challenge

http://isawlightningfall.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/shared-storytelling-advent-ghosts-2013.html

by Loren Eaten

Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy. It’s an open call for anyone interested, so why not join us?  December 20 is Ghost Day!

 

From Novels to Shorts and back again

http://womagwriter.blogspot.com/2013/11/guest-post-sam-tonge-from-novels-to.html

by Sam Tonge. How writing short stories after writing novels helped her become a better (more marketable) writer.

 

The Rule of Three

http://thewritepractice.com/the-rule-of-three/

Part of storytelling is creating something memorable… One of the most effective ways to enforce memory is through repetition, and so one of the most common storytelling techniques was born: the Rule of Three.

 

What Every Writer Must Know About “Hero Fact”

http://storyfix.com/what-every-writer-must-know-about-hero-fact

A guest post by Jennifer Blanchard In my work as a writing coach, I come across a lot of stories where the hero isn’t being heroic. Either the hero is being saved by someone else or there’s not enough conflict to force the hero to actually step up and earn the title.

 

Secrets of The Phantom Tollbooth: Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer on Creativity, Anxiety, and Failure

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/10/04/the-phantom-tollbooth-documentary/

“Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile.”

 

A Little Bit of Me In All My Stories

http://womagwriter.blogspot.com/2013/09/guest-post-lynne-hackles.html

by Lynne Hackles – When someone asked Lynn for her secret ingredient, she told them…

 

Peruvian Writers Face Off in Lucha Libro

http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/peruvian-writers-face-off-in-lucha-libro_b78563

Could you write a story in five minutes? In front of a live audience? While wearing a mask?

 

The Big List Counts 1,500+ Literary Magazines

http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/the-big-list-counts-1500-literary-magazines_b78692

Looking for the ideal place to publish your writing? Check out The Big List, a collection of 1,500+ links to literary journals around the world.

 

 Don’t Apologize For Wanting To Be Paid, Flannery O’Connor Didn’t

(But that doesn’t necessarily mean expecting to be paid while you’re still learning your craft)

 

 For writers having a hard time

http://timetowrite.blogs.com/weblog/2013/10/for-writers-and-other-creative-people-having-a-hard-time.html

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what…

The One Thing You Must Do Before Taking Writing Advice

The problem with writing advice is that it all weighs the same.
Weigh Scale

  • You read four articles on character development and start to worry because vibrant characters don’t come easy to you.
  • Your favorite writing-blogger is having trouble with dialogue in her own fiction so she does a series on the importance of natural dialogue. Now you start to think worry that your high-fantasy characters’ dialogue isn’t naturalistic enough.
  • It’s coming up to NaNoWriMo, and everyone’s talking about outlining and sharing their own Type-A version of it, which makes you start to doubt that you could ever write a novel because…damn!

There is an abundance of wonderful advice about writing online. If you are ever having a problem in your writing it is easy to find five different polemics on that topic in as many seconds.

But if you’re not writing regularly, how do you know what advice YOU need hear?

Find Your Strengths, Work On Your Weaknesses

I had the pleasure recently of being able to ask the talented and prolific Chuck Wendig about his characters and how he makes them pop off the page.

His answer took me completely by surprise.

“I feel like voice is my strong suit,” he said, simply.

He went on to talk about other areas that he struggles with more — areas that need work in the rewrites — but this? It was the easy stuff for him.

A small, controlled explosion went off in my brain:

He’s just good at this stuff.

I don’t have to be as brilliant at characterization as him. Maybe I can’t be.

If I’m really, really good in some other area, maybe it’s OK if I focus on that.

This Is Not An Excuse

This is not at excuse to avoid learning about the craft. You do need to be proficient in all areas of writing.

But if your first draft is weak in one area (or several), don’t let it slow you down. Instead, play to your strengths. If you’re witty, play that up. If your wordplay makes people smile, go to town on it. If  you are all about the dialogue, get that down first.

  • Write a lot to discover your strong suit.
  • Play to those strengths.
  • Fix the rest in the rewrite.

 

Need help with the ‘write a lot’ part? Try these articles:

How To Become An Insanely Productive Writer

Delegate Your Way To Writing Success

Five Irresistible Writing Prompts

Need more help? Take a look at the Time To Write Workshop, The StoryADay Guide to Breaking Writers’ Block and the Warm Up Your Writing Home Study Course in The StoryADay Shop.

Writing Parent’s Interruption Flowchart

Please print this out and pin it to whatever door or wall space you use as a buffer between you and those loved ones whose sole purpose in life seems to be to keep you from your writing.

Updated! Feb 2016:

Interruption-Flowchart-2

(Right-click to save a copy. Pin it! Share it!)

 

Or you can have the original, hand-drawn version:

"Is Anybody On Fire?"

 

And here are some articles to help you with productivity:

Help! I’m Drowning In Ideas!

Help! I’m suffering an explosion of creativity and I can’t seem to stop myself finding time and ideas for writing!

How It All Began

One recent evening I tucked myself into my armchair, put my feet up, pulled my knitting on to my lap and settled down in the flickering black and white light coming from my television as we fired up a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone — our nightly non-guilty pleasure.

I love The Twilight Zone. The stories are so imaginative, they’re not afraid to take a dark turn (!); they’re stylish, well-crafted and intellectually stimulating.

I’ve been telling myself that they’re great research for my own story telling efforts.

And in a way they are. They’re all about a character (often a man, aged 36, oddly enough) who needs something, lacks something, wants something. Great stuff for storytellers.

But at the end of every Season 1 episode, I keep seeing this little line of text that makes me uneasy.

The line?

“Based on the short story…”

Short Stories Are Not Screenplays

I follow a lot of working writers’ blogs, but people who are getting paid to write the equivalent of short stories now are often working in TV. The influences they cite are other TV shows and writers. I follow those links and spend hours reading about how those other writers write and find success.

But I’m not writing screenplays. I need to remind myself how to show a scene in words, not images.

So I’ve embarked on another challenge (you know how I love a challenge, right?) and I invite you to come along with me.

Following Ray Bradbury’s prescription for writers (watch it here. It’s worth the time) I’m trying to read a short story every day, especially those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — stories with some staying-power. I’m also trying to read one essay a day (though accessible, classic essays are proving harder to find than good short stories) and one poem a day (oddly enough, though poems are shorter, I’m finding it harder to rouse myself to do this part of the program).

The Results Are In

I’ve been doing this for just over a week and, as I said, I’ve been ‘suffering’ under an explosion of creativity. I’ve written one, long-for-me, 6,000 word short story and sketched out ideas for more than 50 more (yes, 5-0!) in a few different themes/genres, started my second story and written four blog posts.

And my kids are on vacation!

But I can’t seem to stop myself finding time to read and write.

I’ve rediscovered the joy of both reading and writing. I’m sneaking off, staying up late, ignoring people I love, to read — and little of it is on Facebook or Feedly or Twitter. I’m reading well-crafted fiction and non-fiction that has stood the test of time. And I’m bursting with ideas, references and imagery — I’m so full of ideas that I can’t hold them back. I simply have to write. (This is not always the case with me. I always feel better when I’m writing but I’m quite good at being lazy and grumpy instead).

Want to join me in being more creative, more productive, and more joyful? Start reading and writing today!

Here are some of the books I’m using to find short stories, poetry, essays and other inspiring non-fiction to read.

What Are The Last Three Books You Opened?

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to write in the summer. My kids are off school, my friends are calling, people come to visit…

I still write, but I scale back my ambitions. And I use the snatches of time I do have, to read.

But not just anything. I’m cutting back on reading ABOUT writing, and focussing more on readiung some great writing by the masters.

So, what are the last three books I opened?


Poems by Robert Frost

I’m trying to read a poem a day, so I picked up this volume of Frost poems and it fell open to After Apple Picking. I didn’t love it at first but I read it (slowly) a couple of times more and wrote it out once. I still didn’t love it, but I did find it a useful exercise and got much more out of it that way.

The Great English Short-Story Writers, Volume 1
I read Dr. Heidegger’s Experiement, which left me with a strong sense of the history of the short story and what a robust form it really is.


Cooked by Michael Pollan

I’ve always enjoyed Michael Pollan’s writing style. It really proves that anything can be interesting if the writer has a passion for it and that all good writing is storytelling.

Bonus Fourth Book:


The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) by Rick Riordan

My eight year old and I are reading it together at bedtime. Mostly I read it but sometimes he reads it. We love reading out loud. Do/did you still read to children once they can read for themselves?

How about you? Leave a comment telling us what were the last three books you opened.

Why We Write

Today I have two things for you: 1, A quick rave about a great book for writers; 2, An fun announcement.

Why We Write

After we’ve been writing for a while — after you’ve succeeded in making writing a habit, even for just a month — it can lose its dreamlike appeal. It can become, well, work.

How do you reignite your DESIRE to write?

For me, it helps to read great writing by people whose style I adore.

But it also helps to read about the habits of working writers (yes, ‘working’ writers, meaning the ones who get paid for it. I ADORE my writing groups, online and off, but modeling my behavior on that of people a little further up the professional road, seems like a smart move).

I just finished my first read-through of Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How And Why They Do What They Do by Meredith Maran (I say ‘first’ because I know I’ll be going back to this one a lot).

The writers include Jennifer Egan, Isabelle Allende, Rick Moody, Sebastian Junger, Armistead Maupin, Terry McMillan, Sara Gruen and David Baldacci, among others, so it’s a wide spread of subjects and audiences they’re writing for. There is, quite literally something for everyone in this book: from authors who simply must write in one place all the time, with one set of music playing, to authors who hate routine, can’t write with music on; writers who write every day, and writers who ‘binge-write’ and then take months off.

Some common threads from the book:

Music

It was amazing how often the word ‘musical’ came up. An astounding number of the authors profiled talked about how important it was to ‘get the rhythm right’ or ‘make it sing’ or about how the language, when writing was going well ‘feels like music’. That sounded like a good way of talking about that moment when you just know the writing is working.

Fear

I don’t think there was one (highly-successful) author in the bunch who didn’t talk about how much fear they have: before, during and after they write. They are all insecure about every project, and that doesn’t go away after they get published. In some ways it gets worse. This is (I say, with some schadenfreude) immensely reassuring.

Persistence

Most of these authors said something along the lines of “I write because I can’t do anything else/I’m unemployable/I must”. And they talk a lot about the necessity of getting your butt in your chair, your fingers on a keyboard, a pen in your hand and WORKING at it. Just keep writing (whether you have a writing routine or you’re a ‘binge-writer’) until you are finished. When it’s hard. When it’s going well. When you don’t want to. When you’re scared. When you’re despondent. When you’re flying on the wings of inspiration. When you’re starting to wonder if maybe a soul-sucking corporate job might not be a better idea after all…Keep writing.

And they ALL said ‘it’s worth it’. Whether they were billionaire best-sellers or acclaimed literary types scratching out a living by teaching while they write. They all said: it’s worth it.


And now I have a little gift for you. Two gifts actually: an assignment (with a deadline) and a free webinar to guide you through it.

The 7DayStory

As you’ve probably noticed I’ve been working on a little side project called The 7Day Story(write, revise and release a short story in 7 days).

It’s like a graduation gift for people who have been through StoryADay: a little more time to work on a single story; a little more help with the ‘what now?’ after you’re finished your first draft.

I’m working with Gabriela Pereira of DIYMFA.com and we recently ran a challenge where we guided people through the process of writing, revision and releasing a story in 7 days. The feedback was phenomenal, so we’re running the challenge again, starting on July 1. You can sign up here.

But this time we’re previewing the whole thing in a free webinar, next Wednesday. Join us, live online, for the webinar, and we’ll take you through our week-long inspiration, drafting, and tiered revision process — a process that you can use over and over again to turn out polished short stories in next-to-no-time. We’ll take questions during the webinar, so do sign up if you have any questions to ask us about the process, or tips for first-timers. We’ll also be making a big announcement during the webinar that I think you’re really going to like (we’re putting the final touches to that right now. Shhhh!).

A little bit about my co-conspirator: Gabriela Pereira (who actually has a fancy, traditional MFA) has made it her mission to show the rest of us how to get all the good parts of a University-based MFA, without the time-wasting and crippling tuition bills. She has loads of enlightening things to say about the revision process, which really complement what I try to do here at StoryADay.org (which is mostly about inspiring you and empowering you to get those first drafts done). I’ve learned a lot from her already and, in The 7DayStory, we’ve put together a set of tools which take you that next mile along the writing road.

Join us for the 7DayStory webinar, on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, at 1PM (EST, GMT -5).

(If you can’t make it to the webinar, make sure you’re on the mailing list so you hear about our Big Announcement, when it’s ready!)

Adjust Your Expectations

I’m all for big dreams and Big Hairy Audacious Goals (A term coined by Jim Collins in “Built To Last”: ) After all, I’m the one who set herself the goal of completing a short story every day in May!) but not all goals are appropriate at every stage in our development.

What Is Success?

Maybe you will get published in Granta or Ellery Queen or McSweeneys one day. But if you’re still grappling with so-so feedback from your writers’ group perhaps today is not that day. That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot for a closer target. Perhaps you can submit to a smaller-circulation market, a newer publication that hasn’t attracted as much attention yet, a regional contest or anthology.

Or maybe you don’t need to ‘be published’ at all right now.

Reasons Not To Publish

Perhaps your version of success is ‘good feedback from my friends’. Perhaps you want to put together a collection of your stories and have it bound by a print on-demand publishing service to leave to your heirs.

Perhaps you can dedicate the next year to writing and revising rather than submitting stories, freeing yourself from the pressure of thinking about ‘success’ in terms of ‘acceptances’. File your stories chronologically and, at the end of the year, look back and see how far they have come. Then—and this is crucial—review your progress and decide what your next set of goals should be. Base your decision on where-my-writing-is-now rather than where-I-wish-it-was.

Reaching and Stretching

Whatever you decide to focus on, try to set your expectations at a level just a little beyond your current abilities. Give yourself something to strive for, but don’t set yourself you up for failure.

Having Said All That…

– Don’t let your inner critic obscure all that is good about your writing.
Don’t let fear hold you back from finding out if your writing really IS ready for the big leagues.
– Don’t be timid in the face of challenge.
– Do set yourself ‘stretch’ goals that push you to improve.
– Do allow yourself to dream about your perfect reader, curled up in a comfy chair somewhere, transfixed by your stories, feeling the same joy you feel when you read a really great story.
– Do work hard towards your goal of being the best writer you can be.
– Do keep writing.

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

Write More

Papers

The only way to learn how to write is to write.

 

Write, finish, write some more.

After that you can start worrying about critiques and editors and agents and publishing and publicity.

But all of that is secondary to the writing. To become better at writing you must sit down and spin tales, craft stories, put words on the page.

The world is awash in articles, books and courses on how to manage the business of a writer’s life. You can find all the advice you will ever need and more on how to make time to write, how to write when you don’t have time, how to write better, and on how to find critique partners, find agents, find your audience.

The more important question is:
Can you find the will to sit down and put words on the page day after day after day?

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

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 I, WRITER 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 I, WRITER Course I run several times a year.

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,  a group or a course.)

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!

Committing To Your Writing

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

An Accountability Buddy: The Productive Writer’s Secret Weapon

Today’s guest post from Melissa Dinwiddie is a wonderful primer on how to use the StoryADay community to help you become more productive than you ever dreamed. Thanks, Melissa!

Farewell to Polina!

Do you know one of the most effective things you can do to get your writing done?

Make yourself accountable.

I don’t know the statistics, but it’s a well known fact that if you want to reach a goal, speaking your commitment — including your deadline — to someone you know will hold you to it makes you dramatically more likely to actually do it.

Accountability is a powerful tool, and there are a number of ways you can integrate it into your writing practice. One of my own secret weapons is an accountability buddy.

Here’s what I’ve learned about maintaining an effective accountability partnership.

At the start of the year I was in a mastermind group (another great accountability tool), assembled with the express purpose of helping each other accomplish one specific goal in the month of January. When that group dissolved, a couple of us decided to keep checking in with each other.

At first our monthly calls started to get a little chatty — understandable enough, since we liked each other and had come to think of each other as friends.

This is an inherent danger in any accountability relationship. The problem, of course, is that chatting does not make for finished projects and completed goals.

Accountability partners have to be vigilant, and must keep coming back to the purpose for their partnership. If you want to chat, set up another date specifically for that. During your accountability check-ins, stick with the agenda: keeping each other on track.

This is exactly what I did at the end of a particularly chatty call. “Before we hang up,” I asked, “what’s your next step?”

My buddy confessed that she had a novel that had been sitting in a drawer for way too long, and what she really wanted was to get it edited and up for sale as a download on her site.

“Aha,” I responded, kicking into coaching mode, “so what’s stopping you?”

I asked her realistically how long she thought the editing would take, and when she said “about four hours,” I suggested (okay, I practically insisted) that she do it this week. In other words, I held out an expectation that I thought was achievable.

With my kick in the butt, she was ready to take on this project that she’d been putting off, so the next step was to set up a check-in schedule that worked for her. She committed to emailing me a progress report every night before going to bed, and set a goal of a 2-3 chapters per day.

Although it turned out four hours was an underestimation, I’m pleased to report that in less than two weeks my buddy had finished editing her entire manuscript and was ready to tackle the production side of getting her novel made into a downloadable ebook format. She swears she never would have gotten there without my help.

Do you think this kind of partnership might work for you? Give it a try! To keep you on track, I recommend sticking with the same structure every time you meet. The following questions are a good jumping off place:

  • What did you achieve since we last checked in? Did you accomplish your goal?
  • What didn’t work? What are you going to do differently next time?
  • What goal do you commit to between now and the next check-in?
  • What can you use help with?

Remember to reserve your chatting for another time, and let me know how it goes!

Artist, Writer and Inspirationalist Melissa Dinwiddie helps creatives (and “wannabe” creatives) to get unstuck, get unpoor, and just plain play bigger. Find her at her blogs, Living A Creative Life and 365 Days of Genius.



Win! Win! Win!

Leave a comment with your best tips for boosting productivity and/or working with other people and win a copy of Rory’s Story Cubes, a wonderful dice game that doubles as a story-telling tool. Roll the dice and make a story from the extremely cute images on the dice.

 

Today’s winner will be a random draw, so you get extra entries if you post about StoryADay on your blog, Twitter, Facebook or anywhere else (yes, I’ll give credit for blog posts from yesterday). Just leave me a comment saying where you posted.

Special thanks to Rory O’Connor and the lovely folks at Gamewright Games for donating this prize.

The Sloth’s Secret to Writing Success

Sloth

Recently, naturalists announced that the sloth — the animal whose name has become a synonym for laziness — is actually a lot more active than previously thought. It turns out that when we cage them and observe them, we don’t see what’s really going on in the sloth’s world.

Today I have a great guest post for you from Susan Daffron, a writer and publishing consultant. She shows us how, as writers, the times when our minds are  most fertile and active, might — to an observer — look like the times when we are being, well, slothful. She shows us that productivity for writers makes its own demands, and how to succeed by embracing that.

(You can read more about Susan’s upcoming publishing conference at the end of the article).

Then, leave your comments about how you will jump-start your creativity at the end of the article and you’ll be entered to win a copy of Rory’s Story Cubes – a great creativity booster in a box!


 

 

As a writer, I’ve gone through periods of extreme productivity and extreme sloth. Although I have written 12 books, last year in 2010, I released exactly zero.

For a variety of personal and business-related reasons, I went through a creative burnout like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Writing, which had always been fairly easy for me in the past, was suddenly extremely difficult.

Climbing Out Of A Slump

I also discovered that the less I wrote, the less I wanted to write. Talk about a lack of productivity!

I spent some time looking back at what happened during my creative slump. I realized my lack of writing productivity stemmed from three issues:

1. Lack of ideas. The stressful events I experienced caused my creativity to simply shut down. To jumpstart my mind, I surfed to online writing sites (like StoryaDay.org!),  used random-word and writing-prompt generators, and started talking to my husband about my various writing thoughts for outside feedback and support.

2. Lack of motivation. As noted, a bunch of things that happened last year brought me down. Creativity does not flow when you’re depressed. I decided to make a commitment to exercising and started reading more inspirational materials on creativity, writing, and life balance. (The library is full of wonderful FREE books just waiting to be read!)

3. Lack of time. You’ve read it before, but I’ll say it again: you have time to write if you make time to write. During my slump, I wasn’t working smart. Part of me already knew it, but I had to forcibly reacquaint myself with the methods I’d used in the past to carve out real productive writing time. I opted to make a commitment to write every morning and also started thinking up ideas for articles and posts the night before. “Sleeping on” a writing idea really works!

And The Winner Is…

I’m happy to report that the old adage “writers write” is true. Since I got my writing mojo back again, I have been writing regularly. I have my next book completely outlined and 19 case studies/interviews input so far. I’ll be speaking at a conference this summer and plan to release the book in time for it. (Deadlines help motivation too!)

If you’re a writer who wants to publish, you can get inspiration and learn more about the book publishing process at the Self-Publishers Online Conference. The third annual event is May 10-12, 2011 (http://www.SelfPublishersOnlineConference.com) Use the code SusanSentMe and get 10% off your registration!


Susan Daffron, aka The Book Consultant (http://www.TheBookConsultant.com) owns a book and software publishing company. She spends most of her time writing, laying out books in InDesign, or taking her five dogs out for romps in the forest. She also teaches people how to write and publish profitable client-attracting books and puts on the Self-Publishers Online conference (http://www.SelfPublishersOnlineConference.com) every May.


Win! Win! Win!

Leave a comment with your best tips for jump-starting creativity and win a copy of Rory’s Story Cubes, a wonderful dice game that doubles as a story-telling tool. Roll the dice and make a story from the extremely cute images on the dice. Brilliant for days when you’re stalled and need to regain your mojo.

Special thanks to Rory O’Connor and the lovely folks at Gamewright Games for donating this prize.

How To Fail At Story-Telling

“What if my stories are no good? What if I fail?”

This is possibly the most powerful thing holding us back.

We can find or make time if we really want to. Even if the power lines went down and the world ran out of paper, we could tell our stories out loud, around campfires as of old.

The most insightful of us understand that success brings its own stresses and that worries us.(Imagine if your first novel was a best-seller. Where would you go from there?!)

But the thing that really stops us?

Fear of failure.

Good News! Failure is Good For You!

Continue reading “How To Fail At Story-Telling”

6 Reasons You Will Never Be A Writer

Wondering when you’ll reap the fame and fortune that come with your dream of being a writer? Well, probably never. If you’re making any of these six classic mistakes…

Wondering when you’ll reap the fame and fortune that come with your dream of being a writer? Well, probably never. If:

1. You don’t read

The Writers' Museum
The Writer's Museum, Edinburgh by Peter Nijenhuis

At least, not the right things. You read all the books on writing and polishing and publishing, and all the books that literary critics are praising, but nothing of any real value. You don’t read books that light a fire under you, you don’t read in your genre, you don’t read non-fiction for fun and inspiration.  You don’t have an Audible membership or a library card and you couldn’t name a book that has meant anything to you since you turned 20.

If you were learning to be an accountant you’d study accounting law. If you were studying to be a doctor you would read medical books. Stephen King, in On Writing calls it the Great Commandment: Reada lot, write a lot.

“Read, read, read, Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.”

-William Faulkner.

2. You’re too busy to write

You’re not independently wealthy: you’ve got a job, a family, commitments, a social life, a pressing engagement with the cast of Glee! You can’t possibly squeeze any time out of your day to write.

Jon Scalzi, current president of the Science Fiction Writers of America puts it bluntly and truthfully:

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

You can make time to write, but something else is probably going to have to give. It might be sleep, it might be ‘watching Ellen in the afternoon’, it might be having lunch with the same people every day in the dreary work cafeteria. It might be ‘feeling bad about yourself because you’re not getting any writing done and eating ice cream instead’.

But, chances are, you can make time to write.

3. You have no original ideas

Every time you sit down to write you are paralyzed by the overwhelming feeling that everything has been said before. Well, you know what? You’re right. But it hasn’t been said by you, in this time and place, at your age, and in your circumstances. Agent Donald Maas talks a lot in The Breakout Novelist about the difference between ‘original’ and ‘unique’. You don’t have to be original, but you do have to be ‘unique’.

I once interviewed Daniel Pinkwater and he said the same thing: only you can speak in your voice, and if you write for a while you’ll discover what that voice is.

I love that what my readers need, they can only get from me. It’s riskier, but much more ego-gratifying
-Daniel Pinkwater, 2003 interview

He also said,

Ideas are everywhere. I have 60 ideas a day. So do you. So does everybody.
-Daniel Pinkwater, 2003 interview

The trick is paying attention, taking those ideas and developing them into the story only you can tell.

4. You have no qualifications for this. You don’t know what you’re doing

No writer does. Every artist is engaged in creating something unique and new. Experienced writers say this all the time: I don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve done it. Here’s a little evidence:

The only way to write is to write… Stupid b*****d job.
-Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale

Very few writers know what they are doing until they have done it.
-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

You can’t completely understand what good writers do until you try it yourself…Write from the very beginning, then, and keep on writing…The next story will be better, and the next one after that still better, and eventually—
-Isaac Asimov, Gold

5. Your Writing Sucks

When you do make the time to write, it’s hard. The words do not come dripping off your pen easily; all the elements in your story don’t come out in the right order; your characters are flat and uninteresting and they speak in cliches; you want to give up.

And that is what Anne Lammot calls your ‘shitty first draft’. It has to be got through in order to get to the second draft, the third, and the polished end result. If you are too scared to suck, too scared to fail then you will never be a writer, because all writing involves putting some truly terrible prose on the page — and excising it later or, like William Faulkner, throw it out entirely and start again,

Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
-William Faulkner

Sure, it’s scary but even the great and prolific Isaac Asimov says, of the writer’s daily task:

We sit there alone, pounding out words, with out hearts pounding in time. Each sentence brings with it the sickening sensation of not being right.
-Isaac Asimov, Gold

Can you allow your first drafts to be less than perfect?

6. You’re Too Nice

In real life it’s nice to be nice: people like you, you offend nobody and your mother is proud of you.

In literature, being nice doesn’t pay. It’s boring if nothing happens, if no-one gets upset, if no-one is threatened, insulted, shamed, murdered, even. Your writing can be your playground. Be nice in real life if you must but, in your writing,

Embrace your inner sadist.
-Donald Maass, The Breakout Novelist


I’d love to hear which of these touched a nerve with you. Let me know in the comments which part of your writing life you’re struggling with the most at the moment? Has it changed over time?

Get a free 17-page creativity workbook when you sign up for more articles like this



If you’re feeling inspired to write now, why not check out some of the StoryADay Writing Prompts? You might want to start with some Flash Fiction, to warm up.


Delegate Your Way To Writing Success

Part of the Time To Write Series. Interested? Subscribe to the blog


Inside the Box 2289
Do try to make sure the tasks you delegate are age-appropriate!

When my children were tiny I didn’t do a lot of writing. But there would come a day when I simply HAD to write. With a toddler in two, however, it became almost impossible to get through a full sentence without hearing that darling little voice yap,

“Mama? Mama! MAMA!!!”

I got to the stage where it was quite a relief when my boy unexpectedly ditched “Mum” and started calling me by my given name. At least it took a while for that to start to grate on my nerves!

The Delegation Revalation

One fateful afternoon, when my son — previously happily playing with toy cars at my feet — suddenly popped up and asked for a drink. For the third time that hour. I groaned and tore myself away from my half-finished sentence to fetch him a drink.

Then it hit me. My job as a parent was not to raise him to be helpless. My job as a parent was to teach him self-sufficiency. So what if he was only 3?

I started delegating.

That day I moved some plastic tumblers onto a low shelf in an under-the-counter cabinet and made a big deal of at last unlocking the water dispenser on the fridge. Sure, I had to clean up a few spills, but it was a price I was willing to pay to get a few uninterrupted minutes.

We quickly moved on to solo hand-washing, using a stool to get the toothbrush and toothpaste (creating a few precious extra minutes before bedtime). Then I packed away any trousers that didn’t have an elasticated waist and presto! I was freed from having to accompany him to the bathroom!

How Much Can You Give Away?

As the kids have grown, so has my hunger for writing time.

I now delegate all kinds of things.

  • Where I used to be in charge of bath-time and bedtime, my husband and I now share bedtime duty.
  • When I was deep in the crunch of StoryADay last May my seven year old, a-hem, learned how to make peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.
  • While I toiled on my novel last November, my husband taught the boys how to fold their school clothes and put them away neatly.

I could feel guilty about deserting my family when I feel the need to write. Or I can celebrate my awesomeness as a mother who cares enough about them to teach them the life skills they will need when I eventually kick them out of my house. (Ten more years, Eldest. I’m counting.)

Delegation can be fun!

It’s not always, easy of course. Things go wrong. There is often a learning curve for the people you’re delegating tasks to. There might be occasional tears.

But stick with it. You CAN find ways to nudge the people around you become more independent, while also clawing back some of your precious writing time.

What about you? What one task will you try to offload this week? What poor helpless soul will you set on the road to independence?


Part of the Time To Write Series. Interested? Subscribe to the blog


I’ll Write Any Damned Thing I Want, Thank You Very Much

This tweet and the article it links to got me all riled up on Sunday[1. With all due respect to Colleen Lindsay who is an extremely generous tweeter and knowledgeable publishing person who you should totally be following.And I do sympathise with her points, from her perspective.]

Now the thread goes on to make some valid points, from the point of view of a publishing insider. The article she links to however, gets my hackles right up and I call for a rallying cry of:

“Yah boo sucks to you! I’ll write any damned thing I want”

And so should you!

The Problem With New York[2. Not the whole city, obviously. Just the centralized publishing industry part of it]

The publishing machine exists for a reason (to help authors distribute their work to the masses). For some authors that still works just fine.

For the vast majority of writers, however, the publishing machine is broken. They don’t have a big audience, so they don’t fit the economic model.

The problem comes when publishing insiders forget that the limitations of their system are exactly that: economic.

If something is deemed ‘unpublishable’ it does not mean that,

  • That people aren’t interested in it,
  • That it’s bad,
  • That you shouldn’t write it

It might mean that,

  • Not enough people are interested in it to justify a huge print run, distribution deals and a massive marketing campaign.
  • You won’t sell very many copies. (Although you may. You never know.)
  • It will be intensely interesting to a tiny number of people, who are easily identifiable because they a, live in the place you’re writing about or b, join associations of other-people-who-do-similar-pastimes, etc.

The Soul-Eaters

My problem with “Oo, the peons shouldn’t write their stories” articles [3. Apart from the short-sightedness, a lack of awareness of subaltern studies school of historical research and the insufferably smug arrogance, obviously]  is that they are destructive to the very soul of humanity.

I’m not exaggerating here.

We are a story-telling people. It’s how we make sense of our lives and our world. It’s what separates us from the brute beasts. It is an essential part of our nature.

  • Think about the friend who makes you laugh the most. What is she doing? Telling stories — stories with pacing and suspense and great twists.
  • Think about the most boring person you know. What does she do? Tell stories — terrible, unending, pointless, rambling stories.

Sometimes we make up stories about our origins and pass them on to our progeny. Sometimes we write beautiful epics that explain the human condition. Sometimes we unwittingly preserve a way of life that is destined to die out and be forgotten, except for our stories about it.

What does it do when some arbitrary gatekeeper says, “No, the story of your life growing up in Hicksville with a quirky family isn’t important enough to be published. Don’t even waste your time writing it down.”?

What arrogance! What utter idiocy!

Take Back Your Stories

We’ve been trained by a couple of generations of TV, music labels, and yes, publishers, to believe that we little people aren’t qualified to tell stories, make music or entertain our friends.

  • Homer [4. or the composite historical phenomenon that has come to us in the stories handed down] kept people spell-bound around the fire with tales of Ulysses and his epic journey.
  • Jane Austen catalogued a lifestyle long since extinct but nonetheless fascinating to us all these years later.
  • My grandparents hosted get-togethers where my grandmother played the piano for sing-a-longs, my grandfather told uproarious lies and everyone had a great time.

What do we do? We watch pre-packaged, fake ‘reality’; we listen only to homogenous music on stations that only play one style of music, and we read only the stories that an intellectual elite has chosen for the universality of their appeal.

There’s Room For Everyone At The Digital Inn

There is nothing wrong with best-sellers, nothing at all. I love me some pulpy paperback mystery and sci-fi, and I read the big ‘literary’ hits whenever I can stomach them.

The problem I have with the top-down model of publishing (whether books or music or art) is that it stifles the creative lives of ordinary, gloriously creative people. Because that’s what we are, us humans. Endlessly creative and passionate and social animals.

Luckily, we live in a great age for do-it-yourself distribution of creative products, whether stories, music or video.

No, not everything that people put out into the world is my cup of tea.

Yes, there is a lot more dross to sort through these days.

But it’s also a lot more likely than ever before that I’m going to find something fascinating to read, on a topic of my choosing, by asking around online and getting recommendations from people with similar tastes.

And One Final, Not-Insignificant Point

This flowering of creativity and distribution is going to be an absolute gold mine for anthropologists in the future.

As someone with an MA in History, I am incredibly excited about the breadth of primary sources we are leaving to future historians[5. Part of my Masters’ research was on the travel journals of explorers to the New World in the 1500s. Some of my other research invoved the shopping lists of Ventian guilds and what they could tell us about what was going on in the city and the world at the time. I’m betting the people who wrote those documents never imagined they’d be considered important by scholars 400 years into the future] Imagine if everyone in the Bronze Age had had a handy, dry cave wall where they could have documented their daily deeds. How much more would we know about our ancestors than we do now from a few scratchings in Lascaux and the occasional stomach-pumping of a frozen ice-mummy?

So go. Write your memoirs. Make them as detailed as you like. Make them as vivid as you can. And don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s all been said before. Because it hasn’t.

Not by  you.

And your story deserves to be written.

The Difference Between You and a Published Writer

What IS the difference between you and a published author?

Time.

In one sense, linear time: they were discovered before you were. Bad luck for you, good luck for them.

But in another, more useful sense: they made time to write. Have you?

Who Do You Think Does Stephen King’s Laundry?

Well OK, maybe HE can afford a housekeeper. But it’s just as likely that he still has to schlep down to the basement himself with a load of unmentionables whenever he runs short.

And you can bet your boots that your favourite midlist author doesn’t have a housekeeper. Or a nanny. But they still keep churning out the books year after year.

Things only get worse for your favorite author if they happen to be writing Literary Fiction. They are almost guaranteed to be a commercial failure and have to subsidize their income teaching rich kids at private universities to appreciate the rebellious soul of art. If they’re lucky they might negotiate a semester’s sabbatical in which to write their next book, but only if  they agree to eat nothing but oatmeal, turn off the heating and bust out the fingerless gloves.

And even if your favorite commercially-successful author can afford an assistant to make sure the cat gets fed, they  can’t pay her to write the book, do the revisions, talk to the agents and editors, catch the planes and go on the book tour for them.

When Do Authors Find Time To Write?

Just like us: in the gaps between Real Life’s obligations.

If you’re commercially successful one day (or have no life) you might be able to wedge those gaps open a little wider.

But life is happening to everyone. And somehow, thousands of people finish books every year.

When Will You Make Time To Write?


Part of the Time To Write Series.


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Make Time To Write — Because You’ll Never “Find” It.

Time
Time by Robbert van der Steeg

Acres of Internet space have already been devoted to this topic, because it’s a tough one. There are as many solutions as there are people who want to write, so there is always room for one more blog post on the topic.

In this 3-post  series, I’m going to give you some thoughts, some links and some tools, to help inspire you to find time for your writing.

 

TIME FOUND UNDER SOFA CUSHIONS!

There is a reason you never see that headline. Time is never found. Time is made, cadged, scrimped, stolen, begged, borrowed, spent.

There is always something else you could be doing. Always. The trick is, finding ways to make time for the things that really matter to you.

Make Tough Sacrifices

I’m saying this first, to get it over with because it sounds awful, but you will have to make sacrifices if you want to make writing a priority. Some of these sacrifices will be hard.

Today I turned down a walk with a friend, which I know would have been lovely. Sometimes a walk with a friend is the perfect thing to boost your creativity. But for me, this week, it would eat into the only clear time I have to Get Stuff Done. Some of that stuff is mundane, household stuff, but part of that Stuff is Writing & Writing Prep.

No matter how nice that walk would have been,  I had to say ‘no’.  Next week, I’ll budget my time differently to make sure I can say ‘yes’.

Make Easy Sacrifices

Some things will be easy to give up, or at least good for you.

Me? I overeat. When I’m stressed or bored I head for the pantry and strap on the nosebag. It uses up time and leaves me comfortably numb. But if I’m serious about my writing, I resist the nosebag, make light, healthy meals and get back to my notebook. Good for productivity and good for my heart.

An ‘hour long’  TV show is actually 42 minutes of content. The rest is commercials. Why not record your favourite shows or download them from iTunes? Even if you still watch two shows in an evening, you could carve out 36 minutes for writing just by watching it commercial-free and still get to bed at the same time.

What changes could you make, even if occasionally, to create more time for the thing you really love to do?

Accept That You Can Write In Bursts

You don’t need long swathes of time in which to write. In fact, that can be bad for productivity. As someone who has suffered prolonged bouts of enforced inactivity (lack of a work visa, looking after small children) I can tell you that more free time does not make writing easier. You just get more creative with your excuses.

Jamming in 250 words here and there on your commute — a 1000 if you’re lucky on a lunch break — keeps your writing feeling like a treat, not a chore.

Plus, it’s how most full-time writers started. Stephen King wrote after shifts at the laundromat. Scott Turow wrote bits and pieces while working as for the US Attorney’s office. Most ‘literary fiction’ writers have quite demanding schedules teaching at colleges and conferences. Even if they do get to take a semester off to finish a novel, they can hardly wait for inspiration to strike during that one precious semester.

Accept That You Can Write In Big Long Jags

If you do get the chance to write in a big binge on the weekends, go for it. Don’t feel guilty. Some people spend hours watching sports every Sunday. Do what you enjoy; what makes you a better person. Negotiate with family/friends for writing time if you have to, and write as fast as you can for as long as you can, whenever you get the chance.

Separate Your Thinking Time and Your Writing Time

On that note, don’t put off thinking about your story even if you don’t have time to sit down and write. When do get some writing time, you want the ideas to be flowing. You can think about the next plot development while you are doing any menial task (of which we all have plenty).

But do try to focus. It’s hard to stop your mind wandering off to the sequel or what you’ll do with your wealth when people are using your name where they used to use Stephen King’s. Rein it in. Focus on the next scene, the next bit of dialogue, the next plot twist. Make notes if you have to.  Better yet, commit the ideas to memory, then you’ll be turning them over and over until it’s time to write.

Then, when you do carve your 36 minutes out of the evening’s schedule, your fingers will be twitching. You’ll be ready to jump right in.

Scare Yourself Straight

If you find yourself frittering your time away on Facebook or Twitter or in front of the TV when you know you could be writing, take an excellent piece of advice from Jon Scalzi:

“Think of yourself on your deathbed saying, “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.”

Take a moment now. Picture it. Use that fertile imagination of yours.

If you aren’t already sweating, then maybe there is a whole other reason why you can’t and won’t find time to write.

And that’s OK, too. Maybe you’re really a reader, a critic, an enthusiastic conneseur of the narrative form. Join a book group or a film society and have fun with your life. Just stop beating yourself up about not finding time to write.

But if you’re a writer, make time. You’ll never “Find” It.


Am I being glib? Smug? Wrong? Have you found things that work for you? Tell me in the comments.

How To Write A Story A Day

I’m not sure yet (because I haven’t done it), but I think it’s going to be possible to write a story a day.

Here are some of the ways I’m planning to make time every day to tell stories:

Tell Stories To My Children

One of the main reasons I have little time to write is that I have children. It’s tough to sit down and writing a story when someone is likely to burst in and tell you that they *neeeeed* something right now, and another one trails behind him saying that he *neeeeeds* the same thing, or more likely something completely different.

But I have found that one of the best ways to ‘write’ stories is to tell them to my children. Whether at bedtime or during potty-training, or in the car, there’s nothing quite like having a live audience for keeping you going. If their attention starts to wander, you know you have to step up the action. If you pause for a moment, they demand to know what happened next.

Maybe if I can carry my phone around with me and record the stories I tell to the kids, that’ll help me out a few times.

In The Car

Again with the motherhood thing, I spend quite a lot of time driving around. Sometimes I’m alone, and sometimes they’re wa-ay in the back playing with toys. Again, with my trusty phone nearby, I can tell at least part of a story on every journey. I think recording stories is going to be really helpful, even though I love to write (with a fountain pen and everything).

Word Count Challenges

I like limitations. I like to know I only have 1000 or 200 or 55 words into which I have to shoehorn a story. Some days I’m planning to set myself a short word count limit and trying to craft a short story within it.

timer

Time Limits

I always found that seat-of-the-pants writing during exams worked really well for me. With a time limit, I can’t afford to listen to the inner critic. So some days will be Time Limit days. Write a story within an hour, half an hour, by 3pm, whatever seems to work that day.

Genres & Styles

Some days I’ll assign myself a genre to work in. Write a film noir story, write in the style of Virginia Woolfe, write a monologue, write in the third person.

Rewrites

Like the genre/styles assignments I’m planning to write the same story several different ways. I”ve got another blog post coming with more details about that)

So, those are some of my ideas. How about you?