Should You Sign Up for that course or challenge?

Cover image workbook: should I take part in NaNoWriMo or other creative writing challenges, courses

So Many Challenges, So Many Courses

Have you ever lost an afternoon reading all about how to market your novel…before writing the novel, never mind figuring out how to revise or publish the thing? 

Or figuring out if you should take part in the latest writing challenge all your friends seem to be doing? 

Or maybe you spent way too much energy deciding whether to invest in a new writing workshop or class instead of buckling down and practicing our creative writing skills.

Yeah, me too.

Instead of trusting that the work we’re doing will inevitably lead to progress, we get distracted by Shiny Object Syndrome!

But going down endless rabbit holes will leave us no closer to our goals than we were before. 

In fact, it can leave us overwhelmed, discouraged and stalled. 

How can we make the courageous choices that really lead to progress in our writing life? And how can you decide if that new writing course, challenge or book is Shiny Object or a Shiny Opportunity?

Spend Some Time With Future-You

What do you hope for when you open a new book about writing, sign up for a course, or embark on a new writing project? 

You don’t just hope to complete the course, or the book or the challenge.

When tempted to try a new Shiny Object, you probably build an image in your head of Future-You, a you who has unlocked something with a magical key that is this Shiny Object. 

What does Future-You look like? Happy? At ease? 

When they sit down to write, does it feel inevitable that they will write and write well?

Hope motivates us to learn that new thing, take that new course, or start that new project: the hope that we will become the writer we’ve always wanted to be. 

And that this Shiny Object will be the one that gives it to us.

And it maybe it will be, if we do it properly

(Download the workbook for some tips on how to do that).

But sometimes it backfires and we end up discouraged, and no closer to our goals than we were when we first caught sight of the Shiny Object. 

The ABCs of Learning The Writing Craft 

We can’t absorb everything at once, nor can we progress faster than we progress!

When considering how to learn the craft of writing, we should do it with care.

ASSESS

What are you trying to achieve?

Be specific.

Ask yourself when do you want to achieve it by/when you will reassess and see how much progress you’ve made?

BRAINSTORM 

Ask yourself what resources you already have on tap? A bookcase full of books on writing? The StoryADay site’s prompts, feature articles and podcasts? Online courses that you have signed up for but not completed? Course notes from conferences and courses you took in the past?

What wealth is hidden in those treasure chests?

Might you find the answer to ‘how should I show that my heroine’s heart is breaking, without saying that?” in one of those resources? 

CELEBRATE

Sometimes we’re tempted by Shiny Objects because of our own lack of confidence. 

Can you become your own best cheerleader and give yourself permission to keep working on what you’re working on now?

Ask yourself:

What do you already know how to do well?

In writing – what are you doing when writing seems easiest? 

In life – and how might those skills support your writing. Are you already an expert organizer? Can you schedule (and stick to) writing/learning time on your calendar? Are you excellent at connecting meaningfully with other people? Can you use that to write powerful emotional scenes? Or are you the one people trust to set up writing dates, for accountability?)

Now that you’re feeling secure in the skills you already possess, you should be able to more clearly assess whether or not you really need the Shiny Object and whether it’ll really help you, right now.

A Process For Investing In Yourself

Sometimes, of course, a great opportunity comes along: a teacher you’d love to work with, a writing challenge that seems exciting, a book recommendation that you can’t stop thinking about.

Sometimes taking advantage of those opportunities is the right thing to do.

How can you tell which Shiny Objects are actually Shiny Opportunities?

Don’t stress, I’ve got you covered. Here’s the StoryADay Shiny Object Decision Flowchart. Go through it any time you need to make a decision. But, before you go, download the free workbook that goes along with it and expands on each of the flowchart questions.

Download the StoryaDay Shiny Object Workbook now
(with bonus Decision Flowchart!)

StoryADay Shiny Object Decision Flowchart - Should you take part in NaNoWriMo, StoryADay, or other creative writing challenges and courses

Download this flowchart and the accompanying workbook now

Leave a comment: what Shiny Object/Opportunity were you most recently wrestling with? How did you make your decision? How did it work out?

Creating Compelling Characters

Plot happens outside, but story happens inside

Donald Maass, The Emotional Craft of Fiction
Caution Magnetic Magnet

For people to love your story, they need to love (or love to hate) your character.

The most beautiful writing in the world, the most exciting action sequence in history, neither of these will make people love your story.

But a compelling character will steal their heart, sneak into their memory, and make them come back to your writing over and over again.

Wouldn’t it be great to have raving fans?

How do you make your character compelling without spending too many words tracing their inner thoughts? How do you balance character growth with action?

Step 1: Know Your Character

None of us step out into the world in the morning as a fresh new creation.

We walk out of the door with hang ups and passions and prejudices and ingrained behaviors, all of which come from a lifetime of having experiences and reacting to them.

Lisa Cron, in her excellent book Story Genius, talks about this brilliantly:

You have to know your character’s childhood damage, she says, and the protective behaviors they created. If you can set your story at a point in their life when those behaviors no longer serve your character, you have automatic conflict built into your story (and conflict makes stuff happen!)

Top Tip: do some ‘discovery writing’ about your character before you ever try to write the actual story. It will make your first draft go soooo much faster.

Resources:

Step 2: Nobody’s Perfect

In our quest to make readers love our protagonist, we can forget to give them flaws.

But how do you give them a flaw, without making them unlikeable?

The best resource I’ve come across came from the podcast Writing Excuses, where they talk about playing with three different characteristics as if they were sliders on a mixing board. Your character can be competent, proactive, and sympathetic, but they can’t be 100% (or 0%) of all three at the same time.

Contractors say, “You have have a job done well, fast, or cheap. Pick two.”

At any one moment in a story, a character can be extremely competent, extremely proactive, or extremely sympathetic. Pick two.

And then play with those levels throughout the story. (Think about how Hermoine Grainger changes over the course of the first Harry Potter book. At the start she is the most competent and proactive of the three friends, but nobody likes her. By the end, she has given up some of that proactivity and learned to lean on her friends. She acknowledges that Ron is more competent at wizard chess, and lets Harry be the one to face the last big challenge…and we like her a lot more, for it.)

Top Tip: Playing with character competencies is a great way to make them more or less sympathetic without having to give them a ‘tragic flaw’.

Resources:

Step 3: Show Their Inner Conflict In Action

In critique groups I usually hear two opposing critiques of character, depending on the writer’s natural tendencies:

  • The writing’s beautiful but it’s a little…slow (translation: nothing happens!!) OR
  • It was very exciting…but I’m not sure why I’m supposed to care (translation: explosions and chases are great, but your character has no inner depth)

Whether you naturally write lots of action, or spend a lot of time dwelling on inner feelings, a good writer needs to be able to balance action and inner conflict, to create compelling characters.

One of the best ways to do this is to turn off the inner dialogue and show your character taking actions or interacting with physical objects that

  • Are symbolic of their inner struggle
  • Matter to this character for a specific reason (which you know, and can reveal to the reader)
  • Remind the reader of the stakes, without you having to spell it out.

For example, in the beginning of the movie Die Hard, a watch-word for action-based storytelling, John McClane picks up a picture of his happy family from a desk in his wife’s office…and winces.

In that moment (right before he gets embroiled in the explosions and flying bullets) the viewer remembers that this is not just a wise-cracking action hero. He’s a man who is losing his family and isn’t sure how far he’s willing to go, to put it back together.

That’s the question the rest of the film answers.

And it’s the reason we, as viewers, care.

Top Tip: Turn off the inner dialogue and give us a moment, filled with all five senses, where your character demonstrates their emotions, on the outside.

Resources

Big Final Caveat

All of this kind of craft-based instruction is useful for developing your writing…but only if it doesn’t slow you down while you’re creating first drafts.

If you’re writing the first version of a story do not stop to worry about ‘showing not telling’ or whether your character is sufficiently proactive in this moment.

All of this can be fixed in the rewrite.

And one of the best ways to figure out what’s working and what still needs work in your story, is to show it to other readers.

Perhaps the idea of a critique group terrifies you. Or maybe you’ve been in groups in the past that were frustrating, or just ‘meh’.

If that’s you, I have a gift for you: a free guide to critique groups, including:

  • All the personality types you’ll encounter in a group
  • How best to interact with each
  • What you need to know to to give and receive great feedback

Don’t waste time being afraid of feedback, any longer. It’s the single most important thing you can do to get your writing closer to the point where you can really begin to delight readers and build a raving fanbase.

Download the Critique Primer Now

Mastering The Magic of Opening Lines

Get the full report here

Opening lines are hard to write because they have to do so much:

Ask the story question; establish the voice; set the tone of the story; establish the scene

What Opening Lines Must Do:

  • Set up the main question the reader is going to be asking all the way through
  • Establish the voice of the protagonist/narrator
  • Set the tone
  • Ground the reader in a time or place

That’s why I advocate writing the first lines last—or at least tweaking them after you’ve finished the story, when you know what it’s about.

So, how do you make your first line reflect all these things?

Let’s look at some examples.  Continue reading “Mastering The Magic of Opening Lines”

Video FAQs – Where Do I Post My Stories?

StoryADay May FAQs

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

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

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

The Short Answer

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

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

What Is Flash Fiction?

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

Flash Fiction image

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

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

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

Listen to the podcast episode that goes along with this post:

The Allure of the Fresh Start

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

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

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

    And What Happens Next?

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

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

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

    Then I start to miss a day here or there…

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

    Sound familiar?

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

Beyond Word Count – Other Ways To Log Your Writing Progress

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

But it doesn’t have to be word count.

WHEN WORD COUNTS HELP

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

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

WHAT IF THAT DOESN’T WORK FOR YOU?

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

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

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

HOW TO LOG YOUR DAYS

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

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

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

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

KEEPING YOUR GOALS REALISTIC

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

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

WHAT TO DO WITH THE INFORMATION

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

NO GUILT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from 5 Years of StoryADay Writing Challenges

 

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

Now, go and write something!

 

Writers’ Conferences: The Introvert’s Guide

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

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

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

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

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

1. Stop Thinking About Yourself

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

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

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

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

2. Find A Bubbly Friend

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

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

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

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

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

3. Understand Your Introverted Nature

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

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

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

Keep In Touch After The Conference

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

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