Motivation Monday: Experimentation

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While #spookyromancenovel is off being dissected by my hard-working beta readers, I’ve been cooling my heels a little in terms of project writing. I’m writing a lot of blog posts and Tumblr bits and some journal entries, but until last week I hadn’t done much work on anything book-like.

Then, after years of ignoring it after my last failed attempt to Plan A Real Novel, I dug up an article on the Snowflake Method and dove into what could possibly become a sequel to #spookyromancenovel. I tried to use it to develop a plot bunny back in 2015, when What We Need to Survive didn’t look like it was going to get off the ground and I wanted to write about a photographer finding a new model at his local bakery and falling in love with her. I wrote the first scene, the meet-cute, as it were, and had no idea where to go from there, so I turned to the Snowflake. And it failed me miserably–either it’s not suited to me, or I wasn’t ready for something so intense.

But I’m revisiting it now, four years later, for the potential successor to #spookyromancenovel.

It’s a standalone currently, and it may remain a standalone. I have vague story ideas about romances involving some of its side characters, who turned out to be a such an interesting and vibrant bunch that I’d be sad not to give them their own books, their own shots at love.

But I pantsed the hell out of #spookryomancenovel with a month worth of prompts to guide me, then another month of “I think I know where this is going now, I have to finish it.” I planned nothing aside from the fact that, as a romance, there would be a happy ending.

So why am I trying to plan the next one? And why am I using one of the most effort-intensive planning methods out there?

Well, first of all, to be entirely fair, I’ve started planning. I haven’t finished. I’ve worked up the one-sentence summary, turned it into the five-sentence paragraph, extended that into a character-based overview of the plot. What I have not done is the bulk of the expansion process–a full synopsis, a scene breakdown, rough sketches of those scenes, etc. I’m still in the shallow end. I don’t know that I’ll finish–there’s still plenty of time to jump off the SS Snowflake and try to write based on the work I’ve already done.

But the desire to arm myself for this (possible) second book in the series comes out of the frustration of the rewriting process from #spookyromancenovel. I didn’t plan anything. It makes rewriting hell to find out you forgot entirely about a plot thread a third of the way through the story and never picked it up again, because you were barreling through your first draft like hell hounds were biting at your ankles. It stinks when you have a crappy timeline that doesn’t make any sense and is a complete pain to reconcile with actual linear time because you didn’t remember that fall turns into winter when you set your story in a place with seasons but neglect to allow time to pass physically even when your narrative says “Three weeks later…”

My second draft was put-together enough to get some initial feedback, sure, and I’m happy with a lot of the plot, a lot of the scenes, but not how rough it all still feels around the edges. It’s less of a mess than it was, but it’s not done. It’s not clean.

My turn toward Snowflake planning, with its progressively more detailed structure, its rigid guidelines, is reactionary. I understand that. I also understand it might not work for me, I might do as I’ve often done in the past and get frustrated by all the pre-writing work it involves. My stories are character-driven–their personalities dictate their actions, not some overarcing plot needs. Which is not always compatible with strong advance planning, when I go to write and I realize my character wouldn’t do the thing the plot needs her to do to move along the predetermined path.

This all might be for nothing, in terms of actually getting me to write this (proposed, possible) book.

But a writer that refuses to try new things is a writer who will stagnate. Having a routine isn’t a bad thing, and having a preferred method of planning (or not planning) isn’t a bad thing. But never trying anything else means being shut off to avenues of potential improvement. Maybe the Snowflake method won’t end up helping me as much as I hope, and I’ll abandon it. Or maybe I’ll finish the planning and then find myself less excited to actually write the story–a common complaint I hear from Plotters, whereas Pantsers often get the joy of character and/or story discovery as they write and things take unexpected turns.

Or maybe, just maybe, this will all go swimmingly and I’ll have a new tool in my arsenal to help me get my stories out of my head and into the hands of my readers. Maybe doing some of the work before writing the story will cut down on the amount of work I have to do after. It’s possible, or people wouldn’t be doing it.

It just remains to be seen if I will be one of them.

Keep experimenting, writers. It’s the way to grow.

Writing Resources: 4thewords

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Last month, I described my early experience with 750words, which I’d been introduced to via social media. I was using the 30-day free trial, and I had many good things to say about it.

I’m not retracting any of it, but I’m also not using it anymore, because a week later, my Tumblr dashboard one-upped itself by throwing 4thewords at me instead.

4TW is a true gamification site for writing, with quests to undertake and monsters to “fight” and rewards to earn. For that, I already like it better than 750words. What’s more, though, it provides a better interface for organization, as shown above by my #spookyromancenovel project. Customizable goal/deadline combos; individual files to write on, rather than “days” on 750words, which are not editable after the day is over; the ability to add a book cover; total word count and total time spent writing.

I’m sure I haven’t even figured out all of its features in the almost-two-weeks I’ve been using it.

Also, I didn’t fudge those numbers. As of last night, I really have (re)written 33K of my novel in 12 days.

Gamification like this heavily relies on the “just one more” principle. Getting started is still mostly up to your own executive function–there are rewards for maintaining a daily streak, of course, but you still have to do the work of sitting down to write. And the daily word count necessary to maintain the streak is minimal–a mere 444 words.

But once you get started, it’s easy to say, okay, I’m going to finish this quest today. And when you do, you realize you only need one more item to finish a different quest, so you fight a creature that drops that item. Then you see you’re only 500 words away from finishing another quest, so you pound that out.

And so on.

If 750words boosted my productivity by existing, then 4TW boosts it more by being reward-driven, turning the worst parts of inhumane game design (I’m looking at you, Skinner boxes and lack of reasonable exit points) on their ears, incentivizing writing instead of pointless in-game tasks designed to keep you playing longer.

(Yeah, I’m bitter, I played World of Warcraft for years after it stopped being more fun than not. Investment’s a bitch like that.)

As I said, and will repeat, I’m not walking back anything good I said about 750words. Those analytics were cool and helpful, and I’ll miss the word clouds. But it’s designed primarily for daily journaling, while 4TW is designed for writing, and it shows in the features and mechanics.

(Also, it should be noted: while I haven’t yet paid for subscription time on either site, 750words is $5/month, while 4TW is only $4, and apparently it’s possible to redeem in-game currency to lower that cost. I don’t know precisely how that works yet, but from a writer’s standpoint, I feel that 4TW provides more value.)

When I ended my post on 750words, I said that I would continue the free trial and decide if I would subscribe. I did not–I switched to 4TW after two days of using them both concurrently. And I will be subscribing to it when my free trial is over.

Writing Resources: 750 Words

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Social media alerted me last week to a new (to me) website for motivating writers, 750words. (It’s actually been around a long time, I almost can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before.)

In essence, it’s really simple–log in and get a fresh blank page daily to write at least 750 words, or about three pages of material. It tracks how long you write, how long it takes you to reach 750, how many breaks you take, and your typing speed. All useful metrics, if you’re into that sort of thing.

And because gamification is a great way to motivate people in general, and especially people like me who grew up with video games, you get rewarded with badges for meeting goals. Who doesn’t love badges?

What’s really selling me on this site, though, is its analytic stats based on the writing you produce itself. While I’m using this (so far) as a way to motivate myself for rewriting #spookyromancenovel, it’s clear from both the website description/FAQ and many of the testimonials that people use this as a daily journal, and based on the language, it tracks how you feel.

Which is really, really cool, from a mental-health perspective. And still helpful for writing fiction! Since I started using the site, I’ve rewritten one chapter a day (which is far more productive than I’d been previously, not gonna lie) and that means my daily analysis is looking at the tone of my chapter for me. I can see what its algorithms think and say, “Is that what I was going for?”

Plus, it generates a frequency-based word cloud, which will be helpful down the road, during the line-editing stage. I already have an extensive list of words to reduce or eliminate in general, but having specific darlings to kill for each chapter? I think it’s going to be amazing to be able to target them so specifically.

So, I love it, and can definitely recommend it based on these strengths.

What’s the catch? …it’s not free. New accounts get a 30-day trial period (that’s where I am) but after that, to become a member you pay $5/month.

Some people are going to look at that and say, Five bucks a month for all this cool stuff! Sign me up!

Others will think, Sixty bucks a year just to motivate me to get off my ass and write! Not worth it!

And still others might want to use this site, but not able to afford it. I’ve been there, I’ve lived so close to the bone at times that even $5 wasn’t a reasonable monthly expense. I can now, but I definitely remember what it felt like, and that makes me wonder if I really need this.

So I recommend it with that caveat in mind. Use the free trial, if you’re interested, and decide for yourself if the site is helpful enough for you to want to pay for its services. I’m in love with it now, on day four, but in a month will I still be using it consistently? Will I have broken my streak already, will I burn out?

I’ll check back in at the end of June and let you know.

Writing Through a Transitional Period

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I’ve been at my new job for a month now. I’m working on a different schedule, sleeping on a different schedule. It’s going well, and I’m happy there, but even with my best efforts, my writing output has taken a hit. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Try to make (or keep) your writing a daily habit, but don’t stress if you miss days. That’s solid general advice, but even more important to remember while you’re making big life changes. But if your writing style has never meshed with the “write every day” advice, don’t try to force yourself now while you’re under stress from other sources.
  2. Accept that you’re probably going to be less productive for a while. This will be a harder pill to swallow for some than others. I can crank out thousands of words a day during NaNoWriMo when I’m super motivated, but outside of that I can still usually slap down 500-1000 words on any random day. That’s not happening now, some days because I don’t have time, others because I don’t have energy. It’s okay. I have to remind myself of that often, but it really is okay.
  3. Your writing time frame might change. If you used to have large blocks of time to get a lot of writing done (like the weekend,) maybe you don’t anymore, and you have to become one of those “five minutes whenever I can” writers. Or maybe you suddenly have bigger chunks of time than before, but only on certain days. Prioritize your time, plan for writing sessions if you can, but keep #1 + #2 in mind.
  4. Write everywhere. Also good advice in general, but keep a notebook on you at all times, or write a few lines on the back of your napkin on break, or dictate a snippet into your phone. You can type it up later!
  5. Don’t allow your writing time to cut into your sleep. I’ve said it before in NaNo prep posts, and I’ll keep saying it until the end of time. Healthy sleep is basically the best thing for you, physically, emotionally, and creatively. Burning the midnight oil every once in a while is fine, when you’re inspired (or on a deadline,) but if your solution to a lack of writing time is to get an hour less sleep every night, that’s probably not going to work long-term.
  6. It’s okay to do other things with your free time. I’ve picked up cross-stitch again, and I’m spending more time listening to music (which I don’t generally do while I write, lyrics make me sing along and lose focus.) I need relaxing activities that don’t demand so much creative energy. Part of my brain is always chanting “but you could be writing right now,” and that’s true. But if I let writing stress me out, I’m not going to want to do it at all.

I’m hoping now that I’ve got a better handle on my new, rebooted life, I can be more productive in May, but I’m still keeping my goal pretty small: write for half an hour a day, more days than not. It keeps me writing actively, but it’s doable without a lot of time or stress involved.

Let Me Tell You a Story #30: The Fear of Failure

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Early yesterday morning, I woke up from a nightmare.

I’d been taking a test. My high school physics teacher paced the front of the room, while all around me, the other students were talking. Nothing my teacher said would quiet them, and he was growing increasingly frustrated.

Behind me, a guy was alternately asking me for answers and mocking me. Beside me, my husband was taking the test as well, and he whispered, “Don’t say anything.”

I didn’t.

But the students had gotten too noisy again, and finally, my teacher snapped. He ordered us all to turn in our tests and he would grade them unfinished. Then he left the room, slamming the door on the way out. (Not very logical on his part, but remember, this is a dream. Mine are rarely even this coherent, narratively speaking.)

Instead of taking mine up to the desk, as the others were doing, I filled in the blank bottom of the page I was on with a combined plea and complaint, that I should be allowed to finish the test or retake it, because I hadn’t done anything wrong, and collective punishment is a war crime.

Then I set my test on the top of the stack on the teacher’s desk and left the empty room.

What happened next is fuzzy, but at some point, I’m walking outside the school with my husband, silently fuming about that class and trying not to cry. Before I reach the school buses, my physics teacher calls out, and I turn, and he’s there. He’s got my test in his hand, and he tells me I can’t retake it. He tells me I was the one talking. He tells me I was the one asking for answers. I turn to my husband, and he nods.

I start to cry, and that’s when I wake up.

I’ve never believed in dream symbolism in any mystical sense. My dreams, weird as they can get, never seem so hard to analyze that I need to rely on something esoteric to understand them, like the idea that seeing a hamster in a dream represents “underdeveloped emotions.” (Yeah, I just googled that. Weird, right?)

When I woke, I took a few moments to examine the nightmare. An authority figure and a loved one conspiring to gaslight me while simultaneously denying me the completion of an accomplishment? I don’t need to dig very deep to see that dream was all about failure. I failed to finish the test, I failed to convince my teacher his treatment of me was unfair, I failed to find the support I needed elsewhere. (No real-life shade thrown at my husband, though–this is my subconscious talking, not at all an accurate depiction of him.)

With it all cut and dried before me, my next thought was, “Ursula would have this dream.”

Ursula is a minor character in the novel I’m failing to rewrite. Every day I should be working on it–every day, something prevents me. Not enough time. Not in the mood. A mountain of dishes, a string of errands that needs to be run, staying late at work, meaning to set aside half an hour to sit down and write but never quite getting to it.

Yes, Ursula would have this dream, and in a flash, I knew exactly why. I had already imagined her struggling with inadequacy issues because of her family, because of her mundane line of work clashing with her lofty ambitions of power and influence.

This dream I had, this nightmare of failure, has connected me to a character who otherwise is wholly unlike me. This is the small piece of my soul and my self that Ursula will inherit when I write her story. Because every character of mine gets at least one.

Having a revelation like this doesn’t entirely erase the underlying fear I have of failure. I’m not sure that anything ever will. But finding this small spark of inspiration has already pushed me to work again, when I had temporarily misplaced my motivation. It’s a small silver lining from a pretty big cloud, but you’ve got to take what you can get, however it shows up.

 

Writing Homework #19: Tear Apart a Chapter

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I’m struggling right now with rewriting my current project. It’s a more focused process than the word-vomit stage of the first draft, but not the highly targeted, technical work of line editing. It’s something in between, with elements of both, and my brain, so used to critical analysis of the works of others, just won’t apply it to my own writing at the moment.

So I thought of a way to use my strengths to solve my (hopefully temporary) weakness.

I’m not going to rewrite my writing–I’m going to practice on someone else!

For this exercise, take a book you don’t like. Don’t have any sitting around, because you keep your shelves clean? Pick something up cheap at a used book sale. For this, I’d recommend something physical you can mark up–but if that’s not an option, you could download something free from sites like Project Gutenberg.

Read a chapter or two or three, as much or as little as you need to get a sense of the style without getting too bogged down with the plot.

Pick one of those chapters (or half of one, if they’re very long) and go to town with your weapon of choice, be it the classic red pen, or a highlighter, whatever you like. (Or make your notes digitally on the ebook; if you’re not a fan of that, write them longhand on a separate sheet of paper.)

Kill those darlings. Nitpick. Question everything. Cut words. Change ones you don’t like. Make notes on what’s vague or unexplained.

All done?

Now fix it. Rewrite that chapter or scene to suit your style.

Open up a new document or turn to a fresh page in your writing journal, and rewrite what you just tore apart. Since this is an exercise, and just for you, feel absolutely free to make any changes without worrying about if they’d make sense later in the book (if it’s one you’ve already read, anyway.)

Change a character’s name or gender or race or orientation–don’t we all love head-canoning those bland characters into something new? How does it change the story, or does it? Write it all down.

Is the setting present enough for you? Does it need to be fleshed out, or changed entirely? Switch the scene to a different location. A different season. A different country. Set it on the moon, if you like–just make your changes consistent and believable throughout the whole scene. Change everything you need to change to make it feel natural, like it was always meant to happen there.

Does the author use more adverbs than you prefer? Cut them. Make the verbs stronger. Do they not use enough for your taste? Throw some in where they can make an impact.

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea–and a great deal of the specific work will depend on the text you choose, and how you write your own work.

But I’ve always found it’s much easier to be critical (in the classic sense, not the derogatory one) of another’s work, rather than my own. Looking at your own work the same way requires practice, and I’ve just given you a way to get that practice, so get to it!


Need to catch up on your assignments?

Organizing Your TBR: Make a Reading Cycle List

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I have a lot of books, and sometimes, trying to choose what to read next feels overwhelming. I will get in a rut where I only want to read romances; or I’ll be in a book hangover because whatever I just read was so good; or I’ll read three or five or seven books in a row that all end up being terrible, and that makes every book like a potential waste of my reading time.

But picking out a specific set of books to read next, such as a monthly TBR, has never seemed to work for me. Sure, I’ll read a few of them while I’m excited about the pile, but getting down to the last one or two, I’m often feeling an itch to pick out something else.

This year, though, I’m juggling quite a few goals, and I wanted to spend less time wondering what to read next, so I created the Reading Cycle List. It’s not for specific books–its for categories of books!

I’ll be up front: this isn’t going to work for everyone, especially people who identify strongly as mood readers, ie, they have to be in the right mood to read something and/or they choose their next book based on their mood. This is going to be much too structured for you guys, mood readers. Keep doing your thing.

For others, this is going to seem like a fair bit of hassle, and up front, yeah, it’s heavy on organization. But I’m into that. I love checklists. I love the feeling of accomplishment, that little zing, when I mark something off.

So, we’re going to use me as an example, but the point of this is that it’s totally customizable to your personal goals; you just have to think about what you want to prioritize.

I started with my two numerical goals: Mount TBR, for books I own, at 100 for the year, and Virtual Mount TBR, for library books, at 48. The ratio is conveniently close to 2:1, so I started my cycle list like this:

  1. A book I own
  2. Another book I own
  3. A library book

But that’s really vague, and it doesn’t factor in my more specific goals–the PopSugar Reading Challenge, wanting to finish all the books I got in 2016, a strong desire to start knocking old books off the top of my TBR, working on the many series I’m in the middle of, and reading/reviewing all the indie books I have.

To give myself room, I doubled the cycle list to six, and slotted in more specific goals.

  1. The next book on my TBR that I own
  2. Something from 2016
  3. A library book
  4. The next book from a series I’ve started
  5. An indie book
  6. Another library book

I’ve kept the 2:1 owned/library ratio, and the categories that obviously came from books I own already got slotted in place. I’m still missing a spot for PSRC, and I’ve picked out a lot of those tasks already from the books I own. So let’s add another three to the list.

  1. The next book on my TBR that I own
  2. Something from 2016
  3. A library book
  4. The next book from a series I’ve started
  5. An indie book
  6. Another library book
  7. A book for PSRC
  8. Another book from 2016
  9. Another library book

Since I had a free spot, and a lot of books still to go through from the massive amount of freebies I picked up when I discovered the “free” bestseller lists on Amazon that year, I doubled up on that one, but later in the year when I run out, those spots can disappear, taking the third library book with them, and I’ll go down to a six-category cycle.

When I’m starting the cycle, it’s easy. I look at my nearly 800-book master TBR on Goodreads, and I start at the top and go down until I find the first book on it I own. Then I read it.

Next, I look at my acquired-in-2016 shelf, and I pick something. Yeah, okay, I have to decide on a book there, but from a much smaller pool than simply all the books I own. And if I really don’t want to have to choose, I can apply the same principle and take the first on the list.

After that, it’s a library book. I’m working my way down my master TBR for those, as well, subject to their availability from my library–I’ve been utilizing both the county- and state-wide inter-library loan systems more so far this year than I did in all of 2018. If I have more than one library book out? I read the one I have to return first, because that’s just sensible.

For the fourth category, I’ve got more than a couple series going, but once I decide which one to work on next, the book’s chosen for me.

And so on.

By doing some prep work, I can make steady progress on my reading goals and never feel the crushing weight of choice paralysis.

Let me reiterate: this is not going to work for everyone. Some readers are probably going to look at this and think I’ve gone off the deep end, micro-managing my reading to the nth degree. And even the ones who want to try it probably aren’t going to build themselves a nine-book cycle like I did; that depends on how many reading goals they have and how neatly they can work them all together.

But it’s done wonders for me in the six weeks I’ve been using it–I read twenty books in January! (Yeah, I did finish one after I posted my wrap-up for the month. I should have waited.) Part of that was foul weather giving me a lot of reading time, but part of it was definitely my lack of waffling about what to read next.

Sound interesting? Give it a try, see how it goes.