Some Writing Lessons I Learned This Month

The month is not quite over and already I feel like I just want to start it all over again. I tried making too many changes at the same time and then school became hectic and I lost my way. But no matter how many times I miss my goal, I keep trying in one form or another, and I’m never low on inspiration.

First, as promised, a photo of my preferred tools of the trade. I use Mead Five Star college ruled notebooks. These are both 5-subject notebooks. The big one is 8.5 by 11 inches and the small one is 6 by 9.5. The spirals are sturdy, and I like the pockets between each subject. Although I love pens and buy them in many colors and varieties, I normally use Bic Round Stic pens in blue. The ink doesn’t bleed through the paper, and I bought a box of 60 for only $7.99.GE DIGITAL CAMERA

One change I made this month for which I had high hopes but didn’t work out at all was waking up earlier to write before going to work. I have never been a morning person. It’s not even because I dread going to work every day; I’m just a slow starter. Even on the days that I could force myself out of bed at 5:30, I sat around not know exactly what to do or where to start. I wasn’t awake enough to be able to make any kind of creative decisions. I started going to bed earlier too, but I stressed out over having to fall asleep so that I could wake up earlier that I didn’t write much at night like I used to, either.

That said, I want to create a writing routine for myself. I would like to be able to sit down at my desk at the same time every day and know that it’s time to write. To be able to accomplish this, I need a balance with my school work as well, so that I don’t spend hours rushing to finish assignments on the night they’re due. Not only is that an added amount of stress that I don’t need, but it precludes me from doing any writing those days. Once I’ve put writing off for one day, it’s easier to put it off the next day as well.

Next lesson, I love writing by hand, but I can’t rewrite by hand. When writing the first draft, I’m creating something out of nothing, and I can see it grow and build upon itself. It has no form it needs to take. When revising, all I can see is the amount of words I already have down and how much work that translates to. I feel overwhelmed, the fun is gone, and I end up putting it off to the future and never making progress.

I can’t set out to make a particular product (like a short story vs. a novella vs. a novel). I may have an idea of what form it will take, but I need to play around with the characters and setting and events to figure out the shape, structure, and length.

Finally, pens, pencils, markers, notebooks, binders, index cards, sticky notes, etc. are fun. I love back to school season when I can check out all the amazing school and office supplies, but I hoard what I buy and try to save everything for some unknown future project that will somehow be worthy of these new materials. This is how I ended up with enough notebooks to last me more than 20 years. This is my mission: To use up, cover to cover, every notebook I own. I have no idea how long that will actually take.

I seriously got off track this month, not only with writing but with school work as well. I even missed the deadline on a project (which I have done only once). I have up to a week to turn it in with a 10% penalty, and I figured a 10% late penalty was better than the larger amount of points I would miss if I rushed to turn something in on time that was not my best work. I hope this serves as enough of a wake-up call for me that I’ll finally get my act together. Like I said earlier, I’m never low on inspiration. Motivation, however, is sometimes another story.

August Handwriting Challenge Update

I challenged myself this month to do all my writing and editing on paper rather than the computer. On top of that challenge, I also wanted to write one or more short stories. While I’ve been busy with homework and haven’t written quite as much as I’d hoped to this last week, I did write 7 pages, front and back. I haven’t counted the words, but I think it’s between 2,500 and 3,000 words. I definitely write slower by hand than I do on the computer, but now that I’m not thinking about this in terms of trying to handwrite an entire 50,000-word novel in a month, it might not be an issue. Here are a few things I’ve learned so far in my experiment.

Use a separate notebook for each story. My notebook of choice had been a 5-subject, 8 by 11 inch, 200-page Mead Five Star notebook. Using these for mostly notes and only the occasional draft of a scene, one notebook would last me about two years before it was filled. I started one story in my current notebook, and after I’d written a few pages, I wished I’d used a separate notebook so the story wouldn’t get lost amidst all the unrelated notes.

Leave some blank pages for notes. On the second story I began last week, I started writing it in a new, smaller notebook, and I began on the sixth page, leaving the first five pages for notes, such as where I want to pick up when I sit down to write the next day, names and descriptions of characters I want to introduce, and descriptions of settings. By putting the notes at the beginning, I could use the rest of the notebook for another story or another draft after the first one is finished. I like to use every page in my notebooks.

It’s okay to write only for the sake of writing. One cause of my writer’s block is the pressure I put on myself to create a finished piece of work. When a spark of a scene caught my interest, I spent an hour working on it. It doesn’t have any structure or fit into any of my larger projects, but it gave me a chance to experiment with writing first person point of view when I normally use third person. I have several books of writing prompts, but I rarely use them because none of the prompts fit into the projects I’m currently working on. Once I actually tried writing with no final project in mind, the stress was gone, and I got a lot of words down. Besides, a writing prompt might lead to a whole story if I give it enough thought.

Through various back-to-school sales over the last few years, I’ve amassed enough notebooks to last me more than 20 years, so I’m excited to put some of these to use. I plan to use either 1-subject or composition notebooks for ideas that I think might turn into complete stories, and one of my spare 5-subject notebooks for writing prompts or other writing exercises. Once I get this new notebook system figured out, I’ll write a post (with pictures) about each notebook I use and how I use them. I’m a stationery nerd and love to see everyone’s writing supplies.

Vacation

Yesterday, I returned home from a 9-day vacation. I had some homework I had to do for the online classes I’m taking for my master’s degree, but other than that, I let my mind take a vacation from any kind of creative effort. Besides the typical vacation activities of sight-seeing and eating out at too many restaurants, I did more reading than I’d done in the last several weeks. I’m not sure if it was the change of scenery or the reading, but this vacation was exactly what I needed for my writing.

I had hoped to write every day in August as part of my handwriting and short story writing challenges, but I didn’t even have a chance to think about what type of short stories I want to write this month. As I took a deliberate step away from the story world I’d been working on for the last four years, my characters and the plot caught up with me when I least expected it. I had one of those major breakthroughs that made me excited to work on the story again.

The timeline of the series was holding me back. Fixing it requires a lot of work, but it’s going to make everything better. When I was freed from my own setting, I learned not to consider my books’ settings as set in stone. Since they’re still works in progress, the settings exist only in my mind, and I can change whatever I want about them. I’m giving more thought to the living arrangements of the characters and where and how they spend the majority of their time. I don’t need to rush them from one scene to the next.

I love to travel and I’d recommend vacation to everyone, writer or not, but I realize it’s not feasible for most people to take long trips. If I hadn’t taken half the days as unpaid, this one trip would have used up all my vacation time from work for the next year. If you can’t put yourself in new surroundings physically, immerse yourself in a book.

Reading is its own kind of magic. Two people could read the same scene and picture the room or the atmosphere or the characters differently. The author has done most of the work, but you still bring the story to life in your mind when you read. I always have several books in progress at a time. I would read a chapter or two, and even if I was still interested in the book and excited to read it, something new would come along and I would abandon the older book for a while. One of the books I finished on this trip was one I started reading in April. I’d averaged about a chapter a week until I spent some uninterrupted time with it. I traveled deeper into the universe of the book by focusing longer stretches of uninterrupted time with it. I connected more to the story than I would have otherwise.

Now that I’ve returned home to my usual distractions, it’s going to take some effort to maintain that kind of concentration, but I’m determined. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to be obsessed with whatever book I was currently reading and want to return to it. It’s been an even longer time since I felt like that about my writing, but I hope that once I get back into it, I’ll find that joy again. I’m seriously considering rewriting the whole series. I had rejected that idea months ago because I’ve already put so much work into it, but I want it to be my best work. All these previous drafts are practice, and they all taught me something in the process.

My next step, whether I start over or continue trying to add in missing scenes, is to write out all the major plot points on index cards. My goals for the next week are to have Volume 1 plotted out on cards and to write 5,000 words for a short story. I’ll see you in a week with an update!