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!

Why Novels?

Ever since I decided sometime in elementary school that I wanted to be a writer, all I wanted to write was novels. I played around with poetry over the years because I like pretty words and the images they conjure together, but I never thought of writing a poetry book. It was basically a form of journaling for me. In creative writing class, I preferred writing short stories to poems, which I dreaded having to polish into a final product to share with the rest of the class. There’s something scary for a writer (for me, at least) about calling something done, as if I’ll have to defend every single word choice.

And in those same creative writing classes, I never took short stories seriously. They were, to me, practice runs for the real thing–a novel. Although I read lots of e-books and I buy most of my physical books used, I love nothing more than aesthetically pleasing physical books. A novel is an entity unto itself, which can be bound alone, unlike a single short story or poem (unless those are printed in a gift edition or small format). I like the heft of a novel so I can feel like I’m holding a whole world in my hands. My favorite book (besides Anne of Green Gables, which I read for the first time last year), is Infinite Jest, and even at over a thousand pages, it wasn’t long enough for me. I could have spent another thousand pages with those characters. When you’re truly immersed in a novel’s universe, the end of the book is a let down when you realize you’re back to your own daily existence. I’ve never gotten that kind of immersion from a short story, although I’ve read many that I thought were clever or beautiful or scary. A few of my favorite short story writers are Neil Gaiman, Shirley Jackson, J.D. Salinger, Ray Bradbury, and Edgar Allan Poe. I probably read more short stories than novels in my English classes in college.

I’ve been having trouble writing my current book series. As I wrote in last week’s post, taking a break from the computer screen to handwrite gave me some creative freedom, but it hasn’t been enough to motivate me. The scenes I wrote in the notebook didn’t necessarily fit into the draft on the computer. I think it’s a sign of a more serious problem. While I know the major plot points of my books, I haven’t outlined as much as I should have, and I’m worried that the only way to get the story back on track is to “kill my darlings” and try to write some if not all of these books all over again–after writing a detailed outline.

I would never give up on the series because the themes and characters and settings are so personal and real to me, but I also refuse to try to polish up what I have at this point and send it out into the world as is. My characters deserve better than that. While I had hoped to share these books by the end of the year, I have more work to do.

So, what does my little digression at the beginning of this post have to do with anything? I want to teach myself to outline and think through plots from beginning to end before writing. I have a whole shelf of creative writing advice books, and using the prompts and advice from those, I plan to write short stories. I think the short form will work nicely for me because even my novels have relatively short time spans, I usually have too few characters rather than too many, and I want to be able to produce something that I can show people that won’t take another year or two.

My goal for August is to handwrite 15,000 words. I haven’t decided yet if those will all be toward one story or broken up into multiple stories. I also want to have all the plot points for my novel series written out on index cards by the end of the month so I can see what I have, what’s missing, and what doesn’t make sense. I don’t know if this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo is a lost cause for me or not. I still have nine days, so I’ll see what I can do. Maybe I’ll write a short story yet this month.

If you write short stories, what advice do you have for me? I’m good with settings and characters, but I need help creating conflict and then wrapping it up. What are some short stories I should read? Also, let me know if you want to join me for either my handwriting challenge or short story writing challenge next month. I would love to follow along with your progress and cheer you on. Happy writing!

An Upcoming Experiment

I’m attempting a writing experiment next month. For the month of August, I’m going to do all my writing and revising with pen and paper, rather than on the computer. I plan to print out the 30,000 words I have for Volume 6 and try to make sense of them by transcribing them in some coherent order in a physical notebook. Aside from my usual giant plot holes left by skipping over scenes for which I didn’t have details planned, many of the scenes I’ve written contradict each other.

Ever since I got my first laptop, I’ve done almost all of my writing on the computer. I’ll write in a notebook when it’s not convenient to power up my computer, but little more than a day goes by afterward before I type everything up and return to my old habits. I tried to do NaNoWriMo 2010 (my second year) completely handwritten, but that failed for a few reasons. I was using a Moleskine, which I considered “too nice” to ruin with my crossing out words and skipping ahead to the next scene if I couldn’t figure out that “perfect” detail. That notebook probably wasn’t big enough for a whole 50,000 word novel without my being careful of how many words I squeezed onto a page. I also hadn’t planned out enough in advance to know how the story would go. I think I ended with 27,000 words that year, and I gave up with the notebook after the first week or so.

Even with no class work to do this week, I haven’t made as much progress as I’d hoped to. I had an idea for Volume 5 Wednesday evening, and I wasn’t sure where exactly in the story I should put it. It’s a flashback, and if it weren’t for the point-of-view character being a POV character only in Volume 5, I would have put it in an earlier book. Still, it answers some lingering questions and I think it’s important to the story.

I wasn’t ready to put the scene in the document in case it fizzled out with my lack of ideas, so I sat down with my recently-neglected planning notebook and started writing. Seven hundred words later, I had some of the best writing I’ve done on this project in months. Details popped into my mind more quickly than they have in the longest time.

Writing for the past several months has felt like pulling teeth. My biggest obstacle is that because some chapters are basically done, having gone through multiple drafts and improvements, I feel like any new scenes I write have to be at the same standards. Even though I’m the only one who will see these books for now, the fear of not being good enough keeps me from writing at all. I need to change my methods, and writing by hand seems like the best option for me.

Other benefits to handwriting:

  • I own more blank notebooks than I’m willing to admit. I need to start using these.
  • I love my handwriting, even if it’s not always the neatest.
  • Without the computer on, I’m less likely to be distracted.
  • My brain functions differently when I’m handwriting vs. typing. Because writing takes longer than typing, I can focus on details of the setting that I tend to gloss over when I’m typing.
  • I like to see the physical evidence of my work, as all the pages fill with my loopy cursive.

Even if I fail this challenge and go back to the computer, at least I’ll be writing. The worst that could happen is that I write nothing at all, which won’t be much different than some other months of little to no progress.

As for my weekly Camp NaNoWriMo update, the good news is that I wrote over three times as much this week as I did the first week of Camp. The bad news is that my total is only 3,127 words. After changing my goal from hours worked to new words added, my goal was 25,000 words, but since I don’t have quite as many plot holes in Volume 4 as I’d originally thought (as well as being so far behind halfway into the month), I’ve adjusted my goal to 20,000 words.

Is anyone else interested in a month-long computer-less writing challenge? There are no word count goals other than what you might set for yourself. The point of the experiment is to try to think about your work differently.

How Do You Measure Progress: Camp NaNoWriMo Week 1

I had entered Camp NaNoWriMo with a goal of editing my current work in progress for a total of 30 hours in the month. After the first two hours, I realized my word count had increased only by about 100 words.

In the editing phase, a low change in word count is not a problem. You’re switching out weak verbs for stronger ones, restructuring confusing sentences, and taking out filler words and sentences. You’re exchanging more words than adding new ones. If I were at the editing phase for the entire novel, I wouldn’t mind having little to show as far as my changes in word count went.

However, there are still huge chunks of the story that I haven’t written. I entered July with 57,009 words written for Volume 3. I anticipate this story ending up around 65-70k. The beginning chapters are stronger, because I start at the beginning of the story when I start a new round of revision before losing the energy to think of ways to fill those plot holes. So, I’ve changed my goal for Camp NaNoWriMo to use this month to fill in those holes and complete the stories for Volumes 3, 4, and 5. I aim to add 25,000 new words total for these three novels.

I had a slow start for Week 1, with changing my goal, writing the two final project papers for my classes, and celebrating Independence Day. I have a total of about 700 words written, with 24,300 to go.

I often use the terms editing and revising interchangeably, but that’s only because in any one in-progress novel, I’m at the editing phase in some places and the revising phase in others. (And the drafting phase in a few, which is what I’m hoping to change this month.) These are the steps to my writing process:

  1. Planning. I need to know where the story is going before I begin writing, but even if I manage to write out a sentence description for each chapter, it is still not enough for some parts of the story and I flounder a bit. When going into a challege like NaNoWriMo, I need to know at the minimum my main characters, the setting, how the story begins, what the characters want, and how the story ends. I’m afraid to spend too much time planning, though, in case I never get around to writing the novel or lose interest in it.
  2. Drafting. Also known as writing. This is the part where I actually write the story. I’m a “bare-bones” writer, which means I usually have to go back in subsequent drafts and add in details and whole scenes. If I’m not sure how to get the characters from one plot point to another, I’ll often skip ahead to the scene after that, although I try to write in order as much as possible.
  3. Revising. The version of the story I write in the drafting step is my first draft. I’ll go through 6 or more drafts of revising. This is the step where I go back and fill in the plot holes. I cut scenes that aren’t necessary. I move events around. I begin new drafts in the revision process when I’ve set myself a challenge to see how much I can get done in a certain time period (like Camp NaNo), or I have to make a huge change and want to keep a copy of the previous draft before that change was made.
  4. Editing. This step is more detail-oriented than revision. This is where I’m fixing up sentences, adding in description, and basically making things pretty. If revision is amount changing paragraphs, editing is about changing words.
  5. Proofreading. Checking for typos. This is my favorite phase because it means most of the work is done. This phase gives me one more chance not only to find any errors, but to add or take out anything before someone else reads my work. The novel is done but not done.

The hardest part about writing is that so much of a story lives in a writer’s head, and it’s hard to translate it into words that will conjure up the same images and feelings for someone else. Sometimes I’m so afraid of writing something “wrong,” something that doesn’t match what I’m imagining, that I avoid writing it. That’s how I came to be on draft 8 of Volume 3 and still have so many missing scenes.

Does anyone else often find themselves at different phases of the process within one manuscript? How do you measure your progress when editing or revising–by words, by chapters, by hours, or something else?

A New Dedication

Seven years ago, July 2011, I participated in the first ever session of Camp NaNoWriMo. The novel I wrote during that session, a quirky, lighthearted mystery, was a big departure from all the unfinished “literary” musings I’d been playing around with since I started trying to write novels. In those books, characters seemed to do little more than sit around in coffee shops and bars, having philosophical discussions. So, I was proud not only to write but to finish a draft of something that felt like a real story.

Over the following months, I edited my Camp novel and self-published it the next year on the day before my 23rd birthday. I have since taken it off sale, but it’s still special because it was my first finished novel.

Seven years feels like a natural cycle of time, so I’m approaching this month as a new beginning. I have a new dedication to my writing. Time management has always been a problem, so I hope Camp NaNoWriMo and this blog will provide me with the deadlines and accountability I need to make some real progress. My goal for Camp is one hour of editing every day.

I’ve been working on my current series, in one form or another, for the past 4 years. If I write nothing else but the books in this series, I’ll feel as though I’ve said everything I have to say. Any other books I might write after that will just be for fun. The problem with writing something so personal is my fear of putting my work out there and, by extention, myself.

My fears have prevented me from working as hard as I should on finishing these books. Will anyone even want to read them, and if not, why should I bother finishing them? What if everyone says there’s not enough of this in them? What if everyone says there’s too much of that in them? Aren’t there already too many novels in the world? All these fears have to do with how people will react to my books, so the easiest solution was to keep my work to myself.

After finishing college, I dropped off the social media radar. A big part of it was that I hated going online to see how much more successful everyone else seemed to be than I was. Another part was that I’d spent so much of my life wrapped up in books that the written word felt more real to me than anything anyone said in conversation. If I posted something, I worried about all the different ways it could be interpreted. After all, I’d just gotten a degree in English, where the whole point was analyzing and interpreting the written word. I’ve been afraid to check my email at work and afraid to read feedback on my homework for the classes I’m currently taking, and even though I’ve brought myself to check my social media after a 6 year hiatus, I’m still afraid to post even a friendly note to any old friend for fear I’ll offend the ones I didn’t write to.

I’ve heard so often that the internet allows people the freedom to interact with others because they can remain anonymous. People who claim to be socially awkward in person can form close friendships and gain huge followings online. But I feel anything but anonymous online because I am my words.

So, you might be wondering, if I’m so scared to be active online, why do I have a blog in the first place? Why am I trying to resurrect it from all these months of silence? It’s time to get over my fears. I’ve heard that every writer has an audience. I just need to find mine. Someone out there will want to read what I have to say, and they’ll never find it if I don’t write.

I’ve learned a lot in the last 7 years. I like to talk about the writing process and figure out what works for me and what doesn’t. I hope to be able to share with you how to maintain the motivation to complete a project and find the confidence to share what you’ve poured so much of yourself into. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m trying to find them.

If you’re reading this post, it means I actually published it and didn’t let it linger in the drafts folder like so many other posts I’ve started. That’s one big step forward for me.

 

Writing a contemporary fantasy series