A Writing Toolbox

On Focus and Finishing Things

My kid is about to wake up. I just know it. He’s been out for an hour already. I almost couldn’t bring myself to start this post because I just know he’s going to wake up before I get anywhere. I used to have the whole day for getting things done. Now I have two hours, maybe three, during the day if I’m lucky and Griffin deigns to nap for any length of time, and a couple hours at night if he goes to bed and I decide to give up my run and let Nathan handle dinner (by ordering another takeout meal that I shouldn’t so much as look at, let alone eat, especially if I skip the run).

There’s so little time in the day. It’s been suggested to me that a new baby is a perfectly ok reason to take some time off. The problem is, I don’t want to take time off. If I’m not writing, I turn into a perfectly unpleasant human being. I’m unhappy and stressed and nobody wants to be around me, not even myself. So how to manage what time remains so that some actual writing gets done?

I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out. But here are some things I tell myself that I’m finding really helpful:

1) Be realistic about what you can get done with different amounts of time, and use them accordingly. Save big chunks of time for what takes longest: getting actual words on the page. Don’t use it for knocking items off your to-do list unless your writing for the day is already done. It takes willpower to keep from thinking, this email only requires a quick couple of lines. I can do that first and still have plenty of time afterward to get some writing done. Nope. Avoid the temptation. It never works out like that. What if, God forbid, whoever you’re emailing responds right away? Then you’ve got to reply to the reply, and maybe that takes more than thirty seconds and two sentences, and all of a sudden your time’s up. 

2) By the same token, don’t set yourself up for failure and frustration by trying to squeeze writing time out of every spare second. I can’t write while Griffin’s awake. I just can’t. There’s no point trying. Spend some time in figuring out how your brain works–how well you context-switch, how much time you need to get yourself in the zone (assuming you actually close Twitter and Facebook and try to get yourself in the zone). If you have less than that amount of time, don’t try and force words into it. Do something else. Nullify a potential procrastination thingy or two that might trip you up later, perhaps. Send one email. Wash a few dishes. Get the clutter off your desk so you can focus when you do sit down to write.

3) Allow yourself some time to fritter away. Writing is like anything–if you try to blunt-force your way through things and deny yourself any relief, your brain will rebel at some point. Rewards are good. Breaks are good. Losing an hour to an episode of (fill in your preferred guilty pleasure TV show here) is good–assuming you earned that down time.

SO, assuming you’ve protected a good hour and a half or so in which to get some work done, how do you actually make writing happen before that time’s up? Because the bottom line is, what’s important is adding words–hopefully good ones–to the work in progress. 

1) Hold yourself accountable for your writing the way you hold yourself accountable for whatever else in your life you consider to be your jobWriting may not be your full-time job, but if it’s in any way your job, and especially if it’s something you want in any way to be your career, you have to treat it that way.

2) Set reasonable goals for everyday and stick to them. I can clock 1000 words in an hour if I’m really on my game. Back in the days when I could put a whole eight hours a day into writing, generally I completed about 3000 words a day when I was writing to meet a deadline. On non-deadline writing days, I still expected 1500 words from myself, which I know I can do in two hours if I really focus my energy and attention. Nowadays, I figure on non-babysitter/non-husband days, even if I only manage to sit down and write in the evenings, I should still be able to do 500-1000 words, and that’s what I hold myself accountable for. On babysitting days, I try for a full workday of 3000 words, but I don’t settle for less than 2000. So: know what you can reasonably do and hold yourself accountable.

3) Don’t edit while you write. Don’t read the previous day’s work before you start. Make that a reward for finishing today’s words. Basically, when it’s time to sit down and write, just sit down and write. Check the clock. Jot down the time. Check your starting word count. Jot that down, too. Write for an hour. Write like crazy. Expect to get a thousand words before the hour’s up.

There are tools that can help. Mac Freedom will shut off the internet for the length of time of your choosing. Spadefish lets you track productivity and share it. It also shows you how much time you’re spending on different things, in case you’re like me and tend to be working on more than one thing at once. Even Twitter and Facebook can be helpful, if you can find a few folks to do writing sprints with you. Check in with each other before you start, then check in and report your success at the end of your hour.

These are things I tell myself and tools I use to keep myself from turning into the unpleasant person I become when I don’t get any writing done. What about you? Any tips and tricks and tools to share?

Novellablog: On Swearing in Middle Grade and the Need for It (or Not)

I read three things this week that made me think this might be a post worth writing. One was Patrick Ness’s post in this year’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, in which he had to decide whether Far Far Away or Boxers and Saints would proceed to the next round. Full disclosure: I have not read either of these books, so I can’t comment on whether I agree or disagree on the points he made as they relate to these specific titles, but something he said that resonated with me was this: “I found the book false in the most objectionable way: the teenagers aren’t allowed to be real people.”

Fast forward to yesterday, when I finished reading Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman. Two points of full disclosure here: I consider Aaron a friend and the book’s very much about storytelling and its consequences, so I was probably somewhat predisposed to like the book. Not surprisingly, I loved it. But I also appreciated the fact that the characters who peopled it were painfully real, and full of the flaws and bizarre contradictions and oddball tensions and perceived inadequacies and irrational behaviors that kids aged 12, 13, and 14 are knit from. It so completely brought back the constant fear and tension and uncertainty that I remember acutely from those days, even now at age 37. These kids say things and do things that make me cringe, and that’s before the actual primary (and terrifying) plot gets going. That’s just life for these kids. And it feels true. The stakes feel high before anything even happens. But I’ll tell you what: this is a book that will put some people’s backs up, if they happen to pick it up thinking something like, “Oh, this looks like a nice creepy middle-grade romp.” And by some people, I mean some adults.

I don’t actually remember whether there was any particular use of salty language in The Riverman. There must have been; if not actual swearing, then certainly there were at least occasional discussions of the sorts of untoward subjects that almost-teenaged boys talk about. But let’s go back to Patrick Ness, who definitely called out the use of “zounds” rather than something harsher in Far Far Away as pulling him out of the story. Now, again, while Far Far Away is definitely on my TBR pile, I haven’t gotten to it yet, so I have no opinions on the author’s choice of expletive; this post is not about critiquing Mr. McNeal’s choices. (I am still really, really looking forward to finally reading Far Far Away.) And this is not to argue that every book for kids or teens needs to have heavy cursing, or even cursing at all, in it. Not every book does, which should hopefully be obvious. But when I read Mr. Ness’s comments, I thought immediately of an email I’d gotten from a teacher I’d asked to read a late draft of Bluecrowne when I needed fresh eyes, in which he’d more or less called me out for not letting my protagonist be a real person in a couple moments where I’d reined her in.

On Twitter I said that he’d told me Lucy Bluecrowne didn’t swear enough, but that’s not entirely true (that was my paraphrasing for amusement value). What he did was to point out a couple instances in which I’d pulled my punches when writing Lucy’s responses to things. This is a girl, he pointed out, who would know how to swear. (And boy, is that ever true.) I’d written a couple places where the idea that she wouldn’t have reacted with at least one sharp word was kind of unbelievable. He was kind enough not to put it that way, but he was right.

The challenge, I think, is this: write real kids. It can be put that simply, but it isn’t simple at all, and of course language is just one part of the elusive formula. For many writers who also happen to be adults, it’s easy to err on the side of writing kids either as we see them through our own (not always accurate and not always relevant) memories, or as we want to believe they are. Or, worst of all, we write gentler versions of our young characters because we’re afraid we’ll put people’s backs up if we don’t. 

Some stories are gentle, and this post is irrelevant to those books. Some books are about or for younger kids, and generally this post is irrelevant to those books, too. I’m not suggesting Charlotte’s Web would’ve been improved by some saltier language, I promise you; I’m pretty sure I left the hard stuff out of Greenglass House, for instance, because it just wasn’t called for. And softer language choices are only one way in which we, as writers, sometimes pull our punches. But when writing MG it’s important to challenge ourselves to write real kids, because we’re writing for real kids. It does get tricky sometimes when writing older MG, which sometimes walks the MG/YA line as if it were a tightrope and which sometimes makes adults uncomfortable in the same way kids of that age sometimes make adults uncomfortable. But it’s a challenge worth taking up.

Thoughts for a Thursday. Discuss?

 

Novellablog: On Remembering; or, The Care and Feeding of People and Places You’ve Invented

I replied to an email from a reader about a week ago and for one reason or another, in that email I included a list of the notebooks that were in my work bag at that precise time. There were eleven in the bag that day. Here’s the list:

  • 1 for lists and general notes (write blog post today, buy paper towels, pick up laundry, that kind of thing)
  • 3 notebooks with notes for a new project called Border Saints (1 for general ideas and 1 for notes from a certain book I’m using for research and 1 that’s redundant but fits in a pocket)
  • 5 notebooks for Bluecrowne, the next short novel, which I just finished and am revising (1 has notes on every year between 1764 and 1817, 1 has notes on the crews of two different ships, 1 has historical notes and ideas and 2 have general revision notes)
  • 1 notebook I use to track how many new words I’ve written every day
  • 1 blank notebook, in case I get an idea for a brand new project or something

Now, admittedly, eleven notebooks is a little excessive even for me. And to be fair, all of the Bluecrowne-related notebooks are also Left-Handed Fate notebooks (although those aren’t even the complete set of Left-Handed Fate notebooks). And about half of what’s listed there are Field Notes books, so they’re little (thank god for my Field Notes subscription).

But on any given day, I am likely to be carrying at least one notebook for anything I’m actively or even kinda-sorta working on, which always equals at least three projects. Today, for instance, when I went to my branch office (aka my local diner) to work for a few Griffin-free hours, I had three projects represented in my bag: Greenglass House, since I’m working on the first pass; The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, which is a book of folklore referenced in Greenglass House; and Border Saints, the new thing, which I was be allowed to mess with only while taking a break to order and eat a sandwich.

And yet, all those notebooks, all the notes I make and research I do and keep–I am discovering that none of it keeps me from having to re-do a certain amount of work each time I start working on a new project. Because I can’t keep everything in my head, and because up until now, every project among the seven manuscripts I’ve finished and the eight I consider to be on my active-but-unfinished roster is related to the rest–with the exception of only two. (Those two, in case you’re curious, are Border Saints and a thing called Greensward.) So almost every time, I wind up revisiting something from a previous book.

Now, they’re not all directly related. Not all have to do with Natalie, Sam, Jin, and Jack Hellcoal. But they are all set in a world I have begun to call in my own mind the Walking World, a place peopled with uncanny itinerants called roamers, who include everyone from the denizens of traveling medicine shows to those who’ve faced the Devil in competition to the strange beings called Jumpers to those, like The Broken Lands‘ Sam Noctiluca, who have what the card sharp Al Tesserian refers to as dust on the soles of their shoes.

When you get to know a world through and through, it’s hard not to want to return to it. When you fall in love with your characters–and when they’re characters with long histories–it’s hard not to want to tell as many of their adventures as you possibly can. But that means always being able to bring them back to life as fully as you did the first time. And it means making sure what you’re resurrecting is the same character as before, adjusted for differences in age and circumstance. A lot of this is voice, but it’s way more than voice alone. And I don’t know about anybody else, but I find this very difficult. The first time I had to do this was when Tom Guyot strolled into the Reverend Dram in The Broken Lands. Since then, I’ve had to do it with Natalie (and everybody else in Arcane, including Tom again), Jack, Liao, Liao’s sister Lucy, Liao again, Lucy again…I don’t know, maybe it’s me. I love doing it, but it’s never easy.

There’s also the matter of more simple, everyday consistency between the books. In which leg was Tom Guyot wounded? In which battle did that happen? Does Doc Fitzwater’s cane have an alligator head or a crocodile head? Who’s the purser of The Left-Handed Fate? As I’m typing this, I found an example of what I’m talking about, and I only found it because I just checked to be sure I was quoting Tesserian correctly when I mentioned dust on the soles of one’s shoes. In The Broken Lands, when the term “roamer” is used by Tesserian, it isn’t capitalized. I’m pretty sure we capitalized it in Greenglass House. I will now have to make a note to go back through and check that. 

Then there’s the matter of the stuff I learned for whatever reason and suddenly have to re-learn again. I don’t have the bandwidth to retain for four years everything I learned about waidan and fireworks when I was writing The Broken Lands, but I needed it for Bluecrowne. (This is why I hoard books, I tell myself. At least I know when I suddenly need them years after the project I initially got them for, I’ll still have them.)

So I keep these notebooks. I keep notebooks for every project, and sometimes even for specific ideas if I think I need to devote more space to them than just a few pages in a notebook dedicated to something else. I should really have done that for my notes on the waidan of Liao and Jin, for instance. Live and learn. But even more than that, I’ve started to keep a universal set of notes. It’s not world-building stuff or history. It’s mostly the details: what kind of head tops Doc’s cane; in which leg Tom took a bullet; when I think Jake Limberleg was born, in order to calculate his likely age in 1821. (Yes, Limberleg fans. I know you’re out there. More to come.)

Still, half the time I don’t know what I need to know until I’m knee-deep in a New Thing, so heck if I know if trying to anticipate the kinds of questions that New Thing will require me to remember the answers to will actually help at all. And it certainly won’t help with replicating a character’s voice, or any of the extrapolation that goes into figuring out how Tom Guyot of 1877 is subtly different from Tom Guyot of 1913. But I’ll give it a try. It’s gotta be good for something.

Plus, you know, that’s one more notebook I get to maintain, and I like me a good notebook.

 

Before the Blank Page, Part the Second: The Magic of a Magical List

Still working off one magical prompt for blog material from a Twitter pal, I’ve been writing about tactics for moving your writing along in those times when you need a little help. Last month I wrote about ways that I give myself a kick in the pants when an in-process project stalls. This month I’m writing about what happens before that–when you’re trying to pull vague ideas together into a Project, something you can dive into and begin to write. I have three main strategies (I think), and here they are:

Having already tackled Item Number One, let’s talk about lists.

My stories tend to come together like puzzles, which means I need to assemble a certain number of pieces before I get any sense of what the picture is. The story might have a single spark, but that’s very rarely enough to get started with, at least for me. So I start looking for the pieces that go along with it. I was on a panel last year with Sarah Beth Durst, who answered a question about the genesis of Vessel by saying (I’m paraphrasing) that her books often start out as ‘lists of things Sarah thinks are cool.’ I was really excited to discover that I’m not the only one who does this.

Making lists is kind of how I spend my days in between deadlines. I hunt down odd books. I make notes on things that interest me. My husband emails me almost daily with things he thinks might be useful either for something specific or just down the line. I keep everything. I read nonfiction like it’s going out of style, and I make notes when something interests me, even if I’m not sure why. Then every few months I sort the notes I’ve made into files or special notebooks based on what I think I might use them for. Sometimes, when I feel like I’m needing a new project, I’ll hunt through the file that holds the unsorted, undifferentiated notes. Inevitably, a few of them begin to coalesce into Something.

Now, what constitutes a useful list for you is going to be different from what constitutes a useful list for me, or that would be my guess, at least. I don’t think any two writers approach a potential story the same way. I also am not sure any writer approaches any two of his/her own books the same way. You might approach your list from a purely practical point of view: protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, stuff like that, so you know what critical elements you’re still missing. I’m not a planner, so mine tend to be far less practical lists of stuff I want to include in the story. They tend to look something like this:

  • Fearsome critters
  • Old-fashioned candy
  • Pine barrens
  • Lost works
  • Radio dramas
  • A Popcorn Sutton-type character
  • Moonshine that isn’t moonshine

The downside of my whimsical lists is that there’s nothing to tell me what pieces I’m missing–but then, sometimes even though I need the list to get the story going, I need the story to tell me what it needs to be finished, and of course that comes later. (And yes, this is actually a working list for something I’m turning over in the back of my head.)

I think lists like these are useful because humans are wired to recognize patterns, to see how things fit (or could fit) together. Of course, sometimes it turns out a piece doesn’t fit, which probably only means it belongs more properly to a different puzzle. Save it! If you don’t already have one, may I suggest a folder or notebook specifically for cool ideas you haven’t found the right place for yet? Let no cool idea go to waste! And don’t judge yourself for what you put on your list. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. It doesn’t even have to make sense to you at first. It just has to put ideas–even if they appear to be unrelated–together for you to think about.

The bottom line is this: a list is a way of getting ideas out of your head without the pressure of figuring out story that comes with setting out to write an outline or synopsis. Outlines and synopses are tremendously useful tools, but they do require you to have, you know, the story figured out. (One could look at it the other way–that writing one or the other forces you to figure the story out–which is obviously true. But a) I’m on record that I personally break out in hives at the idea of writing outlines and/or synopses and b) anyway I’m talking about the stage in building a story before you’ve got enough to dive into writing outlines and/or synopses.)

The other useful thing about a list when you’re trying to work through what you haven’t figured out is that it helps you to see how much you do have figured out. And knowing that might give you a place to dive in and start writing. And once you’re there…well, you’re there! Get writing!

Next up: a trip to Nagspeake to discuss how building a set can bring a story idea into focus.

Before the Blank Page; or, Help! I Need a Story (Part the First)

In my last posts, I wrote a bit about ways to move an existing draft along when you find yourself staring at the screen. But that assumes there’s a draft there to move along. What about when there isn’t? What about when you still need to find the story?

I’m a stationery junkie, so here’s how it goes in my world: I literally find myself staring at a blank page. (All right, I like quad-ruled paper, so it’s never a totally blank page, but you get the idea.) Sometimes I wind up staring at that page because I have a vague idea itching at me that I think might turn into something; sometimes it’s because I feel like I need some kind of palate-cleanser, but I don’t have any specific story in mind. On two occasions it’s been because I needed something to show an editor and I knew nothing on my current to-do list was going to be what she wanted, and once it’s been because my critique group gave each other prompts for a summer project, assigned by random drawing. I got “stained glass.” It meant nothing to me at the time, but I needed to come up with a story anyway, because that was the point of the exercise.

People find stories in all different ways–writing exercises, prompts, daily journaling, whatever else–so once again (I feel like it should go without saying), these are just things that have worked for me.

  • Do some research. 
  • Make a list. 
  • Build a set.

Today, item number one: ResearchSometimes it’s for when you don’t even know what the heck you’re researching. 

Ah, research, sitting on that fine line between productivity and procrastination like that idol thing at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Take it off the pedestal wrong and there goes your day. Do it right and you still might lose your day, but maybe tomorrow, after you’ve processed what you read and you’ve fallen asleep trying to figure out whether you actually learned anything useful and if so, how it relates to anything else–maybe tomorrow you’ll sit down and scrawl a few thoughts that relate to your potential story.

The tricky thing about research when you don’t know what you’re looking for is, obviously, where do you start? Me, I’m usually looking for weird.

Sometimes, for various reasons, I know the story hiding just out of view is probably going to need to be set in a certain era, which is awesome. Or perhaps there’s an era I’ve kind of been wanting to learn more about. At least it narrows things down, although not necessarily that much. After having done this for a few years now, I am getting a sense of where to look to find the kind of weird that appeals to me, and there tend to be good traces of it at the edges of science, religion, and the arts. Wartime has tremendous scope for the weird, for various reasons. Folklore and superstition, for reasons that are probably obvious. Technology, which often involves philosophy. 

GetRightWithGodBike2

Awesome for All The Reasons.

I find a lot, a lot of useful stuff reading about these particular elements of whatever era I research. These are things that involve tackling questions of the unknown, or at least the not-well-understood. They are things that people give their lives to. Not coincidentally, they are also things that polarize, and while I get very bitter and angry about the polarization I see in my own world in my own lifetime, a story needs conflict and a writer needs to know where to look to find it. Even when I don’t have a particular era to help focus where I’m looking, I still tend to default to the same basic spheres I mentioned two paragraphs up. As I hunt, like I said, I’m looking for weird, and I’m looking for something I haven’t encountered a hundred times before. I’m looking for something that makes me dog-ear a page and fumble for my notebook and a pen.

Last year I visited Deer Hill School in Massachusetts and took a bagful of books full of weird stuff to talk to students about finding stories in unexpected places. Together we went through an assortment that included science, history, bizarre diseases, cartography, cabinetry, a couple of my grandfather’s notebooks, and I can’t even remember what else. We were looking for things that could be the jumping-off point for stories. The kids each picked a book and scoured it until they found something, anything, that caught their eye as a potential plot point, character clue, whatever. Anything. Then we talked about how one might go from that first thing-that-made-you-stop-turning-pages to a rough story idea. We talked about the necessities of reading widely, and of keeping an open mind; we talked about how something you might never have thought you’d be interested in could turn out to be exactly the missing piece that either completes your story or helps to spark a vague story idea in the first place.

Research. Open-ended, open-minded, undirected research; research just for the fun of it. And for this girl, at least, it guarantees that I am almost never without a jumping-off point when I’m ready for something new. Finding a new story by going on this kind of hunt depends on two potentially contradictory things, I think.

SwingingTinToy2

Always guaranteed to inspire me: creepy old toys.

One: being roughly aware of what sorts of things catch your interest and knowing where to look for them. As I type this I’m reminded of something my friend and illustrator extraordinaire Andrea Offermann told me she’d been told about keeping a sketchbook. I’m paraphrasing here, but the basic idea was that a really great way to keep yourself sketching even when you aren’t inspired to do it or don’t have a subject in mind is to know what kinds of things you like to sketch and start with those when you need a jumping-off place.

Two: being open-minded enough to look in other places, too. The first time my husband wanted to read me an article about the differences between object-oriented and functional programming, I just about banged my head on the steering wheel to make him stop (I was driving at the time, and therefore couldn’t leave the room and claim I had work to do). But he was absolutely certain this article–about two types of computer programming philosophies, remember–was relevant to Simon Coffrett and the other Jumpers of the world of The BoneshakerAnd dammit, he was right. He was SO right that if I tried to explain WHY he was right, I’d be giving you huge spoilers. And I should have known he’d be right, because he’s given me critical tidbits like this about a million times before. The Broken Lands only has an ending because of a couple of those tidbits. But if you’d told me a couple years ago that I’d be increasingly relying on computer science to write middle-grade historical fantasy, I’d have laughed in your face. And yet, here I am, and quite literally neither of my forthcoming books would exist if not for things that I didn’t think I’d be interested in at first.

Other things I would not have expected to be fascinated by but that turned out to be critical to something I either have worked on or am working on right now:

  • Military history
  • Eighteenth and nineteenth century sailing ships
  • Role-playing games
  • Ancient alien stuff
  • Confectionery history
  • History of the Periodic Table of the Elements
  • The Ozarks
  • Sleepwalking
  • Programming languages
  • The Qing Dynasty
  • Stained glass
  • Tuberculosis hospitals
  • Livery companies

This is just off the top of my head, without consulting the truly batshit-crazy collection of books that lines my walls.

So I guess the tl;dr of this post is that, when hunting for a story, it sometimes helps to both know roughly where you ought to be looking and to be willing to peek into random cabinets along the way, even if they don’t look remotely like the sort of cabinets that are going to contain what you’re seeking. Be openminded. Keep copious notes. Look for the unfamiliar. And when the rabbit hole does, finally, turn up at your feet, you’ll be ready to follow it, even if it doesn’t, at first glance, seem to lead where you expected.

Next up, lists: they’re not just for household chores and grocery shopping!

 

 

 

 

Just Sitting Here, Staring at this Blank Page: The Scary Problems

So far in this little series, I’ve rambled a little about a number of reasons why one might wind up staring blankly at a page, stalled mid-project, and the ways I work around them when they mess with my progress on a story. But the things at the top of the list–needing a kick in the pants and needing better focus–are sort of the easy problems. Time now to tackle the scary items way down at the bottom of the list.

  • ayou need a kick in the pants. 
  • byou cannot focus for various reasons, like for instance the fact that in order to eat anything you have to find a fork in the pile of stuff in your sink and wash it, and you can’t actually reach the taps any longer to turn on the water in order to wash the fork even if you do find it, and while we’re at it you’re wearing that shirt with the holes in it for the third day straight because it’s still the cleanest shirt in the house.
  • cyou cannot focus because internet.
  • dyou cannot focus because spouse/kids.
  • e) you cannot focus because there’s this other very shiny idea running around your brain waving at you from behind things.
  • f) today/this week/this month you actually don’t love this project. You want to scream at it. 
  • g) you simply don’t know what happens next. 

The scary problems.

You suddenly don’t love this project anymore.

Sometimes this isn’t the problem; sometimes its a symptom of something else–one of those focus problems, for instance. Or it could be the result of burnout. Sometimes, especially if you’re on a deadline, you may be hating the thing because you legitimately need a break.

My last four books all had to be written, for various reasons, in relatively brief stretches of time (one month for The Kairos Mechanism and three to four months for The Broken Lands, Greenglass House, and The Left-Handed Fate). My workdays for these tended toward a minimum of 3000 words; in the case of the novels, I more often had to push to clock days that were closer to 5000 or 6000 words. At some point, I hated every one of those books, just out of sheer burnout. I go through points where I’m so focused on meeting the deadline that not just the dishes, but taking care of myself goes right out the window. Within two weeks of the deadline of every single one of the novels I got sick enough to require me to stop writing for a few days because I literally couldn’t sit up for a couple of days. It took getting sick to make me stop and slow down.

And it takes far less than this level of output to burn yourself out, especially if there are other things going on in your life that might be contributing to the angst. So make sure the problem isn’t that you need to stop and take a break. Maybe don’t give yourself such a hard time. (Says the girl who ought to take her own advice now and then.)

Now, if the problem isn’t that you’re working so hard on the thing you can’t do anything but curse it, but you’re still cursing it–that’s different. Maybe you need to be reminded why you loved the thing in the first place. Here are some ways I re-kindle my connection with what I’m working on when it starts to annoy me.

Print the thing out and read it from the beginning. I don’t do this while I’m working, usually. I might re-read what I wrote yesterday, but in general I neither read from the beginning or do any meaningful editing while I’m trying to get to the end of something. But sometimes stopping to read from the beginning is just what the doctor ordered. Reading the whole thing on paper is a great way to remind myself that what I’m writing isn’t awful. It reminds me that I want to know what happens next. And because it’s on paper and not on a screen, it’s an experience unlike all that staring at the screen I’ve been doing. Sometimes, as a special bonus, I discover things in the story that either I’d forgotten I put there or just didn’t realize I’d put there, and those act as catalysts to move things forward when I go back to writing.

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Compasses are pretty, and also make a nice metaphor here.

Revisit the original source of inspiration for the thing, or look for a new source altogether. For me, this usually means go back to the research that put me onto the story in the first place to revisit the reasons I want to write this particular project. Sometimes, though, it means looking for something new to bring to the piece, a whole new chunk of inspiration. Sometimes research accomplishes that, but sometimes it takes something else: a road trip, a visit to a museum–something to open my eyes, get me thinking with new circuits and looking down roads that might lead in completely different directions from the way I thought I needed to go.

Sometimes, of course, even after trying all of these things I still find myself stranded and lost.

You’re stuck without a clue as to what happens next.

Weirdly, I actually find this a cool place to be, because anything at all can happen and all roads are still open to me. But that coolness dissipates pretty quickly after a couple days of getting nowhere and morphs into anxiety the closer I get to a deadline.

The easy solution is perhaps, next time, outline the thing. But like most easy answers, that doesn’t solve everything. I guess it depends on how you outline, how much detail you figure out ahead of time, and whether the story decides to play by the rules your outline sets out. Me, I hate outlining. I do it when necessary (meaning, when an editor makes me or when the deadline is particularly tight, like with the novellas). And I’m happy to do it in those circumstances, but in my experience even an outline doesn’t guarantee I won’t find myself staring dumbly at the screen, without a clue as to what to do next. So I…

Skip to a part where I do know what happens. This sounds obvious, but sometimes I forget I’m allowed to do it. I’m not kidding. But it’s an almost foolproof tactic when I get stuck. Just move on. There’s no law that says you have to write sequentially, or have any one section perfect before you move onto the next. There’s also no law that says you have to come back to that unfinished section until you get to the end.

Work backwards. This works for me a lot when I know vaguely where I need to go but am not sure what needs to happen between where I am and that vague endpoint. I list chapter titles. It’s kind of an outlining compromise, something like bullet points. This tactic also tends to work well when I’m writing something I need to be shorter (like the novellas). It imposes a bit of restraint.

Brainstorm or talk it out with someone who really gets you and what you’re trying to do. For me, this person is my husband. He rolls his eyes when I ask if I can talk out a story problem, but he’s a great listener, he asks great questions, and he has great ideas. This could be where you make an emergency call to your critique group or to a particularly thoughtful writing partner.

Go back to your research. Sometimes for me, the problem is not so much that I don’t know what comes next, but that there’s a piece missing without which I have no way of knowing what comes next. Sometimes it isn’t just about thinking harder or working a problem out, it’s about hunting down that missing puzzle piece. Most often, this means going back to my books; internet research tends to require (for me, at least) knowing at least what I’m looking for, but if I don’t know what’s missing, trying to find it on the interwebs turns into screwing around aimlessly and wasting time. For me, anyway. And there’s a fine line between research and procrastination.

And…well, that’s all I’ve got. Again, I can only speak to what works for me, but these are the strategies I tend to fall back on–or, in the case of everything above that argues for not being so hard on yourself or allowing adequate time for exercise and taking care of yourself, strategies I fully plan to be better about next time around. Here’s hoping there’s something here that you find helpful the next time you’re staring at a blank page. Share your thoughts and strategies, won’t you? 

And thanks, @kindleaholic, for the great prompt!

Just Sitting Here, Staring at this Blank Page: A Focus on Focus

The cursor is blinking, and your will is strong. It’s not a question of needing a kick in the pants–you have antique shoe frames for that–and yet you’re getting nothing done because your brain simply won’t focus where it needs to. This happens to me like every single day.

  • ayou need a kick in the pants. 
  • b) you cannot focus for various reasons, like for instance the fact that in order to eat anything you have to find a fork in the pile of stuff in your sink and wash it, and you can’t actually reach the taps any longer to turn on the water in order to wash the fork even if you do find it, and while we’re at it you’re wearing that shirt with the holes in it for the third day straight because it’s still the cleanest shirt in the house.
  • c) you cannot focus because internet.
  • d) you cannot focus because spouse/kids. 
  • e) you cannot focus because there’s this other very shiny idea running around your brain waving at you from behind things.
  • f) today/this week/this month you actually don’t love this project. You want to scream at it.
  • g) you simply don’t know what happens next.

When it’s a focus problem

Let’s take Problems B, C, D, and E and call them the focus problems. I suffer focus problems a lot, for a lot of reasons.

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Approximate level of distracting but beloved clutter at Milford Command Central.

Firstly, in addition to being a bad blogger, I am also a very, very bad housekeeper. Compounding the problem: my husband is perfectly happy eating takeout seven days a week, so there’s no external pressure for either of us to do the dishes until we’re out of something critical like coffee cups or silverware. But I cannot, cannot focus in a messy space. My brilliant little brother’s advice on this matter: throw the dishes out. But I actually like my dishes–as well as much of the other stuff that clutters up my life. Secondly, I procrastinate on things like replying to emails, texts, and phone calls, trips to the post office, calling the insurance company about that duplicate charge, etcetera. Thirdly, I like spending time with my husband, and finally, my brain will not limit itself to thinking about one book at a time.

But I have some strategies. Here they are.

Leave the house and go somewhere else. Must be somewhere without wifi.

My branch office happens to be the local diner. I go and write there as often as necessary, for as long as necessary. This solves Problem B completely and Problem C as well, because I have never asked for the public wifi password at the diner. I sometimes use Freedom and just shut myself off from home, but because I’m very rarely distracted only by the internet, that doesn’t work quite as well as the diner.

Get some good headphones and set some guidelines for interruptions.

Things get tricky when a spouse and kids are added into the mix. I haven’t had to figure out writing with kids yet, but two days a week, Nathan and I are both home together. The trouble comes because I like being at home with him (so the branch office is out) and because Nathan is able to transition from work to other internet stuff much better than I can. He’ll find something he thinks is funny or might be particularly useful to me and wants to share it immediately. But when I’m writing, I don’t stop and transition well. So we have an agreed-upon arrangement whereby if I have headphones on, all interruptions, no matter how useful, have to be submitted in the form of a ping on Gchat or an emailed link, which I am allowed to ignore until convenient. It’s such an easy signal, and it works.

Make sure there’s time to knock other stuff of the to-do list.

Between them, the diner and the headphones solve 75% of my focus problems. Of the remaining 25%, most tend to be solved by taking a day off to get All The Other Things done, stopping for a while to exercise, or now and then just taking a day off to do absolutely nothing related to writing. Nathan says I don’t do this often enough and don’t remember how to do it right. I’m working on that.

But about 10% of the time the problem is that I really want to be working on that other neat idea I’ve been wishing I could work on.

Consider caving in to the temptation of the shiny new idea on a very limited basis. 

That probably seems counterintuitive. But there are two arguments for it. In the first place, often my brain fixates on a new idea because deep down I’m afraid I’ll lose it if I don’t do something with it. This is not only easily handled, but it can be handled in a way that caters neatly to my obsession with stationery: I get a new notebook, dedicate it to the new idea, and stop what I’m doing long enough to write down everything I know or think about it so far. Then I can relax, knowing the notebook is there whenever I’m ready.

But the big argument for caving to temptation is this: that shiny idea can actually help move the one that’s stuck in the mud forward. I use those ideas the way I use rewards to help me motivate myself to work out or eat better. And like exercise motivation, it works better to celebrate incremental successes along the way than by trying to wait to enjoy it until the whole project is done. So sometimes I’ll decide that if I have a really great writing day or solve a particular problem, I can spend an hour or two messing with the new project as a reward. But the key is, it has to be a reward for something substantial, and when the reward time is up, I have to stop. So maybe if I clock a 4000 word day or something, I get that evening after dinner to play with any project I want. But then tomorrow, it’s back to the grind. As a bonus, sometimes that palate cleanser even helps me to come back to the original project stronger and more energized.

So those are my focus-sharpening strategies. Tomorrow: tackling the scary problems at the bottom of the list. In the meantime, how do you handle focus issues when you’re working?

Just Sitting Here, Staring at this Blank Page: Do You Need a Kick in the Pants?

Nothing like updating your website with a glitchy plugin that requires hacking and constant refreshing to force you to look 18 times at the nearly month-old blog post that’s the most recent thing (other than the glitchy plugin) on your front page. Granted, I kinda like that I also got to look at that swoony picture of Stephen Decatur every time, but that’s no excuse for lazy blogging.

I never have a good excuse. I also don’t feel like I often have good ideas about what to blog about. So yesterday I asked on Twitter if anybody had any requests. And interestingly enough, my pal @kindleaholic suggested I write “a post about figuring out what to write when your brain is zombiefied.” ‘Cause that isn’t at all the whole problem I’m having. IF I HAD THE ANSWER TO THAT, I WOULD ALSO HAVE HAD A BLOG POST.

And yet. And yet, as long as it’s not a blank post, I’m generally pretty good at getting past the blank page problem, and once I got going, it turns out that I had thoughts enough for several blog posts on the subject. Thanks, @kindleaholic! So here’s Part the First.

You’re humming along on a project you really love and all of a sudden the words stop. There are tons of reasons why this happens, and they’re all potentially scary, although some are scarier than others. A not-at-all exhaustive sampling of causes might include the following:

    • ayou need a kick in the pants. 
    • b) you cannot focus for various reasons, like for instance the fact that in order to eat anything you have to find a fork in the pile of stuff in your sink and wash it, and you can’t actually reach the taps any longer to turn on the water in order to wash the fork even if you do find it, and while we’re at it you’re wearing that shirt with the holes in it for the third day straight because it’s still the cleanest shirt in the house.
    • c) you cannot focus because internet.
    • d) you cannot focus because spouse/kids. 
    • e) you cannot focus because there’s this other very shiny idea running around your brain waving at you from behind things.
    • f) today/this week/this month you actually don’t love this project. You want to scream at it. 
    • gyou simply don’t know what happens next. 

Those are the most frequent offenders in my life. Some are easier to deal with than others. Today, let’s start right at the top of the list and take a look at Problem A.

When you need a kick in the pants

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Suitable for delivering solid kicks. Take two as needed.

Set a deadline. Of course, this only works if you treat your deadline as seriously–or almost as seriously–as you’d treat a deadline from an editor. Make it reasonable, something that’s doable. A challenging deadline is great but not necessary. Set yourself up for success.

    • a) Set the deadline.
    • b) Get a calendar. Do the math and figure out how many words you need to do per day in order to meet your deadline. Not every day, though–the number of days you can reasonably write per week. I can theoretically write every day, but when I set my goals, I always assume I’m not going to write on Sundays and Mondays, because I work a full shift at McNally on both of these days. I might write on those days if I feel like it, but I know myself and how I feel after a day on my feet. Again, set yourself up for success. Readjust deadline if necessary.
    • c) Write your daily word count goal on each day’s box on the calendar and give yourself a little star or something each day you succeed. Schedule your days off. Schedule yourself rewards for when you pass a few good milestones along the way. Yes, a finished manuscript is great motivation on its own, but treats are great short-term motivators. 
    • d) If you write more than that amount on any given day, good for you, but don’t let yourself off the hook tomorrow. Those words don’t count towards future days. If, however, you don’t meet your goal one day, adjust the next few days to make up the shortfall.

Clock some words with friends. I can only speak for myself, but I’m hugely motivated by writing with friends on Twitter. A quick tweet to a group I can usually count on to be slogging through a draft–or to the community at large using #1k1hr–links me to friends who are often the key to getting a tough day’s work done.

Stop obsessing about making what you wrote yesterday perfect. Now, I have friends, excellent writers all, who really don’t like moving on from one section until they’ve perfected it. They have this preference because they (not unreasonably) feel that it’s hard to know where the story’s really going until that first chapter’s set it solidly on its way. It’s a perfectly legitimate approach, but it doesn’t work for me at all. In fact, when I’m actively trying to get through a draft, I start my writing day with working through my word count and save reading anything that’s come before as a reward.

I also don’t typically edit at all until very late in the draft. I know I can fix anything afterward, but if I get bogged down with perfecting things too early, not only do I not make forward progress, it doesn’t even save me editing time later. I often make discoveries about the plot or characters that result in big changes to the story itself as I go. I accept that the resulting retrofitting that’s sometimes necessary is just part of how I work. Of course, not everybody is going to enjoy working this way–some people I’ve talked to hate the idea, or can’t even fathom how it works. That’s fine. It’s just one way of going at it, but it’s what works for me. 

Because I work this way, spending time on early editing is more like procrastination than any kind of meaningful productivity. The way I figure it, I am always going to have editing to do afterward. The question is, do I have a draft to edit, or am I just editing a fragment? (Again, there’s nothing wrong with editing a fragment–your process is your process–but for me, setting editing aside until I’m done a draft is one of the ways I get through a draft in the first place.)

So that’s my three-part strategy for giving myself kicks in the pants when necessary. How do you keep yourself on task?

Tomorrow, on to the big fat middle of the list: focus problems.

Postscript: It now occurs to me that maybe the original prompt was actually asking for ideas for surviving the shambling apocalypse, in which case nothing here, nothing is going to help you. You probably need a bat or something, and a good pair of running shoes. I’m not at all prepared for that. Someone else will have to weigh in.

Float a Bone in the River

Greenglass House deadline: T-13 days. The good news: I’m really close to done. The bad news (earmuffs, Lynne Polvino): some of what I have left, I simply haven’t figured out yet.

Except that this isn’t exactly bad news. Not to me, anyway. For me, part of the joy of finishing a book is seeing all the pieces come together, in much the same way that it’s part of the joy of reading. Part of the reason I like writing by the proverbial seat of my pants is that when I start out with a certain percentage (say, 50%) of the pieces in hand, I like the way the rest of the pieces find me. Or re-find me, by twisty turny means. Last week this happened to me not once, but twice. Since one of those happenings also included a friend and a very cool piece of art, I’m going to tell you about that one.

Exhibit Number One, because it’s the coolest exhibit:

Doodling tonight, remembered your “float a bone in the river” tidbit. -apq

 

The caption is the text of the email that accompanied the image. But let me back up.

Ashley Quach is an artist, screenwriter, and Twitter-turned-In-Real-Life friend who was first introduced to me when my husband, Nathan, found her blog post entitled A Tender Ode to Bloodsport. We also became crowdfunding buddies in a sense; my Kickstarter campaign for The Kairos Mechanism concluded just as her Indiegogo campaign to finance the short film Appleseeds began. (The first screening of the rough cut happens this month, by the way, and if you’re planning to be in Berkeley, CA, on October 14th, you should definitely consider attending the party.)

But to return to how pieces come together, here’s Exhibit Number Two:

One month ago exactly.

 

Now, if you’ve read The Boneshaker, you might remember a moment during the past of Dr. Jasper Bellinspire in which a woman hands him a small bone and tells him it’s the one that floated upriver. This is a piece of lore I came across somewhere: if you take a black cat, reduce it to bones, and set them in a moving river, one bone will float against the current. That one can be used to summon the Devil. So it’s something I already knew, something I had made use of. Maybe because of that, it lived in a different part of my head than the part that needed to find the remaining story pieces for Greenglass House. Until, that is, Ashley sent me her “doodle.”

Who knows why we compartmentalize the way we do? I can make a guess about myself in this case: Greenglass House isn’t about devil folklore the way The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands are–which is to say, it isn’t about devil folklore at all. But it is about folklore; specifically, the folklore of Nagspeake, which, fortunately, has an elasticity that allows me to manipulate it basically however I want. And I realized when I saw Ashley’s message sent picture I realized that Nagspeake needed this bit of lore. And not because it is devil lore or summoning lore, but because it is orphan lore, which my adopted protagonist Milo, who is deeply concerned about his heritage and identity, would be very interested in. Greenglass House isn’t a chosen one story. It is, in fact, an anti-chosen one story, if anything. Still, this piece, the story I wrote after receiving message sent is a critical part of Milo’s adventure.

Very little of this story will actually appear in Greenglass House–Milo encounters it in a book of Nagspeake folklore he’s reading, The Raconteur’s Common-Place Book. But because the grand plan is to release The Raconteur’s Common-Place Book as Volume 3 of The Arcana Project, I wrote the story. Here’s a bit of the first draft (a “doodle,” if you will), with thanks to Ashley Quach for giving me one of the missing pieces I was looking for.

From The Summons of the Bone

It took her a few days to find a black cat, another few after that to find enough wood to boil water. When all that was left of the cat were its bones, she made her way to the river’s edge and set the bones on the water. The frothing river took all but one. That one spun gently as if it were caught in the mildest of eddies. Then it slid against the plunging flow, upriver and out of sight.

             A moment later, the dark figure of a tall man appeared at the bend in the Skidwrack around which the single bone had disappeared. He strode upon the surface as if it were a road, with a long overcoat wrapped around him and a grey fedora keeping the rain from his head.

            Nell watched with her heart in her throat as he approached until the strange figure stood before her with his coat whipping about his ankles and rain dripping from his hat. “I received your message,” he said in a voice like thunder rolling far, far away. She couldn’t see his face, but she sensed that, in the shadows under the brim of the hat, a pair of searching eyes was considering her curiously. “Put forth your question.”

             She folded her shaking hands and cleared her throat, and she saw the dark man smile very slightly, as if there was something endearing about her fear. “I want you to stop the water rising.”

            The man put his hands into the pockets of his coat. “That isn’t a question.”

            “Please stop the water rising?”

            “That is still not a question. It’s a request with a question mark at the end of it.”

            “Well—can you stop the water rising?”

            He smiled more. “You called me all this way to ask me a question I can answer with a single word?”

            The girl realized her mistake and raised her hands quickly. “Wait. No. Let me think.” And as she thought about her question, she realized she had a problem. She had expected to be allowed to make a request, but what the dark man had offered was something different. She could perhaps ask, will you stop the water rising—but even if he answered yes, that didn’t mean he would stop it now, or at any time before her city would be wiped off the coast. She could not think of any way to ask him to solve the problem of the rising water.

            At last she asked the only question she’d come up with. It didn’t accomplish what she’d wanted to accomplish from this meeting, but it was the best she could think of to do. “How can I stop the water rising?”

            “Ah. Now that is a good question…

Novellablog, the Toolkit Series: Outbrain, Part Two, in which Kate Gets Schooled in Bloggin’.

In my previous post about Outbrain, I talked about why I chose to use it, how the service I used worked and what the results were. I also mentioned that in my first meeting with Natalie Chan, the Self-Serve marketing manager, I got a bit of a tutorial on being a better blogger. I needed Outbrain because I needed more traffic to my website during the Kickstarter campaign to fund The Kairos Mechanism. But it turns out that nobody goes to your website if you aren’t putting compelling stuff up there on a regular basis. So before she let me sign up for the service, Natalie told me what I was going to need to do to get the best results from the program, and we made a plan I could stick to.

1) I needed to be adding new content two to three times per week. For contrast, up until that point I considered that I was doing pretty well if I managed to add a post a week, but a post every other week was much more likely.

Natalie suggested that I write ten blog posts in advance of launching (I planned to start my Outbrain campaign at the same time as I started the Kickstarter campaign). Writing that content would be easy; I would be learning lots during the Kickstarter campaign, but I had already written The Kairos Mechanism and done the research on things like the Espresso Book Machine and McNally’s pub services, and (as you know if you’ve read other Novellablog posts) I was already experiencing mild panic attacks about editing and formatting and so forth. I had plenty to draw on to start writing posts.

Natalie offered to look over the posts once I had them ready and offer suggestions on how I could improve them, which leads me to:

2) I needed to make sure my posts were more self-contained than I was accustomed to making them. For the past few years of blogging, about the only traffic I got was from people who already knew of me and of my writing, so I didn’t have to worry about making sure each post stood on its own. Plus, since I was writing a series on a specific project, I had the tendency to just assume that folks were going to have read previous posts. This may seem like an obvious fallacy–and if you had asked me if I thought this was a safe assumption, I would have said obviously not–and yet I had done just that in nearly every blog post I had written in advance.

3) I needed to cut just about every post in half and turn it into two posts. This is something my husband, who is a good blogger, has been yelling at me about for years. The good news is, once I faced the reality that I seem to write things more like articles than blog posts, cutting them in half meant I actually had more posts pre-written than I thought.

4) I needed to really give some thought to the titles of my posts. The more exciting and compelling the title, the better. Once again, this sounds obvious, and it was obvious to me even then, but I still had trouble with titles to start with. For one thing, the kinds of titles that generated a lot of traffic for me via Twitter and Facebook did not translate to traffic when the same titles were offered up to readers who didn’t know of me in advance. My campaign underperformed for the first week or so, and my titles were pretty much directly to blame.

Natalie explained that, taken on their own, the kinds of titles that work best and get high numbers of clicks tend to sound almost sensational, and that that would probably be the biggest thing I’d have to get used to. This turned out to be absolutely true. Titles were my biggest stumbling block.

Now, Outbrain’s customer service folks can re-title posts and articles at their end, so I had the option of using one title on my blog and have the same post offered under a different title through the Amplify service, but that turned out to be more trouble than I wanted to deal with–not because it was any trouble for anyone, but because it did require me to send an email asking for the title change, and as it happens I’m too lazy to be bothered to do that. So I started really trying to keep Natalie’s advice in mind as I chose my titles, and once I did, I started getting vastly improved results.

For instance, there was the post about how I completed the first draft of Kairos in under a month, which I titled “How to Write a Book in 30 Days.” Now, obviously there are many ways to do this, many ways do fail at doing this, many reasons to try anyway and learn to be disciplined about getting words on the page, and many reasons to spare yourself the stress and write at your own pace. But giving the post the simple, decisive how-to title (ignoring all the reasons why what I was about to say was completely subjective, might or might not work for you, etc. etc.) was the key to getting clicks from strangers. There was also the massively popular “Yes, You Can Edit Your Own Work, But You Will Probably Frack It Up.” Same idea. I don’t think I’m any kind of expert; I was just writing about my experiences. Still, titling the posts with authority got better results than ones I titled more humbly.

So those were the things I was tasked with keeping in mind as I wrote my posts. I still have a lot of learning to do, but I do think I was vastly more prepared than I would otherwise have been, and I certainly got better results in terms of clicks and also in terms of engagement with my new readers. Not only did people find my blog, they actually spent time reading it, and even clicked through to read more of what I’d written.

Now I just have to find some way to keep the momentum up now that the campaign’s finished. Which just might turn out to be the hardest thing of all.