Jun 08

Ingredients for a Successful Writers Retreat

How to have a successful writers (writers’? writer’s?) retreat, if you’re me:

Cabin-in-the-Woods

Ours wasn’t quite this upscale, but you get the idea!

  1. A low-distraction location. My author friend and I rented an AirBnB with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room—perfect for us, because it was exactly what we needed and no more. Bonus: it was decorated with tons and tons of books. Of course, the Internet is still a distraction, but that’s true anywhere.
  2. Comfy furniture. Ergonomic furniture is nice, but hard to transport, so comfy for the laptops is the next best thing.
  3. Caffeine. Lots of caffeine. And herbal tea for the evenings.
  4. Music. My friend has a Sonos speaker which we both hooked up to and it was playing basically anytime we were there and awake. It was really convenient that we could each control the music and the volume, based on whoever had a preference. (Let’s be honest, that was usually me.) She also had headphones in case we wanted different moods at the same time.
  5. A goal. She had a goal of “write as many words as possible” (she already had a scene-by-scene outline ready). I had just gotten edits back from a freelance editor and I wanted to “make progress,” but I would’ve been less distractable if I’d had a more specific goal. Also it turns out that editing is just time-consuming.
  6. Maggie Stiefvater, if you can! We organized the retreat around a workshop she was giving with Court Stevens, which turned out to be amazing in itself, but also gave us an excuse to meet other writers (who already liked the presenters, so we automatically had something in common). Let me assure you that Maggie and Court are just as fantastic in person as they are on Twitter.

Stat of the weekend: We wrote a combined 19,000 words! (Spoiler alert: I wrote 0. But I did actually make progress.)

May 15

How to finish the draft: maybe you need a deadline

I did it! It’s done! I wrote a decent draft of a whole novel! I would have celebrated, but I was too tired.

You see, I was writing to a deadline—an honest-to-goodness deadline with money on the line and someone waiting to receive my manuscript. I almost didn’t make it, but, as it turns out, I am very motivated by deadlines.

In this case, I had hired a freelance developmental editor to look at the draft and make sure the plot and character arcs were solid. Some agents recommend doing this, others don’t. It costs a lot, but I found a good deal, so I decided to give it a try. That was in late January, when May 1st seemed far away.

Then…with my draft approaching 75,000 (!) words but nowhere near the 75% mark of my outline, I fell out of love with my love interest. I spent a week or so in March trying to fix it before finally admitting that trying to shoehorn him in, after the story had drastically changed around him, just wasn’t going to work. I noticed that something I’d invented while trying to make the love interest interesting would work perfectly with this other way more intriguing character who’d been hovering at the edges of the story since I first envisioned it (well over a decade ago…). It was brilliant to the point of serendipitous.

Unfortunately, I was approaching the end of March. I had just invalidated nearly half of my existing draft and the other half would have to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I hadn’t left any dangling references to the now non-existent character. Moreover, the entire ending had to be written from scratch! And did I mention I’d started a diet, too, so that I could look good at the wedding I was in, which occasioned an international trip the week before the deadline? So I did what any self-respecting author would do: panic.

This is the perfect time to panic!

The editor was willing and able to flex on the deadline, but my friends assured me I could get the story done and that, moreover, delaying the deadline would only extend how long I was panicking. So I stuck with May 1 and buckled down to write. At first I just wrote with a little extra fire under my tush. Then I added writing in the evenings after the kids went to bed. As the deadline came ever closer, I canceled social activities and skipped yoga (which is usually not how to feel better). One day I was so panicked that it took me half an hour to calm down enough even to write. (To reward myself for recovering, I went to Starbucks for a breve lightly sweet chai latte. That drink might just save the world.) On a few nights, I hired babysitters to put the kids to bed so I could squeeze in an extra hour or two of writing. I spent a few of the days I was in London writing in the (admittedly posh and beautiful) hotel lobby instead of sightseeing.

But you know what? Aside from the one or two actual panic attacks, the whole experience was amazing. Unbelievably invigorating. I was so immersed in the story that I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I would daydream about it when I was trying to fall asleep at night. I took so much time to write that I found it easier to get “into the zone” and enjoyed some transcendant hours embodying the characters I was torturing. I got really good at making playlists for the mood of the scene I was writing. My best friend/alpha reader was incredibly supportive and ensured that I didn’t have any incomplete sentences or totally dangling plot threads. And when I got to the end, I was really, really proud of it!

Of course it still needs work, but I’m actually looking forward to editing so that I can give these characters the best possible story.

Mar 11

At least I’m not alone

As we’ve already established, I’m a terrible boss for myself. But at least I’m not alone.

Mar 08

How cheap do you need “Cars as a Service” to be?

So this is off my usual topic, but I found it interesting! I wrote a thing for my friend’s technology blog on how much I could afford to pay for Cars as a Service and still break even with my current spending. You should go read it! (Takes less than 5 minutes).

Here’s a public version of the calculator I used (which I unfortunately couldn’t figure out how to embed in the article itself). Fill in the green cells. You can either fill in the amortized cost section or put a year’s worth of car payments in the “Vehicle” cost cell. The commute calculator is just to help you guess your annual total miles.

Jan 13

Getting readers hooked (and stringing them along)

City of Bones by Cassandra ClareTrying to unstick myself while drafting my current work-in-progress, I was drawing a timeline of my story (an adaptation of the idea in this post). My main plot is a question that’s (hopefully) raised in the reader’s mind on almost the first page and that doesn’t get resolved until almost the last page—the main dramatic question. Along the way there are many other questions that get raised and answered at various points in the story.

To help myself understand the technique, I started thinking about a book I’d reread recently (City of Bones) and the example in the article (The Hunger Games).

I realized something about the “hook” of a story that I’d never thought of before—about how you not only hook readers at the beginning of a novel but reel them in. (Links go to my favorite site about story structure.) In the latter post, you’ll read that you have to hook readers just long enough to get them to the next hook. But how?

I thought of two ways to do it. The first is illustrated by City of Bones. Its first chapter is summarized in the back-cover blurb:

When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. And she’s more than a little startled when the body disappears into thin air.

What a hook! However, most of the explanations for the questions raised by the blurb are revealed throughout the first four chapters. So what keeps us reading? By the time all those questions are answered, Clary’s apartment has been ransacked, her mother is missing, a demon attacks her (the Inciting Event), and one of the teenage “murderers” (actually, of course, demon-killers) rescues her. By then, we’ve been plunged into the main plot of not just this book but the whole series, as Clary tries to rescue her mother and comes to grips with a magical world she never knew about. The questions raised in the first chapter overlapped the questions raised by subsequent events just long enough to get us hooked! And of course, like any good plot, the early questions are all tightly linked to the main antagonist.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe second way that keeps readers interested I noticed in The Hunger Games. The story opens on Katniss waking, finding her sister not there, and worrying about her. The questions are raised and answered in quick succession, so quickly that we might not even notice them, but each answer produces another question.

“Where’s Prim? With our mother. Why? She had a bad dream. Why? Today is the Reaping. What’s a Reaping?” That question sustains us for a few more pages, when the answer immediately makes us wonder, “Will Katniss be chosen?” The answer turns out to be no, but only because it’s her sister, Prim, who must face death (the Inciting Event). Given how much we now know Katniss cares for Prim, we can’t learn that it’s Prim without asking, “What will Katniss do?” When she immediately volunteers to be Tribute, we then land on the dramatic question that will occupy most of the rest of the book, which is, “Will Katniss survive?” (Because readers might know that the book has a sequel and guess that Katniss will have to survive, even if learning how she survives would be an interesting question in itself, the clever author quickly makes us care about another question with a far less certain answer: “Will Peeta survive?”)

So there you have it: overlapping questions and answers that are also (or that immediately produce) questions, two different ways to hook your reader and string them along until they care enough about the characters to want to find the answer to the main dramatic question.

Jan 11

Throwing shade since the 1600s

I recently learned an awesome (if you’re a word nerd) bit of trivia. I was looking up “umbrage” for reasons that I’ve now forgotten, and discovered that its original meaning was “shadow” (as from a parasol or umbrella). To quote the Oxford Dictionaries, the etymology of the word is:

Late Middle English (sense 2): from Old French, from Latin umbra ‘shadow’. An early sense was ‘shadowy outline’, giving rise to ‘ground for suspicion’, whence the current notion of ‘offence’.

So umbrage has been…wait for it…throwing shade since the 17th century. English — what a beautiful language. (More here.)

Jan 06

Review: “This Savage Song”

This Savage Song (Monsters of Verity, #1)This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was lucky enough to read this book all in one day (long day of travel), and boy does it hold your attention!

I loved the setting, modern day but with a twist, and the monsters are unique and interesting, both what they’re like and how they come to be. If you’re absolutely sick of dystopian, this book probably has too much of that for you, but I wouldn’t categorize it as strictly post-apocalyptic or dystopian; more like gritty contemporary fantasy.

It’s rare to find a book where the male and female characters are so evenly matched, both within the story and as narrators, but This Savage Song has done it. Kate transcends what could’ve been just “damaged girl becomes tough and strong,” and August transcends what could’ve been a one-note (haha) “thoughtful and sensitive musician.” The circumstances that bring them together (not romantically, at least not in this book) force them to rethink how they see the world and what they think they know about each other. Each has a strong arc with a satisfying ending that still leaves us ready for the next book.

View all my reviews

Dec 17

Like a Boss: Writing a Book is (and isn’t) Like Writing Software

The other day, I was feeling bad about not getting enough writing done. Despite having written more than 45,000 words in just over two months, I wanted to have written more.

Contrast that feeling to when I worked at a big tech company. As I grew in my career, I could put in a hard day’s work and feel good about my code, knowing that three layers of management above me (sometimes more) were responsible for making sure the product shipped. Much to the chagrin of the people whose job it was to ship, I would have conversations like this:

Boss: I need your estimates for how long it will take to finish this feature.
Me: I don’t give estimates. Here’s the list of tasks I expect to do.
Boss: But if you don’t give me estimates, how can I know when the feature will be done?
Me: Even if I gave you estimates, you still wouldn’t know when the feature will be done, because human beings are generally terrible at estimating complicated, creative tasks.

Suit-up-Like-a-bossI realized that I am now both the boss and the employee of Abigail Welborn, Inc. (not a real thing). As it turns out, not only do I not like being the boss, I don’t like working for me, either. As the boss, I can see the end goal so clearly — the beautiful, finished book. At the end of a work day, when the writer (also me) tries to feel good about hitting the goal of 2,000 words written, the boss in me sees only how far I have to go and wishes I could’ve worked just a little bit harder.

But at least I figured out why I’m such an awful boss. I hate not knowing when my book will be done. I can’t look forward to it or plan for it. Even tracking my progress doesn’t make me feel like I’m getting closer, because I just don’t know how long it’s going to take to edit this thing into shape.

So, former bosses (and others who were tracking my work), while I can’t say I’m sorry for refusing to give you estimates, I can now say that I feel your pain. I’ll try to be as nice to me as you were.

Dec 01

Forcing yourself to be honest…and realistic

Since I’ve been working on my novel full time, the first draft has grown from 0 to 33,000 words. Not bad! But that took two months, and I feel like I can do better (especially since this is the first draft and I’m working from a pretty good outline).

I’ve been keeping track of how many words I write each day and taking notes about what else came up that might have inhibited my productivity, but I didn’t see anything obvious (other than “work more” or “start earlier in the day,” a tried-and-true principle from The ONE Thing).

Tomato timerThen, my friend and fellow writer Amy told me about the Pomodoro Technique, after the Italian word for tomato, which is apparently also a common shape for kitchen timers. In brief, you set a timer for 25 minutes, during which you focus solely on the task at hand, writing down but ignoring or postponing any interruptions or distractions. After each time segment (called a “pomodoro”), you write a checkmark on a piece of paper and take a short break. After each set of 4 pomodoros, you take a longer break.

Besides helping you focus, the technique allows you to figure out roughly how long a common task takes, because you keep track of how many 25-minute chunks of time it takes you to finish a task (on average).

It also, importantly, had the effect of showing me just how much time I wasn’t spending on intentional tasks. I started recording how long I lasted while writing before I checked the timer (I’m using my phone timer instead of an actual ticking tomato), and I usually lasted nearly 25 minutes. After a few days, even when I set a stopwatch (to see how long I can go) instead of a timer, I hit 25-30 minutes almost every time. Writing for 25 minutes clearly wasn’t the problem.

But breaks… The 5-minute timer would go off and I’d just ignore it. So I started timing my breaks as well, and the average amount of time before I was “done” with reading email, going through Facebook or Twitter, and reading some of the interesting links I found while doing it, was 15-20 minutes! Basically, I was spending a “whole pomodoro” on a break.

Now, social media is important to building a career as a writer. Reading blog posts, following authors or agents on Twitter, and making meaningful posts to my author page all deserve to happen, but then I should be doing them on purpose. They deserve their own, directed pomodoro, so that I can do them intentionally. Now I just have to figure out how to take better breaks. Maybe that means not even starting social media on a short break, or maybe it means switching up pomodoros so that tasks I need to do feel like breaks. But at least now I have the numbers staring me in the face, which will help me be honest about my productivity and realistic about how much I can improve.

Oct 20

The More I Write…

goofy runner

This is how I would look if I tried to run.

…the more I want to write! That’s not a unique observation, but it’s definitely a new experience in my writing life.

I’ve heard that when people first start a training regimen, running can be painful and a drudgery, but eventually they experience a “runner’s high.” Supposedly, they then start running because they like it! I personally cannot imagine looking forward to running (physical activity is not, let’s say, my favorite), but it must exist because I’ve seen it happen to people I know.

When I first started writing full time, I missed all the social interaction I’d gotten in my day job. I had planned to schedule all my social activities for three mornings a week, leaving the rest of the days for writing. For this extrovert, that was hard to do. The writing-only days felt long, and I tended to get drowsy mid-afternoon. Plus, when I was stuck on my story, the brainstorming, mind-mapping, and figuring out what to write felt like a waste of time that wasn’t going anywhere.

But a funny thing happened this week. After I had something scheduled almost every morning last week, I was glad I hadn’t scheduled this week as full. I couldn’t wait to start writing each day. Instead of feeling bad about “having to” turn down social engagements so that I could keep to my writing schedule, I’m jealously guarding the time I have to write. Apparently I’ve found the “writer’s high.” (Now if only it would help me lose weight and get into shape like running does…)

A big caveat: I’m sure that the high comes and goes. Having a good outline for the story definitely helps me power through right now. But when busy weeks inevitably come up, knowing how the “writer’s high” feels will help me get back here.

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