Category: Writing Life

Nov 06

How learning story structure helps me write faster

I last participated in NaNoWriMo in 2010. Since then, I’ve had two kids, quit my job, and rewritten my novel twice. Along the way, I picked up quite a bit about story structure and am now a reformed pantser (although no one is ever only a plotter or a pantser, many lean far to one side of the spectrum or the other).

Given my love of plotting, then, I didn’t know if I’d ever participate in Nano again. However, I was sufficiently motivated this year, and I’m loving it! And what I love most is how the years of studying story structure are paying dividends in a decidedly write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants month.

Before I learned structure, when I got stuck, I’d ask myself, “What do I want to happen next?” Or maybe even, “What should happen next?” But since I didn’t know anything about that should, I just brainstormed until I came up with a good idea (or any idea).

ThreeActStructure_small

https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JuliusKuschke/20130909/199869/Aristotle_was_not_a_Game_Designer.php

Now, when I want to know what should happen next, I just have to position myself within the framework of structure. “What should happen next? Well, I’ve just passed the call to adventure/inciting event, so now I need to work toward a First Plot Point that will change everything, oh yeah, and reveal the antagonist’s power and/or plan, and force my main character to make a decision to enter the Adventure World.” (Sometimes I even write sentences exactly like that in my brainstorming! Because it’s hard to hold everything there is to know about the First Plot Point in my head all at once.) That is a much easier question to brainstorm an answer for, because structure gives me criteria—a way to judge how good ideas are.

Usually by the time I hit on an idea that meets all those criteria, it’s plenty good enough to roll with! It might take slightly longer to get to that idea than to come up with an answer to my old, more generic questions, but the difference is that I know the specific question will lead me to an answer that won’t paint me into a corner and will leave me with something more novel-shaped at the end. That saves me time both in November and in my future edits!

I cannot recommend K.M. Weiland’s site highly enough. She will kindly and gently lure you into plotting (even if you still like to pants the heck out of the first draft and just apply structure in editing). For a quick rundown (with way more depth available), check out her everything checklist!

P.S. You can support girls’ education and motivate me to finish Nanowrimo this year by donating to the Malala Fund!

Nov 01

Words for a Cause

candy hangoverHappy November, everyone! For writers, the day after Halloween brings not just a candy hangover but the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. Those who sign up attempt to write a whole novel during the month of November. (The target of 50,000 words is technically a little shorter than most novels, but still a lofty goal for 30 days.) “Wrimos” who participate in “Nano” get pep talks from published authors, organize community “write-ins” where authors gather to motivate (and sometimes distract) one another, and provide plenty of accountability and camaraderie to keep going to the finish line.

I wasn’t planning to join this year, but then author Susan Dennard announced The Mighty Pens, a team of writers who want to use their words for good. That got me thinking. My book is in a slower editing/querying phase, plus I’ve never tried working on multiple projects at once, a skill that I’ll need if I make a career out of this writing thing. “Just to see,” I started to brainstorm an idea that’s been percolating in my head since May, and that multiplied into many ideas that seem almost novel-shaped.

So I decided to throw my hat into the ring! (more like the three-ring circus…) We’re raising money for the Malala Fund to support girls’ education. You sponsor me, I get motivated to keep going, the Mighty Pens authors (including me) qualify to to win prizes, the and the Malala Fund helps girls all over the world get the education they need to secure a better future. It’s win-win-win-win! Winning all around!

You can make a one-time donation now or follow my progress (I’ll be posting it on Twitter, my Wrimo page, and Facebook, in descending order of likely frequency) and donate anytime in November, such as when I reach word-count milestones. A pledge of 0.1¢/word would be just $50 if I reach my Nano goal. My fundraising goal is $500, or 10 people pledging less than a penny a word! (To be fair, these are cheap first-draft words, but it’s a “real” story with structure and everything.)

I’ll also share story-related bonuses with you as I reach fundraising milestones, like a novel aesthetic or snippets of prose. Stay tuned for surveys on what people want. For now, here’s my inspirational book “cover.”

The Magic of Movement and Light

This is what happens when someone with no design skills uses Photoshop. (Photo credit.)

Sep 22

A Year of Writing Dangerously

Cup-of-teaOK, I don’t know that my writing qualifies as dangerous, but it has been a year since I started this crazy experiment of being a full-time author. It’s been a while since I did a retrospective, so now seems like a good time!

When I quit my day job, my counselor warned me that for every year that I was in the old job, it could take a month to adjust to a new routine. Since I was in my old job for twelve years, that means I needed to give myself permission to take up to a year to get into a new groove. I’m happy to report that I have a pretty good groove going now, a year later. Of course, my routine has to be flexible because what I’m writing and the life around my writing is always changing (first kid started elementary school!), but overall I’m more confident now that I’ll get everything done if I stick to my plan.

Things I’ve learned in the past year:

  1. My addiction to tea has not diminished. The opposite, actually.
  2. Ergonomics are really important. Ignore at your peril. Back spasms and stiff necks will hamper my productivity.
  3. Rituals and routines are more important than I realized. As it turns out, it’s well-documented that creative people benefit greatly from habitual triggers that put them into the creative mood (e.g., a specific kind of pen or notebook; a specific playlist; a specific place to sit; or a ritual like starting with a hot cup of tea). At first, I did it subconsciously, but now I try to do it intentionally.
  4. I can’t actually write for eight hours a day. Besides the obvious necessary breaks, the concentration required to focus on my own writing is too intense to sustain all day; generally, I get only about four hours of really productive writing time. The good news is that knowing that helps me stress out less, because I can remind myself that if I don’t write a lot in the morning, I can still have a good afternoon, and conversely, if I do have a good morning, I shouldn’t feel bad when I run out of steam mid-afternoon.
  5. There’s still plenty I can do in my writing time besides writing: read work from critique partners; read published books; cultivate my social media presence (got to be careful not to let that become a black hole, though…); and take care of my physical and mental health (yoga, counseling, etc.). It’s surprising how hard it is to remember that those are furthering my career.
  6. That said, I am very deadline-motivated if it’s a real deadline. I can and will make a heroic effort to meet a deadline, including working way more than 8 hours a day, though I’ll need some recovery afterward to catch up with everything else. Fortunately, publishing has a lot of “hurry up and wait.” But it’s useful to know that about myself for the future!
  7. Seriously, all the tea.

tea2

Aug 07

Getting to know me

Facts about me

  • I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be an author. I wrote my first story in Kindergarten, and I still have it (thanks, Mom!). It was about a princess, a dragon, and a knight, so… not much has changed.
  • pimpmybioI graduated from the University of Michigan. (Go Blue!)
  • My favorite Doctor is Ten (with Rose Tyler, as it should be—FIGHT ME), but Nine was my first, and you never forget your first Doctor.
  • I love ballroom dancing (that’s how I met my husband! See pic at right).
  • I have two boys, and the oldest just started Kindergarten. I’m more worried about how the teachers will react to me than about his success (he’ll be fine; I’m…assertive).
  • Costumes I’ve worn in public: Jem, She-Ra, Wonder Woman (before everyone knew she was cool!), Princess Peach, Princess Buttercup, Agent Lucy Wilde (my son really wanted to be a Minion), Galadriel
  • I carry teabags in my purse because you never know when you might want tea, like airplanes that carry only Lipton, fancy dinners that don’t have decaffeinated black tea for drinking with dessert—you know, the usual. My writing ritual requires tea and I drink unhealthy quantities of it.
  • If I could be anywhere right now, it would be on a tropical beach with a drink that has a little umbrella in it.
  • Chocolate is life and you can’t persuade me otherwise. I’ve now trained myself to like dark chocolate, and the best chocolate bar I’ve ever tasted is Divine Chocolate Hazelnut Truffle. If you bribe me with that I will do almost anything for you.
  • I’m a Ravenpuff. When asked whether I’d rather be right or kind, the former wins but the latter is what I try to do.
  • When I have to choose a favorite book, it’s always The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley. (Corlath! *swoon*)

About My Book

My manuscript aesthetic collage will reveal to you that I’m no graphic designer, though I wish I were. (There must be an online tool somewhere that converts Pinterest boards to pretty pics, but I did this manually.)

An ugly alchemist makes a magic mirror, only to discover that beauty doesn’t fix her problems and magic always has a price. In the tradition of Wicked and The Forbidden Wish, my YA fantasy novel The Alchemist’s Mirror brings to life the backstory of Snow White’s stepmother in a 14th century that never was.

Alchemist's Mirror aesthetic

Aug 03

Format Your Manuscript Properly: How to Get Microsoft Word to Do What You Meant (Part 1)

So you’re submitting your manuscript

Here’s the usual expected formatting: http://marycmoore.com/index.php/2016/01/09/how-to-format-your-fiction-submission/. But how do you get Word to do that?

Level 1: Padawan

I have Office 2016 on Windows 7, so your setup might look a little different. Try searching the term I give you and the version of Word that you have (e.g., “font dialog Office 2011 for Mac”) if you can’t figure it out, or hit me up on Twitter and I’ll do my best to help.

Fonts

There are two places you might have to set a font. One is the “Normal” style (more on Styles later, but here’s an overview) and one is the “default” font (which is sometimes different). When I was compiling from Scrivener, I noticed that I had to update the default font, but usually updating “Normal” is enough.

Almost always, agents and editors want Times New Roman. In my mind, there are plenty of other highly readable, more interesting fonts (yep, I’m a font nerd), but there are good reasons for wanting everyone’s submissions to look the same, which I won’t elaborate on here.

If your manuscript pretty much looks right, you can probably skip the font step.

Updating the Normal Style

Try this first. Go to the Home tab on the Ribbon or bring up the Styles pane (Format > Styles or ALT+o+s).

Method 1 (if you haven’t formatted at all yet)

  1. Right-click on the style in the Ribbon or click on the dropdown in the style pane and choose “Modify…”.
    image
  2. Set the font and size.
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  3. In the lower-left corner, choose “Format > Paragraph”.
    image
  4. Set the indent and spacing.
    image

If this method doesn’t seem to work, try selecting your whole manuscript and clicking on the Normal style to apply it. NOTE! Doing this will get rid of any other styles you’ve applied (e.g., for chapter headings), so only do it if you know you haven’t inentionally applied styles yet.

Method 2

If you already have your words with the proper font, size, indenting and spacing, you can just update the style so that it becomes the default.

Right-click the Normal style in the Ribbon  and choose “Update Normal to Match Selection.”
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or
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Setting the Default Font

This step should only be necessary if you’ve done the above but parts of your manuscript still look fishy. Open the Font dialog. It’s under Format > Font, or in Windows you can type ALT+o+f, or you can open it from the Ribbon (outlined in red below).

image

Choose Times New Roman, 12 pt, and then click the Set As Default button in the lower left.

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Exceptions to Normal

For the first page that Mary C. Moore recommends above, you can apply the “No Spacing” style to change it from double- to single-spaced. If it’s acquired the half-inch first-line indent, you can either backspace once at the beginning of each line, or open the Paragraph dialog (Format > Paragraph or ATL+o+p).
image

Then change “Special” indentation to “(none)”.
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Header and Page Numbers

I usually set the page numbers first, because that’s really easy in Office 2016 (TBH, I can’t remember if it was this easy in earlier versions). Instructions for Mac here.

First, double-click in the margin of the page to go to Header/Footer view.

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This should automatically open the Header & Footer Tools tab group and the Design tab. Choose Page Number > Top of Page > “Plain Number 3” to get right-aligned page numbers. You can also get there from the Insert tab or Insert menu as described here.
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Then click next to the page number and type your name and title.

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Note that the number will look grey when you select it because it’s a field that updates, whereas the text you type will be the same on each page.

You will want to check “Different First Page” on the header or in the Format Page Number dialog, before or after you insert the page number. For Mac, format your page number to be right-aligned and uncheck “Show number on first page.”

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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.

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.

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