Tag: creative process

You can learn a lot from writing one short story

Especially if you spend 7 days working on it! *nervous laughter*

Write Often

I attended Maggie Stiefvater’s “Portraits and Dreams” workshop in February, which was amazing. One piece of advice she gave was to write a lot of short stories, and write them often. (She gave similar advice two years ago at her “Seven Sentences” workshop, but I was apparently not ready to take it then yet. In other news, take as many of Maggie’s workshops as you can.)

After all, she said, the hardest part of writing is translating the beautiful abstract story from your head into words on the page. Nothing can help you get faster except lots and lots of practice. Completing a whole story arc over and over, which short stories allow you to do, helps you get faster at the translation part. She and two of her author friends committed to doing one story a week each, and they found the practice really helpful. You can read some results and about the process in The Curiosities.

Do the Pre-Work

Having just rewritten a 1,500-word story at least five times in seven days, I can confirm that translation is hard. For me, I had trouble even figuring out what I meant to say, but that might just be another way of saying “translating the feeling and impression in my head onto words is hard.” I did at least write the end first, advice I got from Jonathan Maberry (who credits it to someone I’ve forgotten), but then I changed the ending.

I find that my prose “sets up” (like concrete) a lot faster in a short story. Writing longhand first would help me be less precious about the words. Because I was writing for a contest with a low-ish word count limit, I kept worrying about that. Do not do this. Instead, get everything down first and then trimming and eliminating. I hope Future Me will remember this.

Rewrite Blind

Another technique Maggie suggested was the “blind rewrite,” or I might call it the “fresh start rewrite.” After you’ve analyzed your story and figured out what’s wrong, start with a completely blank page and rewrite from scratch. It’s doesn’t take me more than 90 minutes to write 1,500 words if I’m not too focused on getting the “right” words down. I found myself longing for clever turns of phrase from the previous draft, but you can always go back and grab them. I found that sometimes I had come up with even cleverer ways to phrase things by remembering only the impression that I had.

As I got to later revisions, I only wrote the new snippets from scratch, but I did them before diving back into the existing prose. That kept me from being too in love with old words to truly write the new words I wanted.

Find the Contrast

Maggie says the most interesting bits of writing are the points of greatest contrast. Even/especially for novels, she likes to think up the pivotal moment and work backwards, to make sure the reader has been properly set up for it. The beauty and difficulty of a short story is that you don’t have much room to fit in a whole character arc, but it can be done! Some short stories are more like tone poems, but if you can build to a dramatic crescendo, why not?

Practice Practicing


Photo by Omar Tursić on Unsplash

The down side is that I spent 7 workdays on this short story instead of working on my novel. Now, I need the practice, I like the result even if it doesn’t win the contest, and it’s good to get away from my novel once in a while. But I do hope that the practice helps me get faster, because I spent an average of like 40 seconds per word on this thing.

But in honor of finishing, enjoy this teaser from the short story. 🙂

Being a Full-Time Author: First Week Retrospective

Looking back over the past week is a habit widely recommended for evaluating progress and productivity. In my past life as a software developer, we called them “retrospectives,” and along with listing successes and problems (or “opportunities,” as my husband says), we would come up with one experiment we wanted to try for the upcoming week. Fridays are my best day for looking back, even though Mondays would be my best day for designing an experiment, so Friday wins.

My first 5+ days of being a full-time author were, on the whole, amazing.

Positive:

  • Seattle is experiencing some Indian summer (sunny, if not terribly warm, days).
  • Working in the morning has been more productive than I expected, and I look forward to the days where I can start first thing after breakfast.
  • I hit a good point in my outlining on Day 1, so I was able to make huge progress on Monday and Tuesday, expanding my outline up to the 50% mark. I start drafting from an “expanded outline,” which doesn’t go down to the scene level but is a little more detailed than just bulleted plot points — so that meant I was halfway toward starting the draft in just two days!source: http://ournutritionkitchen.com/happy-people-healthier-hearts/
  • Knowing that when I stopped writing for the day, I could pick it up again the next morning was incredibly uplifting. I hadn’t realized before how much of a psychic burden I was feeling when I had to stop writing and know I wouldn’t get to it again for several days.

Negative:

  • Boooo flu shot today. (I’m a good mom and I get my flu shot every year, but I hate shots and the soreness afterward.)
  • Progress was much slower through the third quarter of the outline. I’d gotten feedback that helped me improve it, but that meant I spent a lot of time brainstorming and solving plot problems instead of just writing the outline.
  • Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that I am much more prone to distraction and procrastination when things aren’t “smooth sailing” — so I definitely noticed a greater temptation to surf the web, eat chocolate, talk with friends, etc., during the second half of the week.
  • I am getting neck and shoulder aches in the afternoon, which is making it hard to concentrate. My tread-desk is still great, but my sitting workstation, a.k.a. my laptop, is not as ergonomic as my programming workstation was.
  • I seem to hit the post-lunch doldrums (i.e., food coma) most every day. Supposedly, giving up sugar would help prevent this, but I am addicted to sugar.

Experiment: need a way to make brainstorming more fun.

I promise not to bore you guys with my whole retrospective every week, but I felt like I should mark the occasion of the first one somehow.

Confessions of an Inveterate Pantser

Or, “How I learned to stop bumbling and love the outline.”

On the spectrum from “write by the seat of your pants and see where it goes” [whence “pantser”] to “plan every scene before you write a first draft” [“plotter”], I’m naturally a lot closer to the former. I like to wait for inspiration and just write what comes. I wanted to plan ahead, but I didn’t have any better luck figuring out what should come next, and then I also didn’t have any words written.

Unfortunately, after two abandoned novels and too many anguished hours staring at that blinking, taunting cursor, I realized that discovering the story by drafting wasn’t working for me. I spent too much time polishing words in stories that meandered and fizzled out, and I learned the hard way that pretty words can’t make a boring story more interesting.

The big problem with “outlining” was, as I said, that I didn’t know what should come next. Enter Story Engineering. It’s positioned as the answer to “what comes next.” Unbelievably, in all the books on craft that I’d read and all the creative writing courses I took in college, no one had ever mentioned that stories follow a structure. Stories have common elements, just as houses do, and the architectural answer to “What comes next?” is known! It was a literally life-changing revelation. Delivered in Larry Brooks’s occasionally obnoxious but totally spot-on style, it was a swift kick in the pants for this pantser. (It turns that screenwriters have known about this for ages, but I really appreciated someone making the mapping to novels for me. If you want a kinder, gentler introduction to story structure, I highly recommend KM Weiland’s site and book.)

Now when I’m “outlining” (which certainly does not involve Roman numerals for me), I’m no longer staring at a blank page. Instead, I’m solving a fill-in-the-blanks puzzle, and I have criteria by which to judge whether a plot or character decision is working. If I’m stuck, I can pick a direction and plan in it and realize whether or not it works without any wasted prose. (It still takes time, of course, but not nearly the same kind of time it takes to draft in pretty words and without the temptation to polish them.)

Most importantly, I’ve found that for me, the joy of discovering my story isn’t diminished at all by planning it ahead. I get just as much thrill out of nailing plot points as I did when drafting. I still have pages and pages and pages of brainstorming notes, in both spiral notebooks and OneNote, but since I’m not intending those words to ever be seen by anyone else, I don’t put any pressure on myself to make them beautiful, which means I can crank them out much faster. I can brainstorm with friends and critique partners (CPs) and try out and discard ideas so much faster when I’m dealing with a few-hundred- or few-thousand-word plot plan than with an unwieldy 100,000-word draft. When my CPs discovered a serious plot hole in the middle of the outline, I was a tiny bit demoralized but could just wade in and fix the outline without losing any drafted words.

The best part of story structure is that you can still be a pantser if you want. You can do as much outlining as you want and then dive in. I knew by feel when I had reached a detailed-enough outline that I needed to start drafting. You can outline down to the scene level before you write a word of prose, or you can totally pants your whole first draft, then apply structure to it ex post facto in the editing process.

Of course, this revelation means that all of us will have stronger plots now, which means we’ll all be more competitive in getting published… but as a reader, I say, hooray to all the fantastic books I’ll soon have available to me!

Keeping up appearances

I’ve been working on my novel on and off for more years than I care to admit. Since I first had the idea, I’ve gone to college, gotten married, and had two children. This past year, I’ve gotten really serious about making the book good enough to sell, but there were some plot holes that caused me to go back to what felt like square one on multiple occasions. I feel like I’m no closer to getting published than I was a year ago.

So what do I say when people ask, “How’s your book going?”

They’re just trying to be nice and make conversation, but they have no idea the fountain of emotions that such a question brings forth. “I wrote a thousand words yesterday, but I today changed the plot and will have to toss all of those. I have notebooks filled with ideas, dozens of versions of my outline, and whole folders with the obsolete history of these characters, but I still don’t have a draft I’m happy with.” If I said that, people would be like, “Uhhh… sorry for asking.”

My day job is code monkey. Over the years, I’ve developed a strong resistance to being asked about my work, “When will it be done?” The honest answer: I don’t know. (Many would insert colorful language to punctuate that answer.) Time estimates in software development are essentially useless except under some pretty specific circumstances that don’t apply to most teams. The same is true of writing. You might have deadlines, but that doesn’t make the estimates accurate.

At least in software, you can usually say how much of the feature is finished (although there are whole debates just about what the definition of “finished” is). With writing, you never know when a plot twist — a good one that makes the story better! — will end up invalidating some non-negligible percentage of existing book. At some point you just decide it’s good enough and start trying to sell it. If it doesn’t sell, you keep improving it. (And if you do find an agent and then a publisher, you’re looking at a of minimum two more rounds of serious editing.)

This past January, I wrote a post on making resolutions. I came to the conclusion that the only thing I could control about the process was how many hours I put in. I think that’s the same response I have for the book question. “I’m still working on it!” Not with a sigh and a defeated look, but like an athlete who’s still in training. “I’m still putting in the hours!”

At least I don’t have to wait for the next Olympics to look for an agent.

Making S.M.A.R.T. resolutions

It’s almost 2016! How did this happen?!

I was thinking over possible New Year’s resolutions and, as usual, bemoaning that I haven’t achieved any of my writing goals yet. My dear husband asked, “Well, when will you be done? How can you break this up into small steps and turn them into a list you can check off?” (We are both engineers, so half of me loved this question.) The writer half of me was like, “That’s just not how it works!”

However, we did figure out that you can set lots of goals for Butt In Chair time. Coincidentally, creative output always and only follows BIC time, so ensuring the latter is pretty much the only way to (eventually) ensure the former. Hence, I am making BIC goals. But they should also be SMART goals. So, for your edification, and to provide some public accountability, here is my goal:

  • Specific: I will spend 8 hours a week doing actual plot work on my story (brainstorming, outlining, drafting, or editing).
  • Measurable: I will put a gold star on my calendar page for every hour thus spent, so that I can count them at the end of the week.
  • Attainable: As previously discussed, outcome measurements in creative work are demoralizing. But there is nothing that can prevent me from sitting down. (Or walking; I have a tread-desk.)
  • Realistic: I work three days a week, so between my two days off (during which I also do a fair amount of self-care, errand-running, and housework) and a few hours of naptime or in the evenings, 8 hours is realistic at this point in my life. Of course I wish it was more, but this is the minimum. And if I get past 8 hours? Gold star! 😉
  • Timely: Every week. Forever. (Yes, you’re supposed to kind-of time-box the goals, but again, the thing about outcome measurement being demoralizing.) The weekly nature fits in well with human psychology and will allow me to create carrots and/or sticks to ensure that I do this.
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