One-Size-Fits-All

Have you ever searched for that one piece of writing advice that will magically make writing easier and your stories better? Have you ever thought that you found it, only to discover that it doesn’t work for your best friend? Or has your friend given you a piece of “magic” writing advice that doesn’t work for you? That is the road of writing advice. Writing advice isn’t one-size-fits-all because the creative process is varied and subjective. Heck, writing advice isn’t even one-size-fits-a-single-career. The writer you are today may not be the writer you were yesterday or the writer you’ll be tomorrow, and the process that worked for you then may not work for you now.

Just six years ago I was living a lifestyle that would not support writing every day. I had more responsibilities and a demanding job with a schedule that had less flexibility. Now I’m self-employed, which means I have more control of my schedule, and it’s easier for me to plan time to write every day, even on busy days.

Just six years ago I wrote in binge spurts, up to 4,000 words in a day. But I only wrote 158 days out of 365. This year I’ve only had a handful of days where I passed 1,000 words.

Just six years ago I wrote short stories, rather than novels. Those binge sessions of writing frequently corresponded to writing a first draft of a short story. A first draft of a chapter usually isn’t longer than 2,000 words for me, which means binge sessions are shorter.

It’s clear the writer I was six years ago is not the same writer I am now, which means the writing advice and processes I followed then may not be effective for me any more. Redefining myself as a writer from 2011 to 2017 has taken some work. Some of it is organic, like discovering that I could write daily with a little motivation and consistency. Some of it is decisive, like focusing on novels rather than short stories. And the rest of it has required experimenting because I’ve had to hunt for new processes and advice that works for this new writer that I’ve become.

Which is where all that disparate, subjective, one-size-will-never-fit-all writing advice comes in. Writing advice isn’t and shouldn’t be thought of as a one-size-fits-all magic solution. Writing advice is an opportunity to try something new and see if it works for you (or if it works for you now). Trial and error is the queen among writers—that’s actually what the drafting and revision process is about. So consuming as much writing advice as you can, trying what sounds interesting, and throwing away what doesn’t work is the way writing advice works best. The only writing advice that is truly one-size-fits-all is to try everything, and then in five years, try it again. Writing is about reinvention and no one is reinvented as often as a writer.

First Drafts Suck

Sometimes one of the hardest things to do is to keep writing through your first draft. Ideas can feel flat and uninspired. Characters might not meet the expectations you set out for them. Obstacles wind up being easier to overcome than you imagined, or, the opposite, you find yourself written into a corner. It is frustrating and infuriating and quitting starts looking better and better because, let’s face it, your first draft sucks.

But the good news is that all first drafts suck. No matter how much planning you do in advance, there’s a big difference between an idea and a story. A story requires details and specifics and everything has to work together. Sentences have to be crafted, motivations have to be honed, choices have to be made, and consequences have to be realized. Moving from an idea to a final product takes a lot of work, and the first draft is the first step. And the first draft is always a messy step.

First drafts don’t just suck because they are the messy beginnings of a novel. They suck because they’re difficult to write and they’re difficult to stick with. But the reason you must keep writing through a terrible first draft is simple: blank pages can’t be revised. In order to make the book better, something needs to be on the page. Revising is like sculpting, and the first draft is how you make the clay.

Sculptures can’t be made without material to sculpt, and the same works for stories. The first draft has to be written so the writer has something to revise and craft into the finished work. It may be tempting to stop in the middle and start revising, but not finishing your first draft is a disservice to your story and sometimes a waste of your time. Even the most organized planners can discover things about their characters, plot, and world through writing the first draft. Ideas develop organically—it becomes clear that the character should turn left instead of right, a sub-plot more fully develops, one idea spawns another and a new area of the world is fleshed out. You might discover that a scene you wrote well and loved doesn’t belong in your novel any more—and if you spent your time honing it instead of writing to the end of your first draft, you would have wasted that time.

So push through your first draft. Even when it sucks, try your best to love the experience and motivate yourself to continue. Reward yourself for writing. Tell your friends what you’ve completed. Write the scenes that excite you. Write out of order. Leave gaping holes that just have notes like “battle scene” or “much smooching” or “Kate and Joe need to talk.” Leave notes to yourself about ideas you get as you’re drafting or revisions you want to make, but keep writing forward. You’ll have a mess by the end. You’ll have a draft that sucks, but you’ll have a draft that you can craft, make better, and sculpt into the story you were always meant to write. As much as writing is about revising, revising can’t happen if you don’t have a first draft.

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One Day More

I have one last day of sanity before the writing madness that is NaNoWriMo takes over my life. That might sound dramatic, but I know the precipice on which I stand, ready to dive into my novel. I know the increased hours I’ll spend pounding away at my first draft or worrying that I made the wrong decision about how to write a scene or say a line. I know the temptation I’ll face to start revising now, to scrap the last chapter, or to throw it all away because it’s just not right. I know the times I’ll go to my friends, desperately needing a pep talk, and feeling like I’m taking up their time because they’re working on their novels too.

It’s scary to be a day out from starting a new novel, but it’s also exciting. I know the characters and the world, the details that make them real and the weak places to prod. I know the plot—I have it in an outline that I can follow if I get stuck, or discard if I get a better idea. I know if I write like crap, if I can’t get it right, if I lose my way, that I can fix it all in revision. I know that this is the start of a book, and that six months or a year from now I’ll have something finished and polished and ready to send out into the world. I know that NaNoWriMo is just the beginning, and that by the end of the month I’m going to have more work to do, but it’s all work I love.

I know that despite the frustration and the anxiety and the inevitable doubt, this month devoted to my novel will be worth it.

I wish all writers the best as they start their NaNoWriMo projects. If you need a few words of encouragement or support during the month, feel free to tweet me.

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NaNoWriMo Lessons: Community

Writing is often a solitary pursuit. After all, usually you’re the only one working on your book! Even though writing is a solo venture, that doesn’t mean it has to be a lonely venture.

Last year was the tenth year I signed up for National Novel Writing Month, but the first time I really embraced the community aspects of the challenge. As an assistant to the Municipal Liaison (our region leader), I ran the majority of the social media, offering encouragement and congratulations to participants using our #NaNOrlando hashtag. I also attended more write-ins than I ever had before. By the end of the month—after going to my usual weekly write-ins, write-ins at Writer’s Atelier, leading a write-in at Universal, and joining the NaNo Orlando group for the annual Write Around the (Disney) World event—I finally felt like I was part of a local writing community.

Since quitting my job in 2014 I have struggled with loneliness. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on the social nature of working in an office. Because I needed social interaction, but also needed to write, NaNoWriMo write-ins were the perfect place for me to fulfill both needs. Just like being at work, during a write-in writers work on their own projects and then take short breaks to socialize. At an event like Write Around the (Disney) World, most of those breaks came in the form of transportation between writing locations. Last year we started in Disney Springs and then took the boat to Port Orleans Riverside. We chatted on the boat and as we walked to our destination, and then everyone sat down and got to work. Similarly we chatted on the bus and monorail when traveling to our next two stops of the day. Between each round of traveling and chatting, we got to work, writing for about an hour at each stop. I got so much writing done, and I ended the day by knowing more writers in the Orlando area.

Since then, I’ve made attending local writing events a priority, and have felt more confident branching out and going to events outside of my comfort zone. It’s gotten easier the more I’ve thought about writers as colleagues. Colleagues understand the troubles you’re going through in your work life, can offer advice, and can learn from your experiences. Having a local writing community reminded me that while I might be in a career geared to solitary work, I’m not working in solitude.

 

NaNoWriMo is a month full of writing challenges and writing lessons. I’m a better writer for having participated in NaNo because it allowed me to learn things about my writing life and process I may not have discovered without the pressure. NaNo has also helped introduce me to the rich and wonderful community of local writers, and it has helped me get more involved. This is my first year working as a Municipal Liaison with NaNoWriMo, and I’m excited to get out there to help motivate writers to write. If you’re a writer, consider signing up for the challenge, even if you don’t finish the 50,000 words, you still might learn something about yourself.

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NaNoWriMo Lessons: To Sprint Or…?

My first attempt at National Novel Writing Month began with my hard drive crashing two days into the challenge. Sometimes NaNoWriMo is like that—full of obstacles and challenges and complications. I wasn’t very motivated to write while my computer was sent off for repairs, so when I got it back on November 18th, I had a decision to make: was I done with NaNo or did I try to write 43,000 words in twelve days?

Everyone who signs up for NaNo surely has a moment in which they think they’re crazy. It’s a huge goal to accomplish on a tight deadline, and it takes some serious determination to finish, even in the best circumstances. In 2005 I was not looking at the best circumstances. But I didn’t want to throw in the towel.

I started by changing my expectations. I knew I couldn’t blow through a novel that quickly, so even though it would be a rebellious act in my first NaNo, I decided to work on short stories and not worry about connectivity or using the same characters or even following the same ideas. I was going to write 50,000 words of something and not worry too much about what I was writing, so long as I was writing.

That still left me writing 43,000 words in just twelve days. I wasn’t the steady writer then that I am now, but I was very good at sprinting. The first two days of my attempt to catch up had me writing about 8,000 words. It took me four more days to write another 10,000 words because—as it turns out—sprinting can leave you creatively exhausted. I learned to be motivated by count downs (“just 400 more words to go!”). I honed in on ideas that were easier to write and I clung to inspiration. Ultimately I did it. I wrote 43,000 words in twelve days. I’m proud of that accomplishment—amazed­ by it, honestly—and it’s something I never want to do again.

Even though I could binge write my way to 50K, I discovered it wasn’t the healthiest thing for me to do. The act of churning out so much in a single day left me drained, and it was much harder to preform the next day. In the last year and a half of writing every day I’ve discovered exactly how much I value consistency over high word counts. Knowing that I will write every day without it being a struggle is more important to me than writing 6,000 words in a day.

NaNo is still a sprint—I don’t normally write 50,000 words in a month—but pacing myself for the 1,667 words a day is a lot easier than stumbling to catch up at the end. Even if I get behind (which I have many times in past years), keeping the gap small is a good way to keep the NaNo goal in sight. After my first year, catching up 10,000 words could look like a breeze, but I know better. Sprinting is possible, but pacing myself is healthier.

NaNoWriMo is on my mind this month as I’m preparing for this year’s challenge. Stick with me to check out a series of posts on the writing lessons you can learn by participating in NaNo. If you’re a writer, you should really consider signing up.

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NaNoWriMo Lessons: Time

National Novel Writing Month is just around the corner! For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is a yearly challenge in November to write 50,000 words of a novel. It’s an event that brings together thousands of writers from around the world to practice their craft and talk about writing for a month.

I first participated in NaNo in 2005, and then took a break for several years because I was too busy to write. You know what month is incredibly busy every year? November. You know what excuse is a terrible one for not participating in NaNoWriMo? Being busy! Here’s the deal, writers: you will always be busy. Life will always get in the way of your writing. There will always be a responsibility you think you should be doing instead of writing. You may even feel guilt because you are writing instead of doing something else!

Stop it.

One of the great gifts NaNoWriMo has given me is the perspective that I can make writing a priority. That was a lesson I re-learned every year for the first few years in which I participated. I wasn’t prioritizing my writing life at any other time of the year, but during NaNo, I set aside 30–60 minutes every day to write. (Okay, maybe not every day because there was a year when I wrote 8,000 words one day because I had written 0 words for a whole week.) The only thing standing in my way was myself.

I had responsibilities chomping away at every hour of my day, but with a little extra planning I found the time to write for NaNoWriMo. One of my most productive times to write was on my lunch break. Instead of going out to eat every day, as was my usual routine, I brought lunch at least two days a week and got 30–45 minutes of writing time. I also made use of my weekly writing group (1–2 hours per week). And, sacrifice of sacrifices, I woke up 15 minutes earlier during the month of November. Some days I used that time to make lunch, but other days I got started with writing for the day. Starting my day by writing 15 minutes made me feel ahead all day. Since I was looking for a minimum of 30 minutes per day, I was halfway there!

At the end of the month I was less surprised that I had achieved the 50,000-word goal, and more surprised by how easy it was. I had never before consciously thought about prioritizing writing. I had prioritized projects in order to meet a deadline, but I had never tried to make time to write daily (or semi-daily) for a month. I had thought it would be an impossible task, or that I’d be either exhausted or behind by the end. But when it came down to it, finding the time was much easier than I thought it would be. It took a few years before those lessons really stuck and I stopped being so surprised, but now I never question when I’ll find the time to write, I just find it.

NaNoWriMo is on my mind this month as I’m preparing for this year’s challenge. Stick with me to check out a series of posts on the writing lessons you can learn by participating in NaNo. If you’re a writer, you should really consider signing up.

The Right Writing Group

One of my favorite things every week is going to writing group. Even though I write every day, there’s something special about meeting with other writers to write. But attending a writing group—especially a weekly one—can be a big time commitment in our busy lives. Finding the right group, a group that will be productive and help me achieve my goals, has taken some time. I first had to figure out what I wanted from a writing group, and then I needed to find a writing group that provided those things.

In my experience, writing groups tend to focus on one or more of the following:

  • offering time to write
  • networking or socializing
  • critiquing or feedback

When I first started attending writing groups, I was working a full time job (with frequent overtime) and had a calendar full of family and social obligations. I needed a writing group that would emphasize productivity over all else since often the time I spent at writing group was the only time I had to write all week.

The group I found was full of passionate, wonderful writers who participated in NaNoWriMo every year and who were seeking agents or publishers. Their attitude matched mine—aspiring to publish novels—and their experience writing query letters, self-publishing, and working local conventions formed a foundation of what it meant to be a working writer.

Over the years the group membership changed, people moved away or new writers joined the group, and the dynamic slowly shifted. If I arrived early, I could get a solid hour of work in before the meeting turned into social hour. The problem wasn’t socializing—I liked these writers!—but this was the majority of my writing time for the week, so having that time taken over by socializing was frustrating.

It took me awhile to admit it, but my writing group was no longer providing what I needed. And that’s an important thing to remember—if the group dynamic changes, it’s okay to leave.

I’m currently active with two writing groups. One group meets weekly and the other group meets monthly. Both groups are focused on productive writing tasks (which can include things like promotion, presentations, or managing author websites) and are patronized (primarily) by writers who have a goal to publish. The weekly group has the laid back style of the first writing group I joined, in which writers are encouraged to be self-directed. We poke writers who seem to be staring off into space or who appear to be off-task (we are all guilty of checking Twitter or Facebook), but we mostly chat as we get settled or when we’re packing up.

The monthly group uses twenty-minute sprints to get writers to focus, and then allows chat breaks in between sprints. I wouldn’t be happy writing like that on a weekly basis, but for a monthly group, I know to come prepared because I will be getting a lot of work done. (That monthly writing group is usually my highest word count day of the month.)

I have yet to be in a critique group outside of the MFA program, but based on my experience there, I know a critique group would have to be very special. Critique groups require a lot of dedication from all participants. The group itself needs to be big enough that if someone is sick one week, you haven’t lost the whole conversation, but small enough that you’re not piling on a ton of extra work. Also it helps if everyone is familiar with the genres being submitted for critique. While writing is writing and stories are stories, being familiar with the rules and tropes of a genre can greatly improve the confidence of the readers and the quality of the critiques.

Knowing what you want out of a writing group is the best way to find the right group. I’ve been very lucky to find such amazing writing groups, most of which I found by participating in NaNoWriMo. If you’re struggling to carve out time to write or lack motivation once you sit down, consider finding a writing group. And if you can’t find the right writing group for yourself, maybe you should just start your own.

The Story Sandwich

Figuring out what makes up a story and how to make those elements speak to each other can be one of the more elusive aspects of craft. While elements can be developed and adjusted in revision, it’s important to understand how those ingredients work together. In one analogy, you might think of writing a story as making a sandwich. You know that at the end of the process you’re going to have a sandwich and, before you start, you have to lay out your ingredients. The same is needed for writing a story.

Every sandwich starts and ends with bread. Like a sandwich, frequently the beginning and ending of a story show the same image so the reader can see how the protagonist has changed from the beginning to the end. This “image” might be the protagonist’s home or it could be a theme on which the protagonist now reflects (for example, in Back to the Future, Marty finally stops being baited when his bravery is called into question, or in a series like Harry Potter, it starts with Harry unable to do magic and without a family, and ends with Harry as a powerful wizard with lots of friends and support). Bookending the narrative with similar scenes can show the character growth or how the world has changed as a result of the story events.

Condiments go on the sandwich next. Personally, I like mustard on most of my sandwiches, but I prefer mayo for turkey. You may prefer honey mustard to yellow; I like deli mustard or a nice spicy brown. All this talk of condiments and preferences is really a lot of talk about flavor. Just like the condiments, the voice and atmosphere provide the flavor for any story. A narrator who is sarcastic is going to speak very differently from one who is literal or innocent. The atmosphere that voice helps evoke is going to steer the course of the story sandwich—is it spicy? Mild? Tangy? Sweet? Bold? Understated? The voice and tone of the story can influence and direct the reader’s experience.

The meat is your plot, and in making this sandwich we need to lay it on thick to put meat on our reader’s bones. Here’s the important thing to note about plot: plot is derived from characters. The protagonist’s decisions make up the plot. So while the meat is the plot, the meat is also the characters. When Katniss volunteers to go to the Hunger Games instead of her sister, she propels the plot forward. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to go after the Sorcerer’s Stone instead of getting an adult, they propel the plot forward. When Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine with Obi-Wan, he propels the plot forward. The meat—the characters and the plot—are what make the story and the sandwich.

When I make a sandwich I’m going to put cheese on it, so this story sandwich gets cheese. Cheese is known for being a little fatty and a little caloric, so it makes sense that in the story sandwich, the cheese represents the subplots. Subplots are the delicious bits of a story that further character development and often complicate the main plot. Ideally the cheese and meat work together. Both contain protein—exactly what puts muscle on the story—but they’ve got different tastes and textures and nuance. One thing I will warn, if you like a stinky cheese that distracts too much from the meat, your sandwich may be a little lopsided, so use a strong cheese sparingly to keep the story sandwich balanced.

A good sandwich—I’m talking a really good sandwich—is going to come with lettuce, tomato, or other veggies. Veggies are good for you, and in a story sandwich that still holds true because veggies represent the conflict and tension. Conflict and tension are good for stories. Stories without conflict or tension are bland and often unfulfilling. Conflict gives a story crunch. Tension makes things juicy. Both are good for helping a reader digest the story and get something satisfying out of it. A hero overcoming, a romance defying all odds, the underdog winning—all of those satisfying and cathartic beats come from the conflict.

This may sound like a simplistic way to describe a story (honestly, it is), but thinking about the necessity of these story elements when creating a delicious story sandwich will hopefully help you think about how these elements work together and consider what each brings to the finished story.

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The Secret to Receiving Constructive Criticism

Receiving constructive criticism can be as difficult as giving it. It can be challenging to divorce personal feelings—and all the hard work put into the previous draft—from someone else’s opinion. But when I put my story out there to receive constructive criticism, I need to be open to it. I have to put aside my feelings and understand that these comments aren’t about my quality as a writer; they’re about the execution in this one specific piece of writing. Even if I think it’s my very best work, it’s only my very best work so far. Think of all the ways it can be improved! So, starting with a deep breath, constructive criticism can be the best thing for my work, especially if I’m open to change. I have a three step-method for taking in constructive criticism that includes listening to what is said, evaluating how that critique fits with my plan for the story, and then getting excited to revise!

Listen

When I get feedback from a critique, I start by reading each comment as though I’m another evaluator on the manuscript. I’m not the author when I first read a critique. I’m another objective party, taking in someone else’s comments to get the big picture of the feedback. I start by reading the summary comments and then all of the in-line comments before making any decisions about how to act on those comments.

Evaluate

Now that I’ve listened objectively, I get to be the author again! It’s important to keep some objectivity, after all the purpose of constructive criticism is to identify ways to strengthen the writing. Now, though, I start deciding how to address each comment. Should I keep the exact suggestion a reviewer made? Should I accept that something’s hinky but enact my own solution? Should I ignore the comment? Ignoring a comment is a perfectly legitimate way to respond to a critique. Someone might not “get” what I’m doing, and it’s okay for me, the author, to decide that I know what’s best for my work.

One method I use for evaluating comments is to have the comments and my story side by side in separate documents. If I disagree with a comment outright, I don’t move it to my story document. If it’s an easy fix (a grammatical error or improving word choice), I immediately do it. If it’s a trickier one or one that I’m not sure I want to make, I summarize the feedback as in-line comments on my story document and add my thoughts. At the end of the evaluation, I have all the comments I will or possibly want to respond to on my story document.

Get Excited

After every critique I walk away feeling excited to work on my story. I’ve thought about the feedback and, through evaluation, have come up with at least a few solutions to strengthen some of the weaknesses of the manuscript. Yes, I might have a lot of work ahead. Yes, someone might not have seen all of my brilliance. But I now have ideas for making the story better, and that’s a pretty exciting thing.

Talking It Out

I had dinner with a writer friend last week and after gushing about the novel I’m currently developing, I asked what he’s working on. After a long awkward pause, he finally confessed that he didn’t want to talk about it until he had a first draft.

I subscribed to this methodology once upon a time, holding my ideas close to my chest and trying not to “spend” them too soon. I once talked myself out of writing a novel because after outlining it and explaining it to a friend, I grew bored with the idea and eventually shelved it. I have completely forgotten what the idea was, which is further evidence that the reason I shelved the idea wasn’t because I’d talked about it too much, but because I wasn’t actually all that interested in writing it—or, rather, that the idea wasn’t strong enough to be a novel.

I believe that’s the case for most writers who lose their ideas in talking. I worked on the novel I’m querying for roughly three years. That is a long time to spend with the same characters, in the same world, going over their problems and relationships with a fine-tooth comb. If I had been able to “talk out” this idea, to talk about it enough to essentially “ruin” it, I assure you I would have. A year and a half of that development time included monthly meetings with my thesis supervisor where we did nothing but talk about the novel for hours. I couldn’t talk out this story because I was invested in it. Because the idea had legs and it needed to be a novel. Yes, there were days when I was sick of those characters because I had been living with them for so long, and there were days when I tossed out chapters or followed the wrong path, but I never wanted to shelve this story. In all this talking, I never lost the idea.

One of the best ways for me to work through an idea is to talk about it with trusted friends. Aside from figuring out if I actually want to write the story, articulating my ideas to someone else helps me discover plot holes, character weaknesses, and other areas that need development. Even better, once I describe a story to someone, I have a cheerleader who has insight into the idea. After that conversation they don’t just ask how the novel is going, they’ll say things like, “How’s my girl Eve?” or “Did you figure out what happens on the train?” Honestly, there’s no better motivation than having people who are invested in your story.

All of this is probably the same reason I’m part of a writing group, discuss writing with my friends regularly, and wanted to be part of an MFA program. Talking about writing (and about my writing) is motivating. But that’s not the case for everyone. Are you a talker or do you keep your ideas quiet like my friend? Every method has a benefit, what do you see as the benefit for your method?