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The Write Life: A Socially Distant March

Well, this month certainly has been a year, hasn’t it?

First, I hope wherever you are, you’re safe, have everything you need, and are scared enough to take every precaution but not so scared that you’re immobilized. Mostly, I hope you’re taking care of yourself in whatever fashion that needs to be. (Which could be taking a break from writing—we’ve all been through a trauma, so give yourself the space to deal with your own feelings before dealing with your characters’ feelings.)

For me, quarantine isn’t that different from my normal life. I already work from home and am used to socializing online. I can’t escape to write at my favorite restaurant or in the shadow of Hogwarts, and my in-person writing group has now become my other online writing group, but mostly life is the same.

I shower every day, put on a nerdy t-shirt, and write.

I spend a little more time re-watching old favorites and reading comic books and escapist fiction.

I have anxiety attacks and try to forget whatever doomsday numbers I saw in some article.

I read on the porch and take pictures of how pretty things are around me (or of the cheesecake I’m eating because that cheesecake is saving my life at the moment).

I take naps with my cat.

I try to focus enough to edit, write Patreon posts, or whatever else I’m supposed to be doing while counting how many days it’s been since my last possible virus exposure.

I have difficulty sleeping, but eventually drift off and wake from anxiety dreams.

I order tea online. (I probably have enough tea to see me through this.)

I revisit our virus protocols for quarantining or cleaning anything coming into the house and am grateful that my paranoia isn’t being treated as something negative.

I run additional sessions for my writing group because writing is the one constant in my life and right now it doesn’t have to be such a lonely profession. It shouldn’t be a lonely profession. Writing has always been one of the things connecting me to people, and now more than ever it’s the connection I need.

 

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The Write Life: Try Anything February

This past month I hit a landmark in my daily writing goal: 1,500 days of writing! I talked about how I started writing daily when I hit 1,000 days back in 2018, so if you want the origins of this obsessive goal, check out the post, 1,000.

While I’d like for this announcement to be filled with positivity and congratulations, that’s not entirely how I feel about it because aside from writing daily, I feel like I don’t have a lot to show for all this hard work.

Since 2016 I’ve finished a novel, revised a novel (thrice), wrote half a draft of two other books, and drafted many other short stories, though I haven’t published any original fiction. In other words, my writing life has been stagnated in the measurable areas “that count.”

Writing 1,000 days provided me with consistency and confidence. It helped shake off some of the doubt I had about my ability to start and keep writing. But writing another 500 days has brought with it different concerns and questions. Most specifically, how do I turn this productivity into published works?

That’s the question I’ve been grappling with this past month. I don’t believe there’s an easy answer—and there’s certainly not one answer—but I’ve been throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, and see what sort of drips down the wall because it’s kind of sticky but not fully cooked. (If you’re getting the idea that this has been a messy process, you would be right!)

I still don’t have any answers, but I have a list of things I’ve tried:

  • I set up a new email address and emailed myself like I was a writing coach.

    Sounds goofy, but I figured it was finally time to take advantage of my abilities to analyze other people’s work and my ability to disassociate when I’m speaking to or through a character. Essentially this became a more organized way of talking to myself out loud. (And it was a little more productive, because I’d already written all the ideas in the email!)

  • I wrote a revision plan.

    This is actually an old practice, but something I haven’t done in a while, for whatever reason. I read over a short story and instead of shuffling commas and agonizing over diction, I kept notes on what needed to change and what I needed to review. I translated that into a progress chart so I could work through each item and check it off.

  • I tricked my resistance to specific tasks by making goals of other tasks.

    I admit that I didn’t do this on purpose, but it wound up working, so it’s going on the list. When I was making my Writer’s Five goals for February, there were two projects I was considering focusing on for my write and release goals. The one I picked was a short story I felt some resistance to working on, but felt pretty comfortable about where it was. I avoided working on it by instead working on the project I felt more resistance to completing because it included revising an outline and sample chapters. But, uh, I finished the outline and am into the sample chapters. While avoiding the other task. So… yay?

Do you have any “tricks” you use to get yourself to finish writing things? Mind sharing? I need some help.

Writer Resources: The Writer’s Five Worksheet

I’m great at meeting metric-based goals, but in meeting those goals I sometimes lose sight of the goals driving those metrics. I can write a specific number of words, but those words don’t always resolve into completed works. I know creatives who struggle with figuring out how to break big goals (like “write a novel”) into smaller, more manageable tasks. And I know other creatives who set goals, get distracted, and when they look up again, the whole year is gone!

In an effort to stay focused, this year I decided to break my goals into smaller, targeted tasks that can each be completed in about a month. These are designed to focus my attention, make progress in specific ways, and measure my overall progress with landmarks.

I provided an overview of the Writer’s Five in my January Write Life post, A Contemplative January, but now I’m coming to you with a resource to facilitate writing and tracking your goals.

 

Resource: Writer’s Five Worksheet

The Writer’s Five Worksheet is a blank sheet for you to write and track your goals for the month. Each goal is based around one verb: read, write, research, release, and relax. Basing the goals around a simple verb already tells you a lot about what your goals will be, thus making them easier to compose.

For each goal, name one specific thing you will do. Make sure it’s something you can accomplish in about a month, so “Write a novel” shouldn’t be on your list, but maybe “Write Chapter 1” will be.

 

Read: Name a specific book you will read.

If you have other reading goals and are a regular reader, I encourage you to select a book (or two) you’ve either been struggling to read or putting off for some reason. One of the books I selected for February was a book I started six months ago and just hadn’t finished. You might also select books you “should” be reading, such as a book published in your genre in the last five years.

Write: Name a specific project and the part of the project you will write.

You might focus on a single chapter or section of your novel, or a specific stage of writing, for example, “Revise short story.” Remember, the task doesn’t have to take a month to finish, but should be small enough to complete within a month.

Research: Name a specific subject to research.

Instead of a subject to research, you might decide to read a nonfiction book about a topic that interests you or a writing craft book. If you do select a subject to research, consider listing what research you’re planning to do this month, for example, “Read wikipedia entries about the Golden Age of Piracy.”

Release: Name a piece of writing you will release or submit.

Releasing writing into the world doesn’t always need to be to a potential publisher. Many of my release goals will be about submitting works-in-progress to critique partners. You might even decide your release goal is to send a chapter or story to me!

Relax: Name one thing you will do for yourself and your self-care.

It can be easy to forget that a rested mind works more efficiently and creatively. Picking one thing to do each month that is just for you and your mental (or physical) health is about letting yourself rest and recharge so you can later tackle all your other goals.

 

Download a Writer’s Five Worksheet for yourself. As you set your goals for the next month, consider what you’ve been avoiding, are struggling with, or need some extra motivation to complete. What is the smallest thing you can do to start working on that project? Maybe that’s your first goal.

If you post your goals on Twitter or Instagram, don’t forget to tag @selfwinding so I can cheer you on.

Want a Writer’s Five Worksheet in another color? A whole rainbow is available to patrons pledging $2 or more per month at my Patreon campaign. As a patron you’ll be able to download Bust-Ass Blue, Gangbusters Green, Productive Peach, Vigorous Violet, Can-Do Cranberry, and Successful Steampunk (spoilers: it’s brown), in addition to Tenacious Teal.

The Write Life: A Contemplative January

I started this month as many other writers did: considering my goals for the year. The past few years I’ve been in flux as I establish my editorial business, build my Patreon campaign, and write, write, (revise), write with the goal of traditional publishing. Many of the goals I set at the start of previous years have morphed or been entirely discarded because I was too ambitious, didn’t see the steps I needed to take between the start and the end, or life had other plans. (Last year fell into that latter category.)

While I still have a few big picture goals for the year—such as a word count goal (200K) and some habit goals (write 250 words or for 1 hour every day)—I’ve decided to focus on more short-term goals this year. Which is why I now present to you: The Semi-Monthly Writer’s Five.

What is The Semi-Monthly Writer’s Five? It’s five things I should be able to do in about a month that will contribute to my long-term writing goals. I will be centering these goals around the verbs “read,” “write,” “research,” “release,” and “relax.” (Did I stretch to make these all R-sounds? Yes.)

What that means is each month I will make sure to:

  • Read a specific book.
  • Write a specific story.
  • Research a specific topic (which often will actually be reading a different book).
  • Release a piece of writing (whether that’s sending for queries, submissions, or feedback).
  • Relax. No, like, seriously, this is self-care time.

Absolutely none of these goals will be metric based because too often I phone in performance on metric-based goals. Can I write every day? Hell yeah. Can I write something productive every day? *innocent whistling and avoiding eye contact* I need goals that will force me to finish a thing, hence, the Writer’s Five.

When I finish all five things, I set five new goals and I get a cookie. (I mean, the cookie may sometimes be cheesecake or a brownie or a shiny sticker, but you get the idea.)

January/February Writer’s Five:

  1. Read: Read Murder, Magic, & What We Wore and Call Down the Hawk
    I started the month with two books in progress and aimed to finish both. One, because I started it last July and I should actually finish it, and the other because it’s due back to the library.
  2. Write: Revise the Bodyswap Grim Reaper story
    The first draft is done, but I need to go back through to make the story cohesive, deepen the POV, and clarify the motivations of the characters. (I also need to pick which ending I want.)
  3. Research: Read The Invention of Murder
    I’ve been working my way through this dense nonfiction book, but I doubt I’ll finish before it’s due back to the library. This may return to the Writer’s Five later this year. Current goal: read 250 pages.
  4. Release: Send the Bodyswap Grim Reaper story to critique partners
    This goal is obviously contingent on me successfully completing the Write goal, but I can start lining up readers.
  5. Relax: Take a walk
    Even though I now have other exercise equipment, an occasional walk feels like the thing to reconnect me to the surrounding world.

Want to join me in the Writer’s Five? Leave a comment below with the five things you’ll be doing this month-ish. Try to list something you’ll read, write, research, release, and do to relax.

For full access to The Write Life, sign up on Patreon for $1 or more per month. You’ll also receive a personalized thank you in a future edition of The Write Life.

The Write Life: December 2019

I hesitate to say that in December I took a break. (I mean, my to-do lists are intense, and a lot of community planning happens in December, so it is by no means a light month.) But, no, yeah, I took a break.

In November, I wrote more of my nonfiction project than I had planned, never taking the time to do the other thing I meant to—devote some hours to actually finishing the in-progress short stories I have on the drafting table. And when I got to December I just… didn’t… want to? I also wasn’t feeling too terribly interested in adding more words to the nonfiction project, or planning the next novel, or… anything, so I decided to take the hint, do myself a favor, and cut myself some slack.

I still had 15,000 words to go in my year goal to hit 250K, so I did write things, but mostly I solicited prompts from friends, wrote some silly things that made me laugh, and made some headway on things like this post, Writer Resources, and a few other projects and assignments due in January. I was pretty careful to balance play with work and to emphasize play over work, to read more than write, to watch a bunch of movies (StarWars marathon, am I right?), and to rest. Like, just in general, to rest.

2019 has been a very long year. For me personally an uncle and an aunt passed away this year, I’ve been plagued by a series of minor inconveniences which are funnier when you’re not dealing with grief, my workload and therefore income has been uneven and unpredictable, and my anxiety has been spiking and helping trigger bouts of depression. And a lot of this came to a head in August and has been a railroading me into exhaustion day in and day out since then. August to November was a very long four months. I needed a nap. So I took one.

My December was not about creativity by any means. The month was about recharging. I read five books, watched at least nine movies (oh, Star Wars), and I even sometimes went out just to be somewhere else.

I don’t have a happy, satisfied wrap-up to this because I still have so much to do and I’m still overworked, exhausted, and anxious, but I can feel a difference between how I started this month and how I ended it. My problems are still there, but a breather has helped me feel (sort of) more equipped to deal with them.

 

For full access to The Write Life, sign up on Patreon for $1 or more per month. You’ll also receive a personalized thank you in a future edition of The Write Life.

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Writing on Days When You Feel Drained

If you feel drained of ideas and motivation, that could be a sign that you need to take a writing break and let yourself entirely off the hook. Spend the day reading a book, catching up on TV, or actually, you know, interacting with people. I find that having conversations with other writers and creators is often the best way to find inspiration again.

But let’s assume for a moment that you can’t take a break and you have to write no matter what (ahem, like when you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo). What do you do on those days when you have to force yourself to write?

Maintaining a Streak

If you’re writing to maintain a streak and it doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you write, it may be a day to shelve the current work in progress and try something new.

Shift over to your ideas notebook, grab a random prompt from the internet (there are a jillion, so if you don’t have a favorite site bookmarked, Google “creative writing prompts” or “writing prompt generator”), or ask your friends if there’s a story they’d like to be told. I’ve written some fun one-offs about my original characters inspired by things my friends prompted me or scenes they wish they’d read.

If you’re still struggling to get any words on the page, or are generally finding yourself uninspired, it’s time for some free writing. This free writing could eventually evolve into a blog post or story, but it might just be an activity to get you writing again.

Start with a question about what’s bugging you. This could be anything from, “Why am I so tired today?” to “How am I so uninspired?” Once you have that question nailed down, twist it into a question you can analyze and/or give advice about. “Why am I so tired today?” might become “How can you write when you’re tired?” or “What’s the greatest obstacle between a writer and a nap?” or “Why is sleep so important to the creative process?” Once you have a question, and one that is built on a topic that’s currently bugging you, you have something to write about. And turning it into a question that you can either analyze or give advice about lets you turn free writing about your problems into a positive exercise. Too often free writing about problems can turn into negative thoughts and self-immolation, but turning it into a question to be answered lets you think about the same topic in a completely different way and hopefully can inspire you to help yourself!

Writing to a Deadline

If you’re writing for a deadline and you must work on a specific piece, the real problem is that you have to find inspiration in a specific work, so jumping to other pieces isn’t always an option.

But it’s still where I would start.

When feeling totally uninspired on one story, I start by writing on something else. If you have another project in progress, spending some time on that might reinvigorate your motivation for the deadline project. If no other project is available, you can take any of the suggestions above and apply them here—prompts, free writing with a question, etc.

No matter what you’re writing, set a timer to limit how much time you spend working on other activities or projects. I recommend 10–15 minutes for warm-up writing before trying to get back to the project you’re supposed to be working on.

Or, instead of writing something different, you can use prompts that allow you to work with the same characters or the same world, essentially approaching your deadline project from the side instead of head-on. Try posing what-if situations for your characters, alternate scenes/endings, or writing something from the perspective of someone else in your world.

You can use a similar strategy as the suggested free writing activity by answering a question related to the thing you’re stuck on—”How can my character get out of this situation?” or “Who should my character partner with for this mission?” or “How does the world’s society/laws limit my character?” Using the free writing format as an opportunity to organize your thoughts can help you work through the problem in a different way than just thinking about it. (This is why so often solutions might come when we’re talking to someone else, rather than when we’re just thinking to ourselves. Different ways of communication allow us to organize our thoughts differently, so if you don’t have a friend on hand, have a conversation with a blank page!)

If you absolutely must be working on your deadline-driven project and don’t have time for warm-up activities, try reading the last 1-2 pages you’ve written and allow yourself to revise and edit them. One of the best ways for me to get back into a story is by working to flesh out the last thing I wrote. If the last thing I wrote is literally what stumped me—and I had difficulty figuring out where the story goes next—I rewrite from where the story started to derail. Sometimes I might keep all the action and description, but change the dialogue. Sometimes I might move the setting. Sometimes I might scrap the entire idea, or even shift who is in the scene and take the whole thing in a completely different direction! It may not feel like you’re getting anywhere (especially if you end up trashing that version and starting again), but what you’re doing is eliminating the ideas that aren’t working and helping find the idea that does work.

 

No matter what’s going on with you creatively, there are ways to dig deep on those days when you’re feeling drained. And the more often you practice digging deep, the easier it can get. I still sometimes hit days when I’m totally worn out and need a break, and on those days I write my minimum word count using one of the strategies above and call it a day. But because I’ve put in so much effort, it’s easy for me to use one of those strategies and see success. So even if it’s hard now, know that putting in the hard work will help train you as a writer and eventually you’ll be able to sail past those inspiration-less days with no trouble.

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1,000

Tomorrow is my 1,000th consecutive day of writing!

On one hand it is a holy-cannoli moment. Ten years ago, I never would have dreamed of having this kind of regularity in my writing life. Even before I was depressed, I wrote in fits and spurts and when I felt like it, sneaking in a writing life in between work hours, chores, family functions, and everything else. I could commit during NaNoWriMo, or when I had a deadline, but I was wholly unconcerned about when I would write next or what I was building toward. My writing life was an amorphous thing and even though I had goals (get published!) I had no plan. I was basically an underpants gnome where my plan was:

Phase 1: Write

Phase 2: ????

Phase 3: PUBLISH!

I had this idea that I’d like to write every day, but I didn’t understand what it would do for me and I didn’t have the follow-through to make it happen. When I realized I had written every day the first week of 2016, it was a surprise. I haphazardly decided to keep going, but that cavalier decision hardened into resolve and I slowly figured out how to juggle writing and all my other responsibilities. I learned that I had to prioritize writing to make my writing life happen. I learned that I had to tell friends and family things like, “this has been fun, but I have to go write,” even though I felt silly and trivial doing so the first few times. I learned that writing was as important as my job (because I wanted it to be my job), so I had to value it.

All of those little lessons and small goals helped me to get to the other hand of how I feel about this landmark.

On this other hand, this non-holy-cannoli-moment hand, writing 1,000 days seems inevitable. It’s still an achievement, don’t get me wrong, but I see no reason why I won’t write for 1,000 more days. Daily writing is such a part of my life now that I no longer question how I will shuffle my day to include writing. And that’s the real power that comes from building a writing habit. I have confidence that I will write today and from that confidence stems other confidence:

That this won’t be my last great idea.

That I can figure out how to write this scene.

That I can find the right word.

That I can do this.

While I’m proud of having written 1,000 days in a row, I’m most proud of cultivating confidence in my writing life and developing the kind of consistency that makes me certain that, if I want to, I’ll be celebrating 2,000 days of writing in 2021.

 

If you’d like to know more about building a daily writing habit, I’ve written previously on why you should write every day and writing while sick. I’ve also written about apps that can make it easier to build a writing habit. If you’re thinking about or trying to build a writing habit, I’d love to hear how it’s going for you.

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(Not) Writing With Depression

Today I’m a daily writer. Even on sick days or very busy days I make sure to write at least 150 words. This is my third year of this schedule and it’s still working for me. There are days when it’s tough, and days when I write my 150 words and then erase them. There are days when I write in 10-minute bursts throughout the day or have to force myself to sit down and spend time writing something. But every day I write is a day when I don’t forget how to write.

That wasn’t the case for me in 2012.

In September of 2012 I started treatment for situational depression. Over the previous year I had lost the ability to feel emotions, to care for myself, and to pay attention to conversations, but the loss that hurt the most was related to writing.

I tried many times during 2012 and 2013 to sit down and write. Every time was an exercise in self-hate and improving my ability to berate myself. I went from writing 150,000 words in 2011 to 60,000 words in 2012 to 15,000 words in 2013. It was a clear—trackable—symptom of my depression, and one of the most frustrating ones.

Before I was depressed, writing was easy and I took it for granted. I would listen to a song, read an article, have a silly conversation with a friend, and—BAM—there I went, fingers flying across the keyboard, 2,000 words plopped out in an hour or so. There were days when I would write 5,000 or 6,000 words. Words were easy and plentiful. I didn’t understand how someone could be completely blocked. Writer’s block was an easy obstacle for me to overcome. If one idea was giving me trouble, I’d jump to another. Being unable to write? When I wanted to? Not me.

While I was depressed, even if I decided to come to the writing watering hole, I could not get my horse to drink. The times I tried to write, I would sit and stare at a blank page. I might ask a friend for a prompt, mull it over, struggle over 200 words, and then delete all of them. Between January 2013 and October 2013 I wrote on a total of 9 days. In November and December, after I’d decided to apply to an MFA program and was starting to feel better, I kicked into “high-gear” and wrote 10 days out of those two months. I wrote 19 days total in 2013 and now in 2018 I’m currently on a run of having written 942 consecutive days. That’s—obviously—a huge change.

Writing was not something that automatically came back after I started feeling better. I struggled in 2014, even after I started UCF’s MFA program. (Let me tell you, starting a writing intensive program while you’re still recovering from depression? Not recommended.) This time when I forced myself to write, I had a different attitude about it. I shut down the negative thinking and pushed forward, continuing to plunk down words. It wasn’t the best writing—oh boy, adverbs ahoy and the longest dialogue tags you ever did see—but it was writing. And it got easier the more I pushed myself to practice and the more I forced myself to keep what I wrote.

Part of the reason I applied for the MFA program was because I knew it would provide structure that would force me to write. With grades as a motivator, I knew I could propel myself to get past the hump and write something because I couldn’t turn in a blank page. I feared all my writing might be crap. I feared the depression might have stripped away whatever talent I may have started with. I feared I was forever changed. But I knew that an MFA program was going to force me to confront those things and either figure out how to write again or discover I was done.

In the Spring semester, the start of 2015, I felt something come alive again. I revisited some crazy prompts I’d seen in the last year. I wrote about sentient robots in an alternate history World War II and about a house that possesses a girl. I wrote short assignments that explored my divorce and reconnected with characters created pre-depression. I started working on my novel in earnest. By the end of 2015, I had written 83,000 words and I was invested in my stories again.

Do I still love what I wrote then? Not really. But it gave me a foundation for stories and, most importantly, for my confidence. In 2016 when I realized I had written every day the first week of the year, it was an easy decision to continue writing every day until the end of the month, and then the next month, and the next. I made daily writing part of my routine, and that routine has helped me get through grief-related depression and anxiety. Since 2016 I’ve written over a half million words. I’ve come a long way.

In my experience, there was no writing with depression, not really. There was writing while fighting to not be depressed. There was writing for recovery, writing to unload negative feelings and trying to find something positive. There was struggling to write and hating myself and trying not to hate myself. There were moments when I was me again and when I could find joy and when it felt like I might be out of the woods. There was writing after depression.

Writing after depression hasn’t been all happily ever after. There are still days when writing is a struggle, when depression rears its ugly head, when life doles out extra helpings of anxiety and grief. On those days I set a timer for 10 minutes and I peck out 100 words. Then I set another timer and peck out 100 more. I check in with myself and ask, “Are you done? Do you have anything else in you?” Most days I do. Most days I can hit 500 words, but some days I can’t and I have learned to say, “That’s okay. This is enough.”

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Reading Fiction to Write Fiction

One of the ways I prepare to write a novel is by doing a lot of reading. While some of that reading is nonfiction research to help me with the time period, jargon, or specific details surrounding the novel or topic, some of my most potent research comes from reading fiction.

There are a few ways reading fiction can help with the writing process:

1. Familiarization

Getting familiar with your genre allows you to internalize story structures, characters, and tropes within the genre and speak about the genre with authority. You can find inspiration in what other people have written and you can figure out what concepts have been written about extensively or haven’t been covered at all. Also, the more familiar you are with your genre, the easier it will be to determine comp titles, which are used to pitch your book and for agents and editors to determine the marketability of your work.

2. Internalization

Just like how you can internalize tropes of your genre, you can also internalize the descriptive and narrative techniques of your favorite authors. If you start to analyze why a particular device works, you can start to understand how to recreate and use that technique in your own writing.

3. Research

Reading fiction set in the same time period as your work or about the same subject matter can do some of your research heavy lifting by generating a list of what you need to research to establish authenticity or accuracy. You also might be able to pick up some details from those published novels (just make sure you double check that those details are accurate and fit your story).

Now that you’re on board with reading fiction to write fiction, you have to start reading as a writer and not just for enjoyment. It may sound difficult, but with a few tools, a plan, and some practice, you’ll be ready to dissect any novel.

Tools & Organization

The three most helpful tools for reading as a writer are a set of color-coded page flags, a pencil for underlining, and a notebook. If you’re reading eBooks, page flags won’t be so helpful, but most eReaders have highlighting or note-taking options, so familiarize yourself with what you can use in your app to mark your eBooks.

While you could use any page flags, or even just dog-ear your book, I prefer using color-coded flags (or color-coded highlighting on eReaders)—this was especially useful when I was just starting to develop my skill of reading as a writer.

Pink—anything involving character development, which may include dialogue, reactions and descriptions

Blue—setting and physical description

Purple—world-building dealing with history, politics, religion, or other abstract ideas (to differentiate from setting description)

Yellow—compelling language; sentences that have excellent imagery, syntax, and rhythm

If there’s a different area you need to study (dialogue, how plot fits together, etc), you may decide to swap out a label, or get a pack of page flags with more colors. The important thing is to pick what each color represents and be consistent with it.

In addition to organizing your notes, color coding helps create a guideline for what you’re looking for as you read. If you’ve thought about it before you start reading, it’s easier to tune into craft as you read.

Since a flag only identifies what page you want to review, you’ll need to mark exactly what on the page is drawing your attention. There are a few options for doing this, which I’ve divided between those who will brazenly write in books and those who like to keep their books pristine or who are borrowing books.

Write In

  • Underline in pencil or pen
  • Highlight using your flag color coding

No Write In

  • Take a picture of the page
  • Write down the quotes in a notebook

Regardless of your method, document the sentences/paragraphs you want to come back to review. If you are writing them in a notebook, it’s helpful to include a page reference in case you need the full page context later.

Study Plan

Once you’re in the groove of tagging, you need to have a plan for how to go from reading fiction to learning from fiction. This is when your notebook will come into play.

When you’ve finished a few chapters, or are at a comfortable stopping point, go through your flags to study what you’ve marked. Compiling notes every few chapters ensures those chapters are still fresh in your mind and makes analysis a little easier.

The most organized way of studying the highlighted material is to go through your flags by color, grouping your notes by topic of study. By focusing on one topic at a time, you might start to see patterns and make connections about what you’re seeing the author do.

Consider this routine as you start:

  • Copy the quote in your notebook.
  • Underneath, write why you captured the quote.
    • What made you think this was exemplary writing? What about it drew your attention? How does it provide context to the wider narrative?
  • After you’ve organized the quotes for one flag color, start thinking about how you can use these same techniques in your own writing. In short, what can you learn about writing from reading this novel?
  • Summarize what you learned. Include a checklist of strategies and techniques you want to try. You might refer back to the quotes to identify examples for each strategy.

If you don’t copy the quotes in a notebook, I recommend at least capturing what you learned from the book. It’s easier to try writing strategies if you have a list of writing strategies you want to try.

Read & Practice

Practicing is the only way to develop the skill of reading as a writer. A good way to practice is by studying a book you’ve already read. Using a book you already know well, you can start to see how the beginning affects the end, and you might even notice more writerly things because you’re less concerned with knowing what happens since you already know the plot and outcome.

If you find it difficult to keep track of all the things going on in a book, consider focusing on one thing. Personally, I struggle with knowing where to incorporate description, so I might decide to just focus on how characters and locations are described and when those details enter the narrative. Starting by focusing on one area of craft can help you learn how to identify and appreciate individual elements of craft within the wider narrative and can help you build the skill of reading as a writer.

As you continue to develop this skill, you may be able to skip some of the steps, eventually passing on page flags, or just keeping a notebook beside you as you read. However your process evolves, ask yourself two questions when you finish reading a book: What did I learn from this? What can I apply to my own writing?

How Fanfiction Saved My Writing Life

After finishing my bachelor’s degree I was burned out on writing. I had been in a writing pressure cooker for three and a half years, and after assembling and defending an honors thesis my final semester, I was wiped out. When I looked at my post-graduate life, my first thought was that I needed a break from writing. I planned to take a month away to let my brain rest and refuel, but that month stretched into a year because when I tried to get back to writing, I couldn’t do it.

As an undergraduate I was trained to write “literary” fiction, which boiled down to contemporary realistic fiction. I don’t recall if anyone directly told us not to write genre fiction, but I graduated with the perception of what I was “supposed” to be writing, which wasn’t science fiction. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t like writing contemporary realistic fiction (and therefore was terrible at writing it); I couldn’t shake this feeling that if I started writing science fiction, I’d be letting down my professors. They taught me how to be a better writer! Didn’t I owe it to them to write what would make them proud?

What I did instead of writing was start watching Stargate: SG-1. The premise of the show (which is contemporary sci-fi), is that there is a portal that takes SG-1 to explore other planets, most of which are based on various ancient Earth cultures. The show has world building every week, great interpersonal relationships between the four-man titular team, and concrete good vs. evil themes that get more complicated and gray as the ten-year series develops. Plus, Daniel Jackson is a linguist-anthropologist who is very pretty.

I quickly moved from watching the show to scoping out fandom online. I picked up friends, and, through them, joined a challenge community where a moderator would post a weekly challenge and participants could respond with art or fanfiction. Fanfiction, I thought, I’ve done this before. I hadn’t written much fanfiction prior to my immersion in literary fiction, but I wasn’t a stranger, so I gave it a shot and wrote my first SG-1 fanfic. The response was mild, but the experience opened my eyes to what I had been missing while writing literary fiction.

Writing fanfiction is an expression of love. Fan writers write because they love something enough to want to add to it. Writing about characters and worlds that I loved was my first step to falling in love with writing again. It was a slow build. My first years writing fanfiction I posted only a few stories, but then I started posting 40,000–60,000 words a year. I started incorporating my own worlds and characters, and once I was doing that much original creation, it was easy for me to find my way back to writing wholly original works.

Writing fanfiction taught me a lot about writing science fiction. I had a better grasp of world building because I had emulated SG-1 encountering new worlds and what obstacles and biases they had met. I learned how to pace a novel because I signed up for a Big Bang challenge to write a 40,000-word story. I learned to love what I was writing, how to balance projects with a day job, how to finish a story, and how to move on to the next thing. These are not easy lessons to learn, but through the process of writing fanfiction—over years—I got a taste for what all of these things meant.

Fanfiction was never my end goal, but I’m grateful for the years I spent wading in the waters of fandom. I learned so much from writing fanfiction (and I actually made several connections that have helped me in my journey to traditionally publish). While fanfiction doesn’t have to be a stop on every writer’s developmental roadmap, for me it was a reminder of why I was writing in the first place. As helpful as an MFA has been toward my development, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without having written fanfiction.