Writers, give yourself 10 minutes a day

Don't Give Up Dinosaurs

Honesty time.

I’m at this weird point in my writing life where I know I’m getting better, but I’m the least motivated I’ve ever been.

Let me back up and explain. I’m about a third deep into my WIP, which will be my third novel (fourth if you count that one I started in high school and never finished). At the same time that I’m writing it, I’m querying my previous novel and starting to wonder if I’ll ever get a manuscript request, let alone get it published. Even after two years of writing/revising and rounds of query critiques (including by published authors), it may not happen, folks. The query — for whatever reason — isn’t hooking agents.

So I’m feeling kind of discouraged. Like, what’s even the point of trying?

I know I’m usually all about preaching, “YOU CAN DO THIS KEEP TRYING,” but the truth is, even those of us who understand the value of persistence to a successful writing career aren’t immune to struggling with confidence. I’m feeling pretty lousy.

Yes, I take comfort in the fact that for many published authors, it takes multiple books before they get published. Maybe even ten books. Or twenty. (Seriously, read this post — it will give you hope.) And pretty much every book can feel like “the one” and not be it.

And I know I’m growing and getting better. For my first book (not counting that high school attempt), I finished the first draft but not revision. For my second book, I finished the first draft and several rounds of revision with several critique partners, but the foundation is perhaps too weak to fix. For this book (third), I’m much more confident in the world-building, characters, and the foundation of the novel — it’s going to be better from the start.

All signs point to “it will happen someday.” I will get published. But the “someday” part throws me off.

And then I watched author Rachael Stephen‘s video about how it’s important just to try, every day, and keep trying. “You don’t want to write today,” she says, “but all you have to do is try. For ten minutes. … Once they’re up, you can get up and walk away. And at least you tried today.”

After that, she says, chances are you’ll get over the feeling of “oh my god this is so grueling ugh why even do this” and actually get carried away in the writing and start to enjoy yourself. You’ll start to remember why you wanted to write a book in the first place, and that will support you through the process.

Stephen admits that the video is as much a reminder to other writers as it is to herself, and I think this blog post is the same thing for me.

So I’m going to put in my ten minutes today. Even though I don’t want to. Even though I’m not feeling it. Even though I don’t particularly believe in myself right now. Because if I don’t at least try, then it will 100% never happen. And if I do try, and keep trying — well, even if I can’t predict whether it will or won’t happen, those are far better odds.

2016 is almost over. You were awesome.

Buffy Awesome

New Year’s Eve is a night of promises. “This next year is going to be awesome. I’m going to lose weight, read a hundred books, and run a marathon.”

Chances are, we’ll break those promises and then spend the year feeling bad about ourselves. How about we change that?

My new tradition is not to make resolutions on NYE, and not to beat myself up over what I failed to do this past year, but instead to give myself credit for what I accomplished.

My biggest feat? I finished a book. My second book.

I may not yet be a published author, but I Am an Author. I wrote a thing, revised a thing, and did all the work in between. Hey, I’m fucking proud of myself.

I learned new skills this year. I stepped out of my comfort zone more times than I can count, both for my day job and in my personal life. And I finally conquered my dread of revising. I figured out that the “secret” is that there is no secret — it requires you to roll up your sleeves and dive in and get really messy, and you’re wrestling with your own Watcher in the Water that you can only partially see and it’s horrible, and you want to give up and cry uncle, but eventually you survive.

I don’t always feel awesome, but I deserve to, and so do you.

Watcher in the Water

Right now, I’m querying, and it’s mostly a lot of waiting and worrying. In January, I’ll be tackling feedback from a beta reader, and I’m sure that will fill me with doubt and cause me to flail and agonize like I’m battling a baby water watcher, but there’s nowhere to go but forward. I’ve done the whole tango before. I can do it again.

And regardless of whether I find an agent and a publisher, I’m going to do the dance again, from the very beginning. I’ll start another book. And this time, I’ll try out some new moves.

That monster won’t know what hit him.

Writing life: The moment you know it’s all gonna work out

Rowling gif

As you may know from this blog, I’m deep into revisions on a young adult fantasy book. It’s my second completed manuscript, and while that alone is an accomplishment worth being proud of, I feel like I’ve achieved an even greater milestone in my writing life:

I am more comfortable with revision than I ever used to be.

Revision is scary. Okay, that’s an understatement. After I wrote my first book, I found revision fucking daunting. I used to relentlessly Google things like, “How do you revise your book without getting overwhelmed?”

When I got to my second novel (this one), something changed. I joined a local writer’s group, and eventually I started setting quarterly goals so I would get my first round of revisions done. That quarterly schedule turned into weekly goals, which turned into a real revising habit — and now I sit down to revise nearly every day, without fail.

The secret, I learned, was that there is no secret. Revision is hard. It’s always going to be hard, and it’s a necessary evil if you want to get published. But there are ways you can make it easier.

Writer’s groups and critique partners make revision a hell of a lot more approachable. I suck at identifying critical issues with my novel — maybe less so now, but still, I’m way too close to the damn thing to know what I should even try to fix.

That’s the rub: When you try to revise without feedback, especially when you’re new to revision, you’ll probably identify “problems” to fix while missing the bigger issues that you should be focusing on. I remember I spent hours revising the first few chapters of my first manuscript — churning out draft upon draft — and guess what? It wasn’t a very efficient use of my time, and I zoned in on smaller, nit-picky issues like word choice when I should have been thinking about whether the story made sense and what needed more developing.

Revising in a vacuum is a useless exercise.

When you have other people read and critique your novel, you get a reader’s perspective, which is so crucial for identify the real problems with your novel. Readers pick out things you would have never thought of — things that matter. They don’t obsess like you do over your prose and making it “perfect.” They’re much more willing to accept your style.

Critiques can hurt, but they’re mighty powerful. And eventually, you get used to them, and you don’t take criticism personally anymore. Once you do — what’s there to be afraid of? Certainly not revision. No, sir.

Being comfortable with the revision process is one of the best feelings in the world as a writer. It means you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in the name of making your novel better.

Do I ever still worry what readers will think? Of course. But I’m finding that I can survive whatever they throw at me. And that makes me so much more confident that I’m going to achieve my dream of being published one day.

go type gif

When reactions to your novel make you want to facepalm

facepalm gif

Sometimes you’re reading comments on your manuscript and you just feel like this.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the reader’s fault. Correction: It’s definitely not the reader’s fault. They’re not stupid; their opinion is legit. You just didn’t communicate yourself clearly, and now they’re super confused, and you’ve derailed their understanding of everything, and …

facepalm gif picard

You need to fix it, but where do you even start?

This is a question I’m struggling with right now, and honestly, the only solution I can think of is to take a deep breath and … think … HARD. Where did you lead your reader astray?

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, and it’s as simple as pronoun confusion or omitted dialogue tags. Who’s the “he” in this sentence? Who’s speaking here? Bam, presto, fixed — you’re done.

Other times, you’re going to have to play detective. If you can, ask them more questions. Ask them what they think is happening in the scene — have them recount the story to you — and as soon as their version and your version don’t align … BOOM.

radcliffe

But when all else fails, or you don’t have the person in front of you to interrogate them, you might either have to a) add a little more detail to clarify what something is or what’s going on, or b) add more introspection so a character’s motivation makes more sense. Every action has a reaction, as they say, but sometimes you don’t understand what the hell caused the action after that. So make sure you’re connecting the dots on paper, not just in your head.

I’m finding in my revisions that sometimes I need to write in a few extra sentences if a paragraph is confusing my reader. Or I might have to go chapters back to where I introduced an idea and flesh it out more, answering their questions early so they don’t carry their confusion throughout the whole book. Or I have to add an entirely new scene because PROBLEMS.

the office

Writing is never a perfect process. Revision can make you want to tear your hair out. And no matter how much you revise, somebody else can come along and point out another issue for you to resolve.

Have patience. Be easy on yourself. Do one revision pass at a time. Your novel will keep getting better, I promise.

A whole month of critiquing — DONE

frodo mordor

THE END

After critiquing over 100,000 words of another writer’s manuscript in a single month, those classic words took on new meaning.

Last month was the first time I had ever critiqued another writer’s entire manuscript, and it was a BIG JOB. I’m kind of exhausted right now. But I’m also excited, because this means that I get to dive into all the critiques she made on my manuscript and start a new, hopefully much more beneficial round of revisions.

I’m honored that I got to take part in shaping someone’s book. I mean, that’s downright cool. I feel like when I see it on shelves one day and sit down to read it in a glossy hardcover, I’m going to be teary-eyed and proud. Not because I was able to influence someone’s novel, but proud that I helped someone make their story better. Proud that she stuck through all the tough feedback and toiled through the edits to make it as good as it could be. Proud that I know someone who made her dream happen.

Because, hey — I BELIEVE in my critique partner. She’s gonna make it one day. I just know it.

Critiquing a full-length novel has also sharpened my eye as a writer. When you’re just reading a novel, there’s a bunch of little things you don’t notice or take for granted. And when you’re writing a novel, you’re too close to your work to see them. But when you’re critiquing someone else’s WIP and see issues come up time and again — well, you suddenly understand where all those writing rules came from. It clicks in a way that it didn’t before. I’m sure my critique partner could say the same thing from critiquing my story because every writer has their crutches.

Would I do a full manuscript swap again? Absolutely. It was definitely worth the investment to become a better critiquer, a more observant writer, and to receive a full critique in return. Would I do it again in the near future?

I think my brain needs a break first. :)

500 percent done

Virtual reality writing could be very different

This is a video of me trying Google Cardboard for the first time. I look kind of goofy, huh? :)

Last week, I visited the New York office of the education company I work for and got the chance to try one of these things on. If you’re not up on your virtual reality these days, Google Cardboard is a simplistic virtual reality viewer that uses your smartphone to run VR apps. You can get one for as little as $15.

Trying Google Cardboard, it occurred to me that writing for virtual reality could be very different than, well, writing for anything else.

We write for television. For movies. For games. For all sorts of platforms and experiences. And what each of those mediums require from writers is very unique. Even writing a short story is different from writing a novel, so writing for virtual reality would have to be different too, right?

The only people who are truly going to know what it’s like to write for virtual reality are, obviously, the people who are going to do it. But I can speculate about a few things:

  • Virtual reality could require a lot of “you” statements. The player is literally a part of the game, so VR requires a more intimate approach. Writing second-person well (beyond the level of a “choose-your-own-adventure” story) is a challenge.
  • More “show” than “tell.” With virtual reality, you have the opportunity to make every part of your storytelling immersive. The easiest way to do that is to load up on the show.
  • Description is less important. Again, this goes back to showing. When the player can see everything for themselves, they don’t need everything to be explained for them — they can explore the world firsthand.
  • Choice will matter more. When the player feels like they’re personally the ones making a decision, their choices will automatically have more weight. Or at least they should.
  • Dialogue could involve voice recognition, which would be … bonkers awesome. I can wish, can’t I?

Can you think of any other ways writing for virtual reality would be different than what we’re used to? Let me know in the comments!

 

The benefits of creating a chapter outline for your novel

chapter spreadsheet template

Making a chapter outline is one of the best things I’ve done for my work in progress (WIP).

I’m in my second draft now, so this chapter outline (pictured above) is different than the one I made for my first draft. It’s a lot more focused on what I wrote, not what I planned to write, and it helps me to spot the strengths and weaknesses in my story.

To make the outline, I used Google Spreadsheets. First, I “froze” Column A and Row 1 (click “View” –> “Freeze”), which locks them in place. I set columns for chapters, color-coded by point-of-view (my WIP features multiple character perspectives). Then I created rows for all the major aspects of storytelling that I wanted to keep track of — plot summary, conflict (external, internal, and escalation), the quality and content of the writing (dialogue, body language or action beats, description or sense of place/setting, verb strength), worldbuilding, and character relationships and subplots.

Here’s how I color-coded the rows:

Plot = bright yellow
Conflict = bright green
Writing = medium blue
Worldbuilding = bright blue
Character relationships, arcs, and subplots = medium purple

I made a lot of different purple rows — for a character’s relationship to another character, a character’s interactions with and feelings about the world, and any side issues that I wanted to explore. Basically, these rows let me track a character’s arc, relations, and development, as well as any subplots.

I always colored in the cells for plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding and added notes — but I only colored the purple cells when something in the chapter contributed to those elements. For example, if Character 1 and Character 2’s relationship changed, I colored that cell and wrote how.

If one of the purple cells should have been colored in, or one of the main cells (plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding) weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be, I colored the cells orange and wrote notes on why they were lacking and ideas for how to address the problem. These orange cells are basically a “red” flag to tell me that I need to work on a certain aspect of the chapter — I just used orange because it’s a less stressful color than red. :)

This chapter outline has been crucial for getting me to analyze and reflect on how each chapter is contributing to the novel overall. Each chapter should pull its weight and be invaluable to the story. It should deepen character development and relationships, reveal a new aspect to the world, intensify or add conflict (or sometimes resolve it), and occasionally introduce or develop subplots. The writing itself should also be the best it can be. Filling out the outline for each chapter gives me a better sense of where the gaps are, which helps me determine where I should focus my self-edits and revision.

I made a separate spreadsheet for assessing each character’s relationship to another, which gives more “life” to characters other than the protagonist, but maybe I’ll cover that in another post. :)

Tip: This is just my personal strategy. Your spreadsheet (if you want to use one) can look however you want. In fact, I’d love to hear what you’ve done with yours!

But remember, anything you can do to help yourself revise smarter is important — because revision will make your novel awesome:

novel tv in your head

Do you make any spreadsheets to help you with writing/revising your WIPs? Let me know what approach you take in the comments!

When you feel discouraged about your writing

writing hard

Last week, I was feeling overwhelmed by the writing process. Finishing a book takes a long time. First, you have to write it and take a pass at editing. Then you have to enlist critique partners to point out the problems you can’t spot yourself, which also requires that you devote time to their manuscripts. Then, before you begin the querying process, which can take months, you should probably show your novel to some beta readers to gauge how regular readers (not writers) would react to your book if they picked it up in a bookstore.

It’s easy to feel like all of this is too much of an investment. If you might have to write three, five, ten manuscripts before you get published, then why waste so much energy on a single book?

You can get caught up in thinking it’s going to take forever before you get good enough to publish, and then what if you never do?

Here’s the thing. Writing isn’t about getting published. It’s not even about talent. It’s about hard work and persistence. You should write because you love to write, because you don’t ever want to stop, not because you care about whether a group of people believe your work is “marketable” or whether it’s the next New York Times bestseller.

I know that’s a hard thing to hear because, holy shit, does writing take a lot out of you. I’ve been working on my current WIP for over a year. For a lot of that time, I didn’t necessarily keep to a strict writing or revising schedule — although I’m doing a lot better than I did with my first completed novel, which took me over three years to revise and even longer to realize that I was procrastinating because I didn’t feel passionate about it (a good sign that it sucked and I needed to move on to a new project).

Now I’m setting my writing/revising schedule at the beginning of the week using Any.do and planning out my goals per quarter. Because I want to finish this thing, no matter how long it takes. Even if it doesn’t end up being my debut and attracting an agent and publisher, that’s okay. Because just going from my last manuscript to this one, I can see how much my skills have grown. And I know that I’m going to get even better — so it won’t be quite so much work the next time around. Hopefully, my next story will be even more enjoyable to read, too, because I’ll have gotten better at all the things I’ve been struggling with.

So if you’re feeling down about your writing, tell yourself to shut up. Then pat yourself on the back and treat yourself to some chocolate or beer or whatever makes you happy. Because even if you can’t believe it right now, one day you’re going to get there — to that wonderful moment of seeing your book on somebody’s shelf. You just have to stick with it.

believe in magic

Life stuff continued (great news!)

pikachu

Today I want to share some exciting news and then fire off some quickie book reviews. Here we go.

I’m now working full-time as a community and social media manager for Classcraft, a really cool browser-based role-playing game that teachers and students play together. It’s not game-based learning (eg., Minecraft) but rather gamification, which is when you take game mechanics and principles and apply them to non-game settings (in this case, middle and high school). Students choose whether they want to be a mage, warrior, or healer, and teachers reward them for positive behavior and punish them for negative behavior. Kids also learn fun powers that help them work together as a team to win. So anything that’s happening in the game is corresponding directly with their performance and grades in class.

This all happened super fast. The team’s founder, Shawn Young, encouraged me to apply for the position after I interviewed him for an article (here’s the piece on Fast Co). I still work from home, make my own hours, and get all the other perks of being a freelancer, but it’s full-time and pays well enough that I was able to drop a lot of gigs. I’m still keeping some because I love writing about video games, but this is a nice change of pace for me, and I’m excited to see how it goes.

What do you think? If you have any tips for me or want to ask me questions about Classcraft — anything at all (maybe you know some teachers who might be interested?) — go right ahead. :)

And in other good news, I don’t have to relocate to Philadelphia as previously thought, so my boyfriend and our cats and I are pretty happy about that.

On to the book reviews! GO, GO, GO!

The Girl Who Would Be King by Kelly Thompson – Probably one of the better superhero novelizations (are there a lot of those?). Original property, so it’s not based on anything. It tells the origins of a superhero and a super villain who are connected through their mothers and a long line of superpowered women. It’s good, but a little cliche/predictable at times, so I wasn’t huge on this. Awesome ending, though.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver – These are all life stories about ordinary people. Great but depressing? That’s Carver. Perfect if you don’t feel like getting invested in any one story more than 15 pages long.

I RETURN — WHOOSH!

I’m still alive! No need to panic!

I realize I haven’t posted in, like, two months, and that’s pretty sucky of me. To be honest, I haven’t been in the biggest mood to blog, and I don’t think I need to be preachy about it. We all get tired of blogging sometimes, and I’ve been productive in other ways.

BUT I STILL LOVE YOU ALL. (To prove it, cute cat pics ahead!)

As you probably know, I’m a writer by day, so I work on lots of articles (both online and print — exciting!) all the time. You can always check up on the things I’m churning out here. And for fear of spoiling my progress with this, I’ve actually been chipping away at the old novel, which feels … so old by now.

Not surprisingly, in my absence I’ve gotten behind on book reviews. By now, it’s so late that I’ve probably forgotten everything I wanted to say about them, so I may or may not do reviews. But the books I’ve read include two Raymond Carver short story collections and The Girl Who Would Be King. Maybe I’ll do a roundup or something. Would that be cool?

I’ve also been playing (and dammit, COMPLETING) lots of video games in my spare time, which is kind of my job, but I don’t always get to do it without writing involved. Things are going super well right now. Some good prospects are lining up. And I’m doing something really, really fun and secret (for now) with three other girls, and I CAN’T WAIT to see it published.

Life news: I may be moving to Philadelphia, which is kind of no fun. My boyfriend and I don’t want to leave Pittsburgh, but, alas — school stuff. I can go anywhere with my work, but we have two cats now* and everybody we know is here, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we can stay put.

Sammy and Merlin 1
This actually was a thing that happened.

Other than that, I finished Breaking Bad, which makes me incredibly sad only because it’s the Best Show Ever Made, and Nothing Will Ever Be As Good Again (sighs).

I’m still on my quest to become the Ultimate Cooking Master, which this winter has involved making the hell out of some awesome chilis and soups and using my crock pot more and trying not to make everything with chicken, because god I eat a lot of chicken, and I should probably diversify.

I am stupidly busy this month, and that’s always my fault (more assignments = more money, yay!), but I will share a couple cool links:

There’s a new app that will let you read novels in under 90 minutes thanks to wearable technology. THE FUTURE IS NOW.

Don’t panic: You can play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s 30 years old and new again. GO!

So, what’s going on in the book/writing world that I should know about? What adventures have you gotten into? Deets, please!

Sammy and Merlin 2
Sammy (left) and Merlin (right).

*Our newest kitty, Sammy, only has three feet. He was born that way, ALL RIGHT?!