Tag Archives: writing goals

How to Nail the First Three Pages

Let’s face it, talking about writing the first pages of a novel is stressful. It can strike terror into the heart of even the most seasoned writer, because as writers we all know how scarily narrow the window is, and yet we must reach through it, grab the reader, and yank them into the story.

The problem is that writers often think that what pulls readers in is that perfectly written first sentence. The one that proves you’re a wordsmith. Because, of course, being a “wordsmith” is what defines you as a writer.

No, no, no.

What makes you a writer is the focused ability to relentlessly dig deep into your protagonist’s past, unearthing the specific material from which the story springs organically. Because it’s the story itself that makes the words potent. Not the other way around.

In other, um, words, it’s not the words. It’s what the words are saying that yanks the reader in. And what they’re saying comes from the story, NOT from writing technique, reader manipulation, writing rules or, heaven forbid, “love of language,” whatever that means.

The focus on wordsmithing is heartbreaking. It not only keeps writers from getting out of the starting gate, it keeps them from getting into it. Because if you can’t write a perfect opening sentence, what’s the point of writing a second sentence?

Here’s a welcome newsflash: The brain is far less picky about beautiful writing than we’ve been lead to believe. And that’s as true in literary fiction as in commercial novels.

So what does yank the reader in, what hijacks the reader’s brain on that first page, catapulting readers head first into the world of the story?

There are four things we’re wired to look for on the first pages that, in concert, create the world of the story, make the reader to care, and so — biologically — have to know what happens next. Because story isn’t for entertainment. Story is entertaining so we’ll pay attention to it, because we just might learn something we need to know about what makes people tick, the better to navigate this mortal coil without getting clobbered too often.

Here are the four elements that — even when the writing IS lovely, lyrical and beautiful — are what your reader is actually responding to.

What’s the Big Picture?

As readers, we know that a story is about how someone solves an unexpected problem they cannot avoid. That’s WHY we’re drawn to story – we want to see how someone will deal with the kind of problems we so studiously avoid in real life. We crave the “uh oh” that yanks us in. Not a mere momentary “uh oh,” but one that has legs – one that kicks off an escalating row of dominoes. Which is why we need a glimpse of those dominoes, of where this is going.

As one editor brilliantly said recently, “The first paragraph is a promise you make to your reader.” In other words: What is the overarching plot problem?

Here’s what that opening paragraph (sometimes only a sentence!) should convey:

  • What’s the Context? What arena will this play out in? Think of it as our yardstick, our score card. If we don’t know what the specific ongoing problem is, we can’t make sense of what’s happening. We’re wired to look for causality in everything. If this, then that – it’s how we humans turn the chaos around us into a world we can kind of, sort of, navigate. Plus, without a clear context, we can’t anticipate what might happen next, giving us nothing to be curious about, and so no reason to read forward.
  • Where’s the Conflict? Where is the specific conflict? Why is the problem hitting critical mass right now? We want to feel that jolt. That’s what gets our attention (not beautiful writing). Surprise rivets us. Don’t mute it, don’t make it “tepid,” don’t make the reader guess what you really mean – instead, let there be blood. Writers shy away from this, thinking it’s “over the top.” Here’s the truth: Over the top is what we come for. Whether in events, or in the depth of emotion seemingly mundane events can trigger.
  • What’s the Scope? Where will this end? What is it building toward? What is the journey you want me to sign on for? The biggest problem writers have is that they hold back the specifics for a reveal later, thinking that will lure the reader in. Instead it locks the reader out. First, it implies we already care enough to want to know what’s going on. We don’t. Letting us know that Something Big is happening, but keeping it vague, implied, unclear, doesn’t make us curious. It makes us annoyed. Like the writer is toying with us. We can’t imagine what might happen next because we have no idea what is happening now. Or why. So why would we care?

The irony is that writers withhold the very information that would lure us in. Consider these very specific, utterly revealing opening lines:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. From Celeste Ng’s debut literary novel Everything I Never Told You

It was a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost didn’t notice I was being blackmailed. From Becky Albertalli’s YA Simon vs. The Homosapien’s Agenda

Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent toward murder with a bus ride. From Elizabeth George’s thriller What Came Before He Shot Her

Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat. From Caroline Leavitt’s literary novel Cruel Beautiful World

The Takeaway: GIVE IT ALL AWAY! TELL US WHERE WE’RE GOING. TELL US WHAT’S HAPPENING. BE SPECIFIC. BE CLEAR. BE CONCRETE. And yes, I’m yelling, not at you but at that pesky voice in your head that often tells you to hold back, that says somehow holding back makes you a more sophisticated writer. Here’s the truth: giving it all away is not “unliterary.” It’s not clunky. It’s not over the top. It’s not too obvious. It’s the key to grabbing the reader.

The job of the first paragraph is to hook the reader by stoking that delicious sense of urgency. Now you have to follow through in order to hold them.

What Is Happening?

Once we know what the story problem is, we expect that first domino to topple, starting a chain reaction that we’ll ride all the way to the end. So, let the problem begin.

I’m betting that’s a piece of advice you’ve already heard. Leap into action! The problem is it implies that objectively “dramatic” action in and of itself is engaging. Couldn’t be less true.

I remember years ago reading the first pages of a manuscript – it was a historical novel set in the wild west. It opened with a woman trapped alone in a runaway stagecoach. The driver had been shot, the horses were running wildly, madly, the woman was screaming, and did I mention they were galloping along a sheer cliff edge, so at any minute the stagecoach could plunge to the valley below and . . . who cares?

The irony was that the more “specific” sensory details she threw in, the more beautiful her metaphors, the more intricate her rendition of the horror on that poor trapped woman’s face, the more it alienated the reader. I mean, with all those details it started to feel like there was going to be a test or something. Not that the reader wants that woman to die, but sheesh, you don’t actually know her, so your mind wanders toward things you do care about like, hmmm, I wonder if that brownie is still in the fridge, maybe I should just go check?

And here’s the thing, without the aforementioned context and scope, the above is dull, boring, and . . . a brownie did you say?

The Takeaway: Yes, immediate action is required. Something must be happening, absolutely. But action alone – regardless how objectively dramatic – won’t pull the reader in. It needs to be the action that kicks off the overarching problem that we’ve already been made aware of, and as important, it needs to be someone’s problem – which brings us to the next thing the reader is searching for on the first pages . . .

Who Is the Protagonist?

After all, the protagonist is the reader’s avatar in the story, the person in whose head the reader will reside. This is the person who the reader will be rooting for, whose point of view everything will be filtered through.

Make no mistake: everything that happens in the plot gets its meaning, and therefore its emotional weight, based on one thing and one thing only: how it affects the protagonist. Does it get her closer to her goal or further from it? Does it help her or hurt her? And — this is where your story really lies — what specific, subjective meaning is she reading into what’s happening, given her agenda?

The Takeaway: Without a protagonist, nothing means anything, and even the most “objectively” dramatic action falls flat because there’s no story, just a plot — otherwise known as “a bunch of things that happen.” Which is why as readers we want to meet the protagonist on the very first page.

Now comes the fourth element, the one that brings these three elements together and binds them in meaning:

Why Does What’s Happening Matter to the Protagonist?

Right now you could be thinking, Hey, that woman trapped in the stagecoach—I sure know why plunging over the cliff mattered to her. It’s because she doesn’t want to die. Duh! And that’s precisely why that isn’t what the reader is after. Because the reader already knows that no one wants to plunge to their death. So there’s nothing we can learn from that. It’s generic. Ho hum.

Rather, the answer to this question stems from something that writers often don’t focus on, let alone develop: What is the protagonist’s overarching agenda, the one she steps onto the page with?

All protagonists enter the story with an agenda — whether they’re conscious of it or not — and the plot is going to mess with it. The reason what’s happening on page one matters to the protagonist is because it’s going to throw a monkey wrench into their well-laid plan.

Want an example of an overarching agenda? Let’s circle back to the first two lines of Simon vs. the Homosapien’s Agenda: “It was a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost didn’t realize I was being blackmailed.”


That starts with a bang. We have a notion of where it’s going, the scope and the conflict. But the real question is how does being blackmailed affect the agenda Simon had before his dorky classmate Martin threatened him?

Here’s the story: Simon is gay, he’s in the closet, not because he’d get clobbered by anyone if he came out, he just doesn’t want things to change right now, because change is uncomfortable, even good change, and as a sixteen year old he already has enough inherent change in his life, thank you very much. But . . . he’s also fallen in love with a mystery boy, who he met on the school’s online message board. Neither knows the other’s real name. The boy, also in the closet, is Blue; Simon is Jacque. This is the first person who Simon has been able to open up to, and it feels amazing. His goal is to find out who Blue is and hopefully fall into his arms. THAT is the agenda Simon stepped onto page one with, already fully formed.

Martin accidentally discovers Simon’s email chain with Blue and decides to use it to his advantage. Martin wants Simon to help him get the attention of Abby, a girl Simon is friends with. Put in a good word, maybe invite him along when they get together. No big deal.

So why does the overarching plot problem – that Simon is being blackmailed – matter? Because it threatens to derail Simon’s agenda. If word gets out, it might not only spook Blue, but hurt him. And that’s the last thing Simon wants to do. So why not help Martin? Abby will never have to find out . . . right?

And there you have it, hooked and held!

The Takeaway: What’s the real secret of nailing the first pages? It’s this: All stories begin in medias res — Latin for in the middle of the thing, the “thing” being the story itself. So page one of your novel is actually the first page of the second half of the story. Because you can’t “give it all away,” unless you have “it” in the first place.

Which brings us back to where we started. Writing isn’t about starting on page one and wordsmithing forward. Being a novelist is about digging deep long before you get to page one and creating the first half of the protagonist’s story. Only then will you have a story to tell.

By Lisa Cron
Source: writershelpingwriters.net

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Mindfulness for writers: A beginners guide

The first time I remember using the art of mindfulness I was in an extremely stressful meeting with a drug addict.

At risk of losing her children, the woman’s behaviour had become loud and abusive to everyone, including me. Threats were made and accusations were thrown. After one particularly volatile, screaming outburst aimed at me, I felt an acute sense of fear wash over me and grip my heart like a vice.

My breathing became more rapid and my fight or flight response kicked in – the door to the meeting room had never looked so inviting.

But I was a professional. Someone who was part of the team supporting the children in our school. We were their voices when they couldn’t be heard. Walking out would let them down. It would let my headteacher down.

I clasped my hands tightly under the desk and focused on my Moleskine diary. Trust me to seek solace in a notebook! My heart was thudding so loudly I thought the lady next to me must be able to hear. Heat rose from my chest and up into my face. Tears burned my eyelids and I blinked furiously.

I kept my gaze on that Moleskine and nothing else.

It dawned on me that I had to take control. With much difficulty, I attempted to regulate my breathing. I closed my ears to the rest of the room and counted each and every breath. Gradually my heartbeat slowed to a more normal pace and the pain in my chest subsided.

I talked quietly to myself – repeating the word ‘breathe’ over and over in my head. What was said during the meeting at that point, I have no idea. Nearly three years later, most of the meeting is a blur, to be honest.

But the memory of my body’s response will never leave me.

The Power of Mindfulness

At the time, I didn’t know that I’d practised a simple form of mindfulness. What I did know was that counting my breaths and focusing my mind on the rise and fall of my chest saved me from a professional disaster. It also began my journey into meditation and a greater desire for overall wellbeing.

But what exactly is mindfulness? And, as writers, how can it benefit us? After all, we don’t often find ourselves in situations like the one mentioned above, so is it something we can use?

Well, to put it simply, yes.

Mindfulness is used by many people for many different reasons. You don’t have to be religious. You don’t have to follow a specific programme. It really is what you make it. There is no right or wrong way to do it. All these things make it very appealing and very easy to start.

All it requires from you is a little bit of your time. Time to focus on the present moment when things are feeling overwhelming or stressful. Time to focus on the present moment without judgment.

For writers, we can focus heavily on things that have happened in the past that we may still feel discouraged and upset about. Or we worry about where our writing is going in the future and whether we’ll ever be published in one form or another.

Mindfulness enables us to eliminate the thoughts about the past and the future, and simply focus on the now.

So What Exactly Is It?

Mindfulness is focusing your attention on the present moment. It uses what you’re directly experiencing via your senses to focus your mind on what is happening right now, rather than what has happened in the past or might happen in the future.

It can also be influenced by your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions. You stop judging yourself for the way you feel and simply feel it. You begin to notice what your body is telling you and start to create space between you and your thoughts.

When you feel overwhelmed or stressed, you find somewhere quiet to sit and focus your thoughts on your breathing, creating that gap between your thoughts and emotions. When those negative thoughts start to invade, you bring your focus back to your breathing to calm those emotions down.

For writers, it can help us with the feelings of overwhelm, doubt and fear that we all experience from time to time. Instead of worrying about what might happen with your manuscript, you focus on what you can control today, right now. You are mindful of the experience of writing and all the emotions that come with it.

How Can I Do It?

As previously mentioned, there is no ‘right way’ to be mindful. It depends on your personality and how you like to adopt a mindful approach.

Personally, I use meditation every morning to ensure I practise my mindfulness in an organised way (yup, I’m a nerd). Before I begin the day, I sit at my desk, close my eyes and focus on my breathing. When my mind wanders, I gently coax it back.

This useful infographic can show you other ways to be mindful, if meditation isn’t for you or you want to try something new.

Mindfulness

From Visually.

Humans are goal-orientated creatures and writers often have many goals. It’s easy to get sucked into thinking constantly about what the future holds for your writing – I know I do. Mindfulness can stop the constant pull towards worrying about the future and lets us focus on what we can enjoy right now.

It also enables us to enjoy the process of writing itself – with all the emotions that go with it. You can become fully immersed in your book and just enjoy the ride you’re on. By realising that it’s okay to have these range of emotions, you can focus your thoughts on your breathing when times get tough.

Creating that gap between your thoughts and reality can help you rationalise your emotions.

It will feel hard at times and your thoughts will sometimes seem to constantly invade your focus, but you’re training your brain to be mindful – these things take time and practice.

What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?

As well as encouraging us to enjoy the writing process for what it is, mindfulness has many overall benefits too. They include:

  • A greater sense of self-awareness.
  • An understanding that there are choices in how to respond to thoughts and feelings.
  • Feeling calmer and less stressed.
  • Helps you cope better with difficult or unhelpful thoughts in all areas of life.
  • Encourages you to be kinder to yourself and to accept that negative things happen to everyone.
  • You show greater compassion for yourself and others.

Scientific research also shows that mindfulness is linked to improved creativity and that long-term use of the technique leads to a change in overall happiness and wellbeing.

It really shows you that you are in control.

And that sense of control leads to greater confidence and improved self-esteem. So not only will your writing improve, you’ll soon be singing about it from the rooftops!

Summary

People can often turn their noses up at mindfulness as it sounds a bit ‘out there’ and something that people who ‘chant stuff’ might do. But actually, that isn’t the case at all. It can have so many benefits for writers both for their craft, but also for their general mental health and wellbeing.

Taking the time to focus on the present, even if it is only for a few minutes each day, can make you a stronger, more confident writer who can tackle the setbacks that come your way.

You can begin to approach those setbacks with an understanding that, by gradually detaching emotions from them, you can only learn and improve and become a better writer because of them.

Don’t shy away from becoming a mindful writer. It may just be the most positive step you take this year.

Further Reading/Sources

  1. 6 Ways Meditation Can Help Improve Your Writing.
  2. Getting Started with Mindfulness – mindful.org
  3. Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World – franticworld.com

Source: thingsthatgobumpwhenyouwrite.com

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4 Steps to a Writing Routine You Won’t Want to Break

Guest post by Emmanuel Nataf

You’ve wanted to write a novel for ages, but can’t seem to ever find the time to start writing. Or maybe you’ve started and just keep hitting walls. Why? For most of us, the answer is that commitments like family, jobs, and life keep getting in the way.

Or, it might be procrastination, and these obstacles are what you tell yourself are the issue. All you are missing is discipline. Every writer has a vision of being able to sit down and write a complete prize-winning chapter in one sitting, but this isn’t realistic. To get a flow going on a regular basis you will need to implement a writing routine.

Forming a regular writing habit builds stakes, holds you accountable to your goals, and keeps you on track as a result.

The reality is, you’re not going to feel like the muses of novel writing are hovering above you and guiding you every time you sit down to write. Building a solid, consistent routine will help you write, and write well, even when you’re not feeling motivated or inspired.

A writing routine will be different for everyone in terms of your environment, time availability, aims, goals — the lot. Even so, if you follow these tips for establishing and, more importantly, sticking to a routine, you can’t go far wrong.

 

1. Schedule your writing time

Try to choose a time and a place so that other things can work around your writing time, not vice versa. This way, you’ll be able to get into the habit of writing — even when you don’t feel like it.

If you wait for this time to come around naturally, especially in increasingly hectic lives, the hours required to achieve our goals of writing a novel or similar are not going to clock in.

We can draw on Stephen King’s wisdom here:

“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop, and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind … I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.”

This time should be non-negotiable. Author and book coach Kevin Johns sees this as such a crucial part of creating a writing routine that he gives it its own acronym: NNWT, or non-negotiable writing time. Even if you can’t write every day like Stephen King, make sure you have time locked in multiple times a week.

Nothing is stopping you from starting right now: literally, open your phone and schedule writing time into your calendar — this will make you stick to it. Put in a realistic amount of time that you know you can afford, make sure it’s more than once a week, highlight it in something bright that you can’t ignore, and set an alarm to remind you.

2. Make this writing time sacred

J.K. Rowling, who knows a thing or two about writing successfully, advises writers to “be ruthless about protecting writing days.” She urges us to guard these moments that we set aside for writing and not to cave in to “distractions” such as meetings or social engagements.

Whether it’s every workday evening from 8 to 10, or three mornings a week starting at 7, don’t let anything get in the way of your writing. You’ve scheduled this time into your life, and it must be granted importance and gravitas.

This also means that writing time is for writing and writing only. Being lax with it will hold back your progress. If you set aside two hours to write, and in that time answer your emails, do a laundry load, and check Twitter, you’ll probably end up doing half an hour of writing, maximum. That would move the needle extremely slowly.

Research and planning should be done outside these hours. Writing time is just that: time to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

3. Quantify your progress

To know the progress you’re making, set yourself a word count goal per day or per week. The power of setting tiny, achievable goals cannot be overstated.

We as humans love having these little wins. Hitting daily goals (like Fitbit step-goals) gives us little boosts — spikes of dopamine — and makes us feel good about what we’re doing. Writing can be frustrating, so word count goals give you control over at least one of the factors of the writing process. That’s why daily word-counts are such a crucial part of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) competition.

If you have a particular goal, for example, “I want to have a first draft of my manuscript done in six months,” this would mean working out what this translates to in words per month, week, and day. Track this to stay in line with what you have set yourself.

The fun side of this is rewarding yourself. Crossing things off that calendar, physically printing off pages you’ve written and adding them to a done pile — anything that gives you a sense of public, visible achievement is worth it.

Writing something as long as a novel may often feel like working for a long time with no reward. As a writer, you have to reward yourself when you reach your goals, which is much easier when these goals are concrete and achievable.

4. Publicize it

Your public could just be your friends and loved ones. Purposefully use shame and disappointment for your own benefit by telling them that you’re writing a book. This puts pressure on you, as does publicizing your goals.

If you have something visible, like a calendar that shows your self-set deadlines or workloads, this can help keep you accountable to goals that would otherwise be easy to pretend you never made. Equally, you can tell your friend/fiance/fellow writer that you’re going to write 400 words every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday after work, and get them to check.

Starting a blog and publicizing your progress is another way to give you that extra incentive, as you don’t want to look bad in front of your followers by not meeting your goals .

You’ve got this!

Know what environment you work best in and use this to your advantage. Whether it’s the bustle of a coffee shop or a silent room at home, you know where and when you produce your best work.

Appreciate that these are all estimates, especially if you don’t have a contract yet. A writing routine will give you direction, even if you don’t have an actual deadline. It will help orient you, rather than just writing whenever you feel like it.

Writing is a challenge, but so rewarding. The key is to stick to it. Establishing and dedicating yourself to the process says that you believe in yourself, and that you can do it.

Source: jerryjenkins.com

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Overcoming Creativity Wounds

Today’s guest post is by Grant Faulkner, executive director of Nanowrimo and author of Pep Talks for Writers.

For writers unaware, Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month, where writers around the world challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It starts November 1. Learn more.


Somewhere deep within most of us, there is a wound. For some, it’s vile and festering; for others, it’s scarred over. It’s the type of wound that doesn’t really heal at least not through any kind of stoic disregard or even the balm of time.

I’m not talking about a flesh wound, but a psychological wound—the kind that happens when someone told you in an elementary school art class that you didn’t draw well, or when you gave a story to a friend to read in the hopes they would shower you with encouragement, but they treated the story with disregard. We put our souls, the meaning of our lives, into the things we create, whether they are large or small works, and when the world rebuffs us, or is outright hostile, the pain is such that it might as well be a flesh wound. In fact, it sometimes might be better to have a flesh wound.

To be a creator is to invite others to load their slingshots with rocks of disparagement and try to shoot you down.

I’ve been hit with many such rocks. Perhaps the most devastating rock was slung by a renowned author who I took a writing class from. My hopes were ridiculously high, of course. I wanted her to recognize my talent, to affirm my prose. I wanted her to befriend me, to open up the doors of her mind and show me the captivating way she thought. I was young, and I walked into her class as if I was a puppy dog, my tongue wagging, expecting to play. My first day of class might as well have been the opening scene of a tragic play.

When I turned in my story for her feedback, not only did she not recognize my talent, but she eviscerated my story. She might as well have used shears. “No shit!” she wrote in the margins of one page. I met with her in her office hours to ask her questions and hopefully make a connection, but she was equally cold and cutting, offering nothing that resembled constructive critique, just the pure vitriol of negativity. She said my story was boring, pretentious. She said my dialogue, which others had previously praised, was limp and lifeless.

That was the only time in my writing life when I felt truly defeated. It was the only time in my life when I was utterly unable to pick up a pen to write anything. I’d been critiqued in many a writing workshop before—relatively severely even—so I wasn’t a naive innocent. But I’d never experienced such slashing and damning comments. I’d always been resilient and determined in the face of such negativity, but this time I lay on the couch watching TV for several days afterward, my brain looping through her scissoring comments again and again.

I hope you haven’t experienced anything like this, but, unfortunately, almost every writer I’ve talked to has a similar story. When something you’ve created—something that glows so brightly with the beauty of your spirit—meets with such an ill fate, it can create the type of wound that never truly closes. You can stitch it closed, but the swelling puss within it can still break the stitches back open. It’s always vulnerable to infections, resistant to salves. Time heals . . . a little, but not necessarily entirely.

The question is how to begin again, how to recover the very meaning and joy that we found in our first stories—to recover the reason we write. It’s difficult. I still see that “No shit!” in the margin and sometimes wonder if I have anything worthwhile to impart, or if the quality of my prose allows me to impart my stories and ideas in an interesting and engaging way. I’ve wondered this even after getting a story or essay published. I wonder if somehow the editor didn’t realize what an imposter I am. I wonder this even now, as I write this book on the subject of writing of all things, a book that has a publisher, a book that has been guided by a fine editor, a book that is sold in stores. Wounds can open when least expected, and from them self-doubt riles with a snarl.

To overcome is to write your story, to believe in it.

There’s no one recipe to overcome a creativity wound, but putting a pen between your fingers and then resting it on a piece of paper is a pretty good start to finding one. Start writing. Keep writing. And the wound will fade and even fuel your work, even if it might not truly go away.

Source: janefriedman.com

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Positive Writer The Contradictory Nature of Writing Advice: What to Do When You Get Conflicting Information

I spent this past weekend at a creative non-fiction writer’s conference with my mom. We had such a great time spending our days attending lectures, panels, readings, and story slams, usually with a cup of tea or coffee in our hands. Creative non-fiction isn’t even my primary genre, but I thought it would be beneficial to branch out a little and explore some new things.

This post is by Positive Writer contributor The Magic Violinist.

And I was right; I received great advice from various memoirists and freelance writers about craft, the publishing industry, and marketing. But early on something became apparent: the knowledge I gained was contradictory.

What to do with conflicting information

In one lecture I was told to buy a planner, set strict deadlines for myself, and track my progress with steadfast determination. In another presentation, I heard that deadlines ruined the magic of a good story and that we writers shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. In the morning, I was urged to write my first draft as quickly as possible and to churn out new work every day. By that afternoon, someone suggested to focus on quality instead of speed or quantity.

If you’ve been following enough websites on writing for as long as I have, you’ve probably faced a similar dilemma. The information flies at us at breakneck speed, giving us opposite instructions: “Edit as you write!/Don’t edit as you go!” “Share your work with others!/Don’t show anyone anything until it’s polished!” “Use semicolons!; Don’t use semicolons!” “Write every day!/Give yourself breaks!”

It can be a little overwhelming, especially for new writers trying to figure this whole thing out. So how are you supposed to sort through the information and find out what’s true? Do you look at the credentials of the author writing the article? Do you follow whatever advice is being told the most often? Do you ask your fellow writers for help?

Art is subjective

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what advice you follow, so long as it works for you. Writing, like all art, is subjective. While there may be certain writing styles that are held in high regard, it’s still all based in opinion. Sitting in a class on writing isn’t like taking a math class; there’s no one right answer.

Some authors will try to tell you that rising before the sun is a must if you’re ever going to get anything done. After all, aren’t the early hours the best ones for productivity? Shouldn’t you try to crank out 3,000 words before even shuffling to the kitchen for breakfast?

As a night owl, I’ll be the first to tell you that it is not necessary for you to drag yourself out of bed at some ungodly hour to blink bleary-eyed at the screen in front of you and try to coax your tired and clumsy fingers into typing out comprehensible sentences. If setting the alarm an hour earlier makes you more creative and productive, by all means, go for it. But it is not the only way, nor should it be.

Do what works for you

If there were one tried-and-true writing process, we would all be brilliant, bestselling authors and websites like “Positive Writer” would be useless. Thankfully, there is no one process and websites on writing live on because of it. The beauty of art is that we as the creators get to experiment all the time with different methods of getting words down on the page.

If you’re feeling stuck with your current routine, switch it up. Take some of that contradictory advice you received and try something new. What works for one writer will not work for another, so it’s up to you to test your options. Eventually, you’ll find something that helps.

Stay calm

Don’t be overwhelmed when you find yourself surrounded by articles that all tell you different things. Instead, view those opposing opinions as a writing buffet. Pick and choose whatever looks good to you until your plate is full, but don’t feel pressured to finish it all or go back for seconds. This is your chance to taste test and play. Trust me when I say, one day, something will stick.

What do you do with conflicting information? How do you decide what advice to follow? Leave a comment!

Source: positivewriter.com

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Should Beginning Writers Imitate the Greats?

Learning often begins with imitation or copying. As babies, we learn facial expressions and gestures by mimicking adults. Children learn to write their letters by copying them from workbooks. And can you imagine a musician learning their craft without first leaning to play other musicians’ songs?

But we rarely explore the question of whether writers should copy the work of great authors as a learning exercise.

Imitation Learning vs. Derivative Works

In the world of fine art and entertainment, imitation is sometimes viewed as flattery, but mostly it’s criticized for its lack of originality. Works that appear to be based in part or in full on other works are called derivative works. Some derivative works are celebrated — for example, writing a variation of an old fairy tale or writing a modernized version of an ancient text. Each work should be judged individually and on its own merit, and opinions will vary.

However, today we’re not talking about the writing that we publish for the world to see. We’re exploring the idea of using imitation strictly for the purpose of study, practice, and learning.

Using Imitation as a Learning Tool

When I was a kid, I often wrote down the lyrics to my favorite songs. I would play the song, pausing and rewinding it every few seconds to figure out the lyrics. Sometimes, I’d write my own lyrics to the tune. I believe this formed the foundation of learning musicality in writing, which I later applied to my poetry. As a young poet, I discovered Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” While I didn’t set out to imitate this amazing poem, I did set out to write a poem that was inspired by it (and somewhat modeled on it). All these years later, I suspect that if I shared that old poem of mine (which was titled “Woman One”), any knowledgeable poet would know that I’d read Maya’s work and was influenced by her.

All of these exercises helped shape my writing skills. When you copy the words that someone else has written, you study them more closely than you would by merely reading them. But notice that none of these exercises resulted in published works. It was a form of study and practice.

Who hasn’t buried themselves in a novel, only to put it down and find the voice of the narrative continuing inside their own mind? Copying a text can have the same effect, but it works faster. It’s a useful way to learn how different authors structure sentences or make word choices.

When I was in a college literature course, we took a test that required us to identify authors’ voices. We were given short excerpts from various authors’ works. We weren’t expected to memorize these authors’ repertoires, but we were expected to absorb their voice (style). A good way to do that is to copy passages from the authors’ writings. The act of typing (or handwriting) their texts helps us absorb it much faster and more thoroughly.

But that’s not all we can learn from imitation. Let’s say you’re a beginning writer with a favorite story. You don’t want to emulate the story or the author, but you want to gain a better understanding of how this author constructs language or how they developed such a distinct voice. Studying the work might not be enough. As an exercise, you might attempt to write a few pages of your own original text in the author’s voice. This would also be a useful exercise for developing voices and distinct dialogue for each of your characters. You could seek out writers and speakers whose style matches the voice you want for a character. Spend some time transcribing or copying the source material, and then practice writing your character’s dialogue in that person’s voice

The Necessity of Learning

There are many ways that authors borrow, build upon, and steal other writers’ ideas. There’s really nothing new under the sun — only old ideas remixed and rehashed into works that feel fresh and invigorating.

But however we gather our ideas or develop our craft, learning is a necessity. We must do the work to develop the skills we need to achieve our goals. For writers, that means studying language, mastering vocabulary, and learning structure and form. Not all writers need to learn through imitation. Each of us has a different learning style, but for those who would benefit from imitation as an exercise, it’s a worthwhile endeavor for skill-building.

Have you ever used imitation to develop your knowledge or skills? What did you imitate and why? Did it work for you? Share your thoughts about imitation as a learning tool for writers by leaving a comment, and keep writing.

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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How to Break Through a Fiction Writing Block

It happens to all writers. You’re cruising through a story, and all of a sudden you hit a wall. Your characters freeze up, your plot stops cold, and you’re stuck with nowhere to go.

You’ve hit a fiction writing roadblock.

All of your ideas have evaporated and you sit there staring at your screen with a blank look on your face. Where were you going? How did you write yourself into a corner? More importantly, how do you write yourself out?

Fortunately, there are techniques you can use to break through the creative blocks that arise in the middle of a storytelling project. Some of these techniques also come in handy when developing ideas for new fiction projects.

The main thing you need to remember is that hitting a roadblock does not have to mean the end of your story, your fiction writing, or your creativity. You just need to reboot and see your project from a fresh angle.

Breakthrough Techniques

The techniques explained here are sledgehammers. They’ll blast through walls, blow away obstacles, and create doorways that you can step through to reconnect with your story.

Pull Your Characters Out of the Story

Is your character stuck in a situation with no way out? Has your character gone on strike, refusing to take further action? Are secondary characters loitering around with nothing to do? Try removing the troubled character from the story you’re writing and placing them in a completely different situation. You don’t have to write a novel, but sketch some ideas about how your character would behave in various scenarios. Then bring them back to the story you were working on and see if your creative wall hasn’t cracked.

Try Fiction Writing Exercises

Fiction writing exercises provide a constant stream of ideas. You can find websites, magazines, and books that provide activities to kick your writing and your imagination into high gear. Look for exercises that are specific to the problems you’re having. If your plot isn’t going anywhere, find plot exercises. If you are having trouble with dialogue, look for dialogue exercises. I wrote Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises for storytellers who need guidance and inspiration — it has a little of everything and can knock down all kinds of creative walls.

Break it Down

Sometimes we get stuck because something’s wrong with the plot or structure. If you’re writing a manuscript, it will be difficult to see the bones of your story. Convert your manuscript into an outline that lists all major plot points. Then you can more easily see where the story took a wrong turn. If you’re having character problems, create outlines that show character arcs. Keep using these outlines to find and resolve problems in your plot and structure.

Go Deep

Sometimes the biggest problem with a story is that it’s flat. The characters are lackluster; the plot is boring. This is likely because these story elements are underdeveloped — there’s not enough detail or depth. Pause work on your manuscript to work on developmental projects like character sketches, plot outlines, world-building, and research that will add layers of detail to your creative vision, which will then get fleshed out in your writing when you resume work on the project.

Expand Your Vision

Sometimes what’s missing isn’t detail but entire chunks of a story; if your story feels thin, then you can add characters and subplots to plump it up. I had written multiple drafts of a novel when I was struck with a new character. I didn’t think much about it — I just started writing a chapter about her. It became the first chapter of the novel and she became the thread that tied the entire series together. Similarly, you might find that your plot lacks dimension; introducing new story threads and subplots can make your tale more dynamic.

Get a Second Opinion

We all grow blind to our own strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you’ve started to think your story isn’t as great as you originally envisioned. Maybe you have a nagging feeling that something is wrong with it, but you’re not sure what. This is often a good time to get a second opinion. A writer friend is ideal for this, but you can also work with a developmental editor or a writing coach. Find someone who you trust, who is knowledgeable about writing (and your genre), someone who will give you honest feedback and help you get back on track. Sometimes the mere act of discussing the project with another person will illuminate the problem and reveal a solution.

Don’t Give Up on Your Story

Storytelling is not an easy endeavor, and the best traits for writers to cultivate are patience and determination. Sure, some stories are destined for the recycling bin. Successful writers produce a lot of garbage before they eke out a gem. But don’t give up on a project when you hit your first roadblock. If you do that, you’ll never get anywhere.

Whether you write yourself into a corner, lose interest in your plot or characters, or get tempted by a newer, shinier idea, stick with your project and see it through to completion. Pay attention to what’s going on when you’re at your most creative and learn how to get into that state on command. Writers need to get to know how their minds work and what brings out the best ideas. This is how each writer develops a reliable set of techniques or a routine that produces good results.

Also, stock up on creativity resources. Look for books on creativity and expose yourself to plenty of art and entertainment. Also, try other creative outlets, such as painting, dancing, photography, or music. Remember that like attracts like, so the more creative you are, the more creative you’ll be.

How do you break through fiction writing blocks? Share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment.

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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How to Overcome Perfectionism to Boost Your Writing Productivity

Do you want to boost your writing productivity?

Then ask yourself if any of the following apply to you:

  • You’re very hard on yourself, especially when things go wrong.
  • You spend more time than you should on a task because you want it to be done just right.
  • You have extremely high standards, and will sometimes sacrifice your own well-being to complete a project perfectly.
  • You’re the first to find errors and correct them, knowing that finding mistakes in a completed project will drive you nuts.
  • You tend to ruminate over past mistakes and always vow not to repeat them.

If you found that two or more of these described you, you tend toward perfectionism. If you related to more than that, you may be a full-blown perfectionist.

Now don’t panic. Perfectionists sometimes get a bad rap, but there are good as well as bad things about this trait. You are probably a determined, hard-working person, for example, who is always trying to improve. Your completed projects are most likely of high quality, and you’re probably good at editing your own writing, because you actually enjoy finding flaws and fixing them.

But there’s no doubt that your perfectionist personality is also likely to make it difficult for you to open up time in your schedule to write. Here’s why, and what you can do to boost your creative productivity.

3 Ways Perfectionism Kills Your Writing Productivity

Most writers struggle with time management these days—it’s just hard to find ways to squeeze in writing time with all the other things we have going on in our lives.

Perfectionists struggle more than most for three main reasons:

1. They spend too much time trying to get every project just right, which makes them less productive overall.
2. They fear failure, so they resist starting a project until they feel “ready.” The term for this is procrastination, and it will keep a perfectionist from ever completing a book or other creative project.
3. They are always critiquing. They edit their work as they’re writing it, which makes it difficult to get into a rhythm of creative output.

These three factors slow the perfectionist writer down at every turn. They not only stall his progress on his creative projects, they also slow him down on everything else he does in life, creating an unbearably long to-do list and the feeling of always being behind.

Perfectionist writers often compensate by working harder and longer to make sure everything is perfect, from their next novel to their next blog post to their next email to their children’s homemade lunches, to the point that they eventually buckle under the demanding load. The result can be exhaustion and depression or even a serious illness.

This side of perfectionism isn’t fun—ask those who suffer through it. If you’re one of them, you may be all too familiar with your own tendencies to grade yourself on everything, ruminate over even small mistakes, and resist letting a project go until you’ve beaten it to death.

None of us can really change our innate personalities, though, so what are perfectionist writers to do? Are they doomed, or can they adjust just enough to make more time for their creative work?

7 Tips to Help You Become a More Productive Perfectionist Writer

First, remember the positive side to being a perfectionist. You don’t have to feel badly about this trait. The important thing is to learn to work with it so you can get more writing done. To do that, try these seven tips:

1. Find areas where you can let up: Perfectionists tend to want everything to be perfect. Try to identify projects that don’t matter as much, and practice allowing them to be sub-par. Remember that you want to make time for writing and your other priority projects, so make a list of less important things that don’t need to be perfect and practice spending less time on them.

You’ll probably never feel comfortable letting some projects go before they’re “ready,” but you can get better at it.

2. Realize that your standards are super high: Step back for a moment and realize that it’s likely your standards are super high. There’s no real definition of “perfect” for most of the things you do in life. What’s the difference between a clean bathroom and a perfectly clean bathroom? You can probably tell, but most people can’t. Simply remembering that can help you go easier on yourself.

When you think something is “okay” but not yet “perfect,” realize that “okay” is probably good enough in most cases.

3. Practice being productive: Studies have actually shown that perfectionists are less productive than others. (Read more about productivity in C. S. Lakin’s post, “Boost Your Productivity: Getting to the Core of Your Distractions.”) When you’re agonizing over one project, you’re slowing yourself down and stealing time from the other things you planned to do (like writing).

Make productivity your goal instead, and let your perfectionism work on that for a while!

4. Carry a timer around: One way you can practice being more productive is to carry a timer around with you (or use an app on your cell phone). Give yourself a time limit for each project you take on during the day. Fifteen minutes to write that important email—when the timer goes off, send it! An hour for that work report. Thirty minutes to make dinner. An hour to clean the house.

Push yourself to work more quickly, and adhere to your allotted time. It will be painful, but the more you do it, the easier it will become. Go go go!

5. Forgive yourself: Perfectionists are super hard on themselves, ruminating over every mistake. This can create a stressed out mind, which is horrible for your creativity. What you need is to practice forgiving yourself. That typo in your query letter? It’s not the end of the world. That forgotten soccer game? Your child will forget about it (eventually). Your favorite phrase should become, “It’s okay!” Particularly when you’re writing, allow yourself to be just who are you are on the page, flaws and all. You may find it so freeing that your stories become even more imaginative.

(Find a fun way to get past your own perfectionism when writing in Mary Jaksch’s post, “How to Make Writing Easy: One Nifty Tip to Sneak Past Perfection.”

6. Practice fooling yourself: If your perfectionist tendencies make you likely to procrastinate, find ways to fool yourself into getting started. Tell yourself you’ll write for only five minutes, or that this isn’t the “real” draft, but just a “practice” one. Set a timer and don’t allow your fingers off the keyboard until it dings.

Do whatever you have to do to get past that internal editor and start writing.

7. Make failing a game: Perfectionists fear failure. They work to get everything just right so they don’t fail.  Make it a game to see how many mistakes you can commit. Not by faking it, but by trying new things more often. Send out more submissions. Query more agents. Try out more types of writing that are unfamiliar to you. Submit your work to more contests.

Gradually, you may start to have more fun with the whole thing, and failure won’t seem like such a big deal. You may also surprise yourself at the successes you experience!

Boost Your Writing Productivity

Managing Perfectionism is a Lifelong Process. Your perfectionism is probably not going to go away. Remember, it’s okay! In many ways, it can benefit your career. To limit its potential destructiveness on your writing time, try changing just one habit per day. Baby steps are key to gradually allowing yourself to step away from the need to be perfect, and get closer to “good enough.”

As American writer David Foster Wallace said:

If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.

Source: writetodone.com

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Book Promotion: What’s Hot, What’s Not

These days there are so many ways of promoting a book—yet also so many chances of that book not being noticed at all in the flood of promotion that washes over people daily. So as an author, what do you do? In this post I’m listing a few things that have worked—and not worked—for me. These are very personal observations of course; you may have had a totally different experience.

What’s hot:

Cover reveals on social media—accompanied by an intriguing ‘tag.’ These can start a buzz well before publication.

What’s not:

Book trailers on You Tube or similar channels. Heaps of fun to make but in terms of effects on sales, pretty much nil. You don’t get half as many people looking at them, compared to cover reveals. However, as long as they don’t cost you heaps of money and time to make, there’s no reason to not do it as it can be a nice adjunct.

What’s hot:

Interviews with local radio stations—a brilliant promotion, in my experience, although that may be because at our local radio station there are at least two presenters interested in books and publishing. They and their producers are very keen on local publishing/literary news stories. I have had many people over the years say they went to their local bookshop to find a book I’d spoken about on radio. If you have a similarly engaged presenter on local radio, cultivate them; it’s really worth it.

And by the way in my experience local TV can be good but is hard to get on board.

Book launch for ‘Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff’. Photo by Sophie Masson

What’s not:

Blog tours. Great for the bloggers but a fairly large amount of work and time-consuming for the author doing the tour—as either you have to write separate guest posts or answer interview questions over the whole tour. And you can’t just recycle the same guest post, of course, or insist on the same interview questions. My experience is that the payoff in book recognition isn’t necessarily there, especially given the amount of work you have to do.

However, interviews/posts on blogs often work really well. I just think it’s better, for an author, to restrict them to one or two blogs at a time for any one book.

What’s hot:

In-person visits to schools and libraries. These small, single-author events often work much better, in my experience, than being included along with a whole lot of other authors in a festival program. Poets have long known that performance poetry events are a great place to sell books: it’s the same for authors in other genres. I like to get in touch with the local bookshop in the place I’m visiting, to see if they want to come along to the event and sell books: this is a good way of not only avoiding having to cart large numbers of books with you, but also the bookshop will continue selling them afterwards, as they have had the personal contact with you.

What’s not:

Facebook and Twitter ads. You might get thousands of ‘likes’ but not a single sale out of them; ‘organic’ or unpaid-for posts are much better, especially if you angle them less like ads and more human interest—with good photos! Instagram is a good option too, but only around photos and just a few intriguing words—not too promotey-sounding either.

What’s hot:

Reviews in good print and online journals, magazines and blogs. And good early reviews can be used as part of promotion for the book.

What’s not:

Don’t expect too much from local newspaper pieces about your new book. Unlike with radio interviews, for some reason, though people will often say they saw it in the paper, it doesn’t seem to unleash a ‘get thee to a bookshop’ type of reaction. Perhaps, as far as traditional media is concerned, the radio interview more closely resembles the ‘word of mouth’ or ‘viral’ effect that is the Holy Grail of promotion. However don’t let that put you off doing newspaper interviews—they are fun and are good to have on hand if you are putting together a promotions scrapbook.

What’s hot:

In-person book launches. They are still a lovely way to celebrate the book with your family and friends—worth organising for yourself: even if your publisher isn’t doing one, they can usually help with posters, flyers etc, electronic or print. You can also have a virtual launch of course but I’ve never organised one or found them satisfactory to attend. You may well have a different experience of course.

What’s not:

Book signings, unconnected with a launch—you rarely get enough people coming, unless it’s for an event.

What’s hot:

Posts on your own blog, if you have one, about the story behind the book—readers like to know not only about the inspiration but the process. I have found that making sure my blog has a mix of stuff about my own books and other people’s, and interviews not only with creators but also publishing professionals, brings in a lot of readers. Doing that makes the blog feel a lot less like self-promotion and more about being involved in the wider literary/publishing landscape. And that’s a lot more fun!

What’s not:

Flooding your social media networks—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever—with promotional posts about your books. People stop looking after a while.

Over to you: What’s your experience of book promotion, and do you have any other tips for what’s hot and what’s not?

By
Source: writerunboxed.com

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Learn How to Write and Finish a Novel

According to Kurt Vonnegut, “The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly, is that it enables one’s soul to grow.” If this is true, then nothing makes for more mature souls than writing a novel, a form that particularly requires perseverance and patience. Though there are no hard and fast rules for how to get from the first draft to bookstore shelf, these guideposts on how to write a novel will help you find your way.

 

01. Give Some Thought to Plot.

 

Writing a novel can be a messy undertaking. The editing process will go easier if you devote time to plot in the beginning. For some writers, this means an outline; others work with index cards, putting a different scene on each one. Still, others only have a conflict and a general idea of where they plan to end up before diving in. If you’ve been writing for a while, you already know how your brain works and what kind of structure it needs to complete big projects. If you’re just starting out, then this may be something you’ll learn about your writing process as you revise your first novel.

 

 

02. Get a First Draft Down.

Though it is a good idea to test your idea out on other writers, resist getting feedback on the writing itself at this stage. Focus on getting the complete story down on paper instead. If you have trouble with writer’s block or tend to let, projects stall, NaNoWriMo might be helpful. Other writers maintain a regular schedule and spread the writing out over a longer period of time. Still, others enroll in novel classes, which provide weekly deadlines and community.

 

 

03. Be Prepared to Revise.

 

At a reading for his first book a few years ago, novelist Dominic Smith commented that the one thing he wasn’t prepared for in writing a novel was the amount of work between first draft and published book. In one way, this is heartening. However inspired you might feel while writing it, the first draft will probably be bad. It will be clunky, disorganized, and confusing. Entire chapters will drag. The dialogue will be unconvincing and wooden. Rest assured that it’s this way for everyone. And like writers everywhere, you just have to roll up your sleeves and get to work rewriting it.

 

 

04. Solicit Feedback.

When you think it’s time to start contacting agents, get feedback from writers you trust. Don’t be surprised if they send you back to your desk for another draft. Address any large structural problems first, and then go through the book scene by scene. Anytime you have a question about whether something is working, stop and see what you could do to make it better. Don’t just hope the reader won’t notice. If you want your book to be good, revise with your most intelligent, most thoughtful reader in mind.

 

 

05. Put It Aside.

If you find yourself banging up against the same problems with every draft, it may be time to work on something else for awhile. Sixteen years elapsed between the first draft of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the published version, for instance. Katherine Anne Porter likewise took years on some of her most famous stories. If you find yourself losing your way, go back to the fun parts of writing. Create something new; read for fun. With each new project you take on and each book you read, you’ll learn new lessons. When you come back to the novel — and you will come back — you’ll see it with more experienced eyes.

By
Source: thebalancecareers.com

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