Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Writer's Perfect Day - Scheduling your tasks

Imagine your calendar is clear and you can spend whatever time you wish working as a writer. Create a list of activities. It probably will include some time for drafting new pages, adding to your story. If you're like me, and you have a lot of projects that need attention, you might also spend time on revision. I also regularly get involved excavating through files of notes, ideas, titles, and unfinished manuscripts – often uncovering some surprises. Research might be added. Connections with other people might be added.

Stephen King pointedly reminds writers that they need to be readers, so that probably gets on this list, too. And I think that no matter where you are in your writing career it's important to keep yourself fresh with education, exercises, and conferences.

Certainly, some time would need to be dedicated to career planning, exploring opportunities, pitching, and marketing. Reasonably, it's good to schedule some "oops" time because things don't always go as planned. For me, plotting and outlining tends to be a separate, dedicated activity, which could come before drafting or after I've spewed out the first draft.

This has become quite a long list of activities, and I invite you to consider how you would prioritize these items and what time you would dedicate toward each. You also may have some items you care about that I missed here. Go ahead and add them. Or you might want to slice up my items, such as revision, into smaller pieces like story development, scene analysis, and ferreting out typos.

When you have a your list done, you'll probably see more than can be done in one day. You may wish to look at a full month and see how a perfect month might play out for you with these activities assigned to different times and days. My recommendation would be that you put together a perfect day, just for fun. Then put together a perfect week, which would be good to take more seriously.

So now you've taken a blank week and populated it with the jobs you need to do as a writer. Feel free to fill up every available hour or to stick to the bare minimum — 15 minutes of drafting per day, five days a week (based on my experience with people I've mentored). I hope you feel pretty good about it. I hope it makes time for the efforts you've prioritized and chosen. (You can check out more about making good decisions on where to put your efforts in the writer's decisions series I just completed.)

I hope it looks to you like the kind of schedule that would make all your dreams as a writer possible.

I suspect, that as good as this may look, you still have a problem with the schedule – the rest of your life. Many things intrude -- day jobs, family, household work, health, and more. Presuming you done a good job as far as your fantasy schedule, now you have time to put together a week (or day) with achievable tasks. So the next step is to go back to a blank week and populated with commitments that can't be avoided. Usually this begins with boxing out time for work or school. If you have regular medical appointments, you probably can't trade them off. So make sure all the absolutely untouchable things (church on Sunday for me) are marked down in indelible ink.

Other tasks may offer more flexibility. You want to take advantage of that so you can shift things around to take advantage of your golden hours. For me that means drafting in the morning and revising the early afternoon. So you might want to shift the time or day for that phone call with your daughter or trade-off the days on which your responsible for dinner.

Your week is beginning to fill up. In all likelihood, you feel a level of frustration because this calendar leaves out activities on your ideal calendar or doesn't provide enough time for work you care about.

The good news is that you probably do see more opportunities for writing related work than you imagined. How do you get more time? Having things scheduled and working more efficiently will immediately provide more productive time, so you've already taken an important step. You may also see that there are big open areas that normally capture web surfing, television, and sleep. To an extent, these may be negotiable. How much are you willing to sacrifice for your writing career?

Also, looking at your original list of tasks and those that didn't make it into the one-week schedule, consider putting some of these jobs into slots that might become available once a month or even once a quarter. Just get them onto the calendar somewhere if you can.

I have two other suggestions regarding perfect days and perfect weeks. First, always have a list of tasks that can be done in 15 minutes or less. If you make sure you're prepared to jump right into them, these can be disposed of during what I call interstitial times. If a phone call and early or your waiting for water to boil order appointment gets canceled, that creates openings to get these done and off your lists.

Second, don't schedule every moment. Leave lots of extra time for projects that go over, illness, emergencies, unexpected visits, and all those things that surprise us on a regular basis. Acknowledge that life cannot be completely controlled and make allowances for that.

I'll repeat one thing – make time at least five days a week for drafting new work. This is the essence of what being a writer is. Sacrifice all the other writer-related work before you skip this. A writer writes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 4 - The Use and Misuse of Deadlines

Thanks to years of training, most writers have two powerful tools at their disposal for achieving the goals they commit to — clocks and calendars. Typically, they have had to schedule work, show up on time, and meet deadlines from an early age.

Of course, I know many writers whose raison d’etre seems to be to be to miss deadlines. They make procrastination an art. Douglas Adams famously said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Bad deadlines

If you tend to ignore and consistently miss deadlines, they are NOT helping you to become a more productive writer. In fact, the more you abuse them, the more you build bad habits and put your mental health at risk. Instead of deadlines, you probably would be better off creating rewards for yourself. That way, you can finish any time you want, but you won’t get that cup of coffee until your page is full of words. Two cautions:

  • First, be careful of using vices as rewards. Many a writer has promised him or herself a shot of whiskey once a goal was accomplished. Not a good idea.
  • Second, don’t try this with real deadlines, such as turning in a book to an editor. Failing to meet contractual obligations will not help your career. And be careful to understand what the deadline really means. 
Once I was working on a book where I was required to turn in a chapter a week. This became a problem when each chapter came back with edits (over and over again). I never got to create a proper beginning, and, by the sixth week, I was hopelessly mired in rewrites for each of the previous chapters — with the editor gleefully filling my calendar with more deadlines. (The next book I did was written only on the condition that they would not see one page until the due date for the draft. That worked out fine.)

Good deadlines

These are the ones you accept that are reasonable and clear. For contracts, this means getting everything set up correctly before you sign (as happened with the second book above). For your personal deadlines, it means writing out your promise to yourself. Two tips:
  1. Keep a record of you time spent in writing activities. If you do, over the years, you’ll have a good basis for estimating the time to draft a page, proofread a chapter, write a synopsis, etc.
  2. When you make your estimates for time devoted to a given task or project, add 50%. I draft about 5-7 pages an hour, so, for a 70,000 word book, experience tells me I should complete the first draft in about 60 hours. My estimate for creating a deadline would be 90 hours.
Deadlines can get tricky in cases where you are collaborating. Making sure there is good communication on roles, responsibilities, decisions, and version control is essential. Then, because creative people tend to have more success if they are good team players, set deadlines that are easy so no one feels let down.

Realistically, good deadlines on collaborative work or projects for clients or publishers are not always possible. Opportunities may have due dates (say for a Christmas story) that may not be moveable or that were set before you got involved. In these cases, it is good to have a plan B (with the ability to hand off other projects or household chores). It’s also wise to mentally move the deadline to an earlier date.

In-between deadlines

What I call in-between deadlines are those that may or may not help with your productivity. Contests, new anthologies, and bluebirds (opportunities that come out of nowhere) often fit this definition. For instance, I belong to a script writing group. Many of us use the annual contests, with deadlines generally coming up in May, to mark the endpoint for finishing a work (film or TV script, usually). That seems to work symbiotically with goals aimed at regularly creating marketable works, and it also can create a sense of everyone working together toward common goals, even though these are not collaborations.

On the other hand, contests and pitch opportunities for novels and short stories seem to come up every week or so. Some writers dart from one to another, starting and stopping work, drifting away from their designated Work in Progress, and generally destroying momentum for their projects.

What about intrusive deadlines you don't seek? It is hard and possibly unwise to turn away from an agent’s email asking for a manuscript, even when it comes six months after the query was sent and you are deeply involved in other work. And, when you get a call from a producer asking for a treatment, hanging up the phone might take dedication beyond what’s reasonable. But populating your calendar with deadlines that, upon analysis, would not pay off as well as finishing the Work in Progress, will, in most cases, delay the achievements you’ve planned and worked for.

Limit the deadlines in your life. Strive to make them all achievable and take steps to meet them even if life gets in the way. Make sure the projects you put deadlines to, especially those that intrude on your career plans, are worthy. Take care of your reputation for meeting deadlines that involve clients, collaborators, and publishers. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 3 - Choose wisely

No one can guarantee that all the important decisions you make in your writing career will be the best. There is no such thing as perfect knowledge and luck always plays a part. In addition, what's best for you, even if you have thought things out well, isn't static. Changes in your life and the new possibilities that emerge as your skills and interests change add elements of volatility to any of your decisions.

Don't panic. There's some evidence that searching for "good enough" choices will lead you to better and more satisfying results than always trying to optimize. This is why being thoughtful about which criteria are the most essential to getting what you want (rather than all possible criteria) is among the most important factors in good decision-making.

A good place to start is considering your basic goals as a writer. Think about:
  • What kind of writing you're interested in (Screenplays? Novels? Short stories? Poetry? Nonfiction?),
  • What genre or genres you wish to master (Romance? Science fiction? Mystery?),
  • Why you want to write (To change the world? To express yourself? To make money? To attain fame? To entertain?), and
  • What you’re suited for.
It's good to begin a personal inventory. Where do you want to spend your time? (Hint: look to see what your heart tells you, where your passion lies.) You may want to assess your current skills and what education and practice might be needed to engage in different kinds of writing. Anything you can do to determine what opportunities are in front of you and where your talents lie can help you make better choices. (Just you don't let anyone tell you what you want to do is impossible.) In a general way, considering the investment you might need to make (time, money, social capital) is worthwhile.

So, for instance, Writer Smith might decide to write SF scripts, aiming at enough success to make a living and get a few fans. Or Writer Jones might instead have the goal of exposing people to the values of medieval Irish clans by self-publishing a series of romance novel that bring that era to life.

Once you have clear goals (understanding that it's not failure to change your mind or shift to Plan B), you have foundational information for sorting through options. Choose projects that fit your goals. Investigate markets and contests and helpers (such as beta readers, editors, and agents) that are aligned with steps toward achieving your version of success. Smith might then learn screenplay format, create a script about alien monks who look like monsters, and enter it into the Austin Film Festival’s annual contest. Jones might learn all there is to know about producing e-books, join Romance Writers of America for its courses and camaraderie, and gather fans and beta readers of short stories, novellas, and, novels.

Note – it's okay to experiment and take on tactical work (such as, paying gigs that are not part of your plans) on occasion. These may expand your skill base and put food on the table. Just be careful not to make too many choices or sacrifice too much of your career to nonstrategic work.

Some of the things to consider when choosing projects include whether you will regret not doing some work or whether you will not like yourself if you do. Can you handle the consequences of a particular choice? It's sometimes useful to dig into a question by taking a contrary point of view and explicitly articulating and challenging your assumptions. One recommendation is to generate not just options that fit your criteria, but a few that don't. Even though these are unlikely to be chosen, they can sometimes lead to out-of-the-box thinking.

One danger as you consider the possibilities are in front of you is giving people too much space in your head. Whatever choices you make are ones you'll need to live with and they won't. Don't be afraid to go against advice or to make decisions that are popular.

People, of course, are the only sources of input. As you consider what factors might lead to good choices, brainstorm on possible ways you can get more information and clarify the answers. All the sources won't be equal, so it might be good to explicitly mark the uncertainty and credibility of each source.

I've often found it useful to take a list of 10 or 20 things I want to know for each of a set of options, narrow that list down to 5 to 10, and then create a spreadsheet scoring the different options against these (after getting enough information on each).

You go into a decision process, remember that you don't have infinite time. For some decisions, the clock is ticking from the time you're aware of the opportunity. You can't worry too much about incomplete information. But for those decisions that can be made, you need to give yourself a deadline. No decision deserves an infinite investment in your time and energy. But, be aware, that big decisions with indefinite deadlines are booby-trapped by our brains. Humans have a tendency to overestimate the value of missing data. This leads to delay, frustration, too much work put into finding answers of less value, and self-doubt. Don't get caught this way.

Has this implies, once you've made an irreversible decision, it's good to move forward and not continue to evaluate and reconsider your choice. Instead, work at making the bests of the option you selected. If your decision is important and reversible, mark an appropriate date on your calendar to give it a fresh look. And don't waste time thinking about it until you get to that date.

Deadlines are tricky. They can be of enormous value, but they can also be distracting. I’ll examine their role in effective decision making next time.

In addition to looking at the previous posts in this series, you may want to look at some of the articles I referenced:

7 Questions You Should Ask Yourself When Faced With A Tough Decision In Life

Four Tricks to Help You Make Any Difficult Decision

Don’t Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision-Making
7 Steps to Making Better Decisions
6 Tips for Making Better Decisions

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 2 - What could go wrong?

The decisions writers make shape their lives and their careers. They determine their opportunities and the impact of the work they do. But not all decisions are equally important, and one of the most common mistakes writers makes is obsessing over decisions that are reversible or have little consequence.

Determining reversibility should be easy. If I choose A, can I go back and choose B instead? If I can, the gravity of the decision is immediately reduced. I met someone who wrote a love story from the point of view of a gay best friend, and then rewrote the story from the female lover's point of view. There was a cost in time, but part of the investment came back in terms of a better understanding of the story and something special available online for fans of the published version. Reversible. No real problem.

Consequence is more difficult to determine. You don't always know exactly. And what one person considers trivial outcomes may be important to someone else. If you have specific consequences in mind, one question to ask yourself is, on a scale of one to ten, how much does it matter to you? I had an offer from a publisher for a novel I co-wrote. The publisher's other books had covers I thought were okay, but my collaborator hated them. Three for me was eight for her, so we never accepted the contract.

Of course, the best way to get a good overview of consequences is to write down your criteria before a decision is to be made. Let's try that.

Should I submit my novel to a traditional novel or independently publish it? Look at possible benefits or drawbacks of each.
  • Time investment - Traditional publishing brings in a crew of helpers (editors, designers, marketers), while most of the work (and all the decisions) fall on a writer who independently publishes.
  • Skill development - Independent publishers are pushed by circumstances to learn and understand dimensions of publishing that they might otherwise miss. Those who are traditionally published get an outside view on things from story development to word choice to fonts used for covers.
  • Exposure - Traditional publishers put books into markets and in front of critics independent publishers usually can't reach. But independent publishers can use their knowledge of audiences to direct placement and can time publication to their best advantage.
  • Passion - Traditional publishers can deliver on the dream of many writers for recognition, while independent writers get to tell exactly the stories they want to.
  • Money - Often, traditional publishers sell more books, but writers who independently publish get larger shares of the profits.
OK, your mileage may vary on these, but I hope you get the idea. It's only possible to evaluate the chances of each consequence and what these mean to you when you take a closer look. Ultimately, with something like this publishing decision, you can do your research and even may create spreadsheets and rankings that allow you to see the consequences in a glance.

Let's take on a more subtle decision. Should I write my romantic comedy as a novel or a feature film script?

First, look at a few considerations by asking questions:

  • How comfortable am I with each format?
  • What's my best guess on the marketability of one versus the other?
  • What are the time investments? Opportunity costs?
  • How does the money compare?
  • What opportunities might the work generate?
  • What might I learn that interest me? Enhances my skills?
  • Who might I work with (either specific people or people in certain roles)?
  • What research would I need to do? Will I need to invest money or social capital?
  • How passionate am I about the story?
  • Does the story represent work I want to do more of?

Out of these, criteria emerge less directly, and I might be able to guess how much each matters in terms of:
  • Time
  • Opportunity
  • Passion
  • Money
  • Experience
Note that this decision is a reversible. Both a novel and a script could be written.  Also, the decision could become a more informed decision by writing a few chapters and an outline for the novel or a few scenes and a treatment for the screenplay. Prototyping, especially if the time investment is limited, is a great way to reach good decisions.

Can you guess what might lead to bad decisions? Not having criteria. And, in particular,  the potential problem rise when you don't have criteria at a high level, like career aspirations. If you make a decision without knowing what you want, you can only get a good result if you are lucky.

Another problem is changing criteria. This happens a lot, especially when other people jump in to influence you. Once an editor sent me pages of text arguing against my criteria. She really wanted the manuscript, which was flattering. But ultimately, I didn't let her minimize what I determined were my priorities, and I held onto my own criteria. And I turned her down.

Other people, including other writers, will try to push their own criteria on you. I've seen traditionally published people claim their choice was the only reasonable one for everyone and I've seen independently published writers do the same. The only reasonable criteria for you are your criteria.

This is not to say that you shouldn't listen to other people. The ideas, experiences, and warnings of others can be invaluable. Talk to other writers (and agents and agents). Read advice. Check out sites like SFWA's Writers Beware http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/. As you do, look to your own values and use that to assess what you learn.

Research -- too much and too little -- can be problematic. Learning how to ask good questions, the ones that matter, is one of the best skills you can master. Don't make important decisions impulsively if you can avoid it, but watch your time investment. Get the answers you need, then stop and move on. However, the drive to be thorough is often tied more to fear than to being judicious. So don't get lost in your research, either. You'll never know everything and you'll never come up with everything that could go wrong.

Finally, a major wrong turn I've seen far too often is not accepting the answer. This usually happens when, in his/her heart of hearts, the writer has already decided and just wants to justify that decision. When the facts don't add up for the preferred choice, data is questioned, more information is gathered, people giving advice are judges as "not understanding," etc., etc. What follows is a miserable and harmful exercise in delay or self-deception. It's unhealthy. Better to make a decision and deal with the consequences than to create stress, abuse logic, and fray relationships in this kind of a game.

Last time, I looked at the value of a writer's decisions and questions that need answering. I'll continue this series next week with a start on a decision-making guide, complete with some good practices.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 1 - Key choices

One of the deadly sins for writing is dithering. Over and over again, I’ve come across writers who struggle to choose what they will do during their limited writing time. Will I work on project A, B, or C? Which scene should I take on? Do I want to draft new pages? Or rewrite?

On and on it goes. Promiscuous writers, who need to create pages for every idea that comes to them, create long confusing list of opportunities. Others carried in every direction by contests, manuscript want lists, pitch events, and offers of collaboration.

Number 2 of Heinlein’s Rules for Writers is “Finish What You Start.” Dithering prevents this. No one became a better writer or got published by writing dozens (or hundreds) of unfinished stories.

But though I’ve been advising writers to stop dithering for years, I’ve never provided any guidance on the ultimate way to avoid the malady — making decisions. That’s the point of this series of blogs. I’ll begin here by noting some of the key choices writers face, along with the stakes involved.

Next week, I’ll review some of the problems that confound writers. I also hope to do a posting on decision-making methodology, and another on the best ways to reduce the number of decisions writers face. 

Note that, while wrestling with decisions is a classic way to procrastinate, I’m not going to get into the “head games” that get in the way. Fears, sloth, doubts, distractions, and lack of interest can all be root causes for avoiding writing, and indecisiveness can be a great way to cover these up. Even the best advice on making choices will not help in these cases. The need to do research or lack of time or some other reason why stories don’t get written will rise up immediately after the decisions have been made. The work still won’t get done.

So, to get thing started, here are some choices writers might make that could be both important and difficult:
If you have your own questions, please feel welcome to add them in comments.
  • What should I write? 
  • What about research?
  • What format should I focus on?
  • What genre should I choose?
  • What’s my next step in rewriting?
  • Am I finished rewriting?
  • Should I collaborate?
  • Should I enter contest X?
  • Should I get an agent?
  • Should I submit or self-publish?
  • Should I sign a contract and give away rights?
  • What should I charge?
  • What do I need to learn next?
These questions all have implications with regard to resources (like money), skill development, artistic achievement (and ambition), opportunities, social standing, access to other people and communities, experiences, self esteem, and career path. These represent the stakes, what’s at risk, with every choice.

Of course, for some people, the answers to these questions may be obvious or trivial or even irrelevant. Their meanings have to do with your needs what you value, where you are in your journey, and what your career goals are.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

For decisions that need to be made right away, this is good guidance. Just decide and move on. But for many decisions, factors around the decision (e.g., its importance and whether it’s reversible) and the investment in decision making (time, money, research, social capital) come into play. These raise the value of taking a closer look at how decisions shouldn’t be made and how they should. More on this next time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writers' Mini-Productivity Clinic - Tips and concerns

I wrote this up for a class I'm teaching. It may be a good way for readers of this blog to review the essentials, so here it is for you.

Most of us would like to increase out output, but not at the expense of quality. That is, you don’t want to simply put more words on paper. You want to get more of your novel done for each hour of work.

Based on my experiences with hundreds of writers, the most valuable change you can make is to draft the full manuscript with your internal editor turned off. This does not mean engaging in automatic writing or moving to stream of consciousness. It means keeping your focus on telling the story without paying too much attention to making every word perfect the first time through or rewriting along the way. In other words, relax, have fun, and allow your creative self to shine through. Be tough and rigorous later, when you’re revising.

To help you do this, I’ll offer some tips and alert you to some concerns.

Warning 1 Be careful about trying to write faster if you are a “natural.” It is okay to experiment out of your comfort zone, but too much forcing is a mistake.

Warning 2 Don’t try to adopt all the tips at once.

Warning 3 Change is hard, and every change involves trade-offs. If your instincts say a change is not worth it, trust your instincts.

Warning 4 If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Samuel R. Delany, reportedly, never puts a word down until he knows it’s right, and never revises. There are people like this. Rarely. If you are one of them or if a tip or concern does not make sense for you, don’t force it.

This is not a complete set of tips. For me, Fast Writing addresses six steps (Overcoming Blocks, Knowing What to Write, Fast Plotting, Fast Drafting, Fast Rewriting and Fast Synopsis Writing), and each has many opportunities for speeding things up. The tips below are a selection that might be helpful.

The Ten Tips

1. Make a decision on what you will write the day before. Decide which project, which section and which of the six steps you will work on. It is okay to do something else, but do what you committed to do.

2. Measure your work. Count words or commit to minutes. Chart your work every day. Flannery O’Connor wrote 200 words a day exactly. I write 10,000 words a week. For years, I wrote 40 minutes per day. Write what’s right for you. Track it. Consider increasing your commitment once you have a month without missing your goals. Sometimes, doing something like a Weight Watchers weigh in helps people to keep their commitments.

3. Use technology judiciously. This may mean turning off Wi-Fi or learning to use Dragon Dictate (a favorite of mine). Experiment with what will make you more efficient without damaging your work.

4. Make your notes in full sentences. This one is from Ray Bradbury, and it has been a real timesaver. I no longer puzzle over random words like “galoshes.”

5. Write, don’t think. This one is from Isaac Asimov. In drafting (and sometimes plotting), charging forward without worrying about spelling or the exact word can keep fill the pages. When I write nonfiction, I often put the word “bagel” in when I don’t know a statistic or a name or another fact. After the draft is done, I then search for all the bagels and fix them.

6. Try dialogue only. A conversation (especially in romance) often can carry a scene. If you let the characters speak without worrying about what the setting or their faces look like, the pages can fill up quickly. Then you can go back and fill in the visuals later.

7. Master your world without stinting your writing. Often you can run out of things to say for the simple reason that you don’t know enough about your world and your people. A little research often can open things up for you. Just be careful not to have library time consume your writing time.

8. Don’t finish anything, but finish everything. For many people, it is twice as hard to start a scene or a chapter than it is to finish one. Leaving them unfinished at the end of your writing time gives you a perfect starting point.

9. Don’t leave your best stuff in the Green Room. Actors know what I’m talking about. Even Shakespeare can become stale. Lots of writers tell their stories so often that it feels like leftovers by the time they hit the keyboard. Share your story in written form.

10. Have documented processes. For each of the six steps, write down the process you use. Create forms, flow charts, or questions, if that helps. What you want is a definite plan of attack. Then you can avoid the excuse of not knowing (or having decided) what to do next.

Bonus tip: Relax, enjoy, make mistakes, have fun. As Damon Knight said, “It’s not a watercolor.”

The Concerns

There are some habits that (for most writers) cut into productivity. Some are easy to fix. Some are difficult. But if you have a bad habit and break it, the benefits in productivity can be enormous, compounded over all the years you write. Here are the main concerns I have seen writers work on to good effect:
  1. Looping - This is rewriting along the way. I’ve met dozens of writers who have been working on their first few chapters for years. Drafting and revising access different parts of the brain. It takes energy to switch back and forth, making writing a drudgery. Revising along the way wakes up the internal editor, who is happy to disparage the work and create doubts.
  2. Dithering - Some people allow themselves to decide which project to work on each day. And they often get wallowed in indecision. Or they allow themselves to make impromptu jumps to different scenes —but which ones? Or they have ad hoc revision processes, where they may shift around between macro fixes (like story logic) and micro fixes (like making verbs more active).  Setting up the need to make decisions during your writing time consumes energy and bring the work to a stop. Have a process that directs you to an ordered set of choices, and stick with it.
  3. Promiscuity - Yes, writers have roving eyes for ideas. And the cute new ones often cause a writer to abandon the Work in Progress (especially during the deadly slump that shows up half to three-quarters of the way through the drafting). Noting (and even working on) new ideas is fine — as long as the Work in Progress is being attended to regularly.
  4. Procrastination - Life gets in the way. Sometimes when it shouldn’t. Why is it that laundry needs doing or pencils need sharpening during writing sessions? Usually, because chores are much more appealing when the writing gets challenging. By all means, take a break from time to time. But remember what Judith Guest said. For every day you take off, it will take a day to get back into the rhythm of the work.
  5. Random walks - This is related to dithering, and you are vulnerable to not knowing what comes next if you haven’t created a process for your work. Rewriting (which is complex and multi-layered) is a major vulnerability for writers who haven’t documented out the steps that work for them. Taking on everything in a manuscript that needs fixing at once is inefficient and creates confusion.
  6. Getting “writerly” - I owe this one to Kristan Higgins, who noted that many writers convince themselves they are writing when they are surfing the Web (research), publicizing (especially by indulging in social media), and talking with other writers. All of this is fine in its place, but it is not writing. It’s what Kristan calls “writerly activities.” If you pretend these make you a writer, you are robbing time from the work of storytelling.

The simplest formula for success.

I have compassion for people who want to be writers who feel frustrated or as if their efforts have stalled. Here’s the most successful advice I’ve had for them.

Step 1. Commit to writing 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Put these sessions onto your calendar.

Step 2. Choose a work that will be your Work in Progress (WIP), and commit to working on it during your sessions until the manuscript is complete.

Step 3. Each day before a session, write one complete sentence on what the next day’s work will be. Something like, “Franklin will steal the diamond.” That’s the scene you’ll be writing.

Step 4. Set a timer at the beginning of your session and get right to work. Just write. Don’t research.

Don’t consult a thesaurus. Get words down. Move the story forward. (You’ll probably get a page or so drafted.)

With this process, you’ll develop good habits, grow as a writer, and have the equivalent of a manuscript drafted every year.

And you deserve it. The two hours you give yourself as a gift each week should belong to you. Some moms with kids in diapers have been able to do this for themselves. So can you.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Unexpected in Fiction 3 – Reader anticipation

Having looked at how surprise might be used in storytelling and the approaches writers can take to creating the unexpected, let's take a look at it from the reader's point of view.

Most readers don't want to be confused, but they don't want to be bored either. Familiar details and predictable sequences can build verisimilitude and help readers to orient themselves and feel at home in a story, but they are always hoping something strange will happen. And, once they've observed a pattern and been engaged enough to use it to predict what will happen next, they hope the writer will change things up.

The way the reader participates in surprise is through anticipation. Working out puzzles, looking for answers, and wanting to know what happens next require an investment on the part of the reader.

That depends upon five things:

First the reader must be engaged in the story. Titles, hooks, and genre tropes can all be used to draw a reader in.

Second, they need to be presented with what is normal.  H.G. Wells said, “As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.” I think this has relevance to all types of fiction. If there are no limits and oddity and change are constant, nothing is unexpected.

Third, the reader must be kept immersed in the story. Language, empathetic characters, and questions all keep them involved and participating.

Fourth is trust. Readers will only invest enough to speculate on answers if they have confidence in the writer. They must believe that the writer is competence and will not cheat them with, say, a deus ex machina.

Fifth, based on the set up, something should be missing. The reader should feel an urge to complete an idea or formulate theories about how questions might be answered. And these can't be just any questions. They must be questions where readers believe the answers will matter, either because they will reveal something or because they will be entertaining or both.

Putting in apparent answers in fine.  As much as fairness is a part of anticipation, readers usually want to be misled. Red herrings and distractions that misdirect without being ham-handed are welcome.

One more thing to keep in mind: Engagement requires that the reader will not be repelled by the qualities or the content of the work (although it is possible to push the envelope for readers occasionally). For instance, some people will never watch black-and-white movies. Others have this or reactions against fiction, such as fantasy, that is not mimetic. This is fine. No writer can appeal to everyone. But knowing the audience has these limits and requirements can be a useful guide for a writer.

When answers are delivered, they must be satisfying. They must feel worthy of the investments the readers have made and they must be fair. That is, the answers must be better than what the reader hope for while staying within the boundaries of the information (clues) that have been presented.

So, consider this when you're writing: a surprise only works if readers are actively involved, gathering information, forming their own hypotheses, connecting logic chains, worrying about the fates of characters, and hoping for insights on matters of concern.