Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Time to Write 5 - Get excited!

There will always be times when writing is as appealing as scrubbing tiles in a public shower stall. But most of the time, it should be fun. And the joy with which you approach your work can help you make the most of the time you set aside to write. So, as you review your match of tasks and opportunities, add one element to your preparation -- motivation.

Punishments and rewards can work provide motivation (though the former isn't fun for most of us). While I know successful, old-school writers who are more stick than carrot, I don't recommend that route. One rough patch can make the whole idea of being a writer repellent. Who needs that?

Promises of treats, if the payoffs are gauged correctly, can kick-start activity. Just stay away from payoffs that can become unhealthy or addictive. Plenty of talented writers have been lost to alcoholism and drugs. Desserts can be a problem for some people. And I myself lost at least one novel to a video-gaming habit.

Nature and art offer lots of opportunities for positive rewards. So, instead of satisfying an appetite, consider buying a new plant for your garden or getting a massage or picking up a ticket to a concert.

Perhaps closer to a good way to motivate yourself is imagining achieving your goals. Classically, get rich quick books encourage readers to dream of piles of money. By analogy, you might envision yourself opening your newly  published book or sitting in an audience, thrilled as the "written by" credit flashes across the screen in the theater. More modestly you can look forward to developing your characters to the point where they talk to you, or you can just recall the pleasant feeling of creating a well-turned phrase.

Rather than go the extrinsic route with negative/positive reinforcement, consider intrinsic choices.

The best of these is recognizing which processes you enjoy. Most people would put periods of composition when the muse takes over -- words pouring out that seem (at the moment) to be perfect -- at the top of their lists. I know writers who see editing a manuscript so the word total drops by thousands as a game that's challenging and engaging. I love interviewing my characters. The muse can't be summoned, only welcomed, but the other activities here are all ones that can be scheduled into your writing time. They can be guaranteed fun.

When you have good writing sessions, make a note to yourself. You may find that you can pepper your calendar with these activities or redirect yourself to them when you have dry spells.

In fact, it's not a bad idea to find a way to track your experiences. It can help you understand yourself as a writer. If you find that you have too many down days, in addition to scheduling in some fun, you can shake things up with something new. Most of the time, I write by typing or dictating, but about once a month, when I find those are uncomfortable (or a cause for dread), I shift to a notebook and a pencil. Usually, I get immediate relief. 

The more you build good habits and include cues (like rituals) that tell your brain to get to work, the less you'll need to do something deliberate to bring the fun back. But having approaches ready when you feel restive or can't get to work can help you to get the most out of the time you open up for writing. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Time to Write 4 - Get rid of distractions

Is the time you set aside really for writing? Or is it for brewing coffee or making shopping lists or (ahem) surfing the Web in the guise of "research"?

Once you have recognized and set aside time to write, matched your tasks to the opportunities, and made sure you have your tools at hand, you face two more obstacles -- distractions and interruptions. Beginning the job can be one of the toughest challenges because people (especially creative people) are so good at generating good reasons to do other things. Much in their lives becomes urgent:
  • I need to check my email one more time. 
  • I work better with coffee.
  • I'm a little hungry.
  • I have to make this list of chores before I forget.
  • I have a great idea for a new story.
  • I need to reorganize my files.
  • I wonder how many blog visits I have today.
It's funny how none of this was important before the opportunity for writing or the scheduled writing time arrived.

Interruptions can get in the way, too. Phone calls. Kids, dogs, and spouses with needs. UPS deliveries.

Once in a while, getting distracted and interrupted is no big deal. Tornado warnings, calls from Stephen Spielberg, and arterial bleeds take priority over upping your word count. But if you chronically sacrifice writing time, you're hurting your career.

The first step is understanding the threat. I recommend tracking distractions and interruptions for two weeks. Record what they are and how much time they take away from you. This will help you to understand how big your problem is (adding to your motivation) and will get you started on finding solutions. And what kind of solutions exist?

I have one browser for my mail and social media. I close it when I have writing scheduled or when an opportunity shows up. This is not enough for one writer of my acquaintance who actually rents a room with no connections (including wifi) for her dedicated time. Some people shut off wifi. Some use applications to keep Internet distractions at bay.

Eating and drinking can be scheduled in advance or delayed. For some people, they may even be rewards. If non-writing work pops into your head at inopportune times, put it off or give yourself three minutes (and no more) to record it. If necessary, give it its own creative time slot. New stories can be worked first as long as you never break you promise to bring your work in progress closer to completion. Reorganizing files, sharpening pencils, touching social media in any way, emptying your dishwasher are all strictly forbidden (unless you are working in zen mode).

Phones take messages. People and pets need to be managed. Like death, UPS deliveries come to us all. I don't have any help for you on those. But you do not get to open the boxes until you are finished with your writing. Are we clear?

Fear is probably the main reason why we embrace distractions and interruptions. The same demon in your head that tells you your writing sucks is the one that tells you not to write at all. I keep mine away with appointments to write (which are sacred), writing fast, and building enthusiasm. Ritual and habits can help too. I try to have fun with my writing every day, and I look to other writers for encouragement and support. Fear doesn't have much of a chance in the face of lots of positive thinking.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Time to Write 3 - Be ready with your toolkit

This series wouldn't be complete without a mention of the tools that enable productivity. Sometimes this is as basic as having a pencil at hand when a great idea comes to mind during commercial break times. At others, it can be as complex as having color-coded Post-it notes set out and ready to be added to a three-panel display board during dedicated plotting time.

I've already connected tasks to different kinds of available time, so I won't make all the links here. Instead, I'll mention tools I use (which may not be the ones you would use) for tasks from beginning to end. You may want to map these to the times yourself.

Overall - My guide for writing and revision is a process diary -- a bound notebook with handwritten with details on tasks and the order in which I've found it best to perform them. This includes reference links, modifications (dated), and color-coded tabbing (so I can easily move to, say the revision section). My computer is a mainstay. Research is usually done with Web searches and using dedicated databases.

Information is captured using word processing programs, Scrivener, and three-corner text files (rtf). Text-to-speech is used to review and revise my manuscripts and to allow me to listen to articles as I do other work.

More and more lately, I find color has entered my creative world. I find myself creating, developing, highlighting, and sorting concepts using a rainbow of gel pens and Post-it notes.

Generating and exploring ideas - I rarely walk around without a pen or pencil and an index card or small pad of Post-it notes. Nothing bothers me more that having an idea escape. One author I interviewed keeps a wax pencil in her shower so she can capture ideas there. I have master a concatenation memory trick to do the same, taking care to get to a means of writing the ideas down as soon as I can.

One key part of my process is laying out a piece of flip chart paper on the kitchen table for a download of everything rattling around in my head. The concepts usually organize themselves into ad hoc categories, and, before long, I generally find myself doing mind mapping.

I also have a number of forms I regularly use to develop and clarify story ideas. (I'm a big believer in having a strong logline before beginning any work.) More often than not I "pants" a story rather than doing an outline before writing, but eventually, I develop clear beats and dig into plot ideas using forms, and the plotting board work referred to above. Something similar is true as I systematically work to know my characters. These forms usually end up in a binder, or a folder, with tabs for easy access.

Drafting - My main tool here is a timer. It is like a starting gun for me, and I keep moving forward during the assigned time (usually 40-50 minutes). The timer also tells me to stop and take a break so I stretch. (It's too easy for me to get completely lost in the work.) I alternate between typing and dictating -- to protect my body from repetitive stress.

Revision -- A calendar comes first. If possible, I mark a day six weeks in the future to begin rewriting.  My starting point on the work is always using a printer to create a hard copy. I can make basic notes on it using two or three colored pens. I listen to the whole story using text to speech. I use numerous forms to analyze what I have drafted. Scrivener shows its value as I move around sections, open up "to-do" scenes, add comments, and mark some parts as likely to be removed. (These last will end up in a discard file, not thrown away.) As I approach the finer analysis, spell check, grammar check, and Autocrit come into play. Many of the revision tasks are repeated, as necessary.

Review and submission -- Here, I send email to beta readers, editors, and agents, sometimes with files attached (in formats readers support). I may find markets using search engines -- including Duotrope (which I can also use to document submissions.) I may pitch using Twitter and blog posts.

Etc. -- The rest is essential, but it is business-oriented. Obviously, provisions must be made for keeping records on receipts and expenses and other accounting-related data. A calendar should be used to plan and schedule work, education, and meetings. In this day and age, I could do a whole series of articles on promotion, including planning, creation of memes, use of social media, and more.

I'll add two more things. First, don't undervalue the power of a library card. Spending time in a space dedicated to knowledge, with research experts available, provides advantages that the Internet cannot. It will save you money and time and change your perspective.

For those who are serious about a career, a pencil (or colored pens) and a big page of flip chart paper may help clarify what you want and the advantages and disadvantages of the many options a connected world presents. Big Five or self publishing? The next hot thing or the story of your heart? Short stories or screenplays? A five-year plan? Picturing your personal happily ever after? Education needed? Tasks? All of it can be captured, classified, connected and ordered. (A big whiteboard may work better for some people.)

This article is about tools, but people in different roles can make a difference it terms of brainstorming, beta reading, editing, encouraging, supporting, analyzing choices, mentoring, sharing expertise, and more. Do you keep track of contacts? Do you offer thanks, provide help, and keep in touch? Do you have business cards to offer? Do you shove a business card you receive into a drawer or does it become a treasure -- in personal and business terms.

If you gather the right people around you, you'll learn more, find shortcuts, challenge yourself to do better, uncover opportunities, and find the community you need to humanize your writing endeavors. I haven't found any tools that can do all these things.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Time to Write 2 - The task for the time

In the last post, I described five different kinds of time. Dedicated time, interstitial time, split attention times, Zen time, and commercial breaks. Each of these vary in terms of quantity, intensity, and possible distractions. They also, depending on your natural rhythms and energy, may fall during periods of the day when they offer you different possibilities.

With the caveat that the following examples are related to how I work and not how you work, here are some tasks to consider for different times of day:

Almost any writing activity benefits from big blocks (15 minutes or more) of dedicated time, but I found it essential to some tasks. For me, drafting is intense, usually making every minute count as a timer runs down. I also need time set aside, with no distractions, when I am preparing to write a deeply emotional scene.

Plotting works better when I can pace, mumble to myself, and scribble down the essence of each turning point in full sentences without being concerned about interruptions. Once a draft is finished, I print it out and use the text-to-speech function on my computer to listen to the manuscript from beginning to end. I need to do that in his few sessions as possible so I can get a sense of the story as a whole. And, for many of the other parts of the revision process, the level of attention required does not permit me to take advantage of small bits of time or work as I'm involved with other activities.

Dedicated time is also important to me whenever I need to take a fresh look at my goals and motivation for writing. This requires deep thinking and careful consideration of where I am in my career and where I want to go. I include in this time used to evaluate and decide upon which projects I'll commit myself to.

There are lots of opportunities for taking advantage of interstitial time. For instance, many of the ideas I come up with result from following my curiosity or allowing myself to respond to prompts, such as pictures and poetry. Development work – especially making lists of possibilities, answering questions I posed myself, or filling out forms that can help me explore characters and themes — can be done effectively in short bursts of time that come up serendipitously. Some of the mechanical work of revision (correcting grammar, ferreting out extra words, and correcting spelling) can also be done during these times. What I have critiques and short notes from readers that I can absorb quickly, I can use these opportunities as well.

When I watch television, especially ballgames, I use commercial breaks to sort through notes I jotted down — observations, questions to myself, bits of dialogue, titles, and so forth. I also can answer simple story questions, especially those that require less than intense research. Some of forms and lists that can be attacked during interstitial times can also be worked on during commercial breaks. I may also come up with war improve preparation sentences to set up my work for the next day. It's also possible for me to highlight text, either from work I've done earlier or from criticism or comments I've received.

What I have an activity that is low intensity, such as making dinner for walking on my treadmill, I can listen to articles, novels, and nonfiction books that are relevant to my work in progress. Sometimes I also take advantage of this time to refresh myself on a manuscript on revising. I've never use this time for listening the first time through, but it works for keeping myself focused on the story that is written as opposed to what I imagine.

Finally there are those Zen periods, when I'm not consciously working on my manuscript at all. It is during these times when the solution to a story problem is apt to pop into my head or I'm likely to hear the voices of my characters – speaking lines from the story, complaining to me, or making suggestions.

All this has to do with how I work, which is likely to be somewhat different from the way you work. In fact, my and approaches aren't set in concrete, and I don't always write in the ways described above.

One more point: make sure you have the tools you need at hand that fit the time in the task. There's nothing more frustrating than having an opportunity and being stopped by something as trivial as not having a pencil nearby.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Time to Write 1 - Minutes, energy, and tasks

Some people feel they can only write when they have large, dedicated blocks of time. There are occasions when I need that, too. When I go into the deep analysis of the plot, for instance, I often need to work intensely and any interruptions can force me to do a lot of rework. I can usually anticipate these ahead of time and get them onto the calendar.

But there are lots of writing jobs that can be done without much dedicated time. I found this when I did what most productivity experts advocate -- I kept track of how I used the hours I have.

I formed my baseline by tracking my activities over one week. Ultimately, this reached beyond the typical productivity view of finding free hours and wasted hours because I noted my energy levels. I identified which tasks seemed to best match my rhythms.

I'm a morning person, and virtually all my hardest work, including work that requires the most imagination, needs to get done before 1 PM. I also noted that my energy is better if I enforce a "walk around" break every 40 to 50 minutes. I need to get the blood moving and to loosen my muscles.

In the afternoon, I tend to do more rewriting and work that involves logic or directed work (such as filling out forms for story planning and character development). This is also a good time to do business activities for me -- although I do tend to check anything involving money at a time when my brain is fresher.

The biggest bonus I got from paying attention to how I work came with my discovery of interstitial work. Back when my calendar would fill up with meetings, I began to keep a list of essential activities I could break away from easily or even complete in five or 10 minutes. Since then, whenever I'm kept waiting or an activity ends early, I go to my list, grab the next thing, and get to work on it.

I have also made good use of activities that allow split attention. I almost always listen to a book that's relevant to my work as I walk the treadmill or make dinner.

Similarly, I've come to respect what I call my "Zen" times. When I am doing physical activities like raking leaves or I'm in the shower, ideas will pop into my head or characters will begin talking to me. One best-selling author told me she always kept a wax pen in her shower stall for exactly this reason.

Finally, there's what I call commercial breaks. When I'm watching a ball game on TV, I keep a list of simple questions nearby or index cards of scenes. I grab these and scribble out answers or experiment with new orders whenever commercials come on.

So, here's my "how to":
  • Track and analyze how you spend your time in terms of the intensity of activities, the opportunities for specific levels of work, and your own cycles of energy.
  • Classify your writing activities in ways that will encourage you to make the most of the opportunities you've identified.
  • Be prepared. Have the materials to do your work at hand when opportunities present themselves.
Next time, I'll list some specific writing tasks and when, from my experience, they make the most sense.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 7 - High contrast

I try to let my stories off the leash in the drafting stage. It's one of the reasons why I work hard to banish my internal editor and get the words down quickly. But my natural tendencies do not go toward exploring extreme differences. Luckily, I have found that it's relatively easy to deliberately explore contrasts when I do my revisions. Why does this make a difference?

Think of a target. You'll imagine concentric circles of white and black (or possibly the color red). If you make the circles white and pale yellow or green and blue, the image is less riveting and finding the bull's-eye becomes more of a problem.

All other things being equal, a duet between a man and a woman is more compelling than between two men or two women. A friendship between a tall person and a short person (Mutt and Jeff) attracts more attention than a pair with comparable heights. Part of the art of cooking is combining distinctly different flavors. Each of these is compelling because we're built to notice and engage with contrasts.

So one way to add interest to your story is to emphasize differences. Let's explore five ways that you can enhance contrast and draw your readers and audiences in.

Physical diversity – Gender, size, ethnicity, dress, grooming, deformity, and beauty are just some of the immediate and accessible aspects of characters that can be presented to readers and audiences. The diversity of the crew on the Starship Enterprise was immediately apparent to viewers (and, to some, shocking in its day).

Defy expectations — If the appearances of characters don't line up with people's preconceived notions (the more), this creates surprises that make people want to know more. In Legally Blonde, the main character goes against the "dumb blonde" convention by being highly intelligent. In Crocodile Dundee, the outback adventurer outsmarts the city slickers.

Personalities – The classic here is the Odd Couple, which pits a slob against the neatnik when they are forced to live together. But there are plenty of other cases where people who plan are matched with those who improvise or straight arrows are matched with crooks. The variations in perspectives, values, and approaches to problem solving can be mined in ways that illuminate and amplify theme. This is especially true when the differences are pushed to the limits. One way to explore this is to create characters who are exact opposites based on personality testing, such as Myers-Briggs.

Impossible tasks – Imagine if the protagonist in Rocky had been the latest Olympic gold medal winning heavyweight boxer. Would the movie have been as interesting? Instead, he's a failed boxer who has lost his spot at the gym and makes his living as a leg breaker, someone sent to intimidate people who owe money. Luke Skywalker is not yet a Jedi. He's a farm boy. And he has to take on the Empire. While you have to stay within the bounds of believability (Apollo Creed does not take on a 12-year-old girl), giving the external goal of the story to an unlikely person creates curiosity and, because we want to root for underdogs, empathy.

Knowledge – Irony also provides an interesting contrast. It can make readers and audiences deliciously uncomfortable when they know more than the characters do. In a horror story, audiences worry when a character decides to go down the hallway or enter a room where the monster, serial killer, or demon is waiting. Hitchcock famously spoke about how excruciating a scene becomes when characters have an everyday chat in the presence of a ticking time bomb.

Usually, writers have the good sense to include conflict and tension in most scenes. They make sure dialogue is distinct enough so that a listener or reader, without cues, would know who is speaking. But, many stories squander opportunities to enhance differences. Either planning or in revision, looking closely for opportunities to increase contrast in characters, situations, objectives, settings, expectations, social norms, values, and more can raise better questions and create deeper emotional experiences.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 6 - Fear and blasphemy

My intent is not to deliver you into temptation. I am not trying to break up your marriage or scandalize your congregation or attract the attention of analysts at the Department of Homeland Security. I'm all about stories. The best stories. The stories that challenge. The stories that are memorable.

So... what are you afraid of?

I mean this literally. (What you are looking for are opportunities to take risks with your drafts, so take notes, make lists.) Let's take my favorite route to surprising answers, a climb up Maslow's pyramid (or hierarchy).
By FireflySixtySeven - Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow's paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0

Starting from the bottom, what deaths are you most afraid of? Begin with the most likely ones. Heart disease, automobile accidents, cancer, Alzheimers, etc. ? Then, are there unlikely deaths that give you nightmares? Are there causes of death or moments/places of death that would mortify you?

You might want to imagine disabilities or diseases, as well. When I was a kid, there seemed to be a television genre for this -- disease of the week. I don't think the interest has gone away. What makes you squirm will make your characters squirm and engage readers.

Constant threats to safety can raise anxiety levels. I've been mugged a couple of times, so I avoid hidden spaces and shadowy alleys. I am keenly aware when traveling in some countries of the dangers of food poisoning, even in the best hotels (eat only if sealed or sizzling). What have been the worst threats to your safety? Getting separated from your parents? Riding in a car when a drunk was behind the wheel? Where would you never go? What would you never do? If something you imagine gives you chills, add it to your list.

Start easy, remembering embarrassments. Probing your social anxieties, from public speaking to secret traumas. Then move on. What could you do that would break the bonds of love? Or what could happen that would separate you from people you care for? Think in personal terms, exploring your real relationships and push to levels beyond forgiveness. I hope none of the worst things have happened to you, but if they did, they are there to be mined. And, if they didn't, your empathy has forced you to experience the horrors others have shared. These are key to strong stories, too.

From the time of Greek drama, the idea of bringing the most honored low has made good theater. Think of what you are most esteemed for or what you most value about yourself. Now imagine losing those things completely, a fall from grace. Punishment for hubris. Try the same thing for someone who is your model, your hero, or your heroine.

Feel free to explore the loss of self-actualization, if you wish. In all probability, people whom Maslow would have considered self-actualized have suffered in this way, and it might lead to good stories. However, since Maslow believed that less than one percent of humans achieve self-actualization, you might have difficulty getting readers to identify with the consequences of such a failure.

This is your fears list. All of these fears can catch fire in a good story, and you should try submitting your characters to these tortures, especially those that disturb you the most. Don't worry. Your characters will forgive you. And you don't have to include these in any drafts that others will read.

Now climb the pyramid again. This time, think of what might appeal to you -- but not just anything. Think about what attracts you that is unacceptable to others, weird, or even taboo. If it's something you'd never dare to do, even better. Make a list of these.

This is your blasphemy list. Again, try to work these into your stories. Then, as a test, imagine your distress if your kids or your lover(s) or your boss or your spouse's friends or government agents were to read these scenes. Out loud, in front of you. Imagine reading such scenes in different cultures or different times. Would any of them lead people into temptation? Break a marriage? Lead to shunning or exile? Put you in jail? Get you burned at the stake?

Good. Now you can write something that's off the leash. Perhaps something you'll need to dial back for safety's sake. Or destroy. That's success. That's testing your limits. That's finding options to write stories that break new ground and challenge the culture.

Too dark? Find the healing. Find the way home. Find the reconciliation. Find the happy ending. Take the trip from damnation to ecstasy. It will be unlike anything else. Never settle for the journey from discomfort to calm.