Archive | Writing Practice

The Tyranny of Word Count

Every morning on my calendar I note how many words I’ve written (my main fiction writing time is early in the morning).  My goal is 1500-2000 words a day, which is a nice pace for me. If I’m on, I can hit 2K easily, but on off days, 500 words is a stretch.  Counting words is a great way to remind yourself of how much you’ve accomplished, and of course you know that what you focus on, grows. (I imagine myself staring at a page of words, willing it to multiply like the dandelions on our front yard.)

And its not just the daily word count that we focus on, but we think about it in other ways as well.  We fret and stew about how many words a book should be.  How long is a novella? How long is a short story? If I go over those standard word counts wills something bad happen? And so on and so forth.

And so even though I love checking in on my daily word count notations, I sometimes think they can become a bit tyrannical. And result in bad habits. Tell me I’m not the only one who:

  1. Writes complicated sentences–because they entail more words.
  2. Use two words when one will do. Because, word count.
  3. Catch myself repeating something and then letting it stand. Because, you know why, word count.
  4. Endures excruciating moments when I’m straining for just 100 more words to meet my quota.

Okay, okay, I am writing raw as coal-before-it-becomes-a-diamond drafts.  And I know that the value of rewriting is inestimable.  But still, sometimes I wonder if there’s a better way to keep track of it all, or if I really do need to keep track? To answer that last question first, when I’m writing regularly, I think it’s important to have metrics.  The novelist J.T. Ellison says that we must “touch our story, think about it” on a regular basis, and I agree. (Regular basis=daily.)  Keeping a word count reminds you of the importance of this.  When I wring my hands and tell myself I’m not much of a writer, all I have to do is flip open my planner and there it is, ink black and white (well, okay, color from gel pens), proof that if nothing else I do get up and throw words at the page regularly. And if there are lots of blank days with no word counts listed, I am reminded that I’m slacking.

But is there a better way to keep track? I suppose I could write to the end of whatever scene I’m working on and list how many scenes or chapters I’ve completed.  But often when I end my writing session at the close of a scene, I close myself off as well. (Hemingway famously ended his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.)  And of course, there is rating yourself by time as well.  If you’ve sat at your computer for two hours, you’ve done your job.  Except one could easily sit at said computer for two hours and not write a word.  I know, I’ve done it I had a friend who did it.

I dunno. Maybe you can tell me a better way?

The truth is I’m the worst goal setter in the world.  The standard advice to block out time for writing on my calendar doesn’t work for me, because I rebel against myself.  As in, look at my calendar and say, meh, don’t feel like doing that today. This is clearly a variation of the childhood refrain, “I’m doing it because I want to and not because you tell me to.” Yep, childish as all get-out, not to mention counter productive.  I actually love to set elaborate goals, goals that even the most vigorous Type A personality could never meet.

And for some unknown reason, writing to word count, tyrannical as the process is, works for me. It is the only thing I’ve found that keeps me productive on a regular basis.  And so on bad days I groan and strain and complain until I reach at least 1,000 words and on good days I pat myself on the back when I easily sail past 2K.

Nobody said being a writer was easy. (And if it was, we’d be bored.)

What metrics do you use to keep track of your progress?

And by the way, for the truly nutty among you, my friend Milli Thornton runs 10K Days for writers every month, twice a month. There’s one coming up tomorrow (July 20) that I’m participating in, and one this Saturday as well.

Happy writing!

 

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What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Write

Thoughtful-creative-moved-22614-lSo there you are.  You've cleared your schedule and made time to write.  The kids are farmed out, the dog is asleep, your partner is happily watching something stupid on TV.  You open a file, place your hands on your keyboard, and ….. nothing happens.

You don't know what to write.  And when you don't know what to write, writing doesn't happen.

This can occur whether you are starting something new, or in the middle of a writing project.  And no matter when it happens, it can stop you cold.  Maybe you're trying to parse out the plot of your novel, or maybe you're partway through and you thought you knew where you were going but suddenly you don't.

One of the single best pieces of advice I can give you, writer to writer, is this: always know where you are going next.  (My daughter-in-law drove up to Bainbridge Island last weekend to hear one of her favorite authors, Annie Barrows of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society fame speak, and guess what?  That's the exact same advice she gave.)  I'm experiencing this first hand as I get up and work on my new WIP every morning.  The days I know where I'm going next, my fingers fly.  The days where I'm not sure, I meander.  And on those meandering days I get nothing done.

But what if you find yourself at the page and you don't have a freaking clue what to write?  Here are some suggestions.

1.  Write about your project.  Don't worry about writing within the project, write around it.  I always keep a spiral handy for notes and "writing about" sessions.  These help me clarify where I am and can get me back to the project at hand.  I thought everyone did this, so much so that I'd never bothered to mention it–but then we had a long discussion about it in the writing group I lead and to most, it was a novel idea.  Go figure.  Anyway, for me, inspiration always comes through the writing itself.

2.  Use a prompt.  Yeah, I know.  But they work.  There are tons here and a million other places on the web.  The thing to remember about using prompts successfully is to not make yourself hew to them religiously.  By this I mean, use them as a starting point.  Doesn't matter if the prompt is about a cat and you write about dogs.  The idea is to get you getting words on the page.

3.  Fill out a character dossier.  This is another thing I thought everyone did.  Turns out, not so.  I have standard character forms I've developed from a variety of sources over the years–and I invariably find myself figuring things out as I write fill them in.  (If you need a template for that, just email me and I'll send you mine.)

4.  Remember, nothing is wasted.  Sometimes it is valuable just to plunge in.  Put your character somewhere and start writing.  It may not turn into anything at all, but then again, it might.  And even if you don't use it this time around, maybe it will work itself into your next WIP.  Who knows? The muse works in mysterious ways–but she's happiest when you meet her partway.

5.  Also remember that maybe something is wrong.  If you are in the middle of a project and you don't know what to right, consider that something isn't working.  Maybe you've conceived the scene wrong, or it belongs in a different place.  Maybe it needs to be in a different location or with a different set of characters.  In order not to get stuck here, either move on to a different scene, or write something else–play around with a short story or an essay, for instance.

6.  Make a list of what you know and don't know.  Approach this like free writing and set a timer, then write down every thing you can think of that you don't know.  Ask yourself questions.  Make odd connections.  See what comes out on the page.  You know more than you think, you just need to unlock it from within.

7.  Change up your routine.  I rarely listen to music while writing, but at the moment I'm listening to a soundtrack that purports to zap you into the right brain and allow the words to flow.  It seems to be working! (Though I must admit I found the bird calls on it a bit distracting at first.) I've written recently about how working outside every morning has improved my writing.  So try something different–it may give you inspiration, and that's really what we're talking about here.

8.  Write a description.  Some people love it, some people hate it, but writing it is good practice.  Maybe you'll actually use it somewhere–or maybe it will spark the words you're looking for.

9.  Walk away.  If all else fails, go do something else.  Take a walk, mow the lawn, pull weeds, something.  It amazes me how often I don't know what to write next, get up from my chair, and find myself running back to the computer because everything has clicked into place.

10.  Keep a writer's journal.  Carry a journal around with you and take notes.  I don't do this as often as I should but when I do, it makes me happy.  Write about the woman with magenta hair and tattoos sitting next to you at the coffee shop, make notes on dialogue.  You can do this quickly, in phrases and lists, or elaborately, whatever your pleasure.  Then when you're sitting back at your desk, despairing because you don't know what to write, flip through it for inspiration.

So….what do you do when you don't know what to write?  Please share in the comments.

Photo by corpitho.

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Writing In the Summertime

Writingoutside

My outdoor writing space

It is hot here in Portland, mid to upper 90s all last week and more of the same this week, with temps predicted to reach into the 100s by the weekend.  We usually get some hot hot weather during the summer, but this is very early for a heat wave and it is lasting a long time.

My office is upstairs (I'm in process of moving it downstairs, but that project is taking forever) and that automatically makes it hot.  (We, like many Portlanders who live in older homes, don't have air conditioning.) But it also gets stuffy, the air stagnant, and because it is full of boxes (the afore mentioned moving project), its not a very inspiring space at the moment.

In self defense, I moved my computer and all my notes downstairs last weekend and then one early morning around 6 AM I got the idea to move my operation out back.  I set up on the outdoor table on the deck and listened to the birds sing and wrote my heart out.  I started out a few weeks ago setting my Iphone timer for 15 minutes and telling myself I was just going to write, simply as a way to get to the page.  But now, I think it is safe to say that these daily outside writing sessions are turning into my next novel–and that my daily writing practice has transformed my writing life.

Firtreeoutback

The tree above me

I now set up outside every morning and it has quickly become my favorite time of day.  It is peaceful and cool and quiet aside from the occasional dog barking and I am getting a lot of writing done every morning.  It is amazing to me what a change of venue can do for your writing.  Some people love to go work in coffee shops, but me? Not so much.  I'm far too distracted by people and noise and activity.  Besides, I do my best work early in the day, in my pajamas, and that doesn't work so well anywhere but home.

By 7:30 the sun hits my back and lights the screen and I can't see so well and I'm starting to flag anyway.  But the point of all this, besides encouraging you to look at where you write and how well it is working for you, is to share a few tips I've learned (relearned?) as I start writing a long project (i.e., a novel), again.  

1.  Call it Daily Writing Practice.   Some times the daily writings  are just random scenes, sometimes they actually turn into a scene for my WIP, and sometimes they become me obsessing about where I am in the WIP.  But gradually, the daily practices have turned into real, consistent work on my next novel, and the sessions have lengthened out considerably.  But at the beginning, I just called it daily practice and all I had to do was write something, anything for 15 minutes. Whether or not your writing sessions pertain to your WIP is up to you—but if it doesn't, that's okay.

2.  Keep a Writing Log. I've started a daily writing log, wherein I write about my feelings and thoughts on what I'm writing.   I wish I'd done this during the writing of my most recent novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery.  Now that it is finished, that novel exists in a sort of magical haze for me, and I've convinced myself that writing it went smoothly from the idea to the end.  But a few days ago, I opened, by chance, one of my daily writings from last summer–and read a whole long rant about how stuck and frustrated I was on the progress I was making.  Because, the thing is, when a novel is done, you forget the day to day grind that went into it.  Because the Bonne Chance was somewhat magical in origin, with the entire story essentially downloaded to me in the shower, it has been easy to forget the hard parts. Instead, I labor under the delusion that the writing of it was easy and sure in every letter and word.  While parts of it were, much of it wasn't.  And it is reassuring to remember that as I struggle to start anew.

For a look at how a major literary figure used a diary, check out this great Brain Pickings piece about the journals John Steinbeck kept while writing the Grapes of Wrath.

3.  Set Word Count Goals.  Once you get beyond the random daily writing practice (and its okay if you never do, truly), it is fun to set yourself some goals.  I was hitting 1K words a morning with ease, so today I notched it up to 1,500.  It helps to give me some kind of framework for what I'm doing.

4.  Give Yourself a Place to Go the Next Day.  If you are working on a long project, write a sentence or two about what happens next, so that you know where to start the next day.  If you are doing random writing, choose a prompt so that you don't go in search of one on the internet and get distracted.

 5.  Stay Organized.  For some dumb reason that I will probably regret, I like to save each days' writing in a separate file, labeled with the date.  I think I like to see the files pile up in the folder I've created for them.  What I will likely soon do is put all these pieces together into a file labeled "full manuscript."  But I am notoriously terrible at organization, so you can probably figure out your own system that works well for you.

Okay, that's it!  I hope you are making progress on your WIP or enjoying writing something.  Do you have any tips for sustaining a regular writing practice?

5

Writing Fiction: The Two Nows Structure

The task of a novelist is to tell a story so riveting that it will hold a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages. To do this, the author must first know the story intimately herself—which is the reason we write rough drafts (also known as “discovery drafts” or, my favorite, from the beloved Anne Lamott, “shitty first drafts”). After you’ve finished a first draft (or many drafts) and are convinced you know the story inside out, you can start thinking about structure (though there may well be a lucky few who write novels with the perfect structure from the outset). Structure is the way your story is presented to the reader—the ordering of scenes and chapters.

Writers whose novels contain a lot of important backstory often struggle with ways to weave in flashbacks without stopping the forward motion of the story. One approach is to “chunk” in the flashbacks: present several chapters of the story line to get the action moving, and then pull in several chapters (a “chunk”) of explanatory backstory.

But what if your backstory is so compelling or so important to the protagonist’s character arc that you don’t want to wait several chapters to impart it? This is the issue I struggled with repeatedly in writing my first novel. My heroine moves to a new part of the country, which is where the action begins. Yet what makes her move so painful, and the action unique, is her deep love for her left-behind home. My problem was how to get the story moving and keep the reader engrossed while also showing Collie’s ordinary world—the place she left behind.

The answer finally came in a critique session with trusted fellow novelists. Why not try running a dual story line? Tell Collie’s story from the moment she moved to Santa Fe as one narrative arc, and intersperse the backstory in alternating chapters—a dual story line. Chapter one begins the story and immerses the reader in the contemporary story line, chapter two moves back to the beginning of the flashback story line, Chapter Three returns to the present, and so on.

I’ve christened this the Two Nows Structure, because one important feature is the immersion in the “now” of each arc. This is the key element of this construction. We are in the head of the characters as they are at the moment. The flashback storyline is not told retrospectively, with the wisdom of the years that have passed. It is told in the now of that narrative arc. Accordingly, such a structure works best with a limited point of view, either tight third person or first person.

Each storyline has a distinct narrative arc, with its own conflicts, disasters, and troubles for the characters, and its own forward movement and mounting action. To decide where to begin each throughline, bear in mind the advice of writer Jack Bickham, from his book, Scene and Structure, which is “start your story at the time of the change that threatens your character’s major self-concept.

In my research on this structure, I’ve discovered two main variations. The first is a linear style, in which each story is told in strict chronological order. This is the structure used in the recent novel, A Blessed Event, by Jean Reynolds Page, which is the story about a woman desperate for a baby, and the controversial actions she takes to get one. In dealing with the consequences of those actions, the protagonist uncovers secrets from her past. The contemporary story begins in Texas in 1983, and the backstory action starts ten years earlier. Chapters alternate between the two time periods, and each story line moves steadily forward until they begin to merge about three-quarters of the way through.

A permutation on this linear storyline structure is found in Jane Hamilton’s novel, The Short History of a Prince. While Hamilton’s two narrative arcs also follow chronologically, her novel begins with the flashback storyline. The book alternates between 1972 and 1995, with each distinct arc covering roughly the same period of time—the months of a school year, September to June. In Prince, the events of the past storyline are so strong and compelling that they have affected every single character in the twenty years since, which is no doubt why she chose to begin in the past.

The second variation on the Two Nows Structure is the thematic style. In this construction, the flashback chapters are arranged in seemingly random order, but the author has placed them so for thematic reasons. Maryanne Stahl’s novel, Forgive the Moon,, is fashioned in this manner. The story of a woman whose marriage is threatened, the contemporary action takes place over a one week vacation on Long Island, and the flashbacks show snapshots of the protagonist’s past which illuminate her current behaviors and decisions.

Both the linear and thematic structures tend to follow a similar pattern—chapters alternating consistently between the two nows with an equal emphasis on each storyline. Occasionally, authors allow us to remain in the contemporary storyline for more than one chapter, but this rarely happens with the past storyline. Its important to keep the contemporary narrative moving (which is why you chose this structure) and lingering in the past will not accomplish that. By the last third or quarter of the novel, the two storylines will, of necessity, start to merge until there is one seamless narrative remaining.

Why choose this structure? In rewriting my first novel, I found it benefits my writing in several ways. By not relying on flashbacks and instead immersing my characters in the “now” of their lives, I am forced to write with more immediacy. Instead of lapsing into telling, I easily see ways to show. This, in turn, helps me to show character motivation in real time, instead of using a flashback that stops the action of the story to explain why a character does what he does. For instance, in my own novel, I revealed a crucial character motivation in a flashback scene. Try as I might, I could see no way to get this information out in any other way—until I recast the novel in the Two Nows structure. Immediately, I saw how this bit of info could be revealed in the contemporary story line, thus pushing the action ahead and keeping the story moving.

The Two Nows Structure is a useful paradigm for a variety of novels, but especially for those which rely heavily on backstory. Ultimately, I decided not to use this structure for my novel, but its certainly something I’ll consider using for future novels.

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