Self-isolating before it was cool…

Over on Words Mean Stuff today I’m talking a bit about how to keep the days from blurring together while we’re under ‘lock downs’, ‘stay at home orders’, and other schedule killing effects of the Covid -19 crisis. As writers, we have a leg up on this. If we writers want to be successful, we need to have a hand in controlling our schedules no matter what’s going on. We need to be putting the work in on our writing. And, this crisis lends itself somewhat to the more isolated parts of the writing process (unless you have spouses, kids, and pets (actually, if you have a spouse, kids and pets I’d love to hear how you deal with the more isolated parts of the writing process!)).

The crisis can be helpful by encouraging us to write, and work on writing related tasks. But we still need to mark and differentiate the days. One simple (and sometimes overlooked) way of doing this is putting in some planning and scheduling for our writing. A second (and related) method is tracking our progress.

One reason these techniques get overlooked is a desire to “just dive into the work”. Well, don’t do that! Spend at least a little time looking at what you want to do with a project. Set some parameters and goals. Define what you will do and how (and when) you intend to do it. And then keep track of the progress you have made.

By having a plan and keeping track of where you are in relation to that plan, you can replace some external schedule and time markers we’re all missing during the Covid crisis. It’s also a skill set that will help you find writing success when there isn’t a crisis keeping us in our homes. It’s a skill set that helps us to master ourselves and our lives no matter what our conditions are.

In my experience (and the experience of those I’ve talked to) one major cause of the days blurring together is the difficulty of measuring the passing of time and feeling like we’re not getting anywhere. When you create a plan for your writing and measure your progress, you create a way to measure time and build your sense of accomplishment. You might just learn something.

(For some of us the best thing we can learn from this is how to handle multiple projects (something I should really come back to in this blog…))

The writing life demands both community and self-control. And the current world situation really emphasizes the self-control end (while leaving us wishing for more of the community). We have an advantage as writers, the self-contained part of what we what we do fits well with this temporary ‘new normal’. Using and developing our planning and working skills will help us get through.

Good luck in your writing dear reader. I’ll see you next post.

Controlling the uncontrollable

“One of my characters and I have spent years trying to tell thunderstorms when and where to thunderstorm,” with that thought I realized a big piece of why it irritates me when people try to dictate (or even interfere with) when and where I write. I’ve spent years trying to control this, channel it, and now someone wants to come in and change it?

Words come at weird and inconvenient times. If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon, you haven’t been seriously engaged in writing for very long. I have found those “Aha!” moments popping up in the shower, while driving, during meals, and at “annoying o’clock” in the morning. And I’m not the only one. One of the best, most important, and most powerful things you can do for yourself as a writer is to make sure you have a way of remembering those thoughts and words, and recording them promptly.

If you don’t record them, you lose them; that’s just the way it works.

Another of the best, most important, and most powerful things you can do for yourself as a writer is to train yourself (and those you live and work with) to a writing schedule. It won’t protect you from those random thoughts while soaping up or trying to sleep, but having a regular writing schedule and a good place to write, that suit what your working on, makes writing much easier.

When you train yourself to a schedule, you are providing a regular time to get writing done.

When you “just wait for the mood to strike me” you never really seem to get around to writing. You definitely never get around to editing (which is usually less fun in the first place).

When you find or create a writing space for yourself, and use that place for writing, you create environmental stimuli that help your mind understand “I’m supposed to be writing now”. You might even bring in or create stimuli that help you find ideas and solutions to writer’s block and other problems, or help you get your emotions in the right place to do writing work (even editing!).

It’s about creating opportunities for the words to come. It’s about making a place for you to communicate your passions, to tell your story.

And sometimes we have to defend that time and space.

Now, I’m not giving anyone permission to go spastic on a spouse, child, or neighbor. But there comes a time where you need to calmly stand your ground and explain to someone that you are working. You are getting productive and useful things done, and those things need to happen.

You also may have to be a little flexible. If the house is burning down and your wife is having a baby, please call the fire department and take care of your wife. The universe understands and the words will come back (if they were really meant to be). Other times you may need to do things like use the bathroom or rebalance the load in your washing machine (or deal with some other nerve jangling non-sentient stimuli).

The point is to create a time and space where you usually can get some decent writing done. There will be times you don’t get much done, but if you succeed more often than not, you’re winning.

This is the same logic as my decision to average at least a thousand words a day. Ok, Monday this week I got zero words. Tuesday, I got around 1,750. Wednesday, I topped 2000! As long as you’re averaging at or above your goal, you’re doing ok. And looking at the average helps fight the idea that “Ok, that was word number 1,000. Time to turn my brain off!”

Ideas come at weird times. You need to be ready for them. You can help them come more regularly by creating a scheduled time and a familiar place in which to write.

And sometimes you will have to teach those around you that this is your writing time and space, and they need to respect that.

Well, dear reader, I suspect we should both get back to writing now. So good luck. And I’ll see you next post.

Reading bad books…

I’m a lucky guy, my wife supports me in my writing endeavors. Recently she brought me a couple examples of recently on the market novels for the audience I’m writing for at the moment. Neither one was one that I would have picked up myself. And both taught me something.

One book, the one I’m reading is good. There are things that I wouldn’t do. But, then again, the world I’m building isn’t the same either. If I was working in this author’s world, I would make some of the same choices. I like what the writer’s doing and I’m learning a few things.

The other book, which I read first, taught me a lot about what I shouldn’t do. I’m not mentioning authors or titles here because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s “feelers”, but let’s face it: the book really wasn’t all that good.

Some mistakes were simple. Some of them were complex. Some of them were in world, some of them were in story/audience interaction. There were a lot of things wrong and a lot of things I learned slogging my way through the book. For example:

  • If you’re going to use the word soon in the blurb on the back… Make sure soon isn’t page 260 of a 280-page book. Even if you intend to have sequels, 90+ percent of the way through the book isn’t soon…
  • If your story is based on what happened in your Dungeons and Dragons campaign that one time, I can tell that (and so can other readers).
  • Timing on ending a chapter really matters for other chapters when your writing from multiple perspectives. If you want your reader to agonize with a character about the fate of a sibling, it’s a bad idea to tell the reader the sibling is safe before your character hears about what’s going on…

The book also highlighted some mistakes that I kind of knew about but was glad for a reminder of:

  • If you have more than two characters, and half (or more) of your characters have similar names (same first letter, same except for the first letter, etc…) you will confuse your reader. (in fact, if you have exactly two characters with similar names you can have problems). There are exceptions, but messing with similar names is playing with fire!
  • You need to think about the history and technology of your world. If you’re working in a medieval Europe type setting, your bad guys shouldn’t be running around with shotguns… (again there are exceptions but this book wasn’t one of them…). If you are in a world with no electricity or computers, why would anyone’s chief servant be a ‘comptroller’?
  • Avoid generalizations about a group or gender. Sorry, not all males are stupid. Not all females are powerless. Not all villains are rich. And you don’t have to orphan your hero or heroine to make him/her a hero or heroine.

The book wasn’t one I would read for entertainment (if I was reading just for entertainment any of the items on that second list would have given me serious reason put down the book and not pick it up again). But I did learn a lot from reading it.

There’s another book I’ve read, in which the writer was trying to pick up someone else’s world and tell stories there. No, it wasn’t fanfic, fan written fiction would have been better. This author did not understand the world he was writing in. I learned something from that one too: know the world you’re working in at least as well as the average fan before you try to publish anything!

Bad (as in poorly written) books happen. I don’t advocate writing one. But when you find them, read them! Learn from other author’s mistakes (even mine (if I had a problem with that, I wouldn’t be doing this blog…)). If you can recognize and solve problems in someone else’s work, then you are that much closer to being able to recognize and fix those mistakes in your own work (and even Steven King has had problems in his writing).

When you’re a writer, and even if you’re not, reading is at least as much about learning as it is about entertainment. As writers, reading the bad (poorly written) books can help us improve our books.

Well, I should get back to reading, and so should (No. Wait… Your reading this, so you are reading…)… Good luck in your reading and writing dear reader, and I’ll see  you next post.

A modelers tool for writing projects

As a kid I made plastic models. At first, before I knew better, I threw away the leftover bits and pieces. That was before I learned to keep a parts box…

One of the best lessons of my years making plastic tanks, jets, and other models was that serious modelers keep a parts box, a place where they store those leftover bits and pieces. Why? Because sometimes the extra bits are useful in making other models. If you have extra parts, you can customize kits and experiment with techniques cheaply and safely. Having and using a parts box gives you options and helps you develop your skills.

The lesson of my parts box paid off for me as a college student.  When you’re doing psychology research, you need to run statistics, and big stats packages like SPSS and SAS frequently require you to do a little coding to do the big heavy-duty analyses. Some of my fellow students dreaded those big analyses. Not me… I saved my code and re-used it. For a lot of the big analyses the code is fairly similar. So, I could copy a previous use of the same test, modify it, and have the new test ready much faster than if I had tried to code it from scratch.

Over on the fiction side of the house, the concept of the parts box is still helping me.

When we edit, we sometimes struggle with those bits of writing that we love, but know we need to cut. It can be hard because you don’t want to lose those little gems, even though they don’t fit the current story.

Well, with a parts box (in this case a folder on your hard drive/cloud/flash drive) you can save those bits. And, after you’ve saved them you can use them!

Are you looking for inspiration? Need a writing prompt? Climb around in your parts box of fiction pieces you already love (or at least find interesting). Odds are that there will be something in there that works for you.

Are you stuck on a scene? Maybe the solution is already in your parts box. It’s just like back in the old days with plastic models; if I’m stuck I can ask myself “Do I have one of these already?”, and then go look.

The concept dear reader, is to create a place to store those bits that are too good to throw away, but aren’t necessarily useful right now. If you’re in this business long term (and most of us who really write are) they will be helpful eventually, and they’re easy to store (and if you can figure out a good naming and organizing scheme, they can be fairly easy to find!).

I practice what I preach dear reader (or at least I try to…), and a writer’s parts box is helpful. In my first “one and a half pass” through the novel I’m working on I’ve found over a dozen ideas that I should really explore in short stories of their own. Putting them in the “box” means I don’t forget them and I can use them to both expand my world and fill those times where I’m really having trouble finding something to write (it happens…).

It’s not an absolute “have to”, but it’s an idea I encourage you to try. And, I think I’ll go crawl through mine to see if I can find a little help for this next chapter.

If you have questions or experiences with a writer’s “parts box” I’d love to discuss them with you. And… I’ll see you next post.