Friday Desk Report – Nov. 13, 2015

Samsung_840_EVO_SSD-8_-_front_blackIt is Friday the 13th, and yet I am cloning and installing a new SSD in my laptop. Nope, no triskaidekaphobia, paraskevidekatriaphobia, or friggatriskaidekaphobia here.

It’s been a good week for writing, and my NaNoWriMo WIP has topped 30k words. I spent the first 29k of that figuring out what the novel was about, and then yesterday finding out how it would all fit together, but it’s not the process, it’s the product, right? For a usual November I would be ecstatic to be at 30k words on this date (and it is, in my 13-year tenure, unheard-of), because I’d be more than halfway to goal–but of course, this year’s actual goal is much higher, and so I am merely satisfied. Satisfied is also a good place to be, however.

I had a story rejection this week but…well, as my good friend Nancy says, at some point they get to be more like a kick on the shin than a devastating injury. They sting for a bit and then you shrug them off and that’s it. I haven’t found a new place to send the story yet because, darn, it’s long, and the majority of markets these days are looking for 5k or less, it seems. I just don’t write that many stories in that length. I’ll try to find some time to focus on that in the next week.

I’m doing a lot of on-call story advising this month since there are so many stories happening in this household right now. But that’s fun, and it’s so interesting to be able to watch other writers develop under the microscope, so to speak. And it’s nice to be able to answer many of the questions that I had to research long ago.

I set up a new blog over at WordPress.com this week, called Stalking the Story. Why do I want another website to look after? Well, I plan to make it the repository for just my writing-related posts, so if that’s all you’re here for, they’ll be cross-posted over there as well. I’m also hoping to have some guest bloggers over there in the coming months. It may, over time, turn into a cooperative blog, which is something I’ve thought I’d like to do for some time now, in partnership with other writers. We’ll have to see how it evolves.

Habitica avatarMy desk is actually getting a bit messy, as it is wont to do during NaNoWriMo, so I plan to take a break this weekend and tidy it up. No, I will not be procrastinating on my WIP. The other thing I did this week was set up an account at Habitica, which is essentially a way to manage your productivity and habits by gamifying your life and translating it into a video RPG. So far, I love it. It’s amazing how much more satisfying it is to make my bed when I know I’m getting XP and virtual gold for it. :) I mean, I’ve only been using it for a few days and I’m already level 5!

Some things I did to earn gold and XP this week:

  • made my bed
  • walked on the treadmill
  • wrote. a lot.
  • did laundry
  • drank more water
  • finished the fall yard work

I’ll bet you did some of those things this week too. BUT did you get XP for them?

SSD Photo Credit: By Samsung Belgium (Flickr: SSD840EVO_008_Dynamic_Black) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eleven Reasons To Love Deadlines

Photo by stockarch“Yeah, right,” I can hear you saying. “Deadlines are horrible. Deadlines are stressful. Nobody likes deadlines, let alone loves them!”

Well, I can see your point. Even the name is kind of scary, isn’t it? Deadline. Obviously there are going to be dire consequences if such a thing arrives and you are not prepared.

For writers, though (as well as others, but on this blog, we mainly talk writers, right?), having a deadline can be a positive experience—if you look at it in the right light. Here are eleven* reasons that a deadline can actually be your friend.

1. Deadlines force you to plan your time realistically. You’re always trying to get more organized and use your time better, right? Well, a deadline will make you look at how you’re spending your time and how much time it actually takes you to accomplish something. If you take that knowledge with you beyond the deadline, that time-planning can spill over into your other work and help your productivity beyond this one project.

2. Deadlines make you take control of your work instead of letting it control you. This is a common pitfall for writers; let me give you an example. If you are going to have this eight-thousand-word short story ready to submit before the submission period closes, you don’t have the luxury of following every whimsy of subplot and character idiosyncrasy that your brain comes up with. You have to write this story in a good tight first draft, edit it judiciously, and call it done. You have to take control. Bring that kind of control to other projects, and you’ll end up more productive overall.

3. Deadlines force you to be focused and efficient. Here’s another example. You have five days to finish this manuscript. It shouldn’t take you more than one of those five days to figure out, for instance, that you work most productively in the mornings and are essentially useless after dinner. The next four days, you’re going to make sure you spend time on your deadline project in the mornings. Take this knowledge with you to the next project, and stop doing email and blogging in the mornings instead of writing. Let deadlines teach you skills that go beyond a single project.

4. Deadlines force you to re-evaluate your level of perfectionism. If you have too many manuscripts sitting around on your hard drive because they’re just “not quite ready yet,” this one is for you. Yes, you may end up with a less-than-perfect manuscript if you set a deadline to finish it. But the perfect manuscript is something of a mirage, anyway. Better to have a finished one in submission than a never-done one languishing in a drawer.

5. Deadlines make you develop strategies to bypass procrastination. This one doesn’t need much explanation. You may have the cleanest house on the block or be the best Angry Birds player in town, but if you’re going to meet deadlines, you have to learn to recognize and bypass your own procrastination strategies. One way to do this is to make your procrastination tasks reward tasks instead. You can play ten minutes of Angry Birds or switch your laundry loads along after you work on your project for an hour (be sure to set timers for both!). You may find such things less appealing as rewards. If so, swap them out for something that really appeals to you–as a reward.

6. Deadlines make you realize what it is actually possible for you to achieve. Anyone who’s participated successfully in NaNoWriMo understands this one. Deadlines take all the skills we’re talking about here and let you smoosh them into a big ball of I-can-do-this. And once you know what’s possible…well, you’re likely to take on, and accomplish, more.

7. Deadlines allow you to plan for what’s beyond the deadline. If you have a deadline to meet, it means you’re actually going to finish this project and be able to move on to something else. No-one really wants to edit the same novel manuscript for the rest of their lives, do they? Of course not! You want to finish something so you can get to the Next Big Thing. But neither do you want to drop half-finished projects just to get to the next one. Deadlines let you set parameters to work on things, finish them, and then move ahead.

8. Deadlines help you figure out what your real priorities are. This is sort of related to #7. Sometimes you’ll have to choose between projects because of conflicting deadlines. If you’ve been dithering, trying to work on two or more projects but not really making satisfying progress on anything, a deadline can make you choose what’s important and focus on that.

9. Deadlines make you stop wasting time and actually complete something. Maybe you’re one of those people who’s always talking about writing but not really writing. Maybe you’ve been working on the same damn manuscript for so long that even you’re sick of it. Maybe you’re really trying to write, but something is holding you back—fear of failure, fear of success, yada, yada, you know the list as well as I do. A deadline can make you, er, produce—or get off the pot.

10. Deadlines let you cross something off your project list. Ah, the list. Don’t tell me you don’t have one, and that you don’t know the sweet, sweet satisfaction of crossing something off it. And if you don’t, you should make one. Really. Because there’s nothing as lovely as “Finish X by DD/MM/YYYY” with a big fat strikethrough running across it.  Unless it’s writing “The End.”

Off to try and meet a big deadline of my own.

*Why eleven? Because everyone does lists of ten. I’m trying to think outside the box, here, people.

Photo credit: stockarch

Help for the NaNo-Panicked (Part 2)

By Filosofias filosoficas (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsBe Your Own Random Generator

Okay, think of this as a bonus idea if you’re feeling skeptical about the whole idea of using ideas generated by someone else. The germ of this idea comes from the Working Writer’s Daily Planner.

Try to have a quiet block of time when you’re not likely to face many interruptions. Sit down at the computer or grab pen and paper. Now, as quickly as you can, write fifty first lines. You don’t have to know anything about the story they might start. Don’t stop to think too much–if you must, set a timer for twenty minutes and see how many you can do in this amount of time This is just to see what your brain comes up with.

Got that? Good. That’s the part that came from the WWDP. Here’s my expansion on the exercise:

Now start a new list and invent fifty characters. They can be names or short descriptions: “Ludwig Thimbledown” or “a fastidious undertaker” or “a college student with a secret.” They can be archetypes or atypical and unusual. It doesn’t matter. Fifty, as fast as you can.

Getting tired? One more part. A new list, and this time you’re going to write down fifty problems, conflicts, or themes–or any mix of the three. They’re going to be short snappers, like “stolen inheritance” or “demon possession” or “physical loss leads to emotional loss” or “destruction of the natural world.” Whatever pops into your head, jot it down.

Whew! By now your brain is reeling and exhausted, I’m sure. So put your lists away for a little while; an hour or an afternoon or a day. Then when you’re ready, take them out, line them up, and see what happens.

Chances are, there will be some things from each list that you really have no interest in writing about, but others will jump out at you as intriguing. Don’t be afraid to cross some out, highlight others, or put what you feel are the best ones into a separate file or mind map. Play with combinations, try writing a few first paragraphs starting with the lines you like best, put characters and conflicts together, and chances are that story ideas will be sprouting in no time. Sometimes the brain just needs a metaphorical kick in the pants, but the raw material is all in there, just waiting for the right opportunity to make it into the light. Or a chance to mix its metaphors. Or whatever. Just go write!

Image credit: By Filosofias filosoficas (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Help for the NaNo-Panicked (Part 1)

Image courtesy of UncyclomediaOkay, it’s October 5th, 26 days until NaNoWriMo, and you don’t know what you’re writing about. You know folks who have been planning this year’s novel for months (we hates, them, Precious, what has they got in their pocketses? Index cards!), but you have–nothing. No plot, no characters, no ideas.

It’s a horrible place to be, but there’s hope. And that hope has a name–random generators.

As an experiment, one year for NaNoWriMo, I wrote a novel which was almost entirely based on the results of random generators. I started with the title. Then anytime I needed to name a character, create a place or object, or find a plot twist, I went to a generator. I can hear you laughing, but here’s a secret–that novel is one of the ones that I, in my ten-year expedition with NNWM, completed, edited, and am now doing the final line-edit pass on before sending it out to a publisher. It’s one of my best stories. So don’t be too quick to pooh-pooh the idea of generators.

The thing about generators is knowing how to use them. They are great for sparking ideas, putting together ideas that you might not have thought of combining, and pulling words up to the top of your subconscious where you can play with them. You don’t have to feel constrained by them…once that idea is sparking, it will eventually take on a life of its own.

Here is a list of a few generators that I particularly like. Play around with them–don’t just look for loglines, bring up some plot twists, conflicts, character names, oddities, anything at all–and write down anything that sounds interesting. Maybe use a mind map like Freemind to gather together everything that speaks to you, and then look for connections in the jumble of ideas. Think of it as brainstorming, with the help of an outside brain. :)

StoryToolz.com: At StoryToolz, you’ll find a generator that gives you three conflicts, and a brief explanation of how to use them to flesh out a story idea. There’s also a random conflict generator, and a half title generator.

Seventh Sanctum: Here you’ll find a motherlode of generators, for all sorts of endeavours. You might want to start with the ones in the writing section for story ideas, but you never know where inspiration will strike!

The Writer’s Den at Pantomimepony: Another great collection of generators, including one for first lines. Sometimes a great first line is all you need to grow a story. (I tried it out and got: “That weekend, shortly before the parrot bit my Dad, Aunt Maude became a gangster’s tailor.” Now really, if you can’t grow a story out of that, there’s something wrong with you!)

Serendipity: Although recovering from a spam attack that took the old site down, the owner has restored some of the generators here and I hope will be able to continue to add more back in–this was one of my favorites.

Archetype: Three nice generators here, along with a link to a great article on all the different ways of beginning your story.

There are lots more generators on the net; if you don’t like these, do a search and find one that suits you. In my next post, we’ll take a look at a way to be your OWN random generator. Sounds like fun, huh?

Nests, Noise, & Vacuuming (or, Writing Rituals)

I wonder if one of these would help?

I recently ran across this article on writing rituals and found it really interesting. You should definitely go and have a look at it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Back? So wow, some folks have some interesting writing rituals, huh? And although a lot of (non-writing) folks would consider some of these behaviours odd, weird, or outright bizarre, apparently they are a good thing. Rituals for writers, the article says, help reduce anxiety, increase our sense of control over the writing process, and increase fluency.

Which made me think–what are my writing rituals? (And if I don’t have any, should I get some?)

So I’m sitting here thinking. And thinking. Do I have any writing rituals?

Do I require a tidy desk? (OOh, ouch, I actually hurt myself laughing there.) Okay, maybe I require a messy desk? No, not really, I can write in either of those two states. However, sometimes before beginning a big, new project, I do give my desk a good cleaning. It’s cathartic, and it makes me feel better. I’m not sure it’s a ritual, though.

Do I perform any ritualistic motions or tasks before writing? Hmmmm. I make a lot of coffee…I do like to have a fresh cup of java to start a writing session. It’s not necessary, though. The need to vacuum the house? (More painful laughter ensues.) And no lucky shirts or socks. Or pens. Rats.

Special music? Well, I do enjoy music when I write, although I don’t always put it on. When I do, it has to be instrumental only, no lyrics because they’re too distracting. All my characters would be spouting lines from the latest top ten if I wasn’t careful. I particularly like video game soundtracks. Assassin’s Creed II. Halo. Skate. Command and Conquer. And movie and tv soundtracks. You get a nice mix of moods and themes. But as a ritual…no.

Sigh. I’m starting to doubt that I’m a real writer!

You know, I used to have a ritual. I used to play games before I started writing. Tetris. Mah-jongg. Solitaire. The problem was, I wouldn’t just play a game “to relax.” It might have started out that way. But then it changed. Suddenly I had to win a game before I could write. And you know what that meant–I’d hardly ever get to write, and spend all my time playing games. My brain tricked me that way for a while before I caught on (because, of course, playing games is so much easier than writing). Bad, lazy brain. I discarded that ritual, although it was difficult.

Okay, wait, I’ve got one. It’s small, but I think it really is a ritual. When I am starting a new project, I always set up the title page just as it will be when I’m submitting the final piece. For a short story, name and address in the top left corner. A line for “Approx. word count” although of course for now it will be blank. Space down to the middle of the page, center the title in all caps (fortunately I usually have a title by the time I start writing. If not, a placeholder will have to do, although it’s not as satisfying.) For a novel, a proper title page, too.

That’s it. That’s my ritual. Wow, so boring. Maybe there’s something I’m not even aware of…I know one thing–if I can’t think of something more interesting, I’ll have to invent one. Or risk being more anxious, less in control, and less fluent. There’s a lot at stake, here.

What about you? Do you have writing rituals? What are they?

Photo By MalcolmLidbury (aka Pinkpasty) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The 1901 Eaton’s Catalogue

One of the coolest finds in the saga of clearing out my grandparents’ house (for me, at least) was this: the 1901 catalogue from the T. Eaton Company Limited. It’s actually a reprint of that catalogue, produced in 1970, which accounts for its exceptionally good condition. However, it is a faithful reprint of that catalogue, and what I love about it is the wonderful window it opens into the past. I mean, historical/steampunk writer’s reference, anyone?

Browsing through the catalogue is a ton of fun. It’s also an eye-opener in many ways. Yes, we seem to have some weird ideas about what constitutes the ideal feminine form these days. However, this is obviously NOT the first time in history that that has been true. Wasp waists, and oddly low-hanging, ample bosoms seem to have been the ideal of the day. One would think, looking at the corsets in the catalogue, that everything north of the waist would have been pushed dramatically up…but perhaps it’s a function of artist’s license, as well. At any rate, I am prfoundly thankful that I was not shopping from this section.

It’s also kind of mind-boggling to think that almost everything in the catalogue had to be drawn by hand, from all of these household items, to flowers you might want to order.

But what really struck me as I thumbed through it today was this little section: “Paper-covered Books for Summer Reading.”

As you can see, it’s a minuscule selection, when you compare it to the sprawling websites offering books for us to order today (there are other pages to order books in the catalogue, but it’s still a pretty limited number). There’s also nothing to tell you what any of the books are about. You want to know what House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman or What Gold Cannot Buy by Mrs. Alexander are about? Pay your money and take your chance.

Which brings me to my real point. These books are “Printed on Heavy Paper” and cost “7 cents each; postage 2 cents extra.” When I read that, I can’t help thinking about all those .99 ebooks out there. Comparatively, that means that they cost about fourteen times the 1901 paperbacks. (Yes, yes, I know that some folks are going to accuse me of comparing apples to oranges because ebooks have no cost for physical materials, shipping, etc.–but bear in mind that those costs are a relatively small percentage of print book costs today.)

When I browse through the catalogue and see that most other items have increased in cost anywhere from twenty to fifty times (or more!)…I really wonder how we have come to this point. It seems such a devaluation of years of hard work on the part of the writer to say that the story is worth less than a dollar. When we’ll pay two to three times that without blinking for a cup of coffee, and ten to fifteen times that to watch a two-hour movie, it seems to me that something is severely skewed.

I think we need to think about this both as writers and as readers.

Summer Project

So, that Bare Knuckle Writer really knows how to pull the strings and make me dance, whether intentionally, or not. She’s got me blogging more often (almost, like, regularly), and yesterday she threw down a gauntlet. (Yeah, she’s a little confrontational, but in a very endearing way.)

You really should go and read her entire post, because it’s fun and quirky as usual, but here’s the gauntlet part:

Every writer’s got one. That project whose time never comes. All it needs is a little love, but somehow it keeps getting pushed back in favour of new things and shinier ideas…This is its time. Dig that thing out, take it out to the back deck or the beach or the patio with you, and get to work.

And…she’s right. Of course she’s right. Who doesn’t have one (or more) of those projects, whether it’s a half-finished story, a novel, or something else? Honestly, I have more than I care to admit, but I’m not going to think about that or I’ll start crying into my keyboard. Or start a new chocolate binge. Possibly both. But I digress.

After reading the challenge yesterday, I printed out the manuscript you see in the photo above. It’s so close to being done that you can almost smell the done-ness on it. One more line-edit pass, that’s all it needs. It’s already been rewritten, revised, substantively edited and mostly line-edited.

Why has it been lying around for so long in this state of almost-finished-ness? Because it’s a bit of a strange project. A bit unclassifiable. A mash-up of genres. In plain words, I have no idea who might want to publish it.

But that’s not really the point, is it? The problem of what to do with it is not a problem until it’s done. So I’ll finish it. And then I’ll worry about what to do with it.

Sounds like a plan. BKW, I hope you’re reading this.

Self-Editing For Dummies

By Kadellar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsOh, calm down, I’m not really calling you dummies. But after thinking about my post the other day regarding the dearth of attention paid to editing lately, I realized that some portion of the blame must come to rest on the author, as well. The better we are at self-editing, the lesser our dependence on outside editors to catch all those little things that are dragging our stories down. Which, of course, puts us in a better light–both when editors and publishers read our submissions, and when our work (eventually, hopefully) finds its way into the hands of our readers.

So–how do you become a better self-editor?

1. Practice. Repeat after me: the first draft is not a finished work. Yes, you may complete your first draft in a rush of adrenaline and endorphins and think it’s the best thing anyone has ever written, anywhere. It’s not. Never send out something until that first fine rush has ebbed and you start to doubt. Once the doubt is there, you can start looking for all the things that are wrong, and begin to fix them. And fix them, and fix them, and when you think they’re fixed, see #2, below.

2. Other Eyes. My friend Steph has a great post over here about the necessity and value of first readers. The more eyes you can get on your work–knowledgeable, practiced eyes–the more chances you have of finding those things that editors will (or should) only fix later anyway. So those problems won’t be there to trip up your readers later.

3. Tools. Don’t underestimate the value of your word processor’s built-in spell-check and grammar-check; at the very least, they should make you slow down and look at possible problematic areas of your work. But they’re only the very minimal basics. One tool I love is Cliché Cleaner. Run your work through this handy little program to find clichés, overused expressions, and internal repetitions. It’s amazing how much one tool like this can help you clean up your work. You may have your own favorite cleanup tools–just don’t forget to use them.

4. Distance. Remember that first rush we talked about, that comes with completion of your first draft? One way to avoid falling victim to its siren song and sending your story out too soon is to get some distance from the work. Let it sit until it’s no longer totally fresh in your mind–a week, a month, even longer if you have the luxury. There’s nothing like coming back to it with some heightened objectivity to clear away the tint of those rose-coloured glasses.

5. Humility. No matter how competent or skilled a writer you are, you will always benefit from remembering that you are not perfect and neither are your early drafts. Expecting that your work will need polishing allows you to see its flaws more easily. Accepting that others will spot problems that you haven’t seen will make you more open to using their suggestions wisely.

For more advice on good self-editing, I highly recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King. Got your own self-editing favorites? Share them in the comments!

Image courtesy of Kadellar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons