Want to Be an Author? Finish Something

Writers write, but authors publish. If you want to go from writer to author, the first step is to finish something, then go back and rewrite it until it is ready for submission. But finishing that first draft really is key. It’s impossible to edit a blank page, and equally impossible to sell something without an ending.

Most writers starting out have written plenty of beginnings. They get an idea and sit down to write. They rush through those first pages filled with excitement, developing cool characters and describing the setting and sending everyone off on their adventure brimming with conflict. But then something happens around page fifty. Maybe page 100 if they are lucky and have plenty of momentum. The writing starts to slow down. That initial idea is no longer sufficient to carry the action forward. More is required, and the beginning writer isn’t sure just what that more entails.

And then comes the shiny new idea.

Everyone’s had them, sometimes even while staring at the computer screen, willing the current idea to shape up and get marching. That niggling thought — a weird new hero, a fantastic scenario, a compelling situation, a snippet of dialogue in the back of the brain — that sounds like the answer to everything. Because this new shiny idea feels so much better than the work in progress. It’s new! It’s shiny! It’s so much more exciting! And it lures you away from the current project that hasn’t been behaving and into its shiny clutches.

Before you knows what’s happened, you have a stockpile of beginnings. Partial novels that have never even made it to the half-way point. Because there is always a shiny new idea lurking around the corner, looking to distract you. The more ideas you have, the more ideas you get. It’s the way creativity seems to work. But there are several problems with this.

  • Shiny new ideas are not actually always good ideas. Sometimes they’re just plain ordinary ideas that, if given time, will fade completely from your mind and go unmissed.
  • Chasing shiny new ideas means setting aside current projects and never finishing anything. And you can’t sell something that’s not finished.
  • Writing the middle and the end of a story requires different skills than writing beginnings, and you can’t get better at writing middles and ends if you never actually write them. You want to hone all your skills as a writer, not just some of them.

Shiny new ideas will always pop up and wave at you, but it is vital that you set them aside and continue with whatever project is currently on your plate. That doesn’t mean forget them entirely. Jot down notes in your journal, start a computer file for the potential new project, and then get back to business. Consider that shiny idea on the to-do pile. Maybe you’ll get back to it in a year and find it’s percolated into something wonderful, or maybe you’ll wonder what the hell you where thinking. Either way, it gets its due eventually, and you get to push through and finish the project at hand.

But what about the argument that the new idea is better or more interesting than the one you’re writing? Of course it seems that way. The new idea is a mystery. You’ve spent virtually no time thinking about it, which leaves it wide open to play with. The current idea, on the other hand, is starting to come together. You understand the characters more than you did at the beginning, you’ve begun to piece together the plot, and things have moved forward. The easy thinking has been accomplished, and you need to dig deeper. Further the conflict, ask tough questions, maybe backtrack on a couple of points. You are past all the surface material and mining for treasure, and that’s work. Hard work. Of course the idea of something new and shiny appeals. That doesn’t make it better.

Writers write, and if all you want to do is write, you can play with as many ideas as you wish. But published authors commit to finishing their projects and resist the distraction of every new idea that catches the light. Of course, occasionally there are projects you find just aren’t working and you decide to abandon them, but that’s a question of the project’s merit, not the distraction of a shiny new idea. So when the next little tidbit flits along and catches your eye, tuck it into a folder for future thought and get back to work.

2017 Writing Goals: First Quarter Check-In

 

With March winding down, it’s a great time to pull out your list of goals for 2017 and see how the reality measures up for this first quarter of the year. Checking in with yourself helps to keep you on track, to remind you of what you want to achieve, to see where your efforts might be falling flat, and also to determine if any part of your goal list needs to be altered. Like many plans, a list of goals works best if you consider it in real time, as a changeable document that can be edited according to how your life shifts, rather than as a rigid to-do list that is set in stone until December 31st.

Start off with just a brief overview of your goals and see where you stand.

  • Which goals have you been working toward as intended?
  • Which goals have you paid less attention to or maybe even not worked on at all?
  • Were there any short-term goals that you’d planned to finish by now that still need work?
  • Are you ahead of your intended progress in any areas?

Sometimes you also need to give yourself a bit of context while assessing your progress toward your goals. It’s possible you’ve fallen behind on one or more of the things you planned to work on this year, but don’t forget to think about why that might be. What’s been going on in your life these first three months of the year, and how has that affected your ability to focus on your goals? Has anything happened that required your attention and shifted your priorities? Time is limited, after all, so if new obligations crop up, you need to find the time to meet them somewhere.

Next, really assess where you want to go with your goals for the rest of the year.

  • Are any of your goals no longer valid? Things you no longer wish to pursue? Cross them off the list.
  • Do you need to restructure any of your larger goals into small, managable parts that you can tackle more easily going forward?
  • Are there any goals you’d like to add on to the list, either to replace things you’ve discarded or because you’ve achieved others?
  • Have you inadvertently set yourself goals that rely too heavily on others and not enough on your own initiative so that you don’t truly have control of the outcome?

That last point is an important thing to consider. The most practical goals rely on you and your efforts — you plan to write at least 5 days a week, you’re going to write and polish your query letter, you’re going to research three potential agents a week. Some goals, however, rely upon the reactions of others for you to achieve them, such as selling a book (an editor needs to make a viable offer), getting representation (an agent you wish to work with needs to sign you on), hitting a best-seller list (a sufficient number of people need to purchase your book). That’s not to say that you shouldn’t want to achieve those things and work toward them, but they aren’t the sort of goals where your efforts are the sole factor. While you know there are steps you can take toward achieving them — sending out query letters, writing the best book you possibly can — those steps by themselves are no guarantee of hitting the goal; a certain amount of luck and timing and the interests of others all come into play.

Regardless of what you discover when you check in with your goals, remember that this is a list you made, of things that you wish to achieve. Don’t beat yourself up over perceived failures or lack of progress. The idea isn’t to serve as your own personal drill sergeant, but rather to provide yourself with a nice roadmap that can help you figure out where you want to take your writing, your career, your life. You’re drawing the map, so feel free to widen the road where there’s a good view, add a couple of small side streets, create a nice open space to make a U-turn if you need to retrench. Then refill your travel mug, grab a snack, and head back out on the road. Happy writing, and enjoy the ride.

Writing 3rd Person: Maintaining Limited POV

Writing in first person presents the challenge of maintaining a voice that sounds like a distinctive character instead of that of the author, but third person narration comes with its own set of issues and these can be less clear. Writers need to determine whose third person point of view they are going to use. Are they using a single character? Rotating between two or more characters? Or will they zoom way out and use an omniscient narrative style? Once a writer makes their choice, they need to guard against slipping between them.

Omniscient narration has fallen out of style, but when done well it offers the advantage of not keeping secrets from the reader. However, close third-person POV — either of a single character or several — has become much more of the norm for third-person narratives, in part because many writers like the way it puts the reader right into the action. The trick with this point of view is to maintain that strict closeness and not slide into a more omniscient viewpoint. Some aspects of close third are obvious, and simply a matter of keeping track. Who knows what? Who has learned what facts, been present for a given discussion, overheard which secret? When it comes to plot points, it’s not difficult to determine if a character should know about something.

The tricky part of close third-person POV comes with description. There is a tendency to think of third person as the writer setting up their movie camera where the character stands, and writing as if they were filming from that specific spot. It’s logical — the description consists of whatever that camera “sees” from that position. But close third provides more than the view from the character’s eyes — it’s the view from that character’s brain, as well. Descriptions from a character’s POV must be both what they see and what they think about what they see, and here is where things often slip from the character’s POV to the writer’s — or from close third to omniscient.

In close third person, a character should see and observe in a way that makes sense for them, not just as a way to inform the reader of what a room looks like or what is going on in a scene. A wealthy society matron or an interior decorator might walk into a well-appointed living room and recognize the rug as a French Aubusson, but most characters probably would not. An actor who spends a lot of time on the red carpet and with stylists might identify his date’s dress as Armani, but an accountant for a computer company would be much less likely to make the same observation. A writer needs to know their characters, and understand how they see the world. Does the protagonist stick their head out the third story window and see a Porsche coming up the block or a red sports car? The reader must see what the character sees, and nothing more.

This distinction also comes into play in smaller details, such as how other characters are referred to within the text. When the protagonist walks into a room full of strangers, it makes sense to differentiate with physical details, such as the redhead, the woman in the black dress, the taller of the two men. But these vague descriptions should end the minute specifics are assigned. Once the POV character meets the beautiful redhead and knows her name is Susan, they should stop thinking of her as the redhead or the knockout or the beautiful woman, because people don’t reverse their thinking process in that way; she’s Susan.

Similarly, if a male protagonist is speaking to another man, and they are the only characters in the scene, the second character should never be referred to as the other man. Doing so pulls the reader out of the protagonist’s head, out of the room, to a place hovering above the scene where they are aware of two people talking. The protagonist doesn’t think of the person he’s speaking to as the other man — he just thinks of him as Joe or Dad or whoever he is. These sorts of errors often come into play when writers are looking for a way to avoid using a name or a pronoun too often, but it’s much more important to maintain the established POV than to avoid using he or him a few times in a paragraph.

Writing close third person involves really getting into the characters’ heads. When reviewing a scene, a writer needs to consider whether all of the details coming through make sense given the character’s POV. If vital information needs to be relayed, it’s important to determine how the character will know or discover it before it can be presented for the reader, and to keep the author’s voice from sneaking into the narrative.

 

 

2016 December Writing Challenge Wrap Up

Today is the final day of this year’s December Writing Challenge. How did you do? Did you write every day? Make progess on our current project? Start something new? Maybe experiment a bit? At the very least, I hope you set up some good habits for the year ahead.

Many writers have successful careers without producing material daily, but regardless of your writing schedule, creativity is a muscle that must be exercised regularly. Train your brain to produce on demand and you will find the ideas flow much more easily than if you attempt to write merely when the whim strikes you. If you’re just starting out, you’ll develop good habits that will help you continue to write under deadline or when you’re traveling or when your day job rears its head and demands your attention. If you’ve already been at this a while, you probably realize that writing can be more of a challenge if you fall out of the habit of sitting down and tackling the work in a set rhythm.

Regardless of your progress this month, I hope you’re heading into the new year with some wonderful ideas and plans to write, and that you make excellent headway with all your goals for 2017. Wishing you a wonderful New Year’s Eve! Stay safe and enjoy.

December Writing Challenge 2016: Prompts

We’re nearly halfway through the month of December, so it seems like a good time to check in and see what sort of progress everyone is making with their December Writing Challenge efforts, and to provide a little nudge for anyone who has strayed off track. Have you been making time to write every day? Is your work-in-progress buzzing along? Are you polishing and revising and getting a new draft done? Remember: all those words count, whether you’re writing them or rewriting them.

Not everyone is mid-novel, however, so for anyone looking for things to inspire that daily writing habit, I’ve got a few prompts and ideas that you might use if your own imagination is letting you down. Some might inspire a short story or essay, while others can be used as a simple writing exercise. It’s all practice, and it all helps you flex those creative muscles, even if the thing you write just ends up buried in a dusty folder or languishing on your hard drive. So make a date with yourself to sit down at the keyboard or pull out your notebook, and get to work. Happy writing!

Quick Prompts to Keep the Words Flowing

  • Recount a favorite holiday experience, whether from your childhood or something more recent. Try gearing it toward a specific audience: a child, your significant other, someone you’re just falling in love with… Set the tone (and subject matter) accordingly.
  • Set your iTunes or other mp3 playing software to shuffle, or listen to your favorite radio station, and jot down the titles of the first 5 songs you hear. Use them as prompts for short stories/vignettes.
  • Flip open a dictionary and, with your eyes closed, point to a random word on the page. Do this two more times, with fresh pages, then write something using all three words. Pick more than three random words if you’d like, or if the ones you chose are too mundane for inspiration.
  • Check out the images on the following websites, and choose one (or a combination) as the basis for a short story or vignette:

Striking Portraits of Lonely Cars in 1970s New York

Sparkling City of Moscow Celebrates Orthodox Christmas

Spotted in Tokyo

Weird old car

Girl on cliff

St. Mary’s Church, Norfolk

Budapest bridge

Beauty of perception

December Writing Challenge: Tough-Love Pep Talk

Greetings, writers! How goes the challenge? No doubt you’ve had a busy first week of December. Scrambling to get work projects completed by the holidays? Shopping for gifts? Hanging up holiday decorations and planning menus? Maybe you’ve attended a party or school holiday concert. Or you could be prepping to travel — booking those airport shuttles and dusting off your suitcases. But even with all that, you’ve still managed to write each day, haven’t you?

Here’s the thing: only you can decide where your priorities lie. And I’m not telling you writing has to be a top priority. It doesn’t. What I am telling you, however, is that if you want to be a writer who publishes, who shares their work with the world, that takes diligence and practice and a lot of time actually spent writing. No other way around it. Even natural talent only takes you so far. What gets you the rest of the way is writing and rewriting and rewriting some more.

Do you want to write? Not just see your books on shelves somewhere and claim the title of published writer, but do you actually like to sit and put down the words and see your worlds form on the page or screen? Again, only you can tell. But here is a hint: If you need to force yourself repeatedly to sit down at your keyboard, if you get all your chores done rather than write, if you spend lots of time imagining yourself as a published author but don’t actually finish anything — chances are very good you’re only in love with the idea of writing.

Human beings are funny creatures. In most instance, we do the things we want to do, and avoid the things we don’t want to do. Now, as adults we generally suck it up and do a lot of things we’d rather not, like pay our bills and do our tax returns and politely eat that vegetable that smells like dirty feet because we’re a guest in someone else’s home. But writing doesn’t fall into the categories of life’s necessities or good manners. Instead if falls into that category of the things we squeeze into our lives, one way or another.

The typical excuse for not doing something is that you could not “find” the time. Reality, however, tells us that no one ever finds extra time lying around the house. Maybe hiding under the carpet or behind the long drapes in the living room. Out in the yard? No. If there’s something you want to do, you make the time.

December is a truly busy month. There’s lots to do, plenty of demands being made on your time. But ask yourself where your priorities are, and then live that decision. Is writing important to you? Do you love it, even on the days it frustrates you? Then make the time to fit it into your day. Put it on your calendar as an appointment with yourself. Turn off your cell phone. Shut down the internet. Even if it’s just for a half hour, commit to your dream, your goal, your joy. Only you can decide if it’s something you consider worth doing.

Now go write.

Ready, Set, Write

As I blogged yesterday, today marks the start of this year’s December Writing Challenge, so wipe down your computer screens, sharpen your pencils, and ink those fancy fountain pens. It’s time to get to work.

Whether you are just starting out as a writer and find the idea of writing daily overwhelming, or you have a long-established writing habit and would just like a little added encouragement during this busy season, this challenge is for you. The goal, as stated in my previous post, is to write every day, even if just a little bit. Work on that novel you have in progress or start something brand new. Juggle a few things or focus all your attention on one. Yes, revising counts, though you should make sure that revision time includes some writing of new text and not just crossing out things that aren’t working. The goal is to write.

So, a few tips to get you started:

  • Schedule your writing time ahead if at all possible. Make a date with yourself and put it on the calendar. That way you won’t be washing the dinner dishes and bemoaning the fact that you still need to write.
  • Have at least one backup project to work on. That way if you’re truly stuck on your main writing project one day, you can switch over and get some words in on your other idea rather than not write at all that day.
  • If you have a really hectic day, try breaking up your writing time into a couple of smaller sessions.
  • Tell your friends and family what you’re doing, so they understand that there will be a window of time each day when you really can’t be disturbed unless it’s an emergency. Added bonus: this helps train them for the new year, when you have your daily writing habit established.

Now, a brief word on writing every day. No, it’s not necessary to write every day in order to be a writer. Plenty of writers are successful writing less frequently. But a regular writing habit of any sort is like any other exercise — you’re training your muscles (in this case your brain) to perform on demand. So taking this challenge doesn’t mean you have to write every day for the rest of your career. But it will help warm up that creative muscle of yours and keep you moving forward during a month when it’s easy to let your own needs fall by the wayside. And who knows? You may like what you come up with when you write every day.

Good luck, and happy writing!

December Writing Challenge: 2016

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It’s the last day of November, and the last day of NaNoWriMo for those of you participating. But whether you’ve just finished up tackling 50,000 words in 30 days, you’re falling short of the mark, or you think the idea of trying to churn out that many words in a single month is insane, I have a new challenge for you. Or rather an annual challenge. Tomorrow is the first day of December, and with it comes my December Writing Challenge.

For those of you unfamiliar, the December Writing Challenge is designed to help you keep up your good writing habits through what is arguably the busiest month of the year. With all the holidays, the year-end wrap ups at work, and planning for the year ahead, writing efforts often get short changed. This becomes especially problematic for anyone who has resolutions for the new year that have to do with their writing — writing more, better, finishing a project, getting an agent, etc. Bad habits formed in December take a little bit of time to correct in January, and so writers end up starting off the year on the wrong foot.

The December Writing Challenge aims to help you maintain (or even build) good writing momentum now, at the close of the old year, so you can start the new year off with a bang. It helps you keep writing even if you can only steal a little bit of time. Only you can decide if writing is a real priority in your life, and this challenge can also help you determine how much you want this life.

The challenge is simple: Write every day during the month of December.

  • You can be working on a novel, revising something, tinkering with some short stories, writing personal essays for periodicals, putting together a proposal for a new project… whatever. You can work on one thing or many things.
  • You can write for as little as 15 minutes on a really busy day, though I’d ask you to aim for at least 30, even if you have to break it up into chunks.
  • Because I know this time of year is crazy, you can give yourself up to two days off during the month. You choose the days. Maybe Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Maybe New Year’s Eve. Maybe the day your family all arrives to stay with you. But plan ahead and keep in mind that the goal is to take no more than two days off.

That’s the challenge. No difficult rules to track, no weird stunts to pull. Just write, every day, over the course of the month. Give yourself some quiet time to get those words on paper or pixels on screen. Make writing a priority. Let your family know this is nonnegotiable. Keep your head in the game.

I’ll be posting prompts and pep talks periodically throughout the month to help you keep at it, but ultimately the choice is yours. You can do it. Happy writing!

Writing Goals: The Slide to 2017

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We are rapidly heading into the last third of the year, so today is an excellent time to take a few minutes to assess your writing goals and progress for 2016 and to determine just what you’d like to accomplish in these last four months. Whether September represents autumn to you or heading back to school or something else entirely, there’s no denying that it kicks off a busy time of the year, when everything seems to ramp up and it’s a race to get things done before the holidays hit. Every year I know that, once Labor Day weekend arrives, it feels like just a short hop to New Year’s Eve. So I plan. Ruthlessly.

At some point today or tomorrow, dig out that calendar or spreadsheet or list that you used to set your writing goals for 2016. Is there anything you can check off? Anything that no longer seems pertinent to your big picture plans? What progress have you made on longer term goals? Is there something that’s fallen by the wayside you’d like to revisit? It should only take a few minutes to glance through your goals and figure out where you stand.

Now, please don’t beat yourself up if things aren’t going according to schedule. Goal-making should be motivating and inspirational, not send you into a funk. Be reasonable about your efforts and what life has thrown your way, and be honest about whether or not you’ve done the best you can. If you can step things up a little, great. Set that as one of your goals in the coming months. If you’ve been overwhelmed with responsibilities and life’s curve balls, accept that sometimes things happen that force you to take a longer route to your goals, and cut yourself a little slack. Celebrate your successes, then see how you can refocus in the future.

Also, keep in mind that like most things in life, a writing career is not all forward momentum. There will be weeks when you make great leaps in progress and others when it feels like you’re stagnating or even going backwards. Published writers still receive rejection letters. Prize winning authors still write less-than-brilliant books. Not every idea sparkles on the page.

But if you don’t have any idea where you’d like to go, it’s much harder to get there. So once you’ve figured out where you are, take a look around and set yourself a direction. What would you like to get done before January? What’s realistic? What requires a bit of a stretch? How much of this is in your control? Remember to set yourself goals and then determine what steps you need to take to achieve them. You want measurable, actionable things on your list, so you know what to do when you get up in the morning.

Unless you’re starting absolutely from scratch, it shouldn’t take you much more than an hour or so to review your goals and spruce them up for the next four months. Then go write.