Writing Update - Breaking Habits · 20 April 2011
I started the short story (code name Brie) I'm aiming to have completed for my summer goal after plucking the seed for the plot out of a dream. So last night, when I realized I had a few uninterrupted hours to try and get words down on the page, I thought I'd start making some good progress on it. Let me tell you folks, at the start it wasn't pretty.
One thing I'm noticing is that I've built up quite the habit of writing non-fiction. I fall naturally into the rhythms of exposition and in fiction that's often a cheap trick. Getting out of the first person habit and into the “show don't tell” mode is proving to be a lot more challenging than I anticipated.
I've got a rough plot outline, but moving the story from point A to point B is . . . well, let's just say it's not happening yet without a whole lot of explaining going on. In hopes of unstopping things, I'm trying a few new techniques with good results so far.
- Writing everything in third person. At least this way I don't fall back on the crutch of having my characters internalize everything.
- Rewriting my beginning at the point where the action starts. I read this great article by Juliette Wade which helped clarify a better possible structure for some of the things I wanted to convey. I moved quite a bit of background out of the opening and I'm now looking for a place to introduce it through the plot instead.
- Using the transition structure of works I admire. I've got a short stack of books whose opening chapters I've been analyzing to see how authors move their characters from their everyday routine to being engaged in the conflict of the story.
Next step, figure out how to advance my character on her journey without it being a guided tour through the countryside. Wish me luck!
Writing my Way Into Goals · 2 April 2011
I have a confession; I love planning. I read up on the history and attractions of foreign locales before I go on vacations. I make extensive grocery lists. I favorite purchases for projects I won’t start for months. So, when I decided to start writing again, it was somewhat surprising that I didn’t immediately attach a plan to it.
I’ve considered my lack of enthusiasm for pre-planning, and realized its a direct reaction to the amount of planning I’m doing in other avenues of my life. Writing is something I’m squeezing into the cracks, almost a guilty pleasure. But, unlike regular pedicures and eating out for breakfast, I want to have something to show for the time I’m putting into writing. So, here goes. Goals for the remainder of the year.
- 1000 fictions words written per week, 1500 during the summer while school is out.
- One short story completed prior to the start of fall quarter, including feedback and revisions from at least three readers and one editor.
Now out come the management tools for evaluating whether my goals are well defined. There are several schools of thought for goal setting; I like the SMART goal system (because really, who doesn’t like to sound smart?) For those that aren’t familiar with SMART, it’s a mnemonic for setting goals that are:
- Time Oriented
How do my goals above fit into the SMART system?
Setting a specific goal involves placing the right level of detail on the goal. A good way to help add specificity to goals is to think about why you’re setting the goal, what’s your end motivation? For me the end motivation is to move on to the next phase of what I termed a ten-year multi-prong career plan five years ago. Phase 1 was to establish a career that would support a writing habit. Phase 2 is to develop the writing habit and a portfolio of fiction. Phase 3 is to publish the writing. These high level definitions that describe the direction I want my life to progress toward, and help me set specific goals.
A goal of “I’m going to write” isn’t specific enough, it doesn’t do anything to ensure that I’m on the path to developing a portfolio or to publishing. I could write this blog post and say I’d accomplished the goal. On the other hand, a goal of “I’m going to write between the hours of 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and alternate Saturdays and Sundays while sitting at the kitchen table and typing precisely 80 words per minute” is too specific, in all the wrong ways. The proper goal has enough detail to define the criteria for meeting the goal but doesn’t set requirements that are unimportant. It doesn’t matter if I write at the table or on the sofa, as long as the writing gets done.
Being measurable usually amounts to putting numbers and timelines on things. Sometimes coming up with good criteria to enumerate is really difficult. In the case of writing, the goal isn’t really to produce words, it’s to tell a story. If you can tell a better story with fewer words, then that’s what you should do. Also, putting words to the page is just part of the writing process. There’s research, brainstorming, and revisions that all go into the rough draft. These things are hard to quantify. What’s the “right” amount of research? The amount that gets you the information you need to write the story. The right amount of brainstorming? Ditto. When it comes down to it, the story is the ultimate measure. Did you or didn’t you complete it?
However, I’m working on a novel that’s going to take me over a year. Setting these incremental word count goals gives me an easy way to see if I’m on track. I can look at my pace and project that I’ll have 100,000 words completed in approximately November 2012 if all the writing I do is on the novel. Since I also want to publish some short stories before that time, I can add about four months to that completion date for each short story I write. This is good information, it provides me with something that starts to look like a rough long-term schedule. I can match this schedule against things like my expected graduation date (to be accompanied by massive amounts of thesis writing) and see where major milestones fall.
By picking to measure words, I’m committing to continually produce writing. By picking to measure the completion of a short story, I’m committing to finish a body of work and not just dither around on several projects that never come to fruition. Both these measurements feed directly into my motivation for setting the goals.
Attainability falls into the category of possibility. If you set a goal to jump to the moon, that’s not achievable. You have physics squarely against you and nothing you do is going to change that. It’s usually easy to identify when goals don’t meet this criteria. If you can’t imagine yourself meeting your goal even given every possible resource, it’s not attainable.
It’s also important to set goals that are the right level of difficulty. A good goal should be challenging, but not life breaking. Consider your other commitments and rank the importance of those commitments against the goals you are setting. If you’re taking on a new project, will you be dropping other demands or will your new project be funded from your leisure time? How much time are you willing to give your to your goal? Now look at the time demands of your goal. Are they similar? If not, consider redefining your goal to align it with the time you’re willing to put in.
Above, when I talked about researching, brainstorming, and editing I justified leaving them out of my goal list. However, this doesn’t mean I won’t spend time on these activities. In order to set a realistic word count, I started tracking about how many words I wrote an hour for the month of March. Then, I gave myself a certain number of hours per week and dedicated seventy percent to writing and thirty percent to other writing related activities. Thirty percent is probably a bit high for months in which I’ve done most of the research, but at that point I expect to spend the time reaching out to readers and editors. If I expected all my writing time to go directly to word count, I wouldn’t be setting a realistic goal.
These are your goals. They should further your dreams and aspirations. Make sure that you’re committing your time wisely by envisioning how achieving your goal is going to make your life better. Remember, time and other resources are finite, and choosing to work on these goals means choosing not to spend those finite resources elsewhere. Before you commit to goals, make sure you’re comfortable with the opportunity cost.
Reading has been my passion since before I can remember, literally. One of the embarrassing tales of childhood my mom loves to tell is how she was reading a bedtime story to me after a long day and she decided to ad lib a bit to hurry things up. Apparently I stopped her, told her to go back and read the part she skipped and pointed to the words on the page. However, reading is by nature a consumptive process, a hedonistic pleasure, and I have the tendency to sink into a funk if I’m not producing something. Writing is reading’s natural productive companion. Giving up some of my leisure time for a productive labor of love isn’t a hardship for me and puts me on the path to long term emotional well-being.
This boils down to giving yourself a deadline. Most of us are busy people, constantly juggling priorities. It’s easy to put off for later a goal that doesn’t have a due date. Setting a deadline gives the goal a sense of urgency. I’ve split my goals into two parts, one with a mini-weekly word count deadline and one with a serious project deadline. Meeting the intermediate deadlines feeds into the overall deadline, but it’s more fluid and allows for priority shifting between work, writing and school. I won’t be beating myself up if I write 800 words one week and 1200 words the next, but if I don’t meet the short story goal, I’ll consider the deadline blown. Both goals give me a bit of pressure to make sure I’m not pushing other things ahead of writing, especially those that aren’t defined as other goals of mine.
Last, but not least
The most important thing to do once you’ve set your goals is go out and work on them. With that said, it’s time for me to get back to writing!
Sketches of the Seasons · 31 March 2011
Currently I’m writing a scene that takes place in fall. This scene was a lot easier to conceptualize a few days ago, when the clack of my keyboards was accompanied by the patter of rain on the awning outside my window. And while I’ve got a pretty good sense of what fall should feel like, having lived through a few, it occurred to me that having a handy reference of impressions from certain periods of year would be a valuable writing resource for those times I find myself writing in the style of my physical surroundings instead of the setting my characters inhabit.
Thus, my exercise for today is to capture the essence of southern California in March as the first in a series of scene sketches. My task is aided by venturing over a 35 mile swath of the map and traversing coastal, mountain, and desert climates on my commutes between work and school.
I’m making note of the colors of the foliage and the hills, the shape of the clouds, the feel of the air and the angles of the sun. There are already some great resources out there for data like sunrise and sunset times, average precipitation and other facts that can lend consistency to a story. What I’m after here are things you really have to experience in order to describe. Sure, I can read that humidity in a given region is generally sixty percent, but if I don’t have a solid idea of how that acts on a person and on the environment, my rendering of the mood will be off-kilter.
By February of next year, I’ll have a compendium of the seasons of southern California (yes, we have seasons) that I can refer to anytime I want to create a dark and stormy night for my characters when it's a balmy spring day outside.