Blog Archives

Staying Focused

For the last few weeks we’ve been discussing how to deal with various disturbances in your writing. We’ve discussed family interruptions, technological interruptions, school/work interruptions and even writer’s block.

Today we’re going to discuss one of the most important things any writer can do, especially when working on a book length project: staying focused.

For most people, staying focused–especially for the amount of time required to complete a novel–is no easy feat. In a world that’s all about instant gratification, it’s hard to keep your focus and to stick with a project that might provide no gratification at all. But as writers, that’s what we have to do. If you don’t want to hunker down and get focused on a project that admittedly might never make you a dime or see the light of day, go do something else.

So how do you stay focused? I use a simple three step process, and while it’s not perfect, it keeps me on track most of the time.

1. Figure out your focus. Choose a project to work on and commit to finishing it by a certain date. Be specific. Is this going to be a novel-length project or a series of poems? Often a lack of focus is a symptom of being too vague about your goals. As any motivational writer will tell you, it’s much easier to stay focused on a specific, measurable goal. So be as specific as you can when choosing what you’re going to focus on in the coming months.

2. Make a plan. Now that you know what project you’d like to focus on, make a plan to complete it. Take a look at the deadline you’ve specified and how long you want your project to be. How many days between now and then do you have? How much would you have to work on the project each day to finish it by the deadline? Is it a reasonable amount of work? If not, you might have to adjust your deadline.

Make sure that you include all kinds of work in your estimate. If it’s a first draft, writing might be the only thing you need to do, but on the second draft you might have to write some new scenes as well as edit the old ones. If it’s an ebook you plan on self publishing or a website you plan on launching, you’ll probably want to do some advance marketing.

Give yourself a reasonable deadline based on how much work you can be expected to do each day, then start planning your time. Are you going to spend an hour a day editing your novel? Or are you going to spend one day editing and the next marketing? Decide how to organize your time and write down your plan.

3. Eliminate distractions. This is actually what we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks, and it is perhaps the most important thing. Now that you’ve carved out time to work on your project and figured out how to use that time, it’s your job to defend that time. This part involves saying no to people and creating strategies to deal with the distractions you’re most susceptible to.

The easiest way to do this is by scheduling time to work on your chosen project each day and making sure nothing interferes with that plan. Make it a habit to write at the same time every day. That way it’ll become routine and soon you won’t have to think about it, you’ll just write at that time each day.

Conclusion

This may seem like an over simplification and maybe it is, but I think keeping the focus to finish a project depends entirely on these three things. In fact, I argue it could even be simplified to two things: make a plan and stick with it. It’s a simple concept in theory that becomes incredibly complex when you try to implement it, but if you follow those two rules–no matter what it takes–sooner or later you’ll have a finished project.

And that will be worth all those hours of hard work, right?

Peppy McTalk

Today’s guest poster is Dylan Madeley, a freelance writer, editing professional and several time Nanowrimo winner. I hope his words will inspire you to greatness!

* * * *
Hello, NaNoer.

It’s been a week and two days since we started this thing, you and me.
Chances are, your novel is comparable to mine and many of the others:
it’s a caterpillar.

How you view this caterpillar means a fair deal. You might perceive a
big ugly worm-like thing in front of you every time that you open the
notepad or file. You might feel frustrated that there isn’t a
wonderful, colourful creature instead.

Or you might be more protective. You might say: “This is not just any
caterpillar, but my caterpillar, who is cute and fuzzy and look I have
given him a purple mohawk and/or a bowler hat.” Given that this part
of the novel writing process is absolutely necessary, more power to
you if you’ve found the fun in it. Otherwise, if you find things
dragging already, there’s not yet any need to worry.

Whether you’re one type of person or the other, or a degree in
between, the fact is that you probably have a caterpillar. And how you
feel about this creature going forward matters far more than what it
presently is. You could have the germ of a brilliant concept, a
detailed outline and character profiles at the ready, or you could be
pantsing like me.

I want you to think about how you feel. Disagree if you want, but I
believe that the feeling is where it starts. It’s not that I don’t
wish I had an outline right-frigging-now, but if this doesn’t feel
right, the outline is not going to amount to much.

If you don’t know that feeling, I have all faith that you will find
it. If you’ve felt it before, you’re slightly ahead: you need only
find a way to remember it. What readily accessible thing do you
associate with it? A song, a book, a movie, a conversation with
someone special to you? Some perfectly reasonable thing that hasn’t
occurred to me just now?

This might not be a new idea for you. Many people seem to have an
intuition toward this, even if they never read it anywhere. I log in
to chat and read about an acquaintance who put Hans Zimmer soundtracks
on for inspiration; hopefully that works for them.

Turn that key. Open that door. Before you know it, you’ll find it’s a
beautiful day and you’re riding a unicorn next to the constant tides
of a glittering ocean, rainbows springing toward the sky out of every
hoof-print before the sand has any chance to settle back down. Unless
that isn’t an accurate description of your feeling, of course, in
which case, insert accurate description here.

And don’t worry about how things are now, because it’s not the time
for that. Today’s caterpillars can be tomorrow’s butterflies.

Sincerely,

Dylan Madeley

Finding Inspiration in Weird Places

Sometimes we all feel uninspired. We drag our feet to the computer, open up our latest project, and stare at the blank screen. After a while we get bored of staring at the blank screen and start checking our email and reading our RSS feed, and before we know it it’s midnight and we haven’t written a single thing.

Situations like this can go on for days, weeks, even months if we’re not careful.

To break out of this endless cycle of non-productivity, often all we need to do is shake up our routine. Writing is an art, and art is best inspired by living differently. Allowing yourself to get stuck in a rut financially, emotionally or socially often stifles your writing life.

The next time you get stuck, try breaking out of your life routine. Here are a few ways I’ve found unexpected inspiration:

1. Read a graphic novel. Or two. Or three. If you’re like me, you might have read ten or eleven graphic novels and a handful of manga in your whole life. It’s a shame, really. Graphic novels are one form of storytelling that we often snub our noses at, but it can be just as powerful–more powerful for certain stories–as any literary fiction. Graphic novels often feature stories that rely heavily on the visual component and might not even work without it. And they’re often humorous.

I read two graphic novels over the weekend–one of the best perks is that they’re mostly images, so reading them is a breeze–and quite enjoyed them. Now, on Monday, I’m feeling inspired and ready to get started on my novel edits. The graphic novels had almost nothing in common with my novel-in-progress, but they still inspired me and recharged my creative batteries well.

2. Record your dreams. Every writer should make at least a half-hearted attempt to keep a dream diary. Keep a notebook by your bed and when you wake up, write down anything memorable from your dreams. Sometimes you’ll find small elements of a dream which could help you tell your stories. Other times, the dream itself will be a story ready to be told. The novel I drafted during last year’s Nanowrimo originally came to me as a dream. The dream told the whole story in a skeletal way, and my novel draft simply filled it out and made it better.

Not every dream will be a novel waiting to be written, and not every writer will have a dream they turn into a novel–but just in case, make sure you have a notebook by your bed. You never know what your dreams will contain.

3. Get out of–or into–the city. If you’re a city kid like me, you could probably benefit from some fresh air. The kind of fresh air you can’t get without driving an hour or two away from the city. Beg, bribe or plead with your family to plan a camping trip or a cottage trip. Ask to be kept as a stowaway when your best friend’s family goes to the cottage. If you have some money saved up, spend it on a trip out of town. It’ll do wonders for your mind.

Conversely, if you’re a small town kid, maybe the city’s what you need to get inspired. Maybe you need to walk around at 3AM, amazed by how many lights are still on. Maybe going to a club you’d expect to see one of your characters in will help inspire you. Find a way into the city–there’s no more complete way to shake up your routine that I can think of.

These are just a few ideas to help you get out of a rut and back into your story. There are dozens of ways to change up your routine, and how we can change it–and how much we can change it–without damaging our finances or sanity varies from person to person. When you’re stuck, the important thing to ask yourself is how can I break out of my routine and find some inspiration?

What are a few of the weirder things you’ve done to find inspiration?

Little Knitted Things


I’ve spent most of my weekend doing homework and quite a few hours trying to figure out what to write for my blog. Some days the posts just come to me and I make notes for five or ten posts and write two or three drafts. Other days I struggle just to get one idea down on the page.

Of course the answer was right in front of me–in the form of a little red-headed knitted doll. Her name is Jeanie Stuart, and she’s one of the main characters in my friend Karen’s novel, Angel of Death(which you can look at here). She’s an Irish gal with quite the attitude, one of my favourite characters in Angel of Death–or in any book, really.

Karen knitted up several dolls of not just Jeanie but two of her other main characters as well in order to promote her new novel, a sequel entitled Shadow of Death. I ran into her at last year’s Word on the Street festival and told her how much I loved the little dolls. She told me people had been coming up to her all day asking about them. I admired them for some time, but, not having any money, I had to move on.

That same day I went to the Pagan Pride Day celebration here in Toronto, where I participated in the Bardic. A Bardic is basically a talent competition. It is open to storytellers, poetry readers, singers, dancers and musicians of all kinds. The number and kinds of both prizes and contestants vary from year to year, but the feel is always the same and it’s a fun challenge.

One of last year’s prizes was a little knitted doll donated by Karen, an active member of the Pagan community and leader of the Pagan Pub Moot, the oldest gathering of its kind in Canada. I won third place and ended up taking her home, bringing her to sit on my desk for future inspiration.

We can all learn three lessons from this little doll.

1. Everything can be a marketing tool. Can you sew? Knit? Draw? Do you know how to work with clay? You’d be surprised how helpful those other creative endeavours can be when trying to market your novels. You can make little replicas of your characters, paint landscapes from your novel, create live replicas of jewellery or vases in your book. Not only will these draw extra attention to you at book festivals, but you can sell them to your fans and even random people who enjoy the aesthetic feel of what you’ve created, creating an extra stream of income for yourself.

Jeanie cost $15 at Word on the Street, and I know for a fact that Karen managed to sell most of her knitted dolls. With how cute they are, and the number of hours she spent making them, I think they’re worth the price.

2. Good things come to those who wait. I probably could have convinced my boyfriend–or one of my friends wandering around the festival–to buy me one of Karen’s little knitted things, but instead I decided just to go to the Pagan Pride Day celebration. If I’d convinced someone to get me one as a present, or if I’d had money and decided to buy it for myself, it wouldn’t have been special when I won the doll. I’d already have one, so it would be cool, but it wouldn’t be awesome.

Instead, I went on about my day and managed to stumble upon a little knitted thing anyway–an exciting way to end my day.

3. Always perform your work when given the opportunity. If you’re going to an event where you know there will be an open mike at some point, bring a short piece of your work with you–even an inspiring blog post can work. If it’s a competition, spend an hour practising your piece aloud. Actually, it might be helpful to do that anyway. You want to have a feel for how the piece sounds going in. Knowing how the piece sounds will help calm your nerves.

Performing your work out loud gives you the opportunity to make connections and to really see people’s reactions to your work. The only way to really understand how awesome it is when people clap for work you’ve taken the time to write and then read to them is to live through the experience.

Perhaps the most important lesson that can be learned from this little knitted thing is this: there’s a lesson in everything around us, if we’ll only take the time to look.

Where have you found your most unexpected life lessons?

Week Two

Today is the beginning of the second week of National Novel Writing Month. This is usually the part of the month when you start to question your sanity and hate your novel. For many people the second week of Nanowrimo is when they begin to question the quality of their writing and the point of their book. Some years I myself run into this brick wall of self-doubt. Other years, I don’t.

There are a few ways you can handle these feelings of being stuck. If you’ve got a lead already, you can stop for a day and think about what you’re going to do next more carefully. You can try doing something completely different to get you inspired. There is a story in you that needs to come out, and that story deserves to come out. Like any creation process it isn’t easy and it isn’t clean. It is, however, entirely worth it, if only for the sheer enjoyment of holding the final product in your hand.

When you hit that brick wall, stop and ask yourself why. Ask yourself how you can make writing this novel again, or how you can make it make sense again. Ask yourself what you can do to mix up your routine and get inspired. Remind yourself that you have a story worth telling, if only to your computer. That story needs to get out of you. It needs to exist, somewhere. In order for that to happen, you need to write your novel.

Remember that you can write a book in a month, or at least most of a book, and that something is better than nothing. Don’t give up your race to 50, 000. Even if you can only write a couple of paragraphs today, don’t stop working on your novel. Keep trying to write in the small spaces in your day, keep trekking towards the 50, 000 word finish line. It’s not impossible. We all underestimate ourselves sometimes. And it’s not unrealistic to think that the words you are writing aren’t that great. But the essence of the thing, the act of creating a novel, is a beautiful thing. It’s hard and tiring and sometimes bloody, but every novel is a work of art.

And you know what the great thing about a messy first draft is? You have all the time in the world to turn it into a beautiful masterpiece.

So this week, try to dodge the brick wall by reminding yourself that you are awesome. And if you hit the brick wall, remind yourself that you’re awesome again and that nobody said writing a novel wouldn’t hurt, pick yourself back up off the ground, walk around the brick wall, and keep moving towards the finish line. We’re all cheering for you, especially those of us huffing along the path with you.

Now get writing!

It’s Tough to be a Writer

Writing isn’t easy. Or perhaps I should say that writing well isn’t easy, even for those of us who have an instinctive grasp of grammar and spelling. Fiction is particularly difficult, because you’re creating new people and giving them new experiences. A good story is something like a tapestry–made up of many different elements and woven for hours upon hours upon hours.

In order to write an amazing book, you need to have a strong setting, strong characters, and a good, non-stereotypical plot. And you’re going to have to rewrite, because you’ll probably realize that your characters aren’t as tough as you thought they were, and your plot’s got holes in it bigger than your windows. And after that, you’re going to have to rewrite again, because on the first two times through you were focusing on the story, not on the words themselves, so you have to tighten it up.

And that’s being generous–odds are that each of these steps will take two or more new drafts of your novel. Ten years isn’t an unreasonable amount of time to spend writing and rewriting your first novel–I’ve already been working on Moonshadow’s Guardian for six, and I expect to spend another year or so on it before I submit it to any publishers.

The scary thing is that once you’ve got a book published, your publishers expect you to be able to have the next one ready for them in a year or two. For the rest of your writing career, publishers will be giving you deadlines, and you will be struggling to meet them while making your work the best it can be. It doesn’t get any easier after you’re published, except that your family and friends will actually start respecting your writing time.

So if you’re struggling to write your Dear Diary Project, slow down. Remember that right now, the only person who really wants you to write is you. Remember that there’s no need to rush into publication. You can’t hurry a book and expect it to turn out well.

You don’t have to be trying to get published to enjoy writing. And sometimes, the desire for publication can make it less enjoyable. Remember that first and foremost, writing is for you. If it’s not enjoyable, it’s not worth it.

So go out, enjoy yourself, and write up some good times.

I Believe in Stories

I believe in the value of all stories. As writers, I think we should study all kinds of stories, and all forms of expression. We should study all genres, but beyond that, we should study plays, movies, and musicals. Even some well thought-out video games can be well worth studying.

I don’t think a well-written story can ever be a waste of time. A writer should always be open to new ideas and knowledge from the world around them, and almost anything can be studying for a writer. We can watch a movie and pay attention to how they develop characters, study the dialogue. We can go see a musical to see how they tell a story with music. We can play a video game and revel in the beautiful–or ugly–worlds set out before us. All of these mediums have something to teach us as a writer, and if one truly catches our fancy, all of these can lead you down a new writing path.

There is also value in going out into the world around you. That is how you experience stories-you do new things, take on new adventures. Often, these new adventures are where the best stories come from. New people always have at least one interesting story to tell you, too, if you just listen. Not all of these stories will be the inspiration for one of yours, but they will add to your knowledge base. Make an effort to remember the people you meet, and remember in particular the things that make them unique. Those are the things from which you can build your own characters, and many times, story comes from character.

Experience everything, but don’t neglect your own stories. When you’re deep in research for your next book, or you’ve been spending a lot of time immersed in other people’s stories, do small writing exercises with your characters to keep yourself sharp. I picked up a book from the library, and I’ve read a chapter every day this week. I’ve also hung out with friends and played a game called Dragon Age–which has a fascinating world–for many hours. I’ve read pages and pages of history online to research my next few short stories. And I’ve edited two short stories to keep myself sharp.

When I finish this post, I’m going to play a bit more of my game. It’s a long game, so I usually dedicate an hour or two to it. And when I’m done there, I’m going to come back to my computer and start doing some writing exercises, working on building characters. I’ve been working with most of the characters from Moonshadow’s Guardian for years now, but there’s always more to learn about them.

There are lots of interesting stories in the world around us. I’d like to share with you a couple of my favourites:

~What’s Eating Gilbert Grape This is a movie starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo Decaprio. Leonardo Decaprio plays Johnny Depp’s little brother. He has the mentality of a five or six year old. Johnny’s usually the one that has to take care of him, and the movie is about his struggle. It’s a great movie that really touched my heart.

~The Sound of Music I’m sure you’re all aware of this musical, about the Von Trapp family. It’s a really well written story with great music. I’ve seen the movie hundreds of times, but it was still magical when my grandmother and I went to see the real musical. I’ll never forget it.

~Dragon Age The game that I’m playing right now, Dragon Age is a something-something–something RPG with a really well built world. Your goal is to end the Blight and save the kingdom, but you also have to take a traitor off the throne and help choose a king in the Dwarven city. You can make a lot of choices in this game, starting with what race and class you are–which leads to one of six different beginnings-and continuing with whether you help people or not. You can even be rude to people throughout the game. It’s a game with a lot of replay value–I’m currently on my third replay.

~Princess Bride I sincerely hope you’ve already seen this movie, but if you haven’t, it’s the funniest tale of a princess and a pirate I’ve ever seen. There’s a book, too, which is a much longer and more detailed version of the movie. Much of the dialogue in the movie is taken directly from the book, and the spirit of the book is excellently followed. Somebody told me that the author was the dude who made the movie, but I’m not sure about that.

~Weaveworld Just because I had to include a book. This one is by a guy named Clive Barker, who I’m told usually writes really gruesome horror. This is pretty gruesome fantasy about a world that’s been woven into a carpet, which must be kept out of the wrong hands. An idea of the wrong hands is Immacolata, a woman who’s walking around with the ghosts of her dead sisters at the beginning of the book. She strangled them herself in the womb. She also hates the people in the carpet, and therefore must be kept away from them.

All of these stories should entertain you–Weaveworld, I must warn you, is a long book–for at least the weekend. And I’ve been working on some writing exercises for Monday.

What are some of your favourite stories?

Pulling Yourself out of a Writing Slump

You’re staring at a blank page, obsessing. You’re a writer, but today, the computer screen is staring at you, blank and taunting. Today the words aren’t flowing. And it’s okay, because we’ve all been there. Writing is hard work, and some days are harder than others. The important thing is that when you’re down, when writing is hardest, you try to make it easier, you try to still get done what you need to get done. Today I’ve created a short list of things you can do to pull yourself out of a creative slump. They aren’t necessarily the first things you’d think of-writing exercises and prompts-though those can be helpful too. These suggestions are about truly getting in touch with your inner self, the deep part of you that does the writing.

Without further ado, let’s begin:

1. Meditate Take a few deep breaths and still your mind. Focus first on your breathing and then on nothing at all. You’d be surprised the strange things your inner mind says to you if you really listen-and if it’s outside stress that’s getting you down, meditation will do wonders for your peace of mind. Don’t just follow this advice when you’re having trouble writing-try to meditate at least once a week. Make it part of your self care routine. You can use incense or candles or whatever helps you meditate. Make sure you keep pen and paper on hand so if you get a great story idea you can write it down right away.

2. Get Outside And I’m not just talking about your backyard. Go for a walk down the street, spend an hour sitting in the nearest park. Write down descriptions of the people you see, the sounds you hear. Focus on the descriptions while you’re there, and when you get home, see if you can find a story in it.

3. Research Research something you’re interested in. If you have something specific to write about, look for information related to your theme, maybe even read a short story or two that have similar ideas. If you don’t, then research whatever catches your interest, whether that be science, history, other cultures, other languages or even the behaviour of zebras during mating season. Keep your mind open to ideas and note interesting facts. Even if you don’t make a full story out of it, you might make part of one, and the information might be useful later. For fantasy writers, I highly suggest researching an unfamiliar mythology.

4. Observe Watch the people around you. Listen to the people around you. Notice what they say, how they act, their odd behaviours. You can write them down, but I find when it’s people I know, I remember these details. Little things that a person says which hint at the deeper issues-comments about their appearance, fishing for compliments, mentioning an ex in passing who’s more important to them than they let on-the kinds of things which let you into a person’s psyche. You can learn a lot about characterization by studying people-and they can give you some weird ideas.

5. Explore Not physically-though I’m sure on your adventures there will be some of that-but mentally. Go to see a musical or a play. Go to see a new movie. Look for interesting events that are new to you-events where you can see and learn new things. Study a new form of dance. Adventure, explore, and live your life without fear; dare to experience things others wouldn’t, and you’re sure to find something to write about.

It’s okay if you don’t write anything one day-but you have to keep living life and looking for inspiration every day. You have to always be thinking about your craft. And you have to do everything in your power to get yourself out of the slump.

How do you get out of your writing slumps?

A Writer’s Dream

Every person wants different things; every person’s definition of success is different. There are individual successes, like when you ace a test in school, and there are overall successes, like when you get your high school diploma. As writers, we share many of the same individual successes-finishing a book, finishing an edit, submitting your book, getting published. These successes are shared by writers of all genres. Overall success, however, changes from writer to writer.

Individual successes in the fiction writing business are universal: the first finished book, the first successful rewrite, the first agent, the first contract, the first book sale. The first royalty check. Success in writing cannot be determined by the amount of money you make, or you’re sure to get discouraged-it takes time for even the best writers, even the promotional geniuses, to make any real money in this game. And so we measure and think of success in different ways-each new challenge we overcome as a writer is a success.

But what does overall success look like? Well that’s different for everyone. For me it looks like a small house in my ancestral land-the highlands of Scotland. It doesn’t involve any kind of corporate job; it involves gardening, cleaning, hiking, and writing. It involves at least one cat and preferably a husband of some kind-not a ceremonial wedding but a man who will stick with me through the thick and thin of my writing career-possibly a househusband if I ever make enough money for that kind of thing.

Most of all, when I’m older and looking back on my life, I’ll know I’ve reached success if I have a long line of published books which people really enjoyed. I’ll know I’ve reached success when my non-writing time is filled with talking to readers and other writers about books. I’ll know I’ve reached success when I go to a writing conference and some kid I’ve never seen or heard of before tells me that they read one of my books and were inspired not only to read more-but also to write. It is easy to blog and to give prompts to those who already write; it is harder to reach out to a young mind and make them think hey, maybe they could write a book too.

In the end I want to give back to young people. Writing has saved my life and I want to give that gift to other young people going through hard times.

What does your vision of overall success look like?