Gimme a (Brain) Break

Binge reading and rest are good for the writing soul.

I wrote that as the title of a blog post about two and a half months ago, but I felt so excited about the story I was working on that I never got around to actually writing this blog post. In fact, two days after I dreamed up the idea for this post, I had my largest ever writing session–2.3k in one sitting. I’ve had days were I’ve written more words, but never another single session where I was that focused, although today, after writing and editing several blog posts I’ve been putting off, I might top it. What’s the secret, you ask?

It’s simple, really. All you need is rest.

At least, that’s all I seem to need.

Two and a half months ago, when I had this epiphany and some amazing writing sessions thereafter, I had a most excellent day. I did nothing. No, that’s not true–I rapidly consumed three books, one right after the other, watched some fluffy TV shows, and, most importantly, turned my brain off. I didn’t do any critical thinking, only let myself relax and enjoy the break. It was exactly what I needed.

You see, before that day I’d been struggling with my writing. I used a spreadsheet to capture how much time and many words I spend per writing session, and I’d been avoiding it for two weeks, around the time I was suffering some severe burn out from pushing myself too hard. I finished the first draft of my first ever manuscript after a really hard push and just… stopped writing. No, that’s not completely true. When I went back and estimated my writing (thanks google docs) I’d written about 2.5k words in those two-ish weeks; half of those words were blog posts.

I took a day completely off, not worrying about writing anything at all, because I’d found some extremely entertaining books. When I finished reading the third one I found myself actually excited to write again! It was like I needed to give myself permission to switch off, enjoy myself, and recharge my creative juices.

It was completely unexpected.

It happened again, unintentionally. I attended a happy hour one Friday night with some coworkers and apparently we all really needed to cut loose. When I woke up on Saturday I felt miserable, so I decided I wasn’t going to write, as I’d planned. Instead I planted myself on the couch (which really took me back to my college days) and binge watched an entire season of some silly TV show, then read a bunch of fun nonsense. And I felt so good afterwards!

My writing has been great lately, and I wasn’t thrilled with taking that break, but when I did a light bulb went off! I hadn’t realized that I needed it a true non-writing day, a day where I gave myself permission to not write and not feel bad about it. Now I’m productive and excited again, almost buzzing with creative energy. I can’t wait to get to work on my next story! The world is sunshine and rainbows all around!

Totally disgusting, right? All those exclamation points, all that happiness. And yet, that’s how I feel.

My point is, sometimes you need a break. You should never feel bad for taking a day or two off. If you need more time then take more time. Don’t stress about it, just accept it. We’re not super humans, as much as we hate to admit it. Everyone deserves some time off. Take your break, recharge, then get back to writing!

Your brain will thank you, I promise.

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Novice Writer Woes: Too Many Ideas & Finishing Things

You’re sitting down, hard at work on your latest story, when inspiration strikes. It’s a beautiful idea, shiny and golden and juuuuuust right. What do you do? Do you pause on what you’re currently writing? It’s probably not very exciting, and this new idea, well, it’s just too good, way better than what you’re doing right now, actually. You have to stop your current, boring story and start on this fresh, new idea… right?

Wrong.

Getting distracted by glittering new ideas is something pros and newbies both struggle with. As tempting as it is to indulge yourself with the sparkly thing spinning around in your head, you’ve got to stay focused. Write down your cool new idea somewhere else,* then go back and work on your current story. As tempting as it is to get off track, the best way a new writer hones her skills is if she finishes what she starts. If she starts a new piece each time unrelated inspiration strikes she’ll end up with a pile of half-finished stories that may or may not be any better than the last ones she abandoned.

This is Heinlein’s second rule: you must finish what you write. It’s also the most difficult one for me to follow. You see, I love starting things–and hate following through. I have five half-written blog posts sitting in my drafts folder right now, waiting for me to come back and to them. I have tons of hobbies that I’ve loved and left–I don’t buy equipment for most things, just borrow them, because I burn through them so quickly. I love to follow the latest shiny thing that catches my attention.

But I can’t do that with writing, and that’s hard. Sometimes when you’re teasing through a story it becomes a struggle to the end. Just write another sentence, another paragraph, another scene–small goals to get through to the inevitable end. I. hate. it. But I also love it, because being able to have something complete to share with people is so satisfying. I love that I can go to my husband, my number one fan and a man of pure ice and logic, and show him what I’ve finished.

There’s a reason why the old standby “just write,” is one of the most common pieces of advice given out to novice writers. Why? Because it’s a true and it works. Getting excited and starting is the easy part. It’s only when you finish a story that you start to understand your strengths and weaknesses. You learn what does and doesn’t work in a story, not only with prose, but regarding pacing, structure, and overall content.

Write your story from beginning to end. Plot holes, terrible prose, and irregular character motivations are likely to run amok in when you’re starting out. To fix these common mistakes you must continue to write and hone your craft. The more work a writer does writing a clean first draft, however, the less work she’ll have come editing time–because she’s learning to strengthen her craft and avoid the common missteps that are so easy to make.

I read all this advice and didn’t really understand it until I started putting into practice. By keeping my head down and working on making this one story I’m writing the best possible thing I can do I’m learning how to identify issues early on, which enables me to finish something that might actually be decent.

Now for the fun part! Once you’ve gotten the most you can out of your story, it’s time to get back to those shiny ideas that popped up (and you know there’s more than one) during the writing process. Go through all the pieces of inspiration that you wrote down and see if they can work together to make a new story. Sometimes you’ll end up with something crazy and unexpected, while other times you might just have one idea that is perfect on its own. Figure out which idea(s) speak to you the most and write that next story. And when the time comes, you’ll know what to do with any other ideas that bump into you while you’re busy with something else.

Note: If you’re writing a story and you fall completely out of love with it/lose your motivation for it/don’t know where it’s going, try to make it fun again. Play with your characters, do some free writing in your world. Most of the time you just need to reignite that spark. If you’re still having trouble with it, set it aside and write something new–from start to finish. Sometimes a small refresh is just what you need. If you find yourself continuously getting bored and chasing the next story you have a problem, and you need to sit down and finish your stories. Taking breaks is okay, but always always finish your stories. A half written story that you’ll never go back to isn’t any better than an unwritten story, because no one will read either of them.

*Seriously, write it down. Nine times out of ten you’ll forget it if you don’t have it saved somewhere.

The Writing Process, Or Outlining is My Kryptonite

What’s the best way to write? The answer is, nobody knows.

This is a blog about the writing process. Not the physical process of writing (butt in chair, hands on keyboard, go), but the way writers craft their stories. Everyone has a different idea of how best to plan and write their stories. Many swear by outlining, while others will only write by the seat of their pants. Some let ideas mull in their head for months, even years, before they start, while others get a spark of a character and go from there. Most people, I think, fall somewhere in the middle. They have an idea, and it grows, and then it’s developed enough to become a full fledged story–this can happen in a matter of minutes to months or even years. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, there’s one thing all writers have in common–it takes time, practice, and lots of writing to figure out what way works best for you.

It’s been half a year since I started my writing journey, and I’m still learning what does–and doesn’t–work for me.

I started with outlines, super mega detailed ones. I consumed all of KM Weiland’s amazing tips on story structure, made a beautiful outline, and filled it out with tons of detail. It was a thing of epic proportions; I knew everything I wanted my characters to do. Unfortunately I didn’t actually follow the outline; I got bored, got better ideas. My heart wasn’t in it. I ended up with trash (my first novella).

Next I tried new outlines, even more detailed and! much! better! I read Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker, a fantastic writing resource. I got into the weeds, really figured out my character’s motivations and flaws. I knew their very hearts and souls. I had every single detail ready, but I never wrote the story I outlined. It was too well executed. When I started to write I didn’t get to stretch my creative wings because I already knew exactly what and how things would happen. My characters immediately went off script, and I was stuck. It was a disaster that lasted for 4k words (my attempted redraft of above novella into a novel).

My most recent attempt was discovery writing with exactly zero outline. I wrote the story, but I didn’t like the lack of control I had over it. There was always this nagging feeling hanging over me. I didn’t know what was going to happen next and, honestly, I hated that feeling. It made getting to my keyboard every day difficult because I felt like I was muddling through, meandering, and didn’t know whether or not my story was paced right or even going anywhere. I did several pieces this way, and I think for flash fiction it works well, but anything longer than 2k is too scary for me to write without much of an idea. However, what resulted in this was really fresh, a definite positive. I also think my writing really grew by just, well, writing! Unfortunately it was just too stressful for me. Maybe in the future I can sit down and write something wonderful and completely unplanned, but right now I need some control.

My next adventure will be story mapping. My writing friend Lesley over at Paper Cats told me about how Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson outlined using maps. They figure out where the stories will take place and go from there, asking the how/what/whys to craft the story around these locations. She gave me the idea to try it myself, giving me a small example from her next project. I’m going to do things a little differently, because while I like the idea of mapping, it’s more the concept of having chain reactions and a web of interactions instead of having a linear outline. (I also apparently hate following directions. Huh.)

Here’s my plan:

Since the stories I want to write are emotional, complex, character-driven stories, I need my main character–motivations, flaws, and what the character hopes to achieve. Next, I need my conflict. Who (the antagonist) is standing in my main character’s way, why is this character doing it? The main conflict comes next–main characters wants x, antagonist wants y, and now they clash. The main conflict part is the most important in my mapping plan, because it will create lots of ripples that spread throughout the entire story and lead to how the story ends. If I already have an idea for the ending I’ll keep that in mind, but it’s not something I’m going to be tied down to.

I want the story to grow organically. There won’t be a ton of detail in each mapped item. I think having general concepts that push the story forward will work better for me. If I understand the characters then I should be able to have a decent grasp on their reactions and what they’ll do next. I’m hoping this process will marry my desire for control with my refusal to directly follow through on, uh, most things .

Since I’m going to try this for my next big project, a novel, I’ll be posting updates here on how this is working for me. I’ll share my mapped outline, post process blogs on how the writing is going and whether or not it’s staying on track compared to my map, and share more things that I’ve learned along the way. Most importantly, I’m not going to be afraid to change my map. If something happens that sparks a new idea I’m going to add it in; I’ll actually have a way to do it with this system. I think the freedom I’m giving myself with mapping is going to be the difference I need and the real reason straight up outlining hasn’t worked for me.

I’m never going to be completely satisfied with any one way to write, I think. I’m not that kind of person. But I hope that the things I learn will help other struggling writers.

October Recap & November Plans

October was a great month! I had some lofty goals: two short stories, starting back on my novel, working on a super secret project, and hitting 25k+ words. I achieved everything I wanted to… mostly.

October

What I Did

  • Completed one novelette (10k)
  • Wrote several pieces of flash fiction
  • Continued submitting stories for publication
  • Wrote most of a short story (5k)
  • Started my super secret project
  • Daydreamed about my novel and what’s to come
  • Wrote consistently throughout the month (at least 5k words each week)
  • Published one post per week on my blog
  • Hit my word count goal (25k)
  • Enjoyed writing! <– The most important thing!

What I Didn’t Do

  • Wrote any words on my novel
  • Hit my word count stretch goal (30k)

Reading Highlights

I read a lot this month. I finally got a couple of V. E. Schwab’s books from the library, and they were as great as I expected. I bought Delilah S. Dawson’s Sparrowhawk comic, which was absolutely excellent. My favorite book of the month was Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. I don’t have time to write book reviews right now, but I absolutely guarantee you won’t regret reading it if you haven’t already. I got through a little over half of the books from the NaNoWriMo story bundle I bought, but it’s hard to consume that much writing advice in such a short time. I read all The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina comic series (eight issues) that are out after I binge watched the TV show the weekend it was released.

November

November is going to be a tough month. While I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo (good luck to those who are!), I will be traveling at the end of the month for Thanksgiving, visiting family, and dealing with a lot of hectic, stressful things at work. My word count is another ambitious one, 25k+. I want to continue posting every week on the blog, something I really enjoy. I’ll also be writing more on my super secret project, and will get back to work on my novel! I need to finish that short story, too. Oh, and I’ll continue submitting my short stories as I receive rejections for them.

I think that, even though November will be a challenge, it’ll be a fun writing month. I’m ready to get back to work on long fiction. Short stories are a good break, but two months of nothing but shorts wasn’t my favorite thing. I know they helped me become a better writer, and they’re a nice vacation for my brain during longer projects, so going forward I plan on writing a short story every month or so.