Falling off the Wagon

The last couple months my writing world has been sputtering to a halt. I have a lot of excuses, some of them may even be reasons, but the end result is I am getting nothing done. I have a game plan for my revisions, but I’m out of the game.

Let’s examine what’s going wrong:

1) My schedule is out of whack. I used to do my writing in the afternoons when I get home from work. But now, my afternoons have spontaneously filled up with doctor appointments, grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry, facebook, and napping. And let’s be honest, facebook and napping are the ones taking up the most time.

2) Exhaustion. At 37 weeks pregnant, I am not sleeping well or thinking clearly. Case in point, not 15 minutes ago I texted my boss that we had a bad expiration date on Facebook, and it turned out the expiration date was fine and I was in the wrong month. He laughed and told me to go have a baby. D’oh! Yeah, okay! I’ll get right on that!

3) Fear of screwing things up. I think it’s pretty normal to be afraid of makings things worse instead of better when you are editing. But add to that being more mentally hazy than usual, and it can be a recipe for disaster. In the last month, I edited three chapters and rewrote the first one three times. I ended up discarding all of my changes because they were more the product of sleep deprivation than good writing. The thought of messing up my story is terrifying.

4) Upcoming life changes. I am afraid that if I start my editing now and have the baby in the middle of it all, I will end up with a different vision for what I’m trying to accomplish pre-baby versus post-baby. This makes me anxious to get it done and terrified of starting all at once.

5) All this terror has made me less inclined to defend my writing time. I let my time get swept away almost every day.

For those of you aren’t due to have a baby in 2.5 weeks ( which means it could happen any time now), here are some things that have helped me keep to a writing schedule in the past–and which I hope will get me back on the wagon again soon.

1) Make a schedule. Write at the same time every day, or if not at the same time, at least in the same order of activities. It doesn’t have to be a long time, just make sure you get your butt in the chair and your keys moving. If you can start with 15-30 minutes a day, that’ll work. Or you can do a word count. 200 words, nothing overwhelming. Anything more is bonus. By being consistent, you will train your mind that this is writing time and after awhile, your muse will start showing up to the party. As you grow accustomed to your new schedule, you can be more ambitious about length or time requirements, but just like going to the gym, you’ll be more successful if you build up to the level you want in stages.

2) Defend your writing time. This is key. No, you cannot take a day off to have your doctor’s appointment at that time. No, you can’t go out for lunch with a friend instead, just for one day or watch a movie with the hubby. You must be dedicated, and you need to let the people around you know that your writing time sacred. People tend to not take writing time seriously, so tell them it’s a work meeting if you have to. Tell then you are managing your finances and can’t be interrupted. Go on “errands” to the library for half an hour. Whatever you have to do. I personally try to get my writing time in before my husband gets home because he can be very distracting (Cindi, where did you go?… Cindi, come see how cute the cat is… Cindi, let’s do something…) and I get frustrated and annoyed. (As I write this, he’s tickling me and making it very hard to remember where I am going with this). Know your distractions. Avoid scheduling writing time when they will be an issue. If that means you just don’t write on Saturdays because you know it won’t work, that’s fine. Make a schedule you can keep, and if occasionally you can sneak in a Saturday session, cool.

3) Keep your muse fresh. This is also really, really important. You are a writer. You have to read. Regularly. I have found that if I haven’t read a book in a month,everything I write will be crap. Reading keeps my vocabulary in shape so I can find the words I want, it makes my wordy ways more agile, it gives me ideas, and it reinforces story structure. It is also fun and opens up new ways of looking at the world, new information and themes for your brain to munch on. Similarly, you have get out of the house, try new things, and talk to people. Writer’s block is simply a lack of an appropriate level of input. Keep reading and experiencing life and you shouldn’t get it too bad.

4) Don’t be too hard on yourself. A day sitting in front of a blank page writing ten words is a successful day. You arrived. You put in the time. Good job. You’re going to have days like that, and you’re going to have days where everything you write is irrelevant crap. It’s expected. You have to write the crap to get to the good stuff. Rough drafts are a mixed bag. Just get it down. Start over when you need to. Outline when you need to. Stream of consciousness through the plot if you need to. Whatever you need to do, just do it, and don’t apologize for it. We are always learning; and there’s always a curve, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

5) Take care of yourself. Eat in all the food groups. Sleep. Take walks (brainstorming walks?) or do something else physical. The more alert and awake and alive you feel, the easier it is to concentrate on your writing when you sit down to work.

6) Twitter. When I first started writing every day, I joined twitter and posted to the #amwriting tag. I found it motivating because it was a public declaration that I was now writing and I could read posts by other people who were also writing at that time. After awhile, twitter became a distraction, and I stopped using it as much, but it is still occasionally helpful to get me on track.

7) Turn off your wifi or unplug your ethernet. You do not need that distraction.

8) Get a writing buddy. Motivate each other. Brainstorm off each other. Have a standing bet going for who can do the most days in a row. Whoever looses takes the other out for coffee. I haven’t done this, but I think it would be awesome.

9) If you need extra encouragement, read Chapter after Chapter by Heather Sellers. This book is awesome. If you’ve never given your writing a priority spot in your life, she will show you how to do it and convince you that it is okay to do it. She gives you permission. She also gives ideas on how to handle things like going on vacation and other life events where you have to break your schedule without loosing your focus. I found this one extremely helpful, and I think I’ll be moving this to the top of my nonfiction to-read pile! Heather, I need you now!

I hope this list helps anyone looking to get their writing life in order. If anyone has any other ideas or even ideas specific to writing while pregnant or while staying home with an infant and nursing, I am all ears! Comments below!

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How to Apply Feedback

So you’ve got some criticism back from your writer’s group or your beta readers, and now you don’t know what to do. How do you know what advice to take and what to leave behind? How do you know what will help and what will harm?

For starters, there are two main flubs you’ll want to consciously avoid making:

  • FLUB #1: IGNORING IMPORTANT CHANGES THAT NEED TO BE MADE
    This can happen if you consciously or subconsciously think you know more than all your reviewers (in which case, why did you choose them?), or if you are too sentimental about your work and just cannot emotionally handle making a needed change. Another possibility is that you’re looking at the changes you need to make and saying to yourself, “It’s too much work. What I have is good enough.” Do you really want it to be good enough, or do you want it to be good? Chances are, you want it to be good.
  • FLUB #2: TRYING TO SATISFY EVERY WHIM OF EVERY REVIEWER
    Giving your work completely over to your reviewers and trusting them over your own sense of the work is going to get you in trouble. Your reviewers bring their own vision to your work, and if their vision doesn’t line up with your vision, you need to recognize that and stay true to what you are trying to accomplish. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make you happy. YOU have to love your book. You are the one who is going to send it off to agents and fight for it against all the rejection slips that are bound to pile up. You have to believe in your book more than anyone else does. If the changes you are making are going to make you not love your book or not believe in your book, don’t make them.

So how do you walk the line between the two extremes? How do you know which changes will be best for your story? Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. If you never have before, pick up a book on story structure, outlining, story theory, or revisions. There are a lot of them out there. A good understanding of what makes a story appeal to your reader will help you see the ways your novel works and the ways it does not—which will help you interpret the feedback you’ve received.Here are some titles I’ve found helpful.
    Wired for Story by Lisa Crone
    Rock Your Plot or Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley
    Structuring Your Novel or Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland
  2. There’s power in numbers. If multiple reviewers are all in agreement that, for example, character Z is unnecessary, then either character Z probably is unnecessary and should be removed OR you have failed to show the significance of character Z and you need to figure out how to do that. Either way something needs to change regarding character Z. The direction you take your changes is up to you, but multiple people saying the same thing is a red flag that there’s something amiss.
  3. One person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion. You should consider these singular insights carefully in case your reviewer noticed something everyone else missed, and you can always poll your other reviewers if something someone said is particularly troublesome… but don’t change everything to please just one person. If you AGREE with the reviewer, maybe she found a gaping plot hole, then you will want do something about that—but a lot of the things that these insights will bring up are just options. Seeing them helps you expand your sense of possibilities, which may help you find the right path when you’re making the truly necessary changes…. but don’t try to turn your book into something you never intended it to be just because one of your reviewers has a different vision than you do.
  4. Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your plot? Does it make your protagonist more or less invested in the outcome of the plot? Does it help keep the tension growing throughout your story? Does it make your protagonist’s actions more or less important to outcome of the plot? Overall, is this a change that would benefit your story on a plot-level?
  5. Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your theme? Does it provide your character with an example that might change the way she thinks about the world and more specifically about her immediate issue? How does that affect your character’s motives? Does this change affect what your story is about overall? Is that what you want? Overall, is this a change that would play into your story’s theme?
  6. A note on grammar. If you’ve got some discrepancies between you and your reviewers about how to punctuate your sentences or the meaning of a word, do yourself a favor and don’t just assume the other person is right (or vice versa). Look it up. There are lots of grammar resources available online, and a quick internet search will tell you what you need to know.

My Bachelor’s Degree or How to Accept Criticism

When I went to college, I was thinking to myself, “I need a day job to support my writing career because real people don’t become authors.” I chose to go into Film and Animation Production because I figured film was an industry that employed a lot of people and where I would still be involved in telling stories. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that Film and Animation was actually another one of those dream careers where if you don’t LOVE it, if you’re not willing SACRIFICE for it, you won’t make it.

I learned that the hard way. Instead of reading books about lighting or drawing and making extra films outside of class, I was reading Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I was writing Harry Potter fan fiction. I was buying books about improving my use of dialogue. I was taking electives in mythology and talking to anyone who would listen about etymology and lamenting that I didn’t have time to spend more time reading books because of all my filmmaking classes. When I went into a bookstore, I B-lined to the linguistics section and poured over all the writing books. Dictionaries. Word Menus. When to Show and When to Tell. How to do better characterization. Making Plot Outlines.

It made me giddy.

You can see why that whole filmmaking thing never worked out. I was competing for jobs against people who wanted to be filmmakers as much as I wanted to be a writer. Of course they were better at filmmaking. All the time and interest I’d put into writing, they’d put into filmmaking. The only difference was that they’d chosen the career that made sense for them without worrying about what kind of jobs “real people” get.

But lest you think my film school days were a waste, let me assure you that at least one really important thing did come out of my time there: I basically have a Bachelor’s degree in Accepting Criticism Without Turning into a Defensive Jerk.

Accepting Criticism Coursework:

— Drawing I, II, & III: In this class, you slave for hours every week on a still life and then have to hang it up on the wall next to drawings made by the real art majors. Everyone looks at your work and is silent. You know this is a bad sign. Eventually, the professor says something like, “You need to work on your composition,” or “You need more contrast in your image. Darker darks, lighter lights. Smoother transitions.” After the first few weeks of feeling horribly chastised, you learn that your art is not you. It is an assignment, an exercise to help you improve your skills. No matter how much better you do, you will never compare with the real artists, and that is okay. There will also always be things to improve, so it is not horrible to have things to improve. If you can avoid the same criticism next time, you’ll be happy with yourself.

– Film Production: Like the drawing class, you are showing each of your projects to your fellow classmates, but in this class you also have to screen your final film in front of the entire Film & Animation department. This is, of course, nerve-wrecking. This is the advice your production teacher gives your class:

  • You do not have to agree with the critics, but do not under any circumstances defend your work. It just makes you look childish.
  • You may ask questions of people who criticize you to make sure you understand the criticism. But do not defend your work.
  • Thank people for all the comments you receive, good and bad. Do not defend your work.
  • Finally, don’t defend your work.

Of course there were students who did defend their work. And you know what? My teacher was absolutely right. They looked childish. And half the time the advice that they were given was completely spot-on. I learned that all advice should be taken seriously and whether or not you agree with it, you should never, ever try to tell a commenter that they are wrong and you are right. Other people’s experience of what you create belongs to them, not to you. It is important to respect that experience. If their experience was not what you intended, your work is what needs to change, not that person.

 

Those were two of the classes, but pretty much every class was like that. So here’s my advice to you if you are trying to accept criticism of your work:

  • Realize that your work is not you and once another person experiences it, it no longer belongs solely to you.
  • Realize that other people bring completely different experiences and biases to your work than you do, and that what they bring to it changes how it will be interpreted. Every interpretation is just as valid as yours. The act of receiving criticism is a form of research. You have to take it in from multiple sources before you can decide what to do with it.
  • It is more important to make sure you understand the criticism than to critique the criticism.
  • Remember that it is a huge compliment to receive detailed criticism on your work. It means the critic liked your work enough to put effort into figuring out how it could be better.
  • Do not ever defend your work against criticism. The work speaks for itself–if it doesn’t, that’s a reason to fix it not a reason to defend it.
  • Remember also: You want to improve your work. Your reviewer wants to help you. You are both on the same side… unless of course your side is that you want your work to be perfect as it is and you don’t want to make changes. If that’s the case, you will never improve and your work won’t reach its potential, and that’s sad. You need to nix that attitude.
  • Ultimately, you are the one who will make the decisions about how your work will be improved. Keep that in mind. No changes will happen without your approval, so take the energy to really listen so when it comes time, your choices will be based on what’s right for your work, not what’s easiest for you or what’s best for your pride.

 

My BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) in Receiving Criticism has been serving me well as my comments are coming in from my 8 Awesome Beta Readers. Unfortunately, most of the criticism I took in school came AFTER my projects were complete and I didn’t need to mess with them anymore, so while I feel like I have a really good attitude for receiving criticism, I’m starting to get a bit overwhelmed about figuring out how to synthesize all of it to make the best changes while still staying true to my own interpretation. I’m also having some trouble deciding if certain changes I don’t want to do are of the, “that sounds like way too much work” variety or the “interesting idea, but I don’t think it will add anything” variety. But more on what to DO with the criticism another day–like, possibly, once I figure that part out.

Summary Challenge

I started reading Lisa Crone’s WIRED FOR STORY, which I’ve been wanting to do since her Lynda.com video was a huge help to me when I was stuck in my rough draft last year.

I just read, “writers who can’t sum up the story they’re telling in a clearly focused, intriguing sentence or two probably haven’t written a clearly focused, intriguing story.”

I took this as a challenge. I tried this a year ago and it was really HARD. But this time after all the edits, it was actually pretty easy.

Outbroken by Cindi Shantz
Fiskel Harloward always knew he was a bad person, that when he contracted Ghiernfel’s plague it was a punishment he deserved. But when he receives an assignment to copy a 300-year-old manuscript written by the Plaguemaker, he is shocked to find Ghiernfel’s handwriting is his own.

Paper Edits Are Done!

This past weekend I finished inputting my paper edits into my digital file. That was so much more tedious than I expected, and procrastination definitely became an issue. But it’s done now!

Afterward I spent a little extra time on my first chapter, and sent the file off to my beta readers! It came in just under 113K, which I think is completely reasonable. I’m of course still open to cuts. Still open to huge rewrites even if that’s what it takes.

And can I tell you how thrilled I am about my beta readers?! I posted a call for readers on Facebook, and I got eight volunteers. Eight! Four are close friends, all people who I know will give great feedback. The other four are people I don’t know very well. Two of them I’ve only met once or twice–one an artist, one a free-time writer–and one I haven’t seen since elementary school and another I haven’t seen since high school. I am so excited to see the range of responses I get, and I am psyched to have people willing to do this for me who won’t be biased by knowing me really well!

And now I wait. And read! I’ve hardly done any reading since February and that ends now! Look for upcoming reading-related posts!

Five things I learned about Paper Edits

Yesterday it rained, and I’ve been starting to get a little tired in the afternoons–what with being 6 months pregnant and all–so I knew if I went home I’d just sleep a lot of the afternoon away. Instead, I took myself out to Potbelly’s and plowed through the last 250 pages of my paper edits. Yeah! Go me!

This was my first time doing paper edits on a hulking 520 page manuscript. Here’s what I learned in the process:

  1. Paper edits are worth doing. Editing on paper is a lot different than editing on screen. You notice different things, and you get a better sense of your pacing, how you are moving through the book (quarter of the way, half way, three quarters) than you do while editing on screen. You also have your original text right there and it doesn’t disappear, so you stay focused on making making your writing tighter rather than just fiddling around and adding to it.
  2. Use pencil, not pen. I started out working in pen, and I often got so excited about crossing stuff out and fixing things, that I sometimes changed things that, after finishing the paragraph, I realized were there for a reason. Then, while making my fixes, I often wrote in what I wanted it to say… and after ten crossouts and failed attempts, realized the original way was better. The sections that I edited in pen are a MESS and I’m kind of dreading inputting them into the computer. The sections that I edited in pencil are neat and organized and make sense.
  3. Paper edits allow you to think spatially. This may not help everyone, but as a very spatially-oriented person I remember exactly where on a page something I read was, so when I’m going along and I see, “Oh! I just used that word a couple pages ago!” it’s soooo much easier for me to find the part I’m thinking of and make fixes. And that goes for finding that scene or paragraph of description you just realized is unnecessary ten pages after you read it. Bottom line: You don’t get lost in a huge scrolling document the way you do on screen.

    Also on the spatial front, having all that text in front of you also makes it easier to flip around in a given chapter, so you notice how moving a paragraph to a different location works better, or where you can cut a section without having to add a transition between two parts. And because your changes are all circles and arrows, you can read through it and test drive the change without having screwed something up if you don’t like it.

  4. Do your edits as fast as possible. Not that quality isn’t important, but with paper edits you have to leave sections on the cutting room floor. The best way to know what needs to be there and what doesn’t is to have a sense of your story as a whole, and that means moving quickly through it. Moving quickly also means you’re more likely to notice that every third chapter your MC is looking out the window. Or that you’ve used the words “tilted” and “tipped” way more often than anyone should ever use “tilted” and “tipped.”

    Going fast also builds up a momentum. I breezed through page 50 to about 200 in a couple days… and then life happened and I puttered around pages 200-320 for almost two weeks. Then yesterday, I took myself out for lunch and did page 320-520 and I was finished. I think the quality of my edits during the long hauls was probably a lot better than the little snatches. I had a better sense of where I was in the story, what came before and after, and I was a lot more focused.

  5. Making cuts is still tough. I thought I’d scratch a sentence here and there and loose a TON of words on this edit. Not so easy. Other than my first chapter, which I ended up cutting entirely (and I’m still mulling over whether I need to put any of it back or not), I did not find as many of these little cuts as I’d hoped. And, naturally, I have a reason in my mind why every single scene I didn’t cut is important… but I adore my story, so of course I think everything is important.

 

I’ve mentioned my wordcount woes before, and I haven’t inputted my paper edits into my document yet, so I don’t yet know where I stand with that. I don’t think I cut enough. Not 30,000 words enough, anyway. Last night after I was finished making my paper edits, I went back through and managed to cross out a couple more chunks. I’ve got a couple other parts that I am questioning my motives for keeping as well that I may go back and take a second peek at this afternoon. I have to be suspicious of myself. I love nothing more than to read and write about an interesting character in their everyday happenings. But it’s got to move things forward physically or emotionally, and sometimes the amount of emotional movement in a given scene is not enough to justify it’s staying. Where to draw the line, though?

At the same time… wordcount isn’t everything. This is a book that I originally intended to be a trilogy… but then structurally it didn’t work. Most of the plot of the third book ended up being spread around the first and second book as a side plot, and then the first book and second book were too co-dependent to split up. It may be that whittling it down to 100K will do more harm than good, and if that’s the case, I’d rather it was too long. We’ll see…

A break from editing: My pizza dough recipe

I’m not much into cooking and even less into baking (I say as I pull a cake out the oven–I swear this is the first time I’ve made a cake from scratch in my adult life). I am, however, really into pizza. A couple times a month, I make pizza from scratch the way my daddy taught me. It is sooo yummy.

My dad’s dough recipe, though, has been a bit finicky for me. Sometimes it comes out great, and sometimes it comes out a big sloppy mess. Maybe that’s me not counting out four cups of flour accurately (I pretend I’m the Count from Sesame Street. “One cup of flour, ah ha ha!”—no really. I’m not joking. I do that.), or maybe it’s the recipe. Either way, I have been messing with his dough recipe for years, and I think I’ve finally got a version I like that consistently comes out stretchy and easy to work with. 

Cindi’s Version of Dad’s Pizza Dough

1 ½ cup warm water (measured with dry cups)
1 ¼ tsp yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1tsp basil
1tsp oregano
1 tsp parsley
4 ¼ cup flour (all purpose, unbleached)

Use pizza dough cycle on bread maker

To make pizza:

Spread dough out on a cookie sheet. Add slices of mozzarella right on top of dough. Crush a 14.5 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes on top and spread evenly over mozzarella. Season pizza. Cook on bottom-most oven rack, no preheat. 425 degrees.

Enjoy!