Protect Your Writing Time

I can now say from experience that as soon as you call yourself a freelance writer, everything will encroach on your writing time. Your drama queen friend will have a crisis, someone will tell you you’re not really working, and before you know it, your productive day has devolved into playing Plants vs. Zombies while talking to six different people on the phone. Or maybe that only happens to me.

The good news is there are many ways that we can take back our writing time. And this will work for the full-time freelancer just as well as the full-time employee who wants to write a novel or my fellow crazy people who will be completing NaNoWriMo next month. Here’s the plan:

Create writing hours – It doesn’t matter if your office is the kitchen table or the back booth at the local truck stop diner. As of now, writing time may only be compromised if it involves blood, a fire, or possibly a zombie apocalypse. Decide on your writing time. Tell everyone that you will be writing during that time. For the record, it doesn’t have to be hours – it can be twenty minutes or as much time as you want.

Make sure you write – This may be the hardest part. Sometimes it’s a lot easier and more fun to check Facebook and Twitter, and then remember you need to go on the pharmacy’s website and order prescription refills. By that time you have email, so you click over to check your message. Then the phone rings…

Turn off the phone – If you can’t actually shut off the phone, at least screen your calls. You don’t have to answer the phone just because it rings, especially when you’re supposed to be writing.

Avoid doing research (during writing hours) – I have recently discovered that I am more productive when I do research and then write. I can go back and check facts after my project is completed. I don’t stop writing to look up a fact. Instead, I mark it with the highlight feature in Word and keep going. Checking my work is what revisions are for. Press on.

If you’re really tempted – Software is available to help us focus. MacFreedom (also available for PC, don’t be fooled by the name) blocks internet access for a specified amount of time. This company also makes Anti-Social, which, you guessed correctly, blocks social media sites. Write or Die punishes the tendency to stop writing with a pop up, an annoying sound or it starts slowly deleting what you have written if you stop typing for too long.

My biggest motivator is that I have told everyone I know that I am a freelance writer. So if I slink back to corporate America after making that announcement… Well, let’s just say my friends aren’t the type to let that pass unmentioned. So I have to write, for fear of complete public humiliation. As a bonus, this puts the fear of having my writing rejected into its proper place.

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Writing Classes

Last Thursday, I signed up for a writing class. It’s my first formal writing class, not counting high school and college (I went to college for accounting, and writing is low priority). There are a lot of classes I would like to take to improve my fiction writing skills, and I’ll get to those some day. What I signed up for was Breaking into Copywriting.

The experience has made me think about writing classes in general. Not everyone wants to get an MFA and not all of us can afford grad school. Some of us just don’t have time between work and family and trying to write that novel. Fortunately, there are lot of other choices. Classes are offered in various locations, online or in person, and at many different price levels.

Know what you are looking for – Do you want to brush up specific skills? Or get an overview of a new style of writing? I have signed up for the copywriting class because I am interested in alternative markets for freelance writing work. Taking the class should give me a better idea of the work rather than just going online to find a copywriting job and figuring out I have no clue what I am doing.

Writer’s associations – Sandra, a friend of mine, is a member of the local chapter of Romance Writers of America, and she tells me that they offer a number of workshops and presentations locally as well as national conferences. The local workshops are open to everyone although nonmembers will pay a larger fee to attend.

Local college or continuing education programs – I recently signed up for two one-night writing classes at my local high school – “The Five Elements of Dramatic Writing” and “Creating Characters that Breathe.” Both were 2-hour presentations, given by a published romance author, freelance writer and former professor of screenwriting. One of my local colleges also offers writing workshops, but the cost is much higher. Tuition for the summer session is over $2000.  In contrast, the classes I took at the high school were $11 each.

The local chamber of commerce here maintains a website of things to do in the area, and I have also seen writing workshops listed. These may be the workshops offered by the local chapters of writing organizations, I can’t say for sure.

Online Classes – There are many available, and a Google search for “online fiction writing classes” will give you many results. I like Writer’s Digest University. As a matter of fact, that’s where I’m taking my Copywriting class.

Books – There are tons of craft books that offer detailed information on some aspect of writing. Many of the books cover a specific aspect of the craft.  I am particularly fond of Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress, Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts, and Revision and Self-Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell.

Reading – The best thing for writers to do. I have always been a voracious reader. I read everything from category romance to biography, nonfiction to fantasy. I find that the more I learn about writing, the more I see what other writers have done well. And there are those few books I have thrown across the room in frustration because they were that bad. Recognizing what works and what doesn’t in books we read will help us find what works in the books we write.

I really think that reading is just as important as writing when you’re trying to be a writer. Because it’s the only apprenticeship we have. It’s the only way of learning now to write a story.

-John Green

How Crochet Makes Me A Better Writer

I rarely compare my two favorite activities – writing and crochet. Recently, while working on a particularly difficult crochet design, I realized how much crochet has in common with writing. Crochet and writing are time consuming hobbies – I say hobbies because it can be difficult to make money doing either. Both require ideas, patience, and revisions and both are incredibly rewarding.

All projects start with an idea. In crochet, I begin designing a pattern by having an image in my head of the bookmark, afghan, or pot holder that I want to make. From there, I have to figure out the stitches that will create the image in my mind. It’s the equivalent of an outline – an idea of where you want to go and how you want to get there.

All projects require patience. When I design crochet patterns, I will be halfway through making something when I realize that it’s too big or too small or just not what I had in  mind. This is like writing the rough draft. It’s time to get all the words on paper and see what happens.

All projects require revision. Sometimes I crochet a large portion of a new design and discover mistakes. That usually means I have added or missed stitches. Once that happens, I have to unravel the portion of the project until I can correct the mistake. Revisions are like this. In writing, revisions are a time to get rid of what isn’t working and keep what is.

My favorite thing about writing and crochet is that at the end, you have something tangible to show for your effort. All the time you have put into learning the craft is now visible in your work. You have something to show for all of those hours – maybe an afghan or a sweater, maybe a novel or a collection of poems.

Score: Revisions – 1, Kim – 0

I finished writing my first novel over the summer. Dutifully, I sent copies off to my beta readers and waited patiently for their feedback. When I received their feedback, I worked on the problem areas they had pointed out. I sent it back to my trusted readers, but not to the one who advised me to scrap the whole thing and work on something else (oddly enough, she’s the only writer in my group of readers).

I felt pretty good about my novel. I don’t want to think about how much time I spent on it in the past 18 months since I started writing it. I’ve worked on other things during that time as well, but my focus kept returning, over and over, to this project. Tightening here, deepening there, deleting a character and adding a new one. In general, tinkering.

After the second round of revisions, I was starting to compile a nice Excel spreadsheet of agents, their websites, and a grade for each of them from 1 to 5 stars depending on how likely I think they are to want to work with me and my book (judging by genres they represent, if I know the agent or if I know someone who knows the agent, etc.). And then…

I thought of a brilliant alternative ending to my story.

Nothing will do but that I change and revise and tinker some more. But it will be worth it, because this ending, objectively, does make the book stronger and should address what my favorite beta reader (who is also my aunt) said: “It just lacks something.”

The good news is that I’m excited about revisions again. I normally do everything possible to put off revising my work. I like writing rough drafts. It’s fun to be able to type like hell and just throw words at the page. So what if I write a 2 paragraph description that gets scrapped later? That’s what revisions are for. Same goes for all of those transitions I didn’t write and just typed ADD SOMETHING HERE. And let’s not forget my least favorite – the note saying DO RESEARCH ON THIS.

My writing process is a little strange. What I call a “first draft” is actually my second draft, after one round of revisions. What most would call a first draft, I call prewriting because of the complete lack of organization. And I mentioned I do a lot of planning? Well, that actually takes place after the prewriting and before the first draft. And I name this the first draft because it’s the first complete draft that’s organized into chapters and completed with no idiot notes to myself lurking in the text.

Along the way I have had to convince myself that revisions aren’t boring. They require just as much creativity as writing the draft. If nothing else, at least I no longer dread revisions, even if they are getting the best of me this time. I know it will be worth it when I’m finished.

Preparing for NaNoWriMo

I wish I had decided later in the year to participate in National Novel Writing Month. Deciding in August has left me with too much time to fill between the decision and the beginning of the event. That means I am doing far more preparation than usual.

I am fortunate to be in an area where there is a very active local NaNoWriMo group. My group is meeting on Sunday for a Plot Planning Party. Being more of a pantser, I don’t care too much about the plot planning aspect. When preparing to start a story, I will do some planning. I usually have a very sketchy outline and a small dossier of information about each character. I’m not sure I can spend three hours planning my story. But in spite of my lack of plot planning skills, I’m attending the party. Hopefully I don’t come up with a different project idea for the month (again).

I am participating in NaNoWriMo this year for the community. I’m not daunted by the word count goals required to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ve done that much before. On a typical day, I write 1000 to 2000 words, with most days being above 1500 words. But I don’t know that many local writers, and the ones I do know tend to talk about writing more than they actually write. This brings me back to attending the plot planning party.

My other preparations are simple. I talked my fiancé into accepting an extra 4 hour shift at work on Saturday evenings, which means I get more uninterrupted writing time. I purchased a couple big bottles of red wine. I designated a notebook and folder as my official NaNoWriMo command center. I have made a shopping list of delicious things to snack on while writing (carrots actually ARE on the list, just so you know) and budgeted for takeout pizza once a week for all of November.

There are also pre NaNoWriMo challenges posted in the message boards. This particular one was to watch or read something that we normally wouldn’t and then post our reaction to it. So I watched Dr. Zhivago – which was a bad decision that caused agonizing boredom. Next time I’ll just read the book.

Now I just have to decide on my NaNoWriMo rewards. That’s where I’m stuck. Obviously, I want the t-shirt. But if I complete something big, like a draft of a novel, I think I deserve a somewhat larger reward. Sadly, I have absolutely no idea what I want. But I’m sure I’ll think of something in the next 20 days.

In 21 days, NaNoWriMo begins!

Setting a Project Aside

Every writer I know has faced this decision. When is it time to put a project aside? Sometimes the project has become a long, hard uphill climb with no end in sight. Or maybe a new project popped up and demanded attention. So, when should we put a project aside?

I am about 46,000 words into a novel. I have the ending mapped out. I know where the story is going. I know more or less how my characters are going to get to the ending. I estimated another 30,000 words to wrap this thing up. Then I started writing a “short story” that is now over 15,000 words and is demanding a promotion from short story to novel. My goal was to complete the novel before NaNoWriMo. But that was before I made the decision to switch my focus to the new project.

What happened here is I lost my enthusiasm for the project because I was so excited about the new story. This new project demanded my attention. At other times,  I get bored with a project. I have to be careful of this because laziness sometimes feels an awful lot like boredom. Maybe there’s an issue with the plot or my characters that I need to fix. I’m being lazy about solving the problem, so I convince myself I’m bored with the project as an excuse to move on to something new and different. In other words, when the going gets tough, am I just looking for something else to do?

I have also put projects aside because it had become such a huge, hot, smelly mess. All those tangled plot threads, and I couldn’t hack my way out with a machete. These are the projects that look a lot better with a little time and space.

I never delete my work, even the stuff I have deemed irreversibly crappy. No matter how bad it seems, if I just let the project hibernate for a while and focus on something else, I can come back at a later time with renewed energy and fresh eyes. Sometimes I scrap most of it, while keeping the best bits for use somewhere else. More often, I am able to revise my way out of the word-jungle and I’m back on track.

For me, the decision to put a project aside can’t be made lightly. I fight an ongoing war against my own laziness, tendency to procrastinate, and chronic inability to finish things (I have ADD, which doesn’t help). I have to honestly evaluate why I want to set the project aside. And if I do, I have to write myself detailed notes about why I stopped working on the project. I also have to leave myself at least a partial outline of what I see happening for the rest of the story. To be completely honest, sometimes doing this work to put a project into hibernation revs up my enthusiasm for the project again.

Letting a project hibernate for a while can be very useful. The first draft of my recently completed novel sat on my computer for more than a year before I got back to it. During that time, I did some work on a number of other projects. When I returned to this novel, I was able to fix plot holes, strengthen my characters, and finish the story.

Before you set a project aside, consider why you want to do that. If you think the story is crap, give it to a trusted reader to get some feedback. If you’re bored, what do you want to do instead? If the project is a big hot mess, what do you have to do to fix it? If you have another project demanding attention, is that project worth setting aside considerable work?

Ideas are Everywhere

Like a lot of writers, I don’t like being asked where I get my ideas. If I say ideas are everywhere and it’s just a matter of capturing them, I sound mildly demented, but it’s the absolute truth. This morning I was flipping through Chris Baty’s highly amusing and useful No Plot? No Problem! and then went to my computer to waste a couple hours checking email and Twitter, playing online games and friending friends of my friends on Facebook. While spending quality time playing online mahjong, I started thinking (okay, daydreaming).

I started to wonder what if a woman left her boyfriend in New York to move to San Francisco to be with some guy she met on Facebook and she then gets bored with that guy and leaves him and goes to another state ( location still in question) and meets still another guy? This could go on indefinitely, and this woman’s inner journey might be pretty interesting, because it seems to me her mental health isn’t as good as it could be.

The moral of this story is my ideas almost always start with “what if?”

This leads to the more pressing concern of catching the ideas so they don’t escape and run screaming down the street while I’m in the shower (or something equally dramatic). I have 3 ways of keeping my ideas, depending on where I am and how much time I have for idea capture.

  1. Write it down! This is the easiest and most low-tech and can take anywhere from about 30 seconds to several hours. Always keep a notebook or index cards or something nearby to write on. I like Moleskine notebooks in spite of the price. They don’t disintegrate as quickly in your pocket as do the mini notebooks from the dollar store. They also come in a range of sizes.
  2. Use the voice recorder on a cell phone. I use this a lot while driving. I tend to get a lot of ideas while driving and it’s not always convenient to pull over to scribble on a notepad. Just make sure to speak slowly and clearly enough that you will be able to understand yourself when you get home to transcribe this gem into your notebook or computer.
  3. Keep an open word processing document whenever you’re working on your WIP. I tend to get a lot of ideas while I’m writing something completely different. You could also keep a notebook handy for these idea interruptions, but for me it’s faster and easier and doesn’t interrupt my WIP quite as much to switch between documents. I write as much as I need to in order to be sure the essence of my idea will be there when I return to it.

I am a little paranoid about losing my ideas. I keep pens and paper in every room of my house, including the bathroom. My computer is always on while I am awake (I only shut down at night). Every purse, laptop case and backpack that I own has its own stash of pens and paper. Slightly weird? Of course. But I can live with the weirdness because I have several dozen ideas ranging from crap to awesome filed on my computer, waiting for the day their turn comes to become a story.