On Writing: Questions from Twitter & Facebook

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Jacob Asks: Do you ever not feel like writing when you need to write? If so, how do you handle those situations?

Yes! Many author hopefuls think, “man, if I could only write all day…”, but that blessing has its pitfalls. Sometimes I wake up and all I want to do is watch Project Runway reruns in my pajamas, and when you work from home and have free reign over your work schedule, resisting temptation can be difficult… because who would know? I mean, other than the dog, but I can buy that guy off with snacks. Seriously though, when it comes to writing, if you want a snowballs chance of making it professionally, you need to be as skilled in self-motivation as you are in prose.

So, when I don’t feel like writing and there’s a deadline looming overhead, what do I do? I stand in front of the Keurig for the minute it takes to make a cup of tea, I whine a little (okay, maybe a lot), and then I drag myself and my steaming mug into whatever chair I’ll be occupying for the next handful of hours. I sit. I work. And I don’t give myself an option of doing otherwise.

A tip for those of us who have a hard time staying focused: get off the internet. And when I say get off, I mean disconnect yourself. If you have to check your Facebook page every hour, cut your laptop’s internet connection. If you reach for your cell phone every five minutes to check the news, the weather, and your email, turn it off. Better yet, turn it off and put it in the other room… in a drawer… full of snakes.

And if you absolute can’t focus where you are, change your environment. If home is too distracting, leave. Go to your favorite coffee shop and block out the world with your headphones. If that’s too distracting, go to the library or the park. Hell, write in your car if you have to. If you’re not naturally self-motivated, start going to the gym or running in the mornings–you’ll get fit and you’ll teach yourself self-discipline.

Carlos Asks: Does writing give you many stresses? If yes, how can you conquer your stress while writing your book, journal, etc?

If you find writing stressful, then you’re thinking too much about what other people are going to think of your work. That’s normal; I used to do it all the time. But it’s also destructive, and you need to teach yourself to forget about who’s going to think what and write what you need to write.

Years ago, I’d start writing a book thinking “this will sell.” It would be a good, marketable idea that appealed to a wide audience, and I’d allow that to be my motivation. Big mistake. Naturally, after I finished what I was writing, I threw myself into the querying process with fingers crossed, bracing myself for the rejections that would inevitably come. They came, and suddenly my safe little marketable idea was a big pile of uninspired nothing. When I learned that I could self-publish my work (which I did with SEED), I said “screw it” and wrote with reckless abandon. I didn’t give a damn who read my book or what they thought of it (okay, I did give a little damn, but I didn’t let it show), and miracle of miracles… look what happened.

If you’re stressed when you’re writing, you aren’t surrendering to your own creativity. I don’t really know what advice I can give you to alleviate that stress; mine pretty much melted away as I gained confidence in my craft and the clearer my voice became. But as I said, that stress is normal. I think it simply goes away the longer you dedicate yourself.

Keith Asks: Ania, could you describe your daily routine with writing? Habits? Quirks?

It seems like when I’m in the pre-planning stages, my daily routine is pretty sporadic. Sometimes I’ll spend five or six hours working on character backstories or plot arcs. Other days, I’ll be spent after two hours of sitting in front of my laptop, halfheartedly poking the keys. Outlining and character work is kind of exhausting. I use this as an excuse to take mid-day naps.

But my process is the complete opposite when I’m actually writing the manuscript. I set a daily word goal (typically 5k). I sit down around ten AM and work through to lunch. I’ll take about an hour to eat and relax, and then it’s back to work until I hit that word count. Sometimes five thousand words will take me three or four hours. Other days it’ll take me seven or eight. If I have to stop to prepare and eat dinner, I do, only to sit back down at nine or ten in the evening to hammer those last remaining bits out. It’s rigorous. If I had a boss like me, I’d quit.

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Amber Asks: Do you use a cork board and index cards to plot, etc? Also, do you have any special methods for revisions?

If I had an index card for every plot point I’d ever, uh, plotted, I’d end up on one of those reality TV shows like Hoarders, except it would be called Writers, and family members would stage interventions, tearily explaining to their loved one that “I’m just worried that one day I’ll come over and you’ll be buried beneath a pile of outlines. You’ll be buried and YOU’LL BE DEAD!”

Ahem. Sorry. 😛

No no, there are no cork boards or index cards here. All my plotting is done digitally. Just me and the trusty laptop and an occasional glance at the three act story structure to make sure I’m on track (though my stories hardly ever follow that structure, so why I keep looking at it, I’ll never know).

As far as revisions go, I feel like I’ve revised my way of revising as I’ve settled into my writerly shoes. Early on, I’d simply jump into revisions like a bad swimmer, deathly afraid of drowning in the middle of the process. Now, I’m able to disconnect from my work and look at it from a purely critical standpoint. I know that sounds weird–how does an author disconnect from their own work?–but you learn to do it over time. The more you write, the less of what you write feels like some epic miraculous wonder. After you write your first novel, you think “my god, this is a glorious masterpiece! I must show all the people!” After you write your sixth, it’s much less “this is incredible” and more like a notch in the bedpost. That sort of evolution really does allow you to disengage from your work as an author and look at it as a reader. At this point, I’m able to dissect my story in a pretty clinical way. I step back and ask myself what the story is about, who the characters are and why they’re important. I look at the work chapter by chapter and scene by scene, making sure that every action is advancing the plot or giving the reader some new insight. If it isn’t advancing or explaining anything, I cut it.

Before submitting my fourth novel to my editor, I ran through it one last time just to check for continuity, grammar, etc. I ended up cutting ten thousand words… and I didn’t cut a single scene. Those words were unnecessary filler, stuff that I cut by restructuring sentences and tightening action and dialogue. And not a tear was shed.

Andrew Asks: Do you work from an outline? Do you plan the “scares” or do they just sort of happen?

I used to be a “pantser”, but no more. My last manuscript was a disaster. I had so many problems with it. First, I wanted to do way too much with it, and the story got so muddled I ended up confusing myself–a bad sign if there ever was one. So I had to stop and revise my story idea, and basically had to go back and rewrite half-way through the first draft. And then I got lost again along the way, which, you can imagine, was pretty depressing and infuriating all at once. I was so exhausted by the end of the whole thing that I ended up sending the manuscript to my editor anyway, knowing fully well that he’d come back with a “what the hell is this?” response. But at that point I really needed some outside input. I was so stuck inside this story that I couldn’t find my way out, and I needed advice… any advice, even if it was a firm “this sucks and here’s why.”  After I talked it over with him, I suddenly saw the story clearly. I went back, and I plotted the whole thing out like I’d never plotted anything before. Scene by friggin’ scene. And suddenly a crappy, confused manuscript turned into quite the opposite.

After that (terrible, horrible, godawful, nightmarish) experience, I resolved to never ever write without not only an outline, but a scene-by-scene outline. It’s a daunting task and it takes a  hell of a long time, but I’d much rather stress out about an outline than stress out about a manuscript that simply isn’t working sixty-five thousand words in. Seriously, I’m still traumatized.

As far as planning scares, I don’t feel like I really write that kind of stuff. A planned scare to me is like a jump scare in a movie. My favorite type of scare is one that makes you more and more uncomfortable as time goes on–the further you read, the more creeped out you get.

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Tim Asks: What would be a good way to get started (in the industry)? I though about posting some stories to free websites like Scribd and Fictionpress and then just kind of promoting the heck out them on Twitter and Facebook. What do you think?

You know what I champion? Self-publishing. (Who would have thought, huh?) If you have material and you’re confident that it’s polished enough to solicit to agents and/or publishers, then publish it yourself. Why post on free websites when you can put it up on Amazon and make a few pennies in the process? Stick it up there for $.99, then promote the hell out of it. See, the trick is that when you publish something for profit, even if it’s for a measly $.33 on the dollar, it forces you to respect your audience. It’s easy to shrug stuff off if you put your work up for free, because heeey… take it easy, guys! It’s free. What do you want, quality? Except yes! That is what you want. Without quality, you can try to get your foot in the door until that foot is sticking out of your coffin and they’re lowering you six feet into the ground, and you’ll still get rejections taped to your tombstone. (Imagine it: rejection even in death.) Light a fire under yourself, hold yourself to a higher standard. Self-publish your work and dare to call yourself a published author–there’s pressure there, and that’s a very good thing.

Trina Asks: My 13 year old wants to be a writer. What can we do now to help him with that?

The only thing you can do is what I’m sure you’re already doing. Be supportive, tell your kid that if they want to be a writer, that’s absolutely doable. But also be realistic. The writing industry is harsh, and Momma’s praises will only go so far. Push your kid to read a wide variety of books–if your son loves sci-fi and fantasy, push him to read outside of his comfort zone once in a while. Encourage him to join a critique group online, where he’ll be able to get far more honest advice on his writing than you can give (sorry Mom, that’s just the truth). Check to see if there are writing workshops in your area that he can attend during the summer, invest in craft books and industry magazines that will encourage him to evaluate his own creative process.

But here’s a dose of harsh reality: if your kiddo wants to be a writer, beyond your encouragement, you can’t do much. Writing is a lifestyle almost more than it is a career. You have to love to do it because it’s hard, and sometimes it’s cruel, and every so often it leaves you wondering what the hell you were thinking when you decided this writing thing was a good idea. Being any kind of an artist is a very personal decision. If your son ends up writing for the rest of his life, fantastic… but maybe he won’t, and that’s okay too, because this lifestyle isn’t for everyone.

My parents weren’t supportive of my choice to be a writer. I actually moved out of the house because of their outrage when I switched my major from psychology to English. But as you can see, that didn’t stop me. Sometimes it seems that we artistic types end up following the right side of our brains regardless of the circumstances. Be confident in knowing that supporting your child’s desire to be creative is enough. The rest is up to him.

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2 thoughts on “On Writing: Questions from Twitter & Facebook

  1. Very cool! Sounds like our process is similar in some ways. I tend to plot novels in a borderline obsessive way myself. Short stories? Not so much.

    I asked out of curiosity, but also because I’m thinking of how to approach my own horror novels when the time comes. I have written a full length fantasy novel, but not a horror novel, only shorts. I didn’t think you planned the scares, because they seemed to come about organically. Thanks for answering 🙂

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