Writer vs Distraction, Round 478.

You’re reading this post, but you’re also checking Twitter. And Facebook. And maybe Reddit? How about G+? (Heh, just kidding.) Perhaps there’s a link suggesting that you click to discover the 14 best celebrity butts. Or how this corgi will make you weep with joy. Are any of those things helping you get writing done?

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Seriously, you do have about 12 windows open on your screen RIGHT NOW. Either that, or you’re caught in the Spiral of Despair, where you check each Social Media Thingy in succession–clicky, clicky, clicky—-until you realize none of those things is going to fill the void in your soul and none of those things will help you write the thing you need to write.

I know this is true because you’re a human living in 2014. Well, buck up, friends. There’s a solution. It’s called turning off the internet!

Yes, yes. Easier said than done. Yet this problem of infinite distraction is so well recognized that people are writing books about it (presumably, they did so after turning off their own internet). At least one person, Michael Harris, has started a thing called Analog August, and I think it’s worth a try.

The overall concept is broader than just reducing distraction, but you have to start somewhere. The less you look at the many, many screens you own, the healthier you’ll feel. The less distracted and stressed you’ll be. The more TIME you’ll have. And the more brain power you can pour into creative projects such as writing.

Based on this idea, I’ve come up with a few ideas for analog newbies, or just peeps who want to stop wasting time digitally,. Throughout the month of August (or whatever month you stumble upon this), try to teach yourself to do at least one of these things:

  • Check your email at predetermined times. Do it at the beginning of the day to check if you need to act on any work/personal emergencies, after lunch, and in the last hour of your work. Only respond to emails during those times. Tell people they might have to wait a few hours for an answer. Imagine them swooning.
  • Turn off all your notifications. Those little beeps and red dots are turning you into Pavlov’s dog, slavering at a cue but rarely getting a tangible benefit for all your devotion.
  • Put. The phone. Down. Walk away. Take a breath. Here’s a secret: the internet is gonna be fine without you for a while. Hours, even.
  • Tell yourself the computer is a tool, not a connector. Turn off the internet (or use an app like Freedom, if you need help). Then just….write your thing. Don’t click away from the writing app. Just write. When you need a break, don’t go to Facebook. Just stare out a window and imagine what Jack Kerouac/Jane Austen/Stephen King would do about the next chapter.
  • Go full analog. That means pen and paper. Write down your ideas. Draw a mind map. Doodle. You may find that you can retrain your mind to make new connections. There’s also something pretty cool about rediscovering whether you have good handwriting or not (Fact: I do not).
  • Turn of your TV/screen/shiny device and read a paper book. If you’re like me, you still have a stack of really real books to be read. Yes, even if you love your Kindle. So go pick one up and start reading.
  • Put away your devices and talk to a human who has also put away their device. Crazy? YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

These are just examples of ways to unlearn your addiction to digital stuff. Some of them are tougher than others. Some require more thoughtful ways of going through your day. But the main point is to realign your priorities so you are not at the beck and call of your devices. Make them work for you. And also, there is a world outside the digital. Live in it. It’s a pretty neat place.

 

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

The Deadline: Set It and Don’t Forget It

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I just joined a book club. One of my main motivations to do so was because I already owned all the requisite books, but they’d just been sitting on my shelves, some for years. Life is busy, and I found many reasons and excuses to put off leisure time reading. But I just finished the first book for the first meeting, and it felt like a real accomplishment!

I know, I know. It’s just a book. But it still felt good. And I know that the reason I actually finished it was because I’d have to discuss it at the meeting. In other words, I had a deadline.

Sometimes, we need a little outside pressure to get things done, even if they’re things we want to do and love to do (like reading a fun book, or writing a fun book). As nearly all writers know, it’s very easy to say “I’ve got such a great story in my head! I’m going to write it someday!” And of course, someday never comes.

So don’t write someday. Write every day. Write on Tuesday. Write 500 words this Wednesday. Do it again on Thursday. Maybe on your lunch break. Keep doing that. Make it real. Make it banal. Make it a habit. By setting specific goals, you remove the misty someday from your work and you, well, get to work. Set a reasonable deadline and stick to it.

And here’s the second part of the plan: you make your deadline by making yourself accountable. How?

  • Make your goal public.
  • Post your daily word count on your blog or Twitter or wherever.
  • Tell your writing group what your goal is, and ask them to follow up when the deadline hits.
  • Don’t have a writing group? Find a writing buddy online through a group or a forum.
  • Participate in NaNoWriMo or something like it.

Choose whatever method works, and do it. Remember, your accountability buddies don’t have to read what you write. They just have to be the voices saying “Send me that file so I can see your word count” or “Remember when you said you we’re submitting that piece by the 30th? Well, it’s the 30th. Where did you submit it?”

The public nature of this exchange should be enough to spur you to get moving on your project. (If you still blow deadlines, raise the stakes. Miss a deadline? Pay your writing buddy $5, pay for your group’s monthly coffee tab, etc. Make it hurt…within your means, of course.)

Working to a deadline can make us dreamy, creative types nervous. Don’t you have to wait for inspiration?

No. No, you don’t.

The Muse is not a fairy to be coaxed from the aether with manna or honey or freshly-squoze brambleberry juice. The Muse is a sly ferret to be chased down and force-fed espresso until she chatters out all her inspiration into your brain and your laptop. Remind your muse that no one gets paid until you publish, and the clock’s ticking.

The deadline is your ally. Use it.

Now go write.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

 

 

 

Frozen – How to Beat the Blank Page!

What do you do when you sit down in front of that blank piece of paper, blank screen, or partially complete manuscript and you have nothing, I mean NOTHING to say? Let’s face it, this is an experience we’ve all had as writers, especially fiction writers. Whether you’re just starting a story or smack in the middle of it, we’ve all frozen up.

shutterstock_63759181And after the freezing comes the fear:

  • Is this story wrong?
  • Will I ever have a good idea again?
  • Do I just suck as a writer?

After years of writing, I’ve found the source of my deep freeze usually stems from two areas:

1. Am I missing something I need to know about my world?

  • This applies both to realistic and fantastic fiction, though your approach to answering that question may differ. For example, in a recent, non-speculative fiction novel, I had to write a scene about a man who was having a heart attack. The story was set in modern day, but characters had neither a working cell phone nor a landline telephone. I had a number of characters on the scene, one who was trained in CPR. My story got stuck rather quickly because I needed some basic information: (a) how long could a person be under CPR before being reasonably revived (b) how long a person could perform CPR without succumbing to exhaustion (c) how far the runner would need to go in order to find someone with a working cell-phone? A bit of research into the terrain and the intricacies of CPR and I was good to go!
  • The same thing can apply more deeply. For example, is your magical system unclear? What do people eat in your world, what are the obligations of a host to a guest, how long does it take to travel from village A to B and etc. Sometimes the answer is just learning more about your world, whatever it is. The danger of this, of course, is spending the next two weeks playing the research game. So how do you escape this trap? For me, I always ask myself, what is the minimum I need to know to write the scene? Get specific. For example, I need to know what the obligation of a host is to a particular guest, but only insofar as it’s relevant to the scene at hand. I can fill in the rest later, should it become relevant. The more important a detail is to your story, the more you need to fill it in, but if it’s a minor thing, don’t spend more than a ten or fifteen minutes looking/making it up.

So how do get yourself unfrozen when faced with a world building problem? Here is my favorite site for developing my world: Patricia Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions. It is VERY detailed, and I don’t start with doing everything here, but I try to touch on the high points as I like to have a fair amount of worldbuilding done before I start writing. I also find that these questions apply just as well to science fiction as to fantasy worlds.

LINK: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

2. Am I missing something I need to know about a character in the scene?

  • Main character: Is there something important that I don’t “know” about my main character that I need to know in order to start this story/write this scene? Do I know enough about this person’s past in order to understand her present? Do I have a good feel for her voice?
  • Supporting Characters: Is there something I need to know about non-main character in the scene? I especially love to ask this of minor characters. What’s the butler’s story? How about that kid in the corner shining shoes? The fool? The family dog? The most important question for me about minor characters is “what do they want?” Either that or, “what is their secret”. Both of these are fun. Even something as simple as the man serving wine wants to get back to the kitchen and see his  boyfriend gives me some idea of how he’s acting in the scene. His boyfriend is the main character’s brother makes things even more fun.

So how do you learn more about your characters? For me, the best method for finding out what I’m missing is to do a character journal. If it’s a main character, I’ve generally done a character journal either before I start the book or at least somewhere in Chapter 1. But for minor characters, I may not know anything about them at all. So my first step is to look at each minor character and ask myself, “What are you doing in this scene? Why are you here?” and most importantly, “What do you want?” or “what is your secret?” Usually my instincts for this are pretty good, and it only takes 1-2 characters for me to find out who the important (seemingly unimportant) person in the scene is. Once I know who this person is, what they want, and what they’re hiding, the scene usually gets unstuck rather quickly and it’s full speed ahead!

My favorite resource for character journaling is in Alice Orr’s book No More Rejections. I’ve used the character journaling techniques in this book for over a decade and they’ve work for me. What I like about her approach is that you answer the question in the first person and there are many questions like, “I think my best feature is ____” which allows you to really get into the psychology of how the character feels about herself as opposed to merely a physical list of traits. I’ve applied this approach to character lists I’ve found for free online, but hers is the best, in my opinion.

LINK: http://www.amazon.com/No-More-Rejections-Secrets-Manuscript/dp/1582972850/

So that’s my approach, first I check my world, and then I check my characters. What do you do to get unstuck? Feel free to post in the comments below.

Favorite Podcasts for Writers

The last post from me covered favorite writing tools. But I forgot one tool: podcasts! So here is the extra special bonus podcast post.

Since I’m mostly alone–all day, every day–I like to listen to other voices. But TV is pure distraction for me. I can’t have it on in the background, and I’ve never been able to think well when looking at multiple screens.

Podcasts are different. The best ones are like listening in on the conversations of smart, helpful people. The fact that they’re all strangers doesn’t matter. I have several must-listen podcasts (Welcome to Nightvale! Roderick on the Line!). But here I’ll just mention three that apply most to writers.

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The Rocking Self Publishing Podcast: This is the most relevant one on the list (since I’m a writer who self-publishes). Simon Whistler finds guests who represent a variety of perspectives to discuss many aspects of writing: working creatively, managing output, publishing, marketing, etc. Some names you might recognize: Hugh Howey, Johanna Penn, Russell Blake, and others. Each show addresses one specific topic–but even those that might not seem to apply to everyone (non-fiction writing, for example, which I don’t do) still offer great advice that’s broadly applicable to writing and publishing. Simon does his homework, asks great questions, and stays on point. For added value, he’s British, which makes the show exactly 28% smarter just because of the accent. (That’s how that works, right?)

Why not start by listening to this one about not looking to outliers (with Hugh Howey)?

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Back to Work: This is not a podcast on writing or publishing, but it is loosely geared toward the idea of working. If that sounds vague to you, you are so right. Though the show is nominally about productivity, the two hosts, Dan and Merlin, get derailed by any number of important topics: comic books, music, parenting, germ theory, or the sociological experiment that is Florida. But it’s funny as hell, and Merlin usually manages to pull himself together by the end to deliver a practical mediation on some topic germane to the concept of work. Often it’s about office work, dealing with management, or deciding what work you want to do with your life. But some episodes also cover more esoteric issues like agency or creativity. Merlin excels at taking all those nebulous ideas about work that we’ve all had, and then nailing down the core of them so they can’t wiggle off the examining table and back into the dark recesses of our minds before we’ve at least identified the problem. Dan will then diffidently explain how the Buddha approached the same issue. And did I mention the comic books? They talk about comic books. A LOT.

Why not start by listening to this one about the Vocational Wheel?

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Homework: Another show on the trusty 5by5 network, Homework is what Back to Work might be if Dan and Merlin actually stayed on topic (except for the mandatory 5by5 comic book aside, which is here too). Not just a clever name, Homework is literally a podcast about working from home, and therefore is useful for anyone who does any sort of freelancing or creative solo work. Most of the episodes take on a very specific topic. Workspace! Sleeping habits! Scheduling! Billing! Accounting! For writers, not all topics will be relevant. But if you self-publish, you are a small business owner, so most of it is stuff you’ve worried about. Aaron and Dave are delightful nerds who want to help.

Why not start by listening to this one about working for exposure?

If you’re a writer like me–or if you enjoy comic books–check out a few episodes of these podcasts. Do you have any other podcasts you find useful as a writer or worker? Share it in the comments…

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

Favorite Writing Tools

Today, I want to share some real nuts and bolts writing stuff. Below, I’m going to talk about my top five writing tools. Not all of these will work for everyone, but if nothing else, I hope it make you think about your own writing process and how you can improve it (and we can always improve, no matter how good we are).

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Byword: I love Byword. It’s a distraction-free writing app, and it really is just that—tons of white space, and very little in the way of features (it only works on iThings, but there are similar programs for PCs). It’s the app I open in the early stages of a project. Byword is designed to keep you in the present moment. Lines of text fade from black to pale grey just as soon as you complete them. It encourages you to just keep writing—not to reread or critique what you’ve just done. I find that writing thousands of words is almost effortless with Byword. After I have that first chunk of the story down, I’ll transfer it to Pages or another more complex writing app (Scrivener, Ulysses, etc) to deal with the text there. Byword is unwieldy for detailed editing of large pieces. But for pure “get ‘er done” free writing, it’s fantastic.

Duotrope: I am not particularly good at record keeping on my own (read: I suck at it), so Duotrope is a perfect tool for me. With it, I can track my story submissions in a tidy, efficient way. As a bonus, the Duotrope database of market listings is extremely handy (though definitely not comprehensive). Since starting with Duotrope, I have a much better handle on my submissions process. I’m able to strategize which markets to aim for by type (pro, semi-pro, etc, for example), and to know which markets are open for submissions and when. I’m way smarter about timeliness too—when I get a rejection, I simply log it and submit the story to the next market on my list. In a way, Duotrope makes me more professional and less…um, emotional about my submissions. And that’s well worth it. Duotrope is usable for free, but much more of its functionality kicks in when you subscribe. (Caveat: Duotrope is geared to toward writers who will be submitting pieces to other markets. If you’re only writing novels, say, or if you’re self-publishing everything you do, Duotrope probably isn’t for you.)

RescueTime: I started using this app earlier this year. I was hesitant to install it, because I’m wary of “metrics”. So often crunchy data look impressive but tell you absolutely nothing useful. But RescueTime has improved my awareness of my work habits in a real way. It tracks everything you do on your computer and simply records it (with the paid version, you can set RescueTime to block the internet and other distractions for a set amount of time as well). It’s best to install RescueTime and then forget you installed it for a week or so. Don’t change your habits—just let RescueTime watch you work (Hal-like) and get some data collected. Then you can start looking at all the pretty charts RT generates. It’s eye-opening. You’ll see exactly how many minutes you spend in your writing applications, as well as email and individual websites. I was surprised to discover that I didn’t spend nearly as much time of Facebook as I thought (it only feels like forever). However, I spent way more time reading news articles of dubious import (click bait, anyone?). On the bright side, RT posts encouraging notes when you hit positive goals.

Timer: as in, an actual timer. Sometimes it helps to have that outside reminder that the clock is literally ticking. I don’t use a timer every day. But when I’m having a terrible time focusing, I’ll set the timer for fifteen minutes and say “I’m just going to write for fifteen minutes. DEAD PEOPLE can write for fifteen minutes.” That short, targeted goal often helps to break me out of my focus funk. And when the timer dings, I just crank it again…or keep on writing, if my practice has kicked in. Personally, I like those old-fashioned timers that simply go ding at the end. However, any timer app can work just fine. The point is letting yourself be ruled by the timer long enough to get you in the flow.

Tea: Yeah, I’m getting real high tech here. A near constant supply of tea is invaluable for my writing, and not just for the caffeine. The warm mug is so useful for de-chilling fingers that just typed 1000 words! The comforting aroma of Barry’s, or Yorkshire Gold, or PG Tips (all bagged—I’m no aristocrat, people) definitely helps put me in a proper mindset to write. Also, it does have that nice caffeine…[Jocelyn heads off to make another cup of tea]

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Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.