Day 9: Back in the saddle

The fog has lifted, my mind is clear, and so today I returned to school. I’d been absent a while, so it took some time to get back into the swing of things. Today I was only able to get about 1,000 words in. They were—at times—dull, uninspired words, but at least they moved the story along. I hope.

Today’s struggle involved the Hero. Who is this guy? What’s his motivation? What would he say and do in these circumstances? I know why he’s doing what he’s doing, but I don’t have a real hold on his personality. I can’t channel his words because I’m not exactly sure who he is. Sometimes I think he’s a been-there-done-that Han Solo kind of guy, and other times I think he’s a slick I-can-get-any-woman-I-want kind of guy. I need to read up on character development to get a lock on this.

What I learned from school today:

1. Writing is hard, and problems crop up everywhere. I thought I’d be motoring along since I had the plot finally figured out, but now Hero is getting all mysterious on me, and I have to take him out to the local bar and get to know him.

2. Any writing is good writing. Since I got sick, the only form of writing that I’ve been able to do is blog posts: they’re short, sweet, to the point and I already have the form figured out. It’s been helpful to see that I can still accomplish some sort of writing while I recuperated.

Here’s hoping for more words tomorrow!

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Day 8: Guest Lecturer Janet Evanovich

Today at the School of Writing Janet Evanovich guest lectured about her writing process from her book How I write. Janet is the author of the very funny and successful Stephanie Plum series. I’m so happy that Cee, my WFF (writing Friend Forever) lent me the book yesterday. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

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All flagged up!

You see, even though I’d been making progress on the story I’d still been worried about What To Do Next and How Was I Going To Get There. I was afraid of getting stuck. Janet shared a very clear, practical process on structure, which really helped me out. She does two things: creates a timeline of the action, and then maps out a storyboard. For class today, I decided to try both as exercises.

Janet’s timeline method is fairly simple:

“I start with the characters. I do a short character sketch for each of my major characters. Next, I pick a location, and then I decide what the crime is going to be.

Once I have those elements down, I make a time line of the action. This means that I know the beginning and the end and a bunch of things that will happen along the way.”

After reading this description, I finished my own timeline. It was only two pages, but my story is going to be shorter, so that was okay. Moving onto storyboarding, which Janet describes this way:

“I have a huge white dry-erase board that hangs on the wall in my office…I map out in a couple of sentences what the physical action is going to be…every now and then, I’ll add what is going to happen in Stephanie’s romantic relationship and sketch in the secondary plot information as well.”

Here’s storyboard excerpt from her book Twelve Sharp:

(Fri) Go to bonds office—interview losers—get Leon James—dinner at parents’ house with Morelli—go to see Lula and band at the Hole—spend night at Morelli’s house

(Sat) Go to bonds office—interview second batch of losers—discover Carmen dead in SUV—get report on Virginia Rangemanoso—go to Ranger’s condo and look in computer files—find photo of Un-Ranger—Ranger waiting in her apt.

(Sun) Wakes up in her apt and Ranger’s there working—go to Newark to canvas neighborhood—take train to Virginia to talk to Carmen’s parents about Carmen’s husband—get info on employment—go to mall—get name/Edward Scrog—go to Scrog’s apt and get computer and scrapbook—drive home—Ranger spends night with Steph.

It was at this point, that I put the book down, rolled my eyes at myself and thought two distinct yet important things:

1.) What happened on that Sunday that Ranger ends up spending the night?! I need to re-read the book again (I’m a Ranger girl all the way.)

2.) Are you kidding me? It’s this easy? I can storyboard. Hell, this isn’t even a storyboard. This is project management. I do this at work all day. Let me at it!

So I marched back to the computer, fired up Google Calendar, printed out three pages of week views, sat down with pencil and paper and created a storyboard in 5 minutes flat. Then I went back to the computer, and fleshed out my timeline with the storyboard. And then for good measure, I typed up the storyboard in the same format as Janet’s, and ended up with even more insights. Completely unstuck! Now all I have to do is to write the scenes that make up the storyboard.

Finally, after all that work, I was ready for a doughnut. Just like Stephanie Plum.

What I learned from school today:

1. Sometimes the writing you do around a story is more important than logging in word counts. It’s still a good day of work if you make progress on the story.

2. I didn’t get the impression that Stephen King broke his story structure down like this, but that’s okay. It’s good to hear perspectives on writing from different authors, and I’m happy to learn from all of them.

Day 7: Breaking the Flow

I may have taken too many days off from writing, as it was hard to get back into the flow today. My day was filled with the tasks of my real job, and when I showed up for class tonight I was tired, distracted, and unable to write in more than 5-10 minute blocks. Took longer than needed to get 1,500 words on the page. Now it’s late and I’m going to call it quits short of my goal. What I need to do is to have a scheduled time to write, rather than to use it as a filler block into the rest of my schedule.

Things I learned from school today:

Characters can sometimes deviate from your prescribed path. My Heroine is supposed to be an uptight list-making, take control kind of gal. But through the King method she’s turning into a shy, nurturing, cooks-too-much-when-she’s nervous kind of gal. I have no idea how she’s going to interact with the Hero now, and I guess he can’t figure it out either because when I left him he seemed pretty confused. Maybe he’ll figure it out by tomorrow after we’ve both had some sleep. Hope he can clue me in!

Stephen King’s Ascent

Over at the blog Study Hacks, Cal Newport has a post about Stephen King, and how he used deliberate practice to increase his skill as a writer.

Deliberate practice is the idea that talent alone doesn’t explain high achievement. In his article Why Talent is Overrated, CNN/Money writer Geoff Colvin explain it like this:

So if specific, inborn talent doesn’t explain high achievement, what does? Researchers have converged on an answer. It’s something they call “deliberate practice,” but watch out – it isn’t what most of us think of as practice, nor does it boil down to a simplistic practice-makes-perfect explanation.

It isn’t just hard work, either. Deliberate practice is a specific and unique kind of activity, neither work nor play. It’s characterized by several elements that together form a powerful whole. The greatest performers have consistently combined these elements, sometimes just by luck.

Read the whole article to find out more about what elements make up deliberate practice, and also check out Cal’s posts on the same to find out more.

I got a big kick out of seeing Cal posting about Stephen King, because after reading both of their work (including Cal’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You) I came up with the idea of the School of Writing experiment. It’s funny to see how it all connects.

Day 5: Breakthrough

What a difference 24 hours can make. Yesterday I was sure that I wouldn’t be writing fluidly until day 24 out of the 30. Today, the characters took over, and one of them did something I never saw coming until I was writing it on the page. And at that moment I thought: I really am just transcribing a story that already exists! Amazing.

So today’s big exercise was pacing. Instead of moving at a fast pace to pound out the required number of words, I slowed down. I took time to see: what was really in the scene? To ask: what would Hero really say at this point? What would be his real reaction? Would that reaction be true and real? And somehow by the end of the word count, the characters were living in the moment and leading the way. Amazing. Hope this is repeatable.

Things I learned from school today:

Guideline 5: Close the door to the space isn’t always going to work for me. I am too extroverted to write alone with the door shut, especially if I’m having the characters interact with each other. I want to talk about what my characters are thinking and doing with someone else, and get immediate feedback. Often times when I get stuck,  the very act of saying something aloud to someone else fixes the problem. (I call this talk therapy.) It was nice to have my husband here to hear me out.

Constantly reading other books inspires and helps me. While I was writing today, ridiculous questions would pop up like: “what’s the best way to write about how this character gets up, checks his inbox, then walks across the room?” or “if she’s thinking to herself for three pages, do I need to write her name every now and then so the reader remembers who she is?” Picking up a published book and seeing how the pros handle these and other ridiculous questions really was a support and comfort.

Day 4: Bait and switch

Today was rough. Eked out 300 words, and then the well ran dry. This is what I’ve learned over the last four days: writing every day is work. Real work—like a JOB. The kind of work where it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel good, or you had a late night, or you’re not at your best. You’ve got a story finish, young lady, get back to work!

This is a surprise because writing is the fantasy I escaped to when my real job got to be too hectic or uncreative. I wish I were writing, I’d think dreamily. Think of all the fun I could be having just sitting in one place, and letting all my characters come to life on the page. 

I may have been confusing writing with reading. (Which by the way, I’m totally awesome at…is there a job where all I have to do is read? Don’t answer that. I don’t want that fantasy ruined, either.)

Okay: writing daily is a job. If I publish a story, I will expect to get paid for the work I did, right? All makes sense. So now that I’ve shaken the fantasy out of writing, the next step is to feel okay about feeling like the awkward new hire that doesn’t know how to run the copier. It’s going to take some time, and some days I’ll be better at it than others. Some days it will just be about learning the ropes, and that can be harder than anything!

Day 2: Pain produced gain

“I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). If you can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably. —From On Writing, page 159.

Yesterday was painful because I did two things:

  1. Start my story, and;
  2. write with the King method instead of the Angie method.

Yesterday, the Angie method wanted to dominate. The Angie method is painful. You sit in front of the blank screen, crinkle your brow and try to think of just the perfect words to say. Once you’ve got that figured out, you painstakingly tap each perfect word onto the keyboard, checking all the way to make sure it’s still good. It’s a laborious and inefficient process for a first draft because you’re always second guessing yourself, or stopping to make things better.

The King method—as I have interpreted it—is this:

  1. You say, “What if?”
  2. And then you say, “and then what happened?”
  3. And then you write down what happened.

Much, much easier. With the King method, I’m not worrying about perfection in the first draft, I’m only concerned about getting the story out.

Yesterday morning, my first 500 words were painful because I was doing the Angie method and fighting the King method. By mid afternoon I was getting better at the King method, and by late afternoon I was comfortable with it.

Today, I just relaxed and followed the King method all the way. I got out my next 2,000 words fairly painlessly. Before I knew it, Mr. Muse showed up and he gave me:

  • a great name for the story
  • motive for two of the main character’s actions
  • a sweet backstory

I will sum up today’s writing experiencing with the two words that are scrawled up on a sticky note by my writing space: practice imperfection.

The things I learned from school today:

I can’t write in one big block. It just isn’t possible. I need physical and mental breaks to get my mind off of what’s going on. The best thing I can manage is 20 minute intervals, probably because I use the Pomodoro Technique for a lot of my deep work.

If you have digital ADHD like I do, it’s a great way to get immersed in deep work, while allowing yourself some leeway. Cue video: