Writing Habits: Set a ‘Trigger’

According to countless articles all over the web, habits are supposed to be automatic. Once you start and execute a new part of your routine for a month or two, it becomes easier to continue than to quit, so they say. If you’re anything like me, this hasn’t necessarily proved true for you. I’ve never reached a stage where a habit, even ones I’ve pushed through for over a year, started running on autopilot.

So I was skeptical when I came across a slightly different approach to the “write every day” refrain: instead of scheduling a certain time for writing, set up another action to use as a ‘trigger’ before starting. The idea is that it will help shift your brain into the right mindset for writing once you teach it this new pattern of cause and effect. As this great article on the neuroscience of writer’s block explains it: “If you light an orange-blossom candle or brew a pot of Café Verona prior to each writing session, and never at other times, neuroscience suggests that within three weeks, the scent of orange blossoms or taste of coffee will trigger the urge to write.”

I decided to give it a go. I bought a candle and committed to lighting it just before I started drafting, in hopes that my brain would come to associate that act, and eventually the scent of the candle, with writing. Other ideas for ‘triggers’ might be playing a certain song, wearing a certain hat, or signing yourself in using a Clock In app.

The shocker: it works! After just a few sessions, I noticed that it was easier to get into the flow of writing after performing the ‘trigger.’ My theory is that it works well for me due to my specific flavor of writer’s blockthat is, emotional regulation issues and OCD. The physical ritual of lighting the candle helps me let go of whatever thoughts or emotions are tossing around in my head at that time and give myself permission to move into a different mindset. Similarly, blowing out the candle after the session helps me let go of whatever emotions came up during the drafting process, itself. Overall, this new habit smoothes out the transitions, which for me, are perhaps the hardest part of being a writer.

If you’re habit-resistant, I’d suggest experimenting from this angle and trying to find a ‘trigger’ or ritual that works for you. The more you can uncover the underlying issues and fears holding you back, the more you can find unique ways of getting your brain to cooperate with itself.

Dialogue Only Read-Throughs

I’ve been doing a lot of editing this month (on my own projects, on freelance projects, and on submissions to my literary magazine). While there seems to be a split between authors who prefer working with description and those who prefer writing dialogue, I land on the former side of that canyon. If you’re like me, I’ve found dialogue-only read-throughs of a scene to serve as a helpful trick.

That is, read through a scene from beginning to end while ignoring everything that isn’t dialogue.

Does the flow of conversation make sense even without any clarifying description or internal monologue?

Are the voices distinct enough that you can tell who’s speaking without reading the tags?

Does the conversation advance at a natural pace?

Do any ideas or topics seem to repeat?

Sometimes, it’s easier to catch these issues while temporarily tuning out everything else. Give it a try if you’re looking to level-up your dialogue!

Clocked In

Hey all, I’m going to start off this year’s tip posts with a simple technique that’s so far helped me keep my own writing habit resolutions.

For 2019, I resolved to work (as in write, edit, outline, or market) for at least two, two-hour-long sessions each weekday. This way, I’m putting proper part-time work hours into my writing. The hardest part of this has been making the mindset shift. The best way to make that shift? Actually treating my writing career like any other job.

In order to keep myself accountable and get myself into the head space for work, I’ve been using a clock in app whenever I sit down at my desk. A quick search on any app store will lead to many apps to choose from, but I personally like Clock Punch, as it works well for just one person and lets me track what I’m focusing on for each shift. This way, I can set individual hourly goals for certain tasks when the need arises.

When I report to work, I act just as I would if I were at a salaried position. While clocked in, I don’t allow myself to check social media, play games, or do anything else I wouldn’t do if I had a manager to report to. I still do have one, in fact – my manager is myself. Anything outside of writing can wait.

After all, I’m on the clock.

If you give this technique a try yourself, let me know how it goes! What are your writing resolutions this year? Have you found any tools that help you make them happen?

Writer’s Block Kit

(Story Craft: Every 3rd week of the month, I’ll post writing/editing techniques that I’ve personally found useful.)

While we all experience it for different reasons, writer’s block is a universal experience for anyone who commits words to the page. Sometimes we might be unable to focus due to other events going on in our lives, sometimes we might be writing an emotional scene we’re not quite sure we’re ready for, and other times still we might simply be unsure about what plot developments should unfold next. There are countless reasons why we might put off putting down words, but regardless of where your blocks tend to come from, here are some techniques for breaking through them that I’ve personally found useful:

Capitalize on your Imagination for Inspiration

  • Deeply visualize the current scene using all of your senses. Walk through a few moments of life in that scene. Experience it.
  • Imagine you are a character within the current scene – how do you feel mentally, physically, and emotionally in the current moment?
  • Roleplay (even if just in your head) as one of your characters in your present moment – how do you feel mentally, physically, and emotionally in the current moment?
  • Imagine asking the characters what they want to do next, and their response.
  • Imagine what might happen between the scenes in your story – in the moments without conflict, when the characters are simply living their lives. What does this say about the characters and the world? Can any of these ideas inform existing scenes or start new ones?

Consider Story Structure/Brainstorm

  • Put yourself in your ideal reader’s place. What would they want to happen next? What would they expect? What would surprise them? What happens to each of these ideas when you subvert them to their opposite?
  • What narrative role does the current scene serve? What goals are you trying to accomplish by writing it? What is the most important thing a reader needs to take away from this scene? How can you emphasize this in the scene?
  • What goals does each character have in the scene? How can these goals drive the events?
  • Conflict moves plot. What internal or external obstacle, however minor, is your POV character trying to overcome in this specific scene? If there isn’t one, can you add more conflict to drive the events?
  • Sometimes a change in pacing is what the story needs to build momentum. If the story’s recent events have been low intensity, is there a way you can ramp up the intensity in this scene, or vice versa?

Free/Speed Write

  • Free write about the scene you’re stuck on, working through your worries and letting out whatever ideas pop into your head.
  • Free write about entertaining or interesting moments that take place in the unwritten spaces between the scenes in your story.
  • Free write about why you love the project you’re working on and why you want to finish it.
  • Try setting a timer for 5 minutes, and in that time, continue to write your scene without stopping, even if the words coming out are drivel. Think of it almost like an attack on the block. Move the plot forward no matter what it takes. There will be time to edit later. After the timer goes off, take a breather for at least 2 minutes, then if you’re still stuck, set it again and repeat the process. Software that forces you to write without stopping can help. It can also be fun to check how many words you wrote in each 5 minute session and jot down your “high score” – then try to beat it!
  • You can use a similar process to the above with the longer, more relaxed Pomodoro Technique, which uses 25 minute work sessions and 5 minute breaks. Sometimes the simple promise of a break can help ease the tension of working through a block.

Change up the Environment

  • Listen to different background music.
  • Meditate for 3 – 5 minutes.
  • Stand up for 1 – 3 minutes.
  • Grab a snack.
  • Move from your current position to a new environment. For example, if you’re writing at home, try taking off to a cafe or library to work, or perhaps sitting with a notebook in a park for a while. Even something as simple as moving from a couch to a desk, or vice versa, can help.

Take a Break!

  • Sometimes you’re simply overtired, burned out, need some time to think, or occupied by other responsibilities, and that’s okay. Write a few ideas in brackets at the place of the block if you can – even if they’re iffy – then take your mind off writing. Make sure to get some rest too: our minds mull over ideas subconsciously when they aren’t busy, so the new insight you need might just pop into your head when you least expect it, so long as you give your thoughts some breathing room.

Of course, there comes a point where if you want to break through a block, then all there is to it is to keep on writing. Release yourself not just from your inner editor, but from the imagined expectations of your future audience, and get the first draft done. Editing comes later. All you have to do now is tell yourself the story.

“It’s very hard to tell, at the end of your writing day, whether you’ve done great work or bad work. The quality of the writing is hard to judge until you’ve had some sleep and got some perspective on it. And the more I learn about the writing process, the more I suspect that there is no such thing as a bad day at the keyboard.

The good days are when you perform; the slow days are when you learn to perform better. The only bad days as a writer are the ones when you are too cowardly or too lazy to sit down at the keyboard and give it everything you have.”
— Chris Cleave

7 Tips for NaNoWriMo

(Tip Thursday: Every other Thursday (or so), I’ll post writing/editing tips that I’ve personally found useful.)

Camp-2018-Writer-Profile-Photo

 

It’s time to head back to Camp (NaNoWriMo) for July. In fact, today marks the end of the first week. Here are a few tips for participating writers looking to quickly grow their word counts.

 

  1. If you’ve participated in NaNoWriMo before, you’ve probably heard of word sprints: choosing a fifteen minute slot (usually using notations such as on the :00 or :30, etc, to account for timezone differences online) and competing with other writers to see who can write the most during that time. However, even if you can’t find sprinting partners, word sprints can still be useful if you play against yourself for the “high score”. Set a timer for fifteen minutes or so and see how many words you can write! Record your current record and try to beat it.
  2. Similarly, some writers like the Pomodoro Technique: working nonstop in sets of 25 minutes with 5 minute rest breaks in between.
  3. If you really need an extra push to shut down the inner editor and keep on writing, sites like The Most Dangerous Writing App or Write or Die, which penalize you by deleting words if you hesitate, can be useful.
  4. While writing, elongate descriptions as much as you can. A few big paragraphs do wonders for the word count. If you’re like me and tend to underwrite the first draft, this can actually end up being beneficial in the long run, too. Remember to focus on all five senses, rather than just sight, and on both the external and internal worlds.
  5. Unless it’s absolutely vital, don’t get caught up in choosing names or conducting research during the first draft. Just leave [Friend’s Name] or a similar tag in the text if you run into a spot where you’re not sure what to put down and come back to it during the second draft. You can even replace whole scenes with temporary stubs – for example, [Jacob and Julie have an argument about when to leave for the hospital] – if you get stuck on one.
  6. Even if you’re more of a pantser, try the headlights method of outlining – that is, try planning out content for just the next chapter or so. This gives you an opportunity to focus on the story as separate from the act of writing, which in turn frees up time to focus on simply getting the words down as fast as you can later. After all, writer’s block most commonly comes from two sources – a lack of motivation to write or not knowing what happens next in the plot. Having a plan – even a loose, subject to change, short-term one – helps with both of these obstacles.
  7. Keep a physical or digital notebook on hand. If you run into a problem, like a plot hole or an inconsistency, write it down rather than worrying about fixing it now. If your word processor has a comment function, it can be useful for the same purpose. You can also simply highlight any sections you know will need editing later, then give yourself permission to put them out of your mind for now. Don’t come back to your comments or notes until the second draft. Keep moving forward.

Are you participating in Camp this month? Feel free to share your progress or any of your own tips in the comments.

Denying Distractions

I’d wager that most authors would name distractions as productivity’s biggest enemy, particularly the siren song of the internet. Here are a few tips, and some helpful resources, to help combat common distractions:

Distraction-Free Word Processors

There are some pretty complex, fully-featured options out there as far as word processors go. Programs like Scrivener and Liquid Story Binder offer a ton of powerful features that not only help you write your words, but outline the story, do you research, search through dictionaries and thesauruses, check your spelling, mark-up your edits, and organize and format everything. Even Microsoft Word and comparable office suites come with a slew of features. While these features are great when its time to outline and edit, I sometimes find that these features can be distracting, in and of themselves, during the drafting process. They also bring out the perfectionist in me, and I sometimes spend as much time organizing and cross-checking everything with my notes and research as I do actually pounding words out of the keyboard.

If you have similar tendencies, I’d highly suggest trying out a simple, dedicated word processor, just for the drafting process. There are plenty of options out there that are purposely minimal – designed to put as little buffer as possible between you and the page, staying out of the way and leaving you alone with your words.

My personal favorite right now is Dark Room. It’s a simple, free, full-screen word processor with just the right amount of features. You can set your margins, the color and font of the background and text to fit your preferences or your story (it’s styled like an old electronic typewriter by default, which I kind of love, since that was originally what I used when I first started writing – on those things, you had nothing to do but write), and, fortunately for us Wrimos, it still has a word counter! It’s immersive and distraction-free. Other options are the similar WriteRoom (for Mac), the meditative Ommwriter, or the slightly more complex WriteMonkey.

I was surprised how much using such minimalist software actually helped me focus. I don’t think it’s just that it removes the common word-processor distractions, so much as that it somehow makes the drafting process itself much more engrossing, and hence helps soften the call of other, outside distractions, as well.

Internet/Distraction Blockers

Most of the time, however, the biggest distractions don’t come from inside the word software, but from all the other temptations floating around inside our computers. The internet. Games. Videos. Email. Social media. If you need a little extra willpower when it comes to resisting these things, internet and distraction blockers can help.

One program tailored towards writers is Stop Procrastinating, a desktop app that lets you choose whether to block only specific websites, or your internet connection entirely for a certain amount of time. It also lets you set goals, and track how you did. This software isn’t free, but it’s what I typically use, and I’ve found it to be quite helpful on those days when I just don’t have the willpower to leave the internet alone. There are also some free tools out there, as well.

Another interesting option is the free Writer’s Block. A minimalist, full-screen word-processor like those described earlier, Writer’s Block also blocks not just the internet, but the rest of the programs on your computer, and literally will not quit until you’ve either written a set amount of words, or for a set amount of time, which you choose at the start of each session. It clings to your desktop and leaves you with no choice but to complete your goals to get rid of it. It won’t even let you trick it by copy and pasting! It’s a militaristic tool that could work perfectly for those times when you’ve just got to hit a certain daily quota.

Music and Sound

There are also distractions that come from outside the computer entirely. In particular, other people.

I used to prefer writing in silence, without music, but given that I live with other people, silence is a pretty scarce resource. I’ve recently found that it often works much better to put on some noise-blocking headphones and drown out the world with background music. Personally, I find lyrics distracting, so I stick entirely with instrumental pieces, usually electronica or classical. Spotify, and its playlists, are a great free resource for this.

If you absolutely cannot concentrate with music on, though, there are also plenty of free background noise generators out there, offering nature sounds, rain, or simply white noise.

Physical Prevention

One often overlooked method of avoiding distractions is also perhaps the most straightforward: make it physically impossible for them to reach you. If the internet is your downfall, then take a laptop, or even a paper notebook, and go sit outside somewhere, where there is no Wi-Fi, or simply disconnect your router all together for a while. If computer programs and games in general are a problem, have one device that you use only for writing, and absolutely nothing else (I have one old netbook that is such a piece of crap that I couldn’t use it for anything but writing even if I wanted to…and it’s actually a great productivity tool!). If there are too many people around or too much ambient noise, then move somewhere else, where you can be alone. If the weather outside is simply too nice to stay indoors, then go ahead and sit in the sun with your draft. Coffee shops and parks are also great places to hide from the typical distractions of the home. Besides, I often find that changing the scene helps generate some fresh inspiration.

Anyway, I hope that someone finds these tips and tools useful for Camp NaNoWriMo this month, and beyond. Feel free to chime in with any techniques or resources of your own in the comments section!

Don’t Just Subtract

When I see discussions about editing, the focus often seems to be on refining drafts by polishing material and removing excess content.

I generally consider the first draft the ‘idea draft’. It’s the act of getting the basic, conceptual skeleton down on paper, more than a complete product in itself. Almost invariably, some bad ideas will sneak in with the good ones, as well as plot threads, scenes, and descriptions that were ultimately unnecessary, or left dangling as the plot developed in other directions. While trimming off this extra fat to expose the meat of the story is definitely important, I think that the act of cutting content is sometimes over emphasized.

During the first draft, you will also get to know the story and characters in a way you can’t through outlines and imaginings. The first draft will always be very rough, but it will contain the actual core of the story. Building off this core, instead of simply polishing what’s already there, can lead to some really great, and sometimes unexpected, developments. Your project is now a familiar friend instead of a stranger, and now that you are acquainted, ideas for new scenes and events will likely present themselves as you begin working through the second draft. Not only will there be sections that need trimming, there will also be areas that can be enhanced by adding new content.

In my case, I usually find that my characters really come alive in the second and third drafts, instead of the firsts, and that some of my best character development enters the novel after I’ve already written ‘The End’. In fact, while there are cuts along the way, my overall word counts tend to grow with each draft. (For instance, the first draft of Night Plague was 54k, while the final was 64k, after the addition of another 10k words through a new chapter and a few new scenes.)

While you don’t want to be afraid of cutting content while editing, don’t hesitate to add new scenes, events, or even entire chapters, either. It might require a little extra work to get any new segments up to par, but revision is a phase where some powerful drafting can happen, too. Revising a novel isn’t strictly about polishing or rewriting what’s already there, it’s about enhancing the ideas its made of, and that often requires adding as well as subtracting.

Hear It Read

When it comes down to the copy level editing – typos, grammar, word choice, flow, etc – I always find it useful to hear how the text actually sounds when read aloud.

There are two basic reasons for this.

Firstly, when you read your own work, you already have an expectation of what it says and how it sounds in your mind. This makes it easy to miss small errors and typos. In my case, at least, my brain sometimes ‘fixes’ minor mistakes internally while reading. For instance, I might not realize a word is absent, or in the wrong place. Most word processors have spelling/grammar checks, but even those likely won’t catch a missing ‘the’ in a sentence, two words in the wrong order, or a ‘sad’ written in place of a ‘said’. These are the kinds of typos I’m still finding in the novel I’m working on now, even though it’s already in its fourth draft.

Secondly, simply hearing the text spoken aloud helps with flow. Something that seemed good on paper might sound awkward when read aloud, or a passage that looked messy in the editor might come together when you actually hear it. This can also help identify grammatical or stylistic issues, and give you a sense of how your manuscript really feels as a story. Sometimes, you just need to know if it “sounds” right.

There are a couple of ways to do this.

If you don’t mind the sound of your own voice, and trust yourself to read your manuscript carefully, word for word, then there’s always the option of reading your own work aloud. Just be careful not to miss those minor errors.

Alternatively, you could use text-to-voice software (I personally use the free, downloadable version of Natural Reader, though I’m sure there are plenty of other programs around, too). The digital voices sound pretty dry and monotonous, and sometimes a bit off with pronunciation, but they catch every typo and error. Whenever I’m satisfied enough with a chapter or scene, I plug it into the program and give it a listen before calling it done. Often, I catch a few minor mistakes that managed to slip through my revisions. It makes me wonder what errors survived in my past works, before I added this step into my editing process.

This sort of method isn’t one that will work for everyone, but I highly suggest at least giving it a try.

Find Weak Points with ‘Because’

One revision technique that I’ve found particularly helpful is actually one I originally heard in regards to outlining: while summarizing the plot in simple words, try to chain each major event together with a ‘because’ that hinges on the main character.

For example,

The princess ran away from the castle because she wanted to see the world, because she resented her parent’s protectiveness and the way they favored her sister. But she was tricked by thieves because she was sheltered, and she decided to join them instead of flee because she was drawn to the money, freedom, and adventure they promised her. She was willing to help them trick her family because of her bitterness towards them, but got into trouble because she tried to act on her own, etc.

Summarizing the story this way can help expose weak points in its structure, where the plot may be progressed by circumstance rather than character actions or motivations. If you reach a place where you can’t easily put a ‘because’ into the summary, then the story might be strengthened by adding to or adjusting that particular section to allow for greater cause and effect. Revising the story with this in mind allows the protagonist to be less of a passenger in the plot, and more of a driver.

Save Previous Drafts

(I’m going to be sharing some editing tips and techniques that I’ve found helpful this month, to go along with NaNoEdMo.)

I’m going to start off the editing posts with something pretty straightforward – make sure you keep copies of your previous drafts.

Of course, you should always save backup copies of your draft’s most current version, but I also highly suggest saving separate copies of your story at various stages. If you’re working on your second draft, for instance, store a copy of the original first draft, too. I personally have a folder where the first, second, and third drafts of my current project are all tucked away for safekeeping, while I chip away at the fourth draft.

The reason for this is because it allows you to undo any changes you make, should you change your mind, and also to peek back at your original content for reference, if something gets lost in translation. Part of this is mental. Knowing that your past content is preserved allows you to delete, add to, and change your words with abandon. After all, you can always find and copy back the old stuff, should you need to. I think you’ll find, however, that you’ll rarely, if ever, open up those old drafts. But for the rare occasions when you do regret a change you’ve made, or want to restore something removed, it’s a relief to have all the novel’s past content ready to go, preserved and untouched.

It’s simply a precaution you can take while editing, for the safety and freedom of your work.