writing

Measuring Writing Progress: Beyond NaNo

National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, and its offshoots are wonderful. Many novelists have gotten their starts with NaNo or have made use of it to great effect later in their development, and it’s that second part I want to talk a little more about.

NaNo is designed to target one particular writing problem that afflicts a huge percentage of people, particularly beginning writers, and it targets it very effectively: that challenge is actually writing.

NaNo is built with tools to give you access to a community of fellow writers to help you through or keep you on track. It gives pep talks to keep you going. It gives you a deadline that isn’t fungible. What it’s especially known for is keeping track of your word count, how many words you’ve written that day, how many you have left, and how many you need to write each day on average to hit that mark.

In essence, it provides a support system to teach people how to write novels in the sense of literally sitting down and producing words.

Here’s an incomplete list of what NaNo doesn’t teach:

  • Writing craft.
  • Finishing.
  • Editing.
  • Pacing (yourself, as a writer).
  • Adaptability.

This is not a flaw with NaNo–it’s not trying to teach these things, and targeting a particular and wide audience is smart! But it’s worth noting that the tools it teaches for writers who need help just finally getting the story in their heads out are not always still useful to that same writer as they evolve.

Which is to say, if you’re serious about writing, NaNo’s tools probably will not continue working for you forever, at least not without some changes. This is good–it means you’re growing. So if you’re not meeting a NaNo goal, or if you’re struggling to meet it, don’t beat yourself up about it. The set of tools it’s teaching may not be what you need to learn, and you’re the only one who can judge that.

Let me give some specifics, because one of the things NaNo has been great at is undercutting all the excuses people make for all the reasons they can’t write a novel. (In particular, being busy. Everyone is busy. But I digress.)

Traditional NaNo sets the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. Plenty of people can figure out how to manage this for one month by putting a lot of other life to the side. Learning how to prioritize writing is useful, but if the things you’re putting aside are your share of chores, doctor’s appointments, or things you do for fun and your emotional well-being? They can’t be put off indefinitely. Ultimately that hurts the writing by hurting the writer. So people who want to make writing a consistent part of their lives often benefit by not setting a goal this high–not because it’s unattainable, but because it’s unsustainable.

Camp NaNo is an iteration of traditional NaNoWriMo in spring and summer that has more flexibility. You can set whatever word count goal you like, or you can set a goal in terms of hours worked on the project, the latter of which is very useful if you’re primarily editing.

(Because editing typically does not produce consistent increases in word count, it can be harder to measure and track productivity. This isn’t how I personally measure editing progress, but it’s a great adaptation for NaNo.)

Unfortunately, you can’t select both hours and words, so this doesn’t work well if you’re writing one project and editing another. This April I’d set a writing goal, but even knowing I’d been editing for a week, looking at the flat section of the bar graph made me feel like I hadn’t been working.

NaNo also doesn’t teach writers how to manage multiple deadlines. If you have more than one ongoing project, and one becomes a rush job, everything else in your schedule has to shift to accommodate. I had to change my word count goal in April for a similar reason, and it was hard not to feel like that wasn’t a kind of failure. Not because NaNo’s word count tracking system didn’t allow me to change my ultimate goal, but because it couldn’t account for the context involved.

The same is true if you’re collaborating, or an editor’s schedule changes, or you have publicity commitments. It’s not just life that affects your writing schedule: it’s other realities of writing.

And, like with editing, often writers aren’t trying to get just any words on the page. They’re trying to get the right ones. NaNo teaches people to produce, and that is very useful, but only to a point. People who are serious about writing will at some point need to move beyond this one way of measuring progress, because it’s designed to measure a particular kind of progress. I already know I can produce lots of words quickly, so a system designed to encourage that locks me into a pattern that makes me feel like I’m making progress rather than helping me grow in different ways.

Exactly when you need to learn other tools to keep yourself on track, and what tools those should be, varies for every individual person and sometimes for different projects. I still use elements of NaNo word count tracking in my own projects, because it’s a great jumping-off point–deadline motivation works particularly well for me. But it’s elements, adapted to my needs. NaNo is a great template for a starter system; it’s not the be all and end all.

If you’ve found NaNo restrictive or unhelpful–or even easy–consider what you’re trying to use it for, and consider if it’s serving your interests. It’s great for specific uses–namely, again, actually writing–but context matters. If you already know how to reliably get words written, NaNo metrics alone probably aren’t what you need. Don’t set yourself up to fail by forcing yourself to use a system designed to solve problems that aren’t your primary concern.

It’s not failure if you can’t reach a system’s goals when the system isn’t designed to work for you. As with any writing advice: take what helps you and discard the rest. And know that as you evolve as a writer, your process will too.

The greatest challenge to my writing process is these two cats being unreasonably adorable in my office.

Advertisements

Dealing with Setbacks

Here’s a thing writers don’t like talking publicly about—for good reason, because it’s not the sort of thing you want publicity to focus on—but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s important.

I experienced a writing career setback a couple months back. I’m not going into details here; they’re not relevant to this post. The point is it was a lot of investment in work that didn’t pan out when I had reason to hope it would.

This is the reality of publishing, and it’s also life. Sometimes you do your very best, you pour your heart and time into your work, and it just. doesn’t. matter.

At times like these, social media is sort of the worst. Social media is a highlight reel, and you know that, but that doesn’t change the fact that as a pro in this industry, when you experience a setback, half a dozen of your colleagues, many of them friends, are filling your feed with their successes. It doesn’t mean you’re not happy for them, and it doesn’t mean they didn’t experience setbacks, too, but it can still feel like a kick in the teeth.

It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you have failed, especially when everyone you see appears to be succeeding.

Pros often recommend keeping your “eyes on your own paper.” This is… good advice, but hard to practice when also trying to keep up with your industry. You either withdraw from social media, or you have to be able to deal with knowing your own career has had setbacks that aren’t your fault—and often aren’t anyone else’s either—while others thrived.

Or you stop. But despite my feelings about this setback, one thing I know is I’m not going to stop.

The setbacks certainly won’t. There’s not a writer in the world who doesn’t experience them, no matter how successful they appear.

So the question then becomes: how do you keep moving?

At Viable Paradise, we talked about our goals for ourselves as writers. Steve Gould broke them all down and explained the danger of tying personal and professional satisfaction to goals outside your control, because that is a surefire way to set yourself up for disappointment and worse.

A lot of traditional publishing is not within your control. It just isn’t. If you have an agent, editor, publisher, publicist, or mentor, it’s often not in their control, either. You can do a lot to maximize your chances—of getting specific career opportunities, of getting the word out about your book—but there’s still a lot of chance involved in publishing.

Ultimately, the only part of the process you control is your work.

Hitting the NYT Best Sellers list? Not in your control. Getting a movie deal, earning out your advance? Also not.

Writing a story you care about? Putting in the time? Doing good work? Those are yours.

I learned a lot from all my work, even if that particular project never goes where I hope. I’m a better writer for it, and that is mine.

I’ve stepped back a little to reassess my goals and my praxis, making sure how I’m spending my resources (time, energy, money) reflects what matters to me, the kind of writer—and person—I want to be and the kind of work I want to do.

And I am doing that work. Because the thing about setbacks is they’re not permanent unless you let them be. But I’m not going anywhere.

Except forward.

That means I’m taking more care to tend to myself, and what I need as a human being. That should be feeding my writing, not being replaced by it. My writing in some sense reflects and distills who I am, but there is more to me than writing, too.

And at the same time, it also means I’m starting a new project (not the serial) that I’m incredibly excited about and that is going to be more challenging than anything I’ve written before—and, I hope, a great deal of fun.

I’m looking forward to the next adventure. But I’m going to work on savoring the one I’m experiencing now, too.

The cats are relaxing hard.

SFF Authors in Action!

As some of you know, I’m now working at a local independent bookstore. Which is exciting on its own, but the more recent excitement is that I’m going to be moderating a panel at Brick & Mortar Books one week from today!

The topic is writing action in science fiction and fantasy, and the panelists will be Fonda Lee, Chuck Wendig, and Alex Marshall, all of whom write amazing, action-packed SFF. I am super excited about the panel and plan to pick their brains on how magic affects writing action, the strengths of action scenes with the written word as opposed to movies, how to use POV and pacing, and what they wish people understood and what they’d like to see*.

This will be happening Thursday, 3/1, which is the first night of Emerald City Comic Con. So if you don’t have con plans that night yet, come hang out with us! And if you’re not going to make it to the con, here’s your chance to see some great authors from out of town. =D

It’s been great to have so much freedom to organize this event on my own so soon after joining the bookstore, and I can’t wait to see how this goes. I hope to see some of you there! (And if you are going to be able to make it, you can RSVP on Facebook!)

 

*I do not promise to ask all of these questions, because panels develop organically. But they are on my list of potential questions, and I’m sure we’ll have time for at least a couple before I let the audience have a crack at a few of their own.

Folder Structure for Novelists

A bunch of people have asked me about how I keep track of ongoing novel projects. I can pick up a project after months away and tell you exactly what stage it’s in and what I need to do next. I know exactly where to find every file or piece of information from any stage in the process, which is incredibly useful because novel projects are complicated.

For these parts of novel project management, the key is folder structure.

It’s the basis for how I organize all my notes, drafts, and anything else related to the process of writing, editing, and sending out a novel: where to store files, what to save, what to name them, all of that.

I applied this method to my writing projects out of necessity/rage after one project that spanned several years for which I’d create a new system of organization every time I picked it back up. Nothing was standardized. I was always unable to find what I needed to work on particular parts but knew that work existed somewhere. It was a mess, and it made a project that was already unpleasant for other reasons maddening.

I also worked as a project manager for a while, and I swear this is one of the easiest, stupidest, most useful things I learned.

So here’s how I do this.

The first stupid trick is to number your folders. This keeps the folders, and the progress of your work, in chronological order. Eventually, the project folder looks like this:

But you don’t set all the folders up right away; you create folders as you progress to each subsequent step, which helps track where you are in the process.

So start with 0, which I inventively call “BG” for background. Every one of my background folders has been organized differently depending on the needs of the project, but this folder is for general information you may need to refer to at any stage in the process. This is where my world-building notes go, for instance, since I’ll need them during drafting and editing. (It’s also where information goes before I’m at later stages but already have, say, notes on potential beta readers or agents to query.)

When you’re ready to start writing, the next folder is for your first draft (“1 First Draft”). This is where material you’re using and/or changing while working on your initial draft goes. If you’re using an outline from the background folder, copy it in here; that way you can make changes to it while you draft, but you’ll still have the original in your 0 folder if you mess it up.

The only file that has to be in this folder is the manuscript draft file you’re currently editing. Title your manuscript file something basic, even if it’s not the actual title, and STICK WITH IT, because it helps with the next stupid trick:

Numbering versions. It seems obvious. But it can also be easy to think, “Oh, I’ll definitely remember this is the most recent one.” DON’T FALL FOR IT. NUMBER YOUR VERSIONS. Know which is the most recent version, and still keep your previous ones so you can go back to them if needed.

(Please do not comment about how superior you think Scrivener is for doing this for you. Thanks in advance.)

After my first draft, I create a new folder for the initial clean-up pass for general grammar/spelling and anything I already know needs to be fixed, copying the last draft from the first draft folder and the ongoing notes I’ve inevitably made for myself of things I already know to fix.

Why not just do this in the first draft folder? Because this isn’t initial drafting. This is editing, and I want a record of when changes occurred and why. If I decide not to make changes I thought I needed during the first draft, I note that; if I later decide I had it right the first time, or I need to reconsider, I still have that text.

My next step is to solicit feedback from beta readers. You copy your cleaned-up draft into this folder and, if the file name didn’t already include the actual title and your name, rename it. You also want a new folder for this step to copy in other files, like the list of beta readers to contact and what in particular, if anything, I’ve asked them to focus on.

(I may do another post on this later, but those questions can include things like, ‘Is the romance between these two characters working?’ or ‘Were you confused about any of the world-building?’ Down the road, I’ve found it useful to see what I was worried about in earlier drafts.)

And this is the final, important, stupid folder structure tip, which is: save everything in your folder structure. Everything.

If you get feedback from a beta reader, don’t just save the file with track changes they sent you, save the additional comments they wrote in their emailed response. Keep everything in one place. Yes, your email probably saves it, and we can talk about email folder structure another time. But the less searching and clicking around you have to do, the fewer barriers (including lack of internet connectivity) there are to your workflow, and the easier it is to keep track of everything.

I start my feedback folder by making a folder for each reader who’s confirmed they’ll get back to me, and it progresses something like this.

Do you see how this works? Just glancing at the folder I know exactly who to follow up with if I haven’t heard back from them by the requested deadline. (The 0s in front of the Canceled and Received folders keep them easy to visually separate, rather than mixed among the alphabetical list of names.)

Incidentally, if you need recommendations for awesome female characters from SFF novels published in 2017 to nominate for awards, I’ve got you covered. =D

I’m not going to keep going through folder by folder; you get the idea. To review, the basic principles are:

  • Number folders (and versions) in chronological order.
  • Internal consistency is your friend.
  • Create a separate folder for each new stage in the process.
  • Save and document everything in your folder structure.

Have questions? Let me know in the comments!

on pushing

This one goes out especially to my fellow overachievers.

If you’ve noticed I haven’t been around on the interwebs much recently, it’s because I’ve been neck-deep in revision. “Neck-deep in” is an understatement; “breathing” is more accurate. I have always (A L W A Y S) been revising this book. This year’s been hard, not just for *gestures at trashfire political landscape*, but a variety of reasons I’m not talking about publicly.

But I’ve buckled down for the final push on this revision to make my deadline, and I cannot tell you how ready I am to be DONE. Not that I don’t still love the book, or working on it. Not that I think this will revision will be perfect and not need more work. I’m still ready to be done with this revision, and revision in general, for at least a little while. And there’s the shining deadline beacon to reach for. THE END IS WITHIN SIGHT.

But.

It was getting harder to pull ideas out. Not that I couldn’t, but that’s not the part of writing that’s normally a fight for me. I wasn’t totally burned out, just. Tired. I could push if I had to. But I had been pushing, and I had a long stretch of pushing left to look forward to. So even though I had an evening free, and a deadline, I dropped everything to read a book instead.

I finished the book and could practically feel the sensation of my replenished creative well. I considered going back to revising right then—and instead picked up another book.

I slept better that night than I had in weeks. I slept for something like eleven hours. The next day, the threads of a character arc I’d been struggling with stitched together neatly without any fuss. (You know that feeling when you KNOW you’ve done good work in your art? I’m not usually so confident in revisions, but it was that.)

Then my dayjob asked if I could switch from the morning to the evening shift the following day, and even though I knew it would interfere with my revision schedule, for once I decided to do it anyway. Because if I’d slept for eleven hours, I figured maybe I could use another day of extra sleeping. And the next edit on my schedule was going to take even more brain than the last.

That morning came around, and I didn’t expect to get good revision work in. I didn’t have much time, was barely caffeinated. I gave myself permission not to push, picked up my book, sat down… and started having Ideas. I spent the next hour noting down connections as fast as they came to me, as the biggest plot problem I had left just solved itself.

One night off. One book read. Two good sleeps. Back in action.

Because sometimes you need to work smarter, not harder. Or at least I do. If thinking in terms of “self care” doesn’t work for you, consider that, just because you can push through a project, even if you do good work, doesn’t mean the work hasn’t suffered.

Did I lose a day or two of work time? Yes.

Did I sacrifice my ability to meet my deadline? Possibly.

Does that bother me? EXTREMELY.

(I have high standards. I am competitive. I dislike failing. DID I MENTION HOW VERY READY I AM TO BE DONE WITH THIS REVISION.)

But.

Ultimately, it’s still more efficient for me to do it right (right-er) the first time than to have to fix it later. It’s worth it to do better work rather than faster work. (insert caveats about circumstances varying, etc. here)

Because, yes, I care about timeliness, and professionalism. Writing is a business. But writing is also an art, and I can spare a couple days for the sake of the story.

Obviously there is such a thing as avoiding work because it’s hard. It can be hard to tell. In my case, right now, that wasn’t it. But sometimes, if everything is hard, it’s not just because writing is hard. Sometimes you need to step back and breathe. To let yourself breathe.

And sometimes you can’t! Missing this deadline isn’t going to cause me dire consequences. Yours may be less fungible. You’re the only one who can judge for yourself.

But, friends, if you can. Read a book. Eat good food, exercise, pet a cat. Sleep.

For the love of everything, SLEEEEEEEEEP.

The work will still be there. You’ll just be more ready to meet it.

tl;dr If you’re pushing yourself through creative work, make sure it’s because you really have to, not because you think you should/can.

Happy Holidays, friends. Wishing you coziness and good reads. ❤

SLEEEEEEEEEEEP.

The Choice to Fly

I love flying. And this year, I went paragliding.

 

photo by Drew McNabb from Acroparagliding

Starting my annual birthday flying adventures is the best tradition I’ve established for myself. It’s a chance for me to step outside my day-to-day, to reflect on what I’ve accomplished and who I want to be and whether I’m on that path.

This year was hard, for a lot of reasons, and I have been pushing hard. On the writing front, I wrote another book’s worth of words in the course of revisions, and I have revised more–both in thoroughness and in quantity of time spent–this year than I’ve revised in my life. And amidst everything else, I wrote a new book (which you can read for free!), which was a new kind of challenge and adventure. But I’ve gotten so caught up in the minutiae of that daily work that I was desperately ready to fly.

For my birthday flying adventures, I’ve been skydiving, flown on trapezes, sped through the air on ziplines. There are spectacular views to be seen this way, but it’s ultimately not the external perspective I value. It’s the act of flying itself that I love, that I can never get enough of.

When I’m in the air, I don’t feel adrenaline rushes from fear or even thrill. It’s a quieter feeling, but it centers me: flying, I know who I am. I know what I can do, and what I will do.

Every time, I wonder if it will be hard to jump. This year, I wondered if I’d feel nervous running off the hill with so much air below me. I’m familiar with that feeling, standing at the edge of a cliff and making myself jump, and I was prepared to do it, to prove to myself that I could. But there was no doubt, no fear; just launching into the sky.

This year, though, something else struck me. Throughout the trip–doing the paperwork, riding the van up the mountain, strapping in amidst endless jokes to test whether I was going to panic (they, clearly, had not met me)–people kept asking, with some confusion, some disbelief, “you’re here alone?”

Like it was so rare not to need people to come along for moral support, or to witness me. Like I really was there just to fly.

And when I responded affirmatively, they just said, “Good for you.”

Good for me, for taking steps to pursue my own path. Good for me, for knowing when I am enough, for being enough, by myself.

But even though I came alone, I came to a community. People who joked, knew each other’s hopes and struggles, looked out for each other, expected the best. A community of people who have learned to carve a regular space for adventure into their everyday lives, as though flying above mountains is a normal part of everyday lives.

Because it can be.

And the other consistent refrain throughout the trip was when people asked me what I did, and I said I was a writer, and they all marveled.

At first I thought they were impressed by my ability to make ends meet as a writer, but after a couple interactions I realized they hadn’t considered that the challenging part. It was the fact that I write, and I write novels, and multiple, and fantasy, facts I always take as a matter of course, that was what wowed them.

Writing has become such an integral part of my everyday that I sometimes forget what an adventure it is, to pour my time and energy and thoughts and passion into creating stories with words, to throw myself off the cliff over and over and trust that I will fly.

When I fly, I remember I’m an adventurer.

photo by Jenny Scott

Writing is Madness

There’s always a new article/post/thread calling people out for either being too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and, although of course I’m biased, I find it’s especially true in writing circles. We’ve all heard the advice to “develop a thick skin” to get by in this world and not let every little thing faze us on one hand, and on the other how important it is to listen to other people’s experiences and take them to heart. These two imperatives seem paradoxical, but in general–specific cases vary wildly–the crux of the problem is both matter.

And this is my theory for why people pursuing creative endeavors are often a bit bonkers, at least when it comes to their creation. (Well. One reason why, anyway.) I’m going to talk about writing, because it’s what I know, and it goes like this:

There is the story you want to tell, and there’s the story you do tell. There are the words on the page, and there’s the story readers glean from them.

Bad news: they don’t match perfectly.

Good news: that’s one of the beautiful things about art, that we all take different things from it. Reading the same book at different times in our lives can make for vastly different experiences.

But for the author, it’s complicating. Because you want them to match as closely as they can. The story in your head is the asymptote the words on the page get infinitely closer to but never fully reach.

Because no two readers have the same experience. But how much of that is because of what the reader is bringing to the text versus what the author has put into it? How do you know when you’ve gotten it right?

You can’t, because there’s no such thing as right. There’s better. There’s the best you can do. It’s craft, which means you work and whittle and hone your skills. But there’s no such thing as perfection, because it’s also art.

The fact is that no one else can tell your story. As the creator, you have the strongest vision of your own work and what you’re trying to do.

But you don’t have the strongest sense of how it’s working outside your head. You need feedback to tell you when something you did on purpose failed, or something you did on accident is Very Bad.

But readers disagree. Periodically I see the advice to get good readers, but I’m here to tell you that intelligent, experienced, skilled critique-ers don’t all agree either. They never will, because people want and need different things from books.

Which is great in the scheme of things! It means there are markets for lots of different kinds of stories, which is lovely, because it means we have an incredible variety to choose from.

But it also makes it hard to determine, for any given project, whether feedback has more to do with the one person’s read or with the words on the page.

So you get lots of critiques to make sure you’re not just revising to one person’s tastes–unless you are, which simplifies things–but then you really can’t take all the feedback you’re given even if you wanted to, because that would make the book incredibly disjointed. Maybe if lots of people agree you pay special attention to those notes and disregard that one person’s particular bugbear–but maybe that person also caught something incredibly important that everyone else happened to miss.

Some critiques you’ll read and be like, YIKES you are absolutely right I can’t believe I did that THANK YOU for bringing this up so I can fix it O_O. And some you’ll look at and go …woooow this is super off base, wtf?

You’re not always going to agree. Sometimes the crit is right anyway. Sometimes it’s not.

Which means the author, although they need feedback to make their books better, shouldn’t take all critique to heart. Taking every piece of criticism given can be just as bad as taking none of it.

It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Every change will make the story better for some people and worse for others. It’s choice after choice with no objectively correct answer. So how do you choose which change that’s hard should be taken to heart, and which discarded?

IT DEPENDS.

*jazz hands*

You have to be able to be open to readers’ experiences in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to close off and hold on to what you want for the story in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to do both together, and this is why authors are bonkers.

 

(but at least we have help)