Goal-setting: let’s be reasonable (and baby friendly)

A baby does similar things to your house and your brain; it gleefully, carelessly, adorably takes over everything. When the Lizard is awake, I’m basically 100% in Mum role, which sometimes gets to involve sitting and reading while she plays happily solo, but anything more serious-writing-business than jotting down a few notes is completely out of the  question. Because of this, when she goes down for her nap and I get two hours of baby-free time, I want to switch immediately into Writer role.

…ok, fine, I want to tidy everything up, grab a bite to eat and then switch into Writer role.

But having your brain shunted from side to side like that multiple times a day tends to shake things loose. To keep everything nailed down, I’ve taken to Habitica (again) with a vengeance, and within that I’ve joined up with the splendid Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ink Slingers guild of spec-fic writers.

Mostly, this has been a great move – I’ve got commonality, I’ve got help with goals, I’ve got accountability. They’re splendid people; I’m having fun and feeling engaged.


This month the guild has been having a challenge about weekly goals. I figured this would be great: when I was ramping myself up into full production mode back in 2014, I got great mileage out of setting and checking against weekly goals. When I set this week’s goal, I felt like it was challenging, but achievable if I pushed – and I wanted to push.

What I forgot is that this is 2016 and I have a baby; I cannot do full production mode; I cannot push. There is simply no room in which to push. There is basically no elasticity in my life, nothing I can give up to make room for getting more writing done.

What’s more, not making the goal this week – watching it slip further and further out of reach – has had a tremendously demoralising effect on me. As the week’s progressed, I’ve had less and less energy and will for writing even during those golden nap times. Last night was really low: I felt useless and grumpy and resentful of everyone and everything, especially myself. Which was amazingly unfair because I’d achieved an amazing amount of non-writing stuff and I’d finished my daily writing target.

Fortunately, I woke up this morning realising (with a little help from awesome Twitter friends) that I was being too hard on myself. I simply cannot achieve what I used to achieve pre-baby. One day – probably sooner than I realise – I will be able to. But until then, I really need to be kinder to myself, because failing is very unhelpful.

So I’m making a goal for next week that is better suited to what I can and cannot achieve. Since I can’t control how much time I can give to writing, having an output based goal (“revise 10 scenes”) is asking for panic. Instead, I think I’ll just aim to work on the book – actually on the book, not just those note-jottings – six days out of seven.

After all, baby steps.

First drafting: elegant as a drunken duck

Baby Elisabeth with Daddy
Bub liked the hike. Then again, so would I if hiking meant a perma-hug!

So it’s been a while. Mostly because we’ve been having all sorts of baby adventures – sleep school, family visits, and even our first tiny family holiday. (Including a picnic at Hanging Rock, from which everyone returned, possibly because no one in the family is called Miranda. Phew. What a relief.)

As the capacity for schedule – and scheduled working time – returns our household to sanity, I’ve been cracking on with the first draft of my next project. (It has various titles. “Minion: a musical comedy” is what I’ve called the pinterest board. “Rabbit’s guide to ruining your own life” is how I’ve jokingly referred to it. When I’m trying to sound like serious business, though, I call it “Deadlands”.)

I’m now about three-quarters of the way through the first draft. This is a great point in a story. It’s where the finale comes looming into inescapable view, and all of those big, hefty story elements that have been built by the story come seamlessly and elegantly together.

Of course, this is just the first draft, so things are about as elegant as a drunken duck. Instead of coming seamlessly together, my story elements are still wandering the wilderness, or asleep on the job, or in one case completely non-existent (oops). This is the point where I realise that that subplot should have been going differently all this time, and that subplot needs to have started way earlier if it was going to end up over there. Not to mention that two characters who’ve never spoken need to have a fraught relationship, and my magic physics need to work differently.

For me, this is the most difficult point. It’s tough enough to keep the inner editor quiet while I slog through a complete draft, but when things are such a mess, she really starts hollering. And I’m so close to the end anyway, right? I can see how it all goes from here. So surely I could just take it as written that I finish it off and, like, stop now and fix all this hideous mess.

Except it’s not written. It’s not finished. And I know from experience that there are still plenty of twists in the final quarter that can change everything. And there’s little more frustrating than spending another month fixing everything so it’s perfect up to this point, only to find that when I progress into that final quarter, there’s something I couldn’t have realised would mess up everything that I’ve just fixed.

There’s nothing for it but to haul on the metaphorical gum boots, wade through the mess, and sticky-tape things together into an ending.

(“Then you can fix it,” I whisper to my inner editor, as she cries in a corner. “Then you can fix it all.”)


Depth and balance in editing

Yesterday, I went to a workshop (“Page-turning Power”) with Margie Lawson, through Writers Victoria. Margie was great fun, chatty and engaging with a whole bunch of fantastic concepts and ways of thinking about the work of writing. As she noted, her advice was an enormous platter of cookies; we could take the ones we liked and leave the ones that weren’t working for our tastes or writing intentions. Some cookies I found particularly to my taste were her endless joy in rhetorical devices and sentence rhythm, and her editing system for analysing scene content and creating balance.

Continue reading Depth and balance in editing

Structural revisions: easier on the floor

I’ve actually been too busy with revisions to blog about them, but as I near the end, I’m finding rumination on theory a useful hamster wheel for my brain’s excess energy. So I thought I’d share the super-hi-tech plot-refining method that I used in preparing for this round of revisions. Continue reading Structural revisions: easier on the floor

NaNoWroteMo. Yo.

That dragon looks mighty afeared!

So, NaNoWriMo is done. And – surprising myself tremendously – I won, and won doubly over. I had planned to write a complete rubbish-summary-half-assed draft of a novel – and not only did I hit the 50k words (on about day 20, good lord!) I completed the draft (at a slightly meatier 68k words) with a couple of days to spare.

I’m basically flabberghasted. I didn’t even know I had this in me.

Looking at it as I was going, and in the immediate aftermath, my conclusion is that my chief weapons were fear and surprise over-the-top planning, and permission to suck.
Continue reading NaNoWroteMo. Yo.

The warm glow of completion (onwards and upwards)

Finishing a first draft means:

  • Being able to help more around the house. (“Hey, I could cook one or two nights this week.”)
  • Catching up on media. (“Hey, we should watch the latest season of Game of Thrones.”)
  • Reading over lunch instead of writing.
  • Socialising again. (“Brunch, or are you still writing all the time?”)
  • Epic Neverwinter sessions. (Except I still haven’t managed to score a party who can defeat Valindra, or had a queue pop for Castle Never.)
  • Playing enough to get somewhere in Sunless Sea! (Killed by the largest crab you ever saw. Again.)
  • Getting to tick off huge to-do items in HabitRPG and get metric fucktons of experience (w00t!)
  • Starting to write the next thing…

And the next thing is NaNoWriMo. (Doing it too? Here I am!)

I’m looking forward to this. One of the biggest kicks I got out of Camp NaNo – which started me off on the four-month productivity bender that finished the draft for me – is: permission to not be perfect. Which is a big thing, and such an enabler (I’ll talk more about this soon) but it does mean that I get to the end of a draft and know that so much of it now needs major rewriting. I’m super happy with the shape of the ending, now I just have to realign the rest of the book to meet that ending. Which is all great, but the fly in the ointment is how long it took me to get the first half. It’s aggravating to have spent so long on material that’s going to need major revision.

It seems to me that the best way around this is to stop taking so long with the first draft. If I can’t really know what shape the story should be until I know how it ends in detail (which seems to be how I roll; it’s been the case for both novels I’ve worked on) then either I need to write ending-first (which has worked for short material, but I don’t think I could do for longer pieces: the ending would lack the necessary complexity) OR I write the first draft even rougher and quicker.

I’m trying the latter for NaNo. I’m not aiming for the first 50k of a novel in relatively coherent prose. I am aiming for a 50k epic-rough quasi-summary draft of the entire novel. I’m anticipating chapters that are a patchy collage of prose and summary and notes to self. I’m anticipating covering a chapter a day in this method. And most of all, I’m anticipating needing to do a fuckton of work once I come back to write it properly – but since I know there’s a fuckton of work needing to be done on the first-draft that took me two years to write, that’s no big deal.

P.S. To add another spanner to my bouquet, I received some really thoughtful feedback on Boralos from a marvellous agent – confirming for me how much I’d love to work with her in the future. As always, new input makes my brain spin on old projects (it’s true: the further you get from a project in time, the more leverage you have to tear it apart and put it back together) but obviously any serious consideration of what to rework next will have to wait until after November.

Limbering up the critical thinking

The splendid Susan Dennard has been hosting a critique partner match-up, which I’ve been calling “writer partner speed dating” when I describe it to my husband (who assures me he’s fully supportive of me dating on the internet…). While I love and would be lost in the wilderness without the Firm (my critique group) I have also been keen to find someone with whom I can have a less structured and more organic and sprawling partnership of creativity with. (And it also helps to have a variety of resources; for instance, in my next project I have a big twist at the end of act 1, and I’ve been brainstorming how to make that work technically and logistically with my husband, so he is now spoiled a million for that twist. I need other readers to let me know how my delivery works.) So I’ve leapt on in to the fray. (And if this sounds good, you should too.)

It’s been a great experience. I’ve touched base with half a dozen other writers who write various kinds of fantasy at various stages in their writing journey, and looked at their opening chapters. Novel opens are possibly one of the most intensive parts of writing – there’s so much you have to think about and get moving, and you can’t rely on the momentum you’ve created because you’re only just starting! So it’s an excellent piece of writing to really dig into. Even when I’m reading a whole story for someone, I’ll tend to leave most comments in the first 10%.

What I hadn’t expected was how much I was going to get from engaging critically with the openings of half a dozen novels in development. Oh, hey, it’s absolutely invigorating and inspiring to get comments and responses back from my prospective critique-partners as well, but I’m also getting a heap of push just from reading. Well, not just from reading: from reading, thinking why isn’t this working for me? and then what’s a fix for that? and then, finally, is this something I should be doing / doing better in my own work?

The answer is almost always: YES YES YES.

Because why wouldn’t you? Stronger sense of who the main character is and what he really, really wants? Yes, sign me up! Rich but tight delivery of world immersion through stripping back to a few strong, evocative details? Sounds ace! Piling more than one layer of awesome into every scene if it can be arranged? I can think of no reason not to! Thinking hard about what I really need to include right now? Can only make things better!

In short: don’t underestimate how much value you get for your writing from thinking critically about other people’s writing. (And maybe hop over to Sooz’s forums and find yourself a CP!)

You don’t know a person until you’ve written 90k words in their shoes

Rearranging my current work in progress in Scrivener (how you know things are getting serious: when there are enough words to require organisation) I came across my initial character sketches for my core characters.

It’s quite delightful to me how much some of them have changed in the writing. Oh, not changed, but matured. Developed. Settled. A little in the way a haircut settles down once you get it home from the hairdresser and treat it the way you do for a week or so. It loses that sharp-edged unreal glamour, but becomes something natural and comfortable. (Hopefully. There’s just no living with some haircuts.)

For instance, where the original reads Izmir is an unremarkable man, it would be more accurate that every other character who’s run into him in the course of the narrative has remarked on him, and the remarks have demonstrated a considerable reputation for acting out that shows an admirable dedication to the art. Bless his cotton socks (which he leaves on the bedroom floors of the disreputable).

In these sketches, one of my characters isn’t even the younger sister of another – they’re cousins – and I wonder how I ever hadn’t realised how tight and close those two needed to be. (She’s also beautiful – I devote a paragraph to talking about it in the sketch, and remark on how she disdains it. She disdains it so much it hasn’t even come up in any of her viewpoint chapters…)

And my policeman lived in a boarding house – obviously before I realised that if he was doofing a married woman they were going to need somewhere to prosecute said liaison. Actually, from this distance the extent to which he’s based on that appalling agent in Boardwalk Empire is making me side-eye myself a little bit. Really, self? I’m so glad we got over that one.

What delights me the most is that this is really only the halfway point in the development of their stories. They – and I – have so much further still to go.

Happy Camper

Winner Camp NaNo July 2014 Ooh, would you look at that —>

To follow up on my last post, adding to the wordcount of my current project went rather well, actually. I didn’t actually wind up making the 30k I initially signed up for, but Camp is flexible, and enabled me to twiddle my wordcount up until a few days before the end (I finished on 28k). Which I was grateful for, because I was actually so happy with how the month went that it seemed ridiculous to not “win”.

Some big happy-making stuff for me from this month:

  • I wrote every day. Even if it was just opening up the file and moving some words around, or pulling faces and redoing my planning notes for the chapter, I was engaging with the project every day. (And face-pulling word-juggling days were actually really rare. Most days had genuine words added.) This is actually huge for me. I used to write every day while at university, but then again, I also stayed up until 2am every night. It’s good to know that constant productivity is not actually one of those university habits that is completely unsustainable in regular adult life.
  • Writing every day kept me constantly in touch with the project. Increasingly, as the month progressed, there was less and less “getting into the zone” time when addressing myself to the page. The ebb and flow of the project was always present in the recent strata of my mind, all the easier to bring back to the top on command. (Is it like mining, or like image layer editing? The answer lies somewhere between: yes.) Putting together the plot-point notes into easy chapter files a few ahead of where I was meant that I always had where-I’m-going in mind, and could flow more fluently. And this enabled…
  • I wrote all the time. In prep for the month, I made myself a schedule with two evening sessions, and a short lunchtime session (I even booked out a tiny meeting room and everything). But as the month went on, I also started grabbing time whenever I could. Waiting ten minutes while all my office work is out as queries to people? Flip open the laptop and write two paragraphs. Set up a meeting and now waiting for guests to arrive? Another two paragraphs. Having the project mentally on tap at all times made whittling away at it easy. (And bless Google Docs for making anywhere, anytime possible, even if it occasionally fell off the network and forgot to sync. Including on the second-last day of the month. The words were always there when I came back to that device next.)
  • The momentum exerts its own gravity. When I hit a problem and go away from the keyboard to sulk/brainsimmer, the habit draws me back and hammers solutions (make-do or otherwise) out of my brain. And even when ten minutes for two paragraphs didn’t manifest, my brain happily stacked sentences and ideas up in a corner, confident that they wouldn’t have atrophied by the time I finally did get to scribbling. (So very often, in the past, I have endlessly brain-crafted a scene, only to never get time to actually commit it, so eventually my brain goes, “well, fine, I’m not thinking about this any more if I can’t move forward” and I can hardly blame it.)

What now? Now I just want to keep going with this. Perhaps not aiming for another 30 or even 28k this month, because there were times in the month where the pressure was making me cranky, and I don’t like being cranky. But I’d like to continue all those happy points. The daily habit. Etc. So here are a few reminders to myself about how I helped myself do this:

  • I have a complete plotted plan. Admittedly it’s a little thin in places (see the moment last week where I went, “…and?!” at my past self) but it gives me structure.
  • This enables me to lay out my work for the next couple of days. I set up individual Docs (“TO-DO: Zagiri chapter 13”) and load them up with the plotpoints for this chapter, and the surrounding chapters (for reference), as well as throwing in any important influencing chapters (e.g. the part where the alchemist and his client have to go back and shake down the jinni for further details, I included the references to the first time they visited). This way I can’t put myself off when writing with “oh, I’ll have to look up xyz before I can write this bit la la la” because a) I never have to anyway, I always eventually check it and realise I never specified that so I can make up whatever; and b) this is first draft, just shut up, write what this scene needs and line up the details later.
  • When I finish one chapter, I immediately go into the next to-do chapter, look at all that reference material, and draft up a dotpoint structure of the chapter. (e.g. A musing history of the revolution; a meeting of revolutionaries who really aren’t very inspiring; Z making a Big Suggestion.) This will almost always change at least once, but it’s good to have a straw man to set on fire and dance around.
  • Any time I hit a Thing I Need To Check, I just throw it in [brackets] and check it later. (“Oh really,” [whatever her mother’s name is] scolded.) Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of Progress, yo. Especially not piddly little details like names, hair colour, geography, significant triggering memories and injuries.
  • I did throw words in throughout the day, which meant that often when I got to my scheduled evening schedules, I’d made half or more of my daily requirement, allowing me to also have some downtime in the evening. Which was just such a bonus, and helped make me not-so-cranky. (That said, there were also evenings where, after dinner, I had to head back to the saltmine while Mr Dee got to watch television, and that’s just the way it is. Helped that he was watching Mad Men, which I have given up on because real life is depressingly congratulatory enough to white men already.)
  • No, seriously, yay Google Docs. I still love Scrivener, and it is the best collecting and distilling tool, but writing raw into the cloud is enabling me and I’m a fan.

I’m off to camp! (and other NaNo experiences)

Camp NaNoWriMo, that is.

I first tried NaNoWriMo in 2002, which must have been nearly the first year it ran (or ran big, at least). Everyone in the blogosphere was doing it, and my honours thesis was due to be handed in 1st November, so I figured hells yes. Of course, then I needed a month’s extension, and the whole idea of writing a novel at the same time as finalising my thesis just did not work. (What a surprise.) What with one thing and another – mostly honesty with myself about my likelihood of completing, but also the “new project” thing – I never tried it again.

This year I am looking for any and all ways of kicking, coaxing and tricking myself into finishing my current project. As one of them, I thought hey, why not tempt my inner short-attention-spanned-creative-toddler with telling it it can write that shiny new project in November, as long as the current project is finished in first draft by then?

I checked the viability of this idea by visiting the NaNoWriMo website and having a look around, which was when I discovered that they also now did this thing called Camp NaNoWriMo. Any word count you like, any project (including one already underway), running in April and – oh look at that – July.

Kick, coax or trick, remember. So here I am, just about to start trying to add 30k words to my current project in the month of July.

And it’s tricking me into better practices already. I’ve got an actual written-down daily schedule with two variants incorporating two sessions a day. I’ve got dates with myself for lunchtime mini-sessions every day (even if I only hit half of them, it’ll be something). And I’ve got my next three to-do chapters laid out in mini documents with their storypoints and reference material already included, so there’s no excuse. (Oh yes, I know myself and my tricks of old.)

So here we go…