NaNo Reflections

winner

Another NaNo down! And I won (just) for my fifth consecutive year. This was the closest I’ve cut it that I recall but I made it in the end. And, as I was doing a rewrite of the very project that got me into writing again after my long, university induced hiatus, there was a lot of cringing along the way. Really.

On the positive side, it let me see that I’ve improved a huge amount at writing over the past five years. I already mentioned just how many words I was cutting in my progress post and that trend continued. At least six full scenes got completely binned, as well as others getting merged and whole paragraphs of absolutely nothing being skipped as well. There was so much superfluous, unnecessary and boring guff in there. There’s also the prose itself which is, in my opinion, miles better than the original even in its NaNo-form. If I ever get to the stage where I can edit this it might even become readable!

Practice really is the key to anything. I’m so much happier with my writing now than I ever have been – and I know there’s still massive space for improvement. I still don’t consider myself “good” (but will I ever?) but I’ve come leaps and bounds. It makes me so glad that I’ve stuck with it, even through the low moments. It’s like with art – I would love to improve at it but I always get disheartened when I try. Things never work out the way I’d like. I stumble and struggle and eventually end up taking long, substantial breaks from it and every time I do I end up back at square one. It needs a lot of time and a lot of practice. Unfortunately time isn’t something I have in abundance.

The only difference with writing is that I’ve stuck with it even through the hard times. From scenes I just couldn’t write, things that sounded awful, bad plots all the way to crushing beta feedback and rejections. Time and practice has brought me to where I am today. And I’m happy with where that is, even though I hope to keep improving as I go. If you love something and want to get good at it, stick with it. No matter the setbacks. Keep at it. Some people say you need to write every day but I don’t think that’s true. Just keep it regular and don’t let your skills slide.

Now if only I had more time for art too!

Expectations

One of the hardest things about writing is worrying about appeasing everyone. It’s an important and difficult lesson that needs to be learned – one I’m still struggling with. You can’t please them all. No matter how much you try.

When someone dislikes some aspect of your story, that doesn’t mean it’s not good. It could be that it’s just not for that person. No story is for everyone. We all have different hopes and expectations for things, and sometimes there are people who are just not going to like your thing. No reason. It’s just not for them. And that sucks but it’s important to remember that it’s because we’re all different.

Take the example of me and one of my co-workers. He likes expensive things. He comes to his day job wearing a suit that is—and I know I’m fond of hyperbole, but this isn’t—worth more than everything I own put together. The other day he complimented me on my jacket and I yelled “TWELVE QUID FROM PRIMARK” and moonwalked out of the room like I’d just won the lottery. I get embarrassed if I think I’ve spent too much on something. My co-worker on the other hand wouldn’t be seen dead in a £12 coat. The things we brag about are polar opposites.

What’s my point? Just that everyone is different. The things people enjoy or respect or whatever can be completely inverse to yourself for no other reason than that’s who they are as a person. So it’s important to remember that while, if you’re trying to get published, we need to write stories that audiences will like, there is no way whatsoever to write a book that everyone will like.

All we can really strive for is to write something that we like, so long as it’s not hurting anyone*, and hope some other people out there like it too. Because really, if you’re too worried about making it for other people rather than for yourself, you won’t be enjoying it as much.

It’s hard, hard advice but we all need to remember that someone, somewhere, will hate my story no matter what I do. And that’s okay.

 

 

*There’s a different between writing that something that someone might not like and something that is misrepresenting and harming marginalized groups. There are loads of great articles out there about writing characters you might not have any first-hand experience of. As always, research is your friend!

World Building Notes, or Lack Thereof

World building is a hugely important part of any story. Whether you’re writing in the real world or creating somewhere completely new and fantastical, a writer needs to be able to paint a picture of the setting they are writing in. The places need to be deep, vibrant and—perhaps most importantly—consistent. Even subtle discrepancies can pull a reader out of the moment and detract their enjoyment from the world you have created and the story you are weaving.

When it comes to creating a new world some people like to create whole worlds and detail things that may not ever make it into a story, where as others create the world as they go, only constructing the pieces of the world necessary for the story being told. Personally, I use a combination of both. Certain parts of my worlds are fleshed out beyond all necessary detail where as other entire continents are just a single word scrawled in a notebook somewhere. Which brings me to my point.

Notes are important for continuity. Especially when writing several different stories all in the same world, as I plan to do with Twyned Earth. Up until I started packing to move, I thought I’d been pretty good at making my notes on the Twyned Earth. I. Was. Wrong.

I had notes. Quite a lot of them. All scattered throughout a multitude of different notebooks and in different states of completion. I had notes on elves on no less than seven books, in photographs of my whiteboard that had been mixed in with cat pictures and in piles of loose leaves of paper, all of varying sizes. There was unique information about them on pages that were scene plans. And that was just elves. The system was… less than ideal. I decided that this would be a good time to start collating everything properly and bringing all my information together. It was while doing this that I made an even more worrying discovery.

A lot of my meticulous world building had never even been written down. Ever.

That’s right. I’d apparently been trusting my years of crafting this world with nothing but my brain. The same brain that makes me walk into a room three times before I remember why I went in there. Needless to say, I was a little spooked. All those ideas that I’d thought about on those long, slow days at work, those great little details I’d come up with in the shower, all those things that I was certain that I’d written down somewhere, I hadn’t. Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite so inspirational as discovering you’re an absolute muppet.

Operation: Write Fricken Everything Down And Put It In This One Folder commenced immediately and shall be continuing for quite some time. My writing time now includes updating these notes as I go. So I guess this post is a bit of a reminder or a suggestion. Maybe go and check on your important notes. Some of them might not be as great as you remember them.

For the sake of continuity I’m going to be forcing myself to keep this folder up to date. I love fancy notebooks but it’s time I get all of this information organised and together. Also written down. At lot of the things about Twyned Earth I just know. Let’s face it, I probably spend more time thinking about TE than just E. However, my memory is far from perfect. Far, far from it. Which is why I seriously need a complete set of hard copy notes of my world building. From now on, nothing will be going into an MS without it going into the folder at the same time – or preferably before.

Have you experienced a similar scare? How do you organise your writing notes?

Programs For Editing Part 3: Paper

It’s time for the third and final part of my editing theme. The last program in my editing essentials isn’t a program at all – it’s the good old pen and paper. Some things really are just irreplaceable. So why, despite all this fancy technology and stuff, do I still rely so heavily on the tools it all started with?

The honest answer to that one is I really don’t know. There are some awesome benefits that I find when I give up on technology and just start writing but I could not tell you empirically why certain things are just easier with a pen and paper. There’s just something about it that gets the brain in gear, at least for me. So, what specifically do I get out of working on a hard copy?

My first comment would be that it’s pretty therapeutic. The feel of the paper under your hand, the glide of the pen, it’s all very soothing. More often than not I find it much easier to focus when I’m working like this rather than on a screen. Plus, I defy you to find a laptop that looks as good as these.

 

Notebooks

Be still my beating bank account.

 

When you’re reading along a sheet of paper, it’s super easy to quickly scrawl in a note or fix a typo and then keep going without losing too much of the flow of things. My poor, slow brain can keep up with scribbling down a note far better than when navigating a computer to fix an error. It keeps me in the moment and that allows me to work faster while still keeping sharp.

 

Commas

I still don’t know.

 

Another benefit I find is that I tend to read it more like an actual story that I’ve picked up off the shelf and that helps my brain pick out bits that aren’t right. Think about reading a novel – typos and errors are often glaring and obvious, and that’s partly due to not having read the piece a hundred times before. You become blind to these things and I have found that a printed out version can help to minimise this effect. As you can see from the below, I’ve a lot of issues – issues that I’ve completely glossed over while looking on a screen. Trust me, this is not the first time I’ve gone over this section. And still all the red.

 

Paper Edits

This isn’t even its final form.

 

So I’ve covered the print outs but often way before I even get to that stage there is already a notebook full of editing plans. Plans are good. Having them all in a handy notebook makes it easy to flick through them while you’re at your computer going through things. And as I mentioned before, there’s just something nice and also inspiring about them. They’re great to take about the place for when you’re thinking about your novel when you’re supposed to be interacting with the real world. Pfft. Reality.

 

Notebook Edits

Fear my amazing Paint skills.

 

So that’s me and my editing tools! I hope you all enjoyed hearing about them and I’d love to hear your methods in the comments below!

Programs For Editing Part 2: Word

Carrying on from last time, today I’m going to be talking about the features I like to use in Word while editing and revising my writing. Today I’m talking about Word 2013, just in case you notice any differences with features or how to access them.

Long before all the fancy stuff I’ve used like Scrivener and Storify, there was Word. Ever since I had my first computer it’s been an essential for me. No matter what new fancy programs come out I’m fairly certain that Word will never be replaced. If I’m writing anything that isn’t a novel, it gets written in Word. Short stories, blog posts, you name it. In my experience it has the most useful and comprehensive spelling and grammar check, has a good layout and most of the features feel fairly intuitive. Probably worth noting that I said none of these things while writing my dissertation but nowadays I don’t need to worry about tables, graphics or citations so the rose tinted glasses have gone back on.

As with Scrivener, discussed last time, Word has the feature of comment bubbles and again as mentioned last time I make liberal and possibly excessive use of them. They serve the same purpose and benefits as discusses last week. Big thumbs up.

Now, UNLIKE Scrivener Word also has the track changes feature which I love for so many reasons. Track changes does exactly what it says on the tin – it shows you in a different colour what has been added, deleted, moved, and so on. This is especially good for if you’ve sent it out to someone and they have suggested certain tweaks and changes, you can see exactly what’s being proposed. It’s awesome. It can be great for identifying problem zones and for making sure what you’re changing is actually an improvement before doing any final changes.

Track Changes

On most of my short stories, pretty much all of this is normally red.

Not only does Word let you see changes as you look through the document, it can also collate all your changes and comments into a revision panel at the side (or the bottom, if you prefer) of your screen. This can be used to quickly jump from one change to the next if you’re reviewing your alterations. I also like to use it to judge how ready a story is for viewing by others. Lots of changes and I know it needs at least another pass. Just a handful and it’s probably ready for a second opinion.

Reviewing Panel

This is just the first paragraph. Editing is important.

Possibly my absolute favourite feature of Word for editing is the ability to combine documents. Send a short story out to multiple people and want all of their notes and adjustments in one place? No problem for Word. This was a feature I had no idea existed until last year and I have no idea how I stumbled across it but my goodness I’m glad I did. And what’s best is that it’s so easy to do. Sent out your document and got it back from people? Great! First step, open any document. Just any one. Then go to Review –> Compare –> Combine. Into “Original Document” I select one of the commented upon files, and into “Revised Document” I put another. This first time I tell it to create in a new document and hit the go button. BANG! All the comments are in this new document. If you have more to add, just repeat but make sure the new document you’ve made goes into “Original Document” and that you change the Show Changes option to “Original Document.” You don’t have to but it saves you ending up with lots of docs to delete after. This is just brilliant because it means you’re just working from a single document and all of your changes and feedback are right there. It makes things much easier to keep track of and decreases the number of times you have to go back over the same bits.

Combining

This is the combining screen. Very simple, just browse for required files.

In the new document, at first you get a scary scene with a window for each document. You just need to close those until only the combined document is left and you should be left with a standard looking page with all your comments there for you. Quick, easy and super handy.

Are the any features I haven’t mentioned that you consider essential? Have you forsaken Word all together for another program?

Programs For Editing Part 1: Scrivener

Editing your novel is and always will be a huge job but there are ways to make it easier. Three ways to go about lightening this load is with beta readers, a strong plan of action and the right tools for the job. Beta readers are essential to know what works and what doesn’t, to see where your specific problems are and to just get a good feel for how the story reads as an outsider. Without a plan you can end up going round in circles, changing one thing only to mess up something else that happens before or later. By planning out your changes it becomes much easier to keep track of all it all and keep consistency without undoing your own work multiple times. Finally, that leaves us with the tools of the trade whose very existence is there to make things easier for us.

I’m going to dedicate a post to each of my three favourite tools for writing and editing: Scrivener, my most used method of writing; Microsoft Word, my go to for short stories; and good old pen and paper, which I don’t see being properly replaced any time soon.

Today I’m going to talk about Scrivener and mostly just about how I personally use it for editing, so many of its vast wealth of features will go unmentioned. I’m certain that there are even more fantastic features that would make my life easier that I simply haven’t discovered. It’s that kind of program, where there is just so much you’re constantly discovering new things. Just a heads up – I use the Windows version, which I believe has some significant differences to the iOS version.

Let’s start with the Information panel.

Doc Notes

I couldn’t find any ones with writing that didn’t make me look like I have no idea what I’m doing.

This is a panel that each individual document in a Scrivener file has. Starting from the top we have: a title; a box for a summary; metadata allowing us to indicate what type of document this is as well as its current status; and the final panel at the bottom which has six different tabs to switch between. As I’m specifically talking about the features I use, I will only be discussing three of those. The tab shown in this first image is a general comments section, which I like to use for notes of tone, transition and other alterations that effect the whole scene. This is great for keeping the general information out of the in line edits and so that it’s always available at a glance while working through a scene. As you can imagine, it’s also a great tool for doing first drafts as well to remind yourself what needs to go in a scene.

Metadata

Not only are these super useful but they are also pretty fun to fill in. Or is that just me?

This here is the second tab I use often for editing, a tab for custom metadata for that scene. You can create all the fields yourself and fill in as much or as little as is necessary. I find this especially good for when I’m going back and editing as weather and time of day are things I have trouble keeping track of when I haven’t looked at a particular piece for a while. I’m also really bad for two characters having a conversation and having a huge gap where another character is stood there totally forgotten by me, the other characters and probably the reader. This helps remind me to stick in reminders!

Comment Example

Again, it was tough finding one that didn’t make me look too ridiculous.

Comments are probably my most used feature for editing in Scrivener. In this tab of the Information panel, all the comment bubbles are compiled together to make them easy to click through and jump to where the comment is in the text. They are great for sticking in personal comments and tweaks as well as for putting in beta notes if your beta readers have given you back annotated manuscripts. You can also view a comment by just mousing over the highlighted text in the document.

Scrivener also allows for a personal word list which, as a fantasy writer, is fantastic. As well as getting rid of those annoying red lines under all your made up place and character names, it also means you know you’re spelling them consistently. Simply right click and select “Learn Spelling.” If you change someone’s name or tweak the spelling of anything, words can easily be removed by going to: Tools –> Options –> Corrections –> View Personal Word List. This way words can easily be added and removed, making sure your fantasy names are always spelt right.

Scrivener lets you organise a project by having different scenes in separate ‘documents,’ which in turn can be filed into chapter folders. I find that having a huge project broken down into chapters and scenes makes it less daunting and easy to keep track of. As mentioned above, each scene can be flagged as being at a certain stage of completion and viewing each scene as a separate entity helps me focus on fixing that before skipping ahead (or back, as I am terrible for).

I also make extensive use of the split screen option, allowing you to have two documents in the file open at once. This is great for having a character profile up or some world building research within easy view. Basically, I love my screen being super busy with information and Scrivener lets me have glorious organised chaos.

It’s a shame there’s no way to track changes using the program on Windows but I guess we can’t have everything. There is a way to add in line annotations but as they can’t be (or I haven’t found a way to) changed into normal text I tend to just use a comment bubble instead. That’s why I still use good old trusty Word for short stories – but more on that next time!

What’s your favourite program for editing in? Are there any features of Scrivener I haven’t mentioned that you just couldn’t live without?

 

Small Goals

Small goals lead to big rewards.

Big goals can be massively overwhelming. Consider writing a novel. First you have to write it. That’s a lot. That’s like 80,000 different words, all supposed to be making sense. Then you have to edit and revise the whole thing. Over. And over. And over. That journey can often seem insurmountable. It’s easy to look at the end game, a queryable novel, and think that that point is so far in the future that you convince yourself you’re never going to make it. I’ve been there a few times, calling myself a hack and pointless and just telling myself to give up, that I’ll never be able to achieve this enormous goal at the end. It sucks but it’s something that almost all writers will feel at some point.

Something I’ve learned the hard way is that sometimes it’s best to forget the end game. Instead break down that overall goal into lots of little milestones. It’s easier to aim for the end of a chapter than the end of a novel, just like it’s easier to jump a stream instead of a river. It’s not just writing where this is relevant either. There are so many things in life that can be made much simpler by just breaking them down.

Take for example weight – losing or gaining weight is a massive struggle for a lot of people. I know, I’m one of them as you may recall from my resolutions posts. With weight loss I’ve broken my goal (originally huge and terrifying) down into small percentage based goals. Every time I get a certain percent closer to my final goal, it comes with a massive sense of achievement and newfound motivation. With writing, I’ve been breaking down my editing process with chapters. The sense of achievement every time I complete a chapter motivates me more, helps push me onwards and reminds myself that I am getting ever closer to my goal.

Whatever minor goals set, they have to be achievable. Even if that means they’re small. That doesn’t matter. What matters is progress and being able to feel like I’m doing something.

Until very recently I had a lot of trouble finding the energy to exercise and it felt like a huge chore. I felt like a massive failure when I couldn’t accomplish it. I would do really well for a certain stretch of time then the will would collapse from beneath me like wet plasterboard and I’d be stuck, unable to get up again. I got myself a FitBit with Christmas money and it’s done me a world of good. It speaks so much more to how my brain likes to operate. There are lots of little goals to try and achieve and you can work towards them all day. Instead of having the one set in concrete objective (let’s take 45 mins on the exercise bike – my previous aim) I have the goal of a set number of steps throughout the whole day (which I’ve been slowly increasing since I got the thing). Every time I get up I go the long way places, even if it’s just a few dozen extra steps. It all adds up over time. Plus, seeing it progress pushes me to keep trying to hit these goals and achieve past them. I believe this is called gamificiation and it works wonders for me.

Lots of folks apply this to their writing, often with stickers for a certain number of words or something similar. I partook in this for a time but managed to let it fall by the wayside. It seems that particular method wasn’t for me, no matter how fun stickers might be.

The secret is to find that little thing that keeps you going, even if it is just a sense of progress and an imaginary pat on the back. That’s what I’ve found working for me. Not thinking of a chapter or a scene as a part of the whole giant work but instead as a thing all in itself – a thing which I’ve completed, an accomplishment and a job well done.

How do you keep yourself motivated while working? What methods have you found work for you?