How to Motivate Yourself (with Bribery)

My steampunk novel is currently in the hands of Serious Professionals (GULP!), which means I can either twiddle my thumbs to stubs waiting anxiously, or distract myself by writing something else.  I choose distraction.

It’s been a while since I worked on a first draft of a book, and while it’s super good fun when everything flows beautifully, it’s awful when nothing flows, and I feel like I’m hacking at my characters with an icepick, screaming ‘PLEASE DO WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO!’ like an exasperated mother.  I try to write every day, but this weekend felt like pulling teeth.

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Today, however, I did over 2,000 words.  Not a world record by any stretch, but far more than I’ve managed for the last three days.

How did I manage it?

Bribery.

In important interviews, I like to say that I’m very self-motivated.  This is, technically, true.  However, what it ultimately translates to is ‘I’m very good at bribing myself to do things I don’t really want to.’

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At school, I used to turn on my Gamecube and fire up Twilight Princess, and then do my coursework to the background noise of the pause menu.  If I finished a page, I could play for ten minutes.  All my coursework got done on time, and Twilight Princess was the first Zelda game I ever completed.  At uni, I binged through Community by allowing myself  one episode for every twenty minutes of essay writing I completed.

And now?  Now I use friendship bracelets.

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It’s got to be a cool hobby if Mr. Obama does it.

Those little plaited threads are weirdly addictive.  I feel like everyone else learned to do them in the playground at school – or at summer camp, if you’re American – but I only picked up the hobby this year, and I can’t seem to stop.  I have a friendship bracelet for every outfit, in every colour.

This just goes to show, you can motivate yourself to do anything – even write 2,000 words when it feels like banging your head against a wall – if you have something to bribe yourself with.

Should you take a writing class?

It’s practically a cliché at this point.  A hopeful youngster meets their favourite author, wide-eyed and excited, and asks them, ‘I want to be a writer too, can you give me advice?’

And the writer, dead-eyed and serious, replies, ‘Don’t take a writing class.’

I’ve seen this scene play out in TV series and films.  I’ve actually had it happen in real life right in front of me, and I couldn’t help laughing – I was halfway through my MA Writing for Children at the time.

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All eyerolls aside, there’s a reason why people throw this advice around like the gospel truth: a writing class cannot buy you talent.  If you go into a writing class expecting to pay X amount and wind up with a book deal, millions of fans and rolling in royalties … you’re going to be disappointed.  A writing class cannot buy you talent, because money cannot buy you talent.

What buys you talent?  A lot of hard work, that’s what.

So what can a writing course do for you?  Are they worth the cost?  (Because wow, my BA Creative Writing and MA Writing for Children combined cost about £16,000 – and if you need me, I’ll be crying about my student debt in the corner.)

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If it weren’t for my BA and MA, I wouldn’t be as good at writing as I am.  My course forced me to improve.  I had to write each day, had to be brave enough to show my writing to other people, thick-skinned enough to accept their criticism, and driven enough to make improvements based on their suggestions.  All of these are things you’ll have to do if you want to be a professional writer.  All good things to practise before you attempt that leap.

On top of that, my writing course surrounded me with fellow writers.  I got to hear their opinions (sometimes in the form of furious debates), and as much as we criticised one another, we also gave glowing reviews.  Nothing improved my confidence like knowing other writers liked my work, and nothing improved my work like knowing exactly what parts they liked, and what I needed to change.

I loved my BA so much I opted to take an MA even though it meant another year away from home, and a whole lot of money.  I wouldn’t go back on my choice to take a writing class for the world.

If I were to amend the cliché, I’d say this: don’t take a writing course unless you’re prepared to put work into it.  Don’t take a writing course expecting to have your book deal handed to you on a silver platter.  Don’t take a writing course because you think piling money into it will automatically grant you talent.

But if you’re willing to work hard, show some humility and listen to your teachers and peers – and if you have the money to spare – by all means, enjoy your writing course.

Kill Your Darlings (Editing Woes)

I’m doing a sixth rewrite/edit on my manuscript (never let anybody tell you writing comes easy) and so far I’ve cut 5,600 words.  This would seem pretty good, except I’m aiming to cut at least 25,000 words in total.  Meaning, almost halfway through the manuscript, I’ve only cut a fifth of what I need to.  Meaning there is probably (okay, undoubtedly) going to be a seventh draft.

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There are two things to learn here.  The first one is, plan your novel better than I did, and then you will not fall into all the terrible and ridiculous pitfalls that I did, especially if you’re able to check your own continuity and make sure a revolver with six shots doesn’t somehow fire endlessly without running out of bullets.

Okay no, wait.  Three things.  There are three things to learn here.

The second thing is that nothing is ever perfect first time.  If you’re writing the first draft of your novel or script or poem or, I don’t know, dumb blog post about how tough editing is (HEY-O!), and you’re worried that it’s kind of rubbish … don’t.  Of course it’s rubbish.  All first drafts of rubbish.  It’s allowed to be; that’s the point.  You are the only person that ever has to read your first draft.  So plan as much and as carefully as you can (or don’t, if you’re one of those crazy pantsing types) and then just enjoy the ride.

The third thing is that editing is pain.

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Okay, no, I’ll get a hold of myself.

Editing is tough, but you can get through it using this handy mantra.  Kill your darlings.

A wonderful lecturer at Winchester Uni taught me that one (if you’re reading this, hi Ness!), and it’s stuck.  The toughest thing about editing isn’t knowing what to cut.  A writing buddy can help with that, or one of a million online guides to editing, or just plain common sense.  What’s bleeding hard about editing is summoning the willpower to cut the words out.

Those words are your darlings.  You love them.  You worked hard on them.  Every single one of them is a precious, shining diamond and it must be protected.  How dare anyone suggest you throw them away?

(I may be projecting a little here.)

But the thing is, hoarding unecessary words is like hoarding those weird little china animals.  One or two don’t seem so overbearing, but if you keep hoarding eventually your windowsills are cluttered with creepy, dead-eyed kittens, and your writing is cluttered with pointless, annoying words you don’t need.

Also chapters.  Have I mentioned sometimes you have to cut whole chapters, or characters?  When you put your editing hat on, you become an evil dictator, willing to execute anything that stands in the way of your manuscript becoming the best manuscript ever.

Kill your darlings.

Chant it to yourself before you start editing.

Kill your darlings.

And also … pray for me.  I’m about to dive into Chapter 16.

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Cheer-Up Tuesday 13/09/2016: Everything is Flawed, and That’s Okay

Happy Tuesday!  This week, I thought I’d do something different: a pep talk.  A weird one, at that, but hopefully one that helps some of my fellow writerly people.

There’s nothing worse than those days when you look at your writing and think, Why did I bother?  This is terrible!  And then you look at talented people like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.  People who’ve made a living–and more–from their writing.  Or maybe you just read one poem and think, Why can’t I do that?  It’s perfect.

Well, here’s the thing.  It isn’t perfect.  Harry Potter isn’t perfect, and neither is any one of Stephen King’s novels, or whatever beautiful poem you’re thinking of.  It’s not.

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(These are writer owls.  They are shocked and excited by this revelation.)

The truth is, if you look far enough, you’ll find that literally every piece of beloved literature was shredded by someone.  I’ve read articles that ripped Harry Potter to pieces.  Doug Walker, the ‘Nostalgia Critic’, makes fun of Stephen King so much it’s become a running joke in his webseries.  Nothing that anyone has ever written appealed to every person who read it.

So what’s the point?  The point is, everything is flawed.  And that doesn’t matter.

Because, much as every piece of literature has avid haters, it also has adoring fans.  I’ve always found it oddly comforting to know that Harry Potter isn’t perfect, even if I can’t help thinking it is every time I pick up Prisoner of Azkaban.  Because if Harry Potter isn’t perfect, I don’t have to be.  Neither do you.  Neither does anyone.

Be good.  Write the best you possibly can.  But, as Salvadore Dali said, ‘Have no fear of perfection–you’ll never reach it.’

And that’s just fine.

Onyx Orbs

Your tastes in reading will change throughout your life.  Never was I more forcefully reminded of this than in the onyx orbs debacle.

When I was seventeen, I read a story.  All right, I’ll admit it: I read a fanfiction.  Sometime, I might do a post about the pros and cons of fanfiction, but that’s not important today.  This story isn’t representative of all fanfiction.  Just one.  For the sake of kindness, I’m going to change its name to The Spinning Wheel.

The first time I read The Spinning Wheel, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever read.  This was long before half a dozen re-reads of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber had made me sick of purple prose, and instead I was in love with the flowery writing.  I’d never read anything like it.  All this description!  All these metaphors!

When I finished The Spinning Wheel, I was still mesmerised.  ‘Why doesn’t the author write real books, too?’ I said.  ‘They’d be published in an instant.  They’d make a fortune!’

Fast forward a couple of years: I was in my third year studying Creative Writing at Winchester University.  Unsurprisingly, my course had a lot of required reading, and I was starting to feel burned out.  It wasn’t that I hated everything I had to read – I loved a lot of it – but I was desperate to read something just because I wanted to.  Because I liked it.

What about The Spinning Wheel? I thought.  I haven’t read that in years!

It was on the Internet, within easy reach.  No need for a library trip!  Perfect!  I opened it up and happily started reading.

I don’t remember exactly when I realised something was wrong, but I like to imagine it went like this:

It’s been an hour, the living room is quiet, and I lower my laptop screen and look up, feeling haggard and broken.  I meet my housemate’s eye.

‘Onyx orbs,’ I whisper.

She looks up from her own laptop.  ‘What?’

Onyx orbs,‘ I hiss, distressed.  ‘They just described his eyes as onyx orbs.’

And so they had.  If you’re not familiar with fanfiction, referring to eyes as ‘orbs’ is a common mistake, to the point where it’s a running joke.  ‘You know it’s bad fanfic when they describe the character’s eyes as orbs!’  No one’s eyes actually look like orbs.  If they did, it would be nothing short of terrifying.

Using some kind of gemstone to describe the colour of the eyes is another, separate, fanfiction sin.  The Paper Plane of Existence on Tumblr put it best:

describing eye colors isn’t actually v helpful as a description??? talk about the makeup smeared on the left side, the lines under their eyes, the sloppily cut hair obscuring their eyes from view, how bloodshot or sunken they seem in the face, how wide they go at the slightest sound, how glassy and unblinking they seem, how they’re always darting away

all of that tells me a bit more about the character than whatever shade of gemstone they most resemble, seriously

The Spinning Wheel took these two errors and combined them into one killer phrase.  It became a personal catchphrase for bad writing.  ‘Yeah, this is bad, but is it onyx orbs bad?’

I was shattered.  Thankfully, my housemate was a kind person, so she definitely didn’t torment me about it by, say, changing my desktop background to a picture of hundreds of black marbles, or sending me photos like this:

I still have no idea what’s going on in that picture, but I’m pretty sure I’ve had nightmares about it.

Some time later (around the time my housemate edited my coursework, replacing every instance of the word ‘eyes’ with ‘orbs’, to the point where she even changed ‘eyebrows’ to ‘orbbrows’), it occurred to me that coming across onyx orbs wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When I first read The Spinning Wheel, my knowledge of writing was average.  It was so average, I scanned over onyx orbs and had no idea there was anything wrong with it.

After three years studying writing at university, I’d improved enough that I didn’t just notice onyx orbs – I was infuriated by it.  I’d learned what bad writing looked like.  And if I could spot these mistakes in other people’s writing, I could make sure they never showed up in my own.

 And that’s the tale of how terrible fanfiction showed me how much my own writing had improved.

If you’ve ever re-read an old favourite (fanfiction or real book) and realised it was actually terrible, send me a comment!  We can all suffer together.

Writing Stories Crocodile Hunter Style (and Other Ways)

I’ve been meaning to talk about planning a novel vs pantsing, but then Delphina2k on Tumblr summed it up so incredibly well in her comic:

You can reblog it here, if you’re so inclined.

Delphina’s comic talks about three ways to write stories, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll condense this down to two – mainly because, when I write, the Gardener and the Crocodile Hunter amount to the same thing.

For me, there are two methods: planning and pantsing.

 

What’s planning?

Planning is pretty much what it sounds like: it’s the Architecht in Delphina’s comic, and it’s what I do.  I plan out everything before I start writing a book, from the characters to the plot to the landscape.  I fill up folders with sketches and mind maps.  Every character will have a page dedicated to them.  The entire plot will be written in bullet points, following Kat O’Keefe’s three-act structure.

So far, I’ve only ever met one person who planned in more detail than me, and that was my BA dissertation tutor.  We got along remarkably well, as every time she said, ‘I want to see some character work for X,’ I’d pull four sheets of paper out my bag.

 

What’s good about it?

Planning makes your life easier, both as you’re writing and when you come to edit.  You’ll never get writer’s block because you don’t know what happens next – you can just whip out a sheet with your plot written on it and see what the next chapter is.  You’ll also find the editing less exhausting, because there shouldn’t be a need to swap whole scenes or chapters around, or remove entire characters, or work out how many storeys up your character’s office is.  You’ll have done it all already, in your planning stage.

What sucks about it?

For me?  Nothing.  I love planning.

But other people – in fact, most of the other writers I’ve met – look at me in horror when I say I’m a planner.  The trouble, for them, is that they get bored.  One of my friends often said she can’t see the point in writing a story if it’s already written out in bullet points.  I can understand this, even if I don’t agree with it.  When you read a book, it’s fun to be surprised by the plot twists, so it stands to reason it’d be just as fun to be surprised by them when you’re writing.

The other problem with planning is that you have to add another chunky stage to your writing process: the planning stage.  For the book I’m working on now, my planning stage lasted an entire month, and that was building on ideas I’d had for a few years.  If you’re going from scratch, it could take much longer; weeks and weeks of itching to write and knowing you can’t because it isn’t all planned out yet.

 

What’s pantsing?

The word ‘pantsing’ came from the phrase ‘writing by the seat of your pants’.  It’s the style that’s encouraged in NaNoWriMo, and the style my aforementioned friend prefers.  She likes to discover as she goes along: to just come up with an idea (‘evil plants from space!’) and, at most, do a bit of worldbuilding, draw a couple of characters, and go.

It means you need to be instinctive in your writing, and to have a very solid idea of how to drive a plot forward.  That’s if you’re going to write it in order – my friend would pick any scene she thought was interesting, write that, and then skip on to another with no regard for plot order.  Eventually, she said, they could all be rearranged to make a story.

 

What’s good about it?

Your story won’t be boring.  If you feel bored with the scene you’re writing, you’ll stop writing or throw in something to drive your story forward and make it exciting again.  This is where NaNoWriMo’s concept of ‘The Travelling Shovel of Death’ comes from – the site advised writers that, if they got bored, they should have someone kill a character with a shovel.  So many writers followed the advice, you can find it in published novels.

You get to have that fun feeling of surprise and wonder when you reach a place for an excellent plot twist, and realise what that twist should be.  Writing will feel more like a rollercoaster than a train ride.

 

What sucks about it?

You can get stuck.  Really stuck.  At least in my experience.

I once wrote a murder mystery story, all by the seat of my pants.  It was very exciting for most of the plot, getting my heroine into more and more horrible danger, introducing her to all the people that could have been the murderer, watching her flounder and struggle.  Then I got to the end – and had no idea who the murderer was.

The ending I wrote was terrible.  I was forced to throw my hands up and pick someone, and no one was a great choice.  No wonderful plot twist came to my head.  I sat and stared blankly at the story for months, and finally wrote an ending I hated.

 

This can also happen in the first few chapters of your novel, or right in the middle.  If you don’t have an instinct for keeping a plot running, and tying everything up at the end, you are going to struggle.

The other problem comes in when you’ve finished the whole novel and have to go back to edit.  It’s inevitable that you’ll make decisions at the end of the book that affect the beginning, so you’ll need to whizz back and potentially change entire chapters.  If you’ve written the way my friend does, you’ll have to take all those fragments you wrote and rearrange them into an actual story, like a jigsaw puzzle.  Those weeks you saved by not planning will get tacked on here in the editing.

 

Which is better?

Short answer?  Neither.

What’s good about planning is it doesn’t have the problems of pantsing.  What’s good about pantsing is it doesn’t have the problems of planning.  You have to decide what you find most helpful, or most frustrating.  Most people don’t even stick to one group or the other, but use a mixture of both.  Maybe they’ll plan their plot out, but not chapter-by-chapter, or they’ll plan their world but let the characters grow organically.

I call myself a planner, but even I sometimes think of something halfway through writing a book, something too good to leave out, and end up putting in that tiny bit by the seat of my pants.  This character should have an accent.  There should be a fight scene here.  And so on.

 

So, curiosity calls!  Which camp would you say you’re in?  And are there any reasons I haven’t raised as to why you prefer it?