The Magic Art of Finishing Up

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It’s super easy to start writing.  New ideas are shiny and exciting.  There are worlds to explore and characters to get to know.  You may plot, plan, research, outline, and even write a big part of your books. Only to get distracted when the next shiny, exciting idea comes along and seems SOOO much better than the current one.

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you have likely worked on a lot of projects.  How many of them have you finished?  Do you have an archive of half-finished manuscripts on your computer? A plethora of first drafts that have never been revised?

It’s easy to put away the old one, sure that the new one is going to be The One.

Until it’s not. It’s like being a serial dater, barely getting to know one book before moving on to the next.

Almost Finished Gets You Nothing And Nowhere

While it’s true that you’re a writer if you write, it’s also true that, if you have a goal to be a published writer (or, better yet, a self-supporting writer), you need to finish what you start.  You can’t send a half finished manuscript to an editor.  You can’t self-publish part of a story or, worse, a first draft.

So why do we do this?  There are a lot of reasons for starting something new before the old is finished.

  • You’re trying to avoid the previous project that has gotten “too hard.” Surely the next one will be easier!
  • You got bored with the last manuscript or felt like you’d been working on it forever. Surely the next one will go faster!
  • The old book was so flawed, you probably wouldn’t be able to fix it. So you’re not even going to try. Surely the next one will be better!
  • Finishing is scary. If your goal is publication, finishing means you have to submit it to an editor agent, or you have to hit “publish.” That’s a scary step that you never have to take if you never finish. Surely you’ll be ready after the next book!

If you’re on the Fail to Finish Team, one or more of those excuses probably sounds familiar.

The problem with all of that is, of course, that if you never finish, your career is over before it’s even begun.  There are thousands of would-be writers out there with unfinished manuscripts.  (How many times has someone said to you, upon hearing you’re a writer, “Oh, yeah! I started writing a book, too!”?)

But you want to be a real writer, a paid writer.  You don’t want to be a would-be writer saying to other “real” writers that you, too, have “started writing a book” at every cocktail party you attend for the rest of your life.

So How Do You Finish?

Once you’ve completed one book, you know you can do it again.  So how do you break this cycle of unfinished projects and get to the finish line?

  • Stop making excuses about why starting something else is the right thing to do. You don’t need to write book 2 in a series when you haven’t finished book 1.  The next book is not going to be easier that this one. They are all hard.
  • Be thoughtful about what you start. Just because you think of a fantastic idea doesn’t mean it’s the right idea for you. Or the right idea right now.  Keep a notebook when you think of something new.  It’ll be there when you finish the one you’re working on now.
  • Commit to the finish. Look at your current half-finished projects and pick one. Work through the hard part and complete it.
  • Don’t worry about perfection. That’s what revisions are for.
  • While you’re working, visualize what it will feel like to finish. A bit of future projecting can go a long way toward motivating yourself to proceed to the finish line.

What you’ll find when you’ve completed that first novel (or the second, or tenth) is a profound feeling of accomplishment.  Your confidence will grow with each finished project.

So pick a project and feel the magic of finishing.

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” — Neil Gaiman

~ Shannon McKelden

When Harry Met Newton: Newton’s Laws of Storytelling

[Another great post from our editor, Lewis Pollak.]6417813593_fcb7f4855a_o

Most people know that Sir Isaac Newton was a mathematician and natural philosopher and that he is credited with defining gravity in mathematical terms, but did you know he was also a fine editor? Ok, well, maybe not, but if you take a look at Newton’s Laws of Motion you might be surprised just how relevant they are to great storytelling.

Newton’s First Law of Motion

Newton’s first law describes the concept of inertia. It tells us that objects at rest (or in motion) will stay that way unless some outside force interferes.

Many novels begin with a picture of what the main character’s life is like before the story proper begins. We get a sense of who they are and what they want out of life. Then, something happens to shake up their world, often referred to as an inciting incident. From the perspective of character growth, the character is stagnant and going nowhere, or stuck on a path, meandering inevitably toward some fate. This is inertia! The inciting incident is an external force that upsets the equilibrium of the character. Cool, right?

There are a number of turning points that most stories share, like a midpoint and a black moment. What is happening to your characters in your stories at those points? Are the forces acting upon them sufficient to change the course they are on at that point in the story?

Keep in mind that for storytelling purposes, the force acting on the character doesn’t have to be external. Maybe it’s a change in their thinking, as is often the case with black moments. Maybe it is them overcoming whatever their flaw happens to be and realizing they need to take a different course of action. One of my favorite lines ever comes from When Harry Met Sally, when Harry says, “…when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” That realization was an extremely powerful force in the life of Harry Burns.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion

The second law is probably the most difficult to relate to storytelling, but it’s worth doing because the idea, like the law itself, is quite powerful. Basically, you have to consider all forces acting on an object. From above, we know an object in motion tends to stay that way, but common sense dictates that if we shove a box across the floor it won’t keep going indefinitely. The reason it stops is because in addition to the shove we gave it, other forces are acting on the box, like gravity and friction. The same is true of your story.

Why do so many books and movies have some form of time pressure, a proverbial ticking clock that defines a point at which something bad will happen?  Why do books on storytelling say that the stakes should increase as the story progresses or the hazards a character faces should become more and more dire? Why do editors tell you to end a scene or chapter with a question of some kind? The answer is friction.

Friction, in this context, is a tendency for your reader to stop turning to the next page and put the book down. Of course this tendency varies from reader to reader but I urge you to think of friction as a universal force that you can not be rid of. What you can do is continually propel your story forward with enough force, enough momentum, to overcome that friction so your story, and your reader, don’t come to a grinding halt.

Use ticking clocks if appropriate. Increase stakes. Cut back things that don’t seem important and are bogging down the momentum. And once something becomes inevitable in your story, like a character makes an important decision, drive toward it and don’t become sidetracked. Harry wants the rest of his life to start as soon as possible, not five chapters from now (unless five chapters from now is as soon as possible and he’s fighting desperately for that outcome the whole way).

Newton’s Third Law of Motion

Everyone has heard this one in some form, such as, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This relates back to the blog post I inflicted upon you last month where I wrote about doing harm to characters.

For our purposes, this law refers to balance between good and evil in a story, between dire perils and daring escapes, between the relative strength of protagonist and antagonist, obstacle and happy ending. As I said in the comments section of last month’s post, if you have a weak antagonist, there isn’t enough for the protagonist to push back against, which can create big problems with suspension of disbelief and leave your story feeling flat.

If you have a fantasy story where the protagonist transforms into the avatar of a god at the end to smite the bad guys, the character had better have suffered tremendously at the hands of the antagonist along the way and that antagonist had better do a better job of embodying evil than Snidely Whiplash or Ultron (seriously, what a waste of James Spader’s talents, “No strings” commercial aside).

Not every story has to be galaxy-spanning, either. This applies to “small” stories too. I think it’s fair to say that the ending of When Harry Met Sally, that two people who are so different should fall in love, is improbable. But look at how much they have to go through to make it to that point, all the challenges they have to navigate. They face incredible obstacles before finding happiness together, and that’s what makes it work when they finally do.

“I Never Studied Law”

Maybe Newton wasn’t an editor, but I do find it fascinating that the ways in which we define the physical world can have such interesting parallels to the worlds we create inside our own minds. Even if you, like a certain wise-cracking rabbit, “never studied law,” I hope Newton’s Laws give you something to ponder as you write or revise your next project and you don’t leave your reader hanging.

Quitting 101 for Writers

quitProbably the biggest complaint I hear from writers is that they “don’t have enough time” to write.

This is usually followed, in the next breath, by listing all the things they’ve got going. All the social events, clubs, projects, volunteer activities, charity work, parental commitments, etc., they have been participating in.  And then how exhausted they are.  And how they can’t fit writing in anywhere.

Even though writing is supposedly a “priority.”

Even though publishing is “all they have ever dreamed of doing” with their lives.

The problem is, no matter how much of a priority something is, if you’re not making time for it, it really isn’t a priority. No matter how many times you call it that.

Actions speak louder than words. If you say writing is a priority, then take action to make it a priority!

So, how do you make time for writing? By quitting.

What?! “Quit,” you say? But winners never quit and quitters never win!

I beg to differ.

When is Quitting Okay?

How many of you struggle with quitting reading a book that you hate or that’s boring?  How many of you are still volunteering for something that no longer interests you or that you’ve come to dread?

Quitting, even something you’ve come to despise, can be really unpleasant for some folks.

But in order to make writing a priority, you can’t just talk about it.  You have to really make it one of the most important things in your life (maybe behind your kids, spouse, health . . . things like that). Remember this, again:  actions speak louder than words.

So, when is quitting okay?

When you’re doing too much –We often do all the things, volunteer for everything, and accept every invitation because of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  But you can’t do everything, so it’s okay to be selective. There’s only so much time in a day, and spreading yourself thin can be hard on your health, family, and most definitely any chance you have of starting or maintaining a writing career.

When you’re doing things that aren’t yours to do – Are there things you’re doing that really should be the responsibility of someone else?  Or could they be someone else’s responsibility?  Delegating is a parent’s best friend. No one says you have to clean up after everyone or cook all the meals or drive all the carpools.  If a task can (or should) be done by someone else, hand them their responsibility and stop doing it all yourself.

When you’re only doing it out of habit — Just because you’ve been watching the same soap opera every day for the last ten years, doesn’t mean you have to keep watching it. If you’re only watching it out of habit and not really enjoying the rehashed plotlines, it’s time to quit.

When you’re only doing it because you spent money on it – This is a big one and really hard to get past for some people.  Even if you spent money on something, if it no longer brings you joy, quit. So what if you invested $1000 on piano lessons?  If practicing bores you to tears, you suck at it, and you don’t love it anymore, there’s no reason to keep pursuing it. You may have invested your money, but stop investing your time on something you dislike doing.

When you’re only doing it because someone else expects you to – Did you join a club because your friend begged you to, only to find that you no longer care?  Quit.  If your friend is a true friend, they will understand that you need to make writing a priority in your life.

When what you’re doing doesn’t support your goals — Don’t let saying “yes” become more important than reaching your own goals and dreams.   If the activity in question isn’t supportive of what you’re reaching for in your life, it’s time to quit.  If it doesn’t bring you joy, quit.

How (and What) to Quit

Once you’ve made the decision to quit those extraneous things in your life to make more time to write, how do you go about it?  How do you decide what has to stay and what can go?

Make a pros and cons list –  Not sure whether you still want to belong to the service club you’ve belonged to for ten years?  What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it? If there are any cons, consider quitting if there’s no passion left.

Ask for outside opinions from trusted friends or family – Is there anything in your life that they have been telling you to quit?  Ask for their honest thoughts . . . keeping in mind that if you’re trying to quit an activity that they are invested in, they might not be the right person to ask.

Figure out how much extra time you’ll gain by quitting –  How much time do you spend at each of your activities on a weekly basis?  Start by calculating the most time-consuming activity you participate in, and see if it still seems as appealing, if quitting it could give you back that equally large amount of writing time.

Finally, try applying the KonMari method – From the crazy popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, this is really meant to tidy up your life by getting rid of material things that no longer bring you joy.  Applying this same method to the activities you participate in, though, could have an amazing effect on the time you have available to write!

One thing Kondo suggests in the book is clearing out all at once, rather than little by little.  Throwing one thing out a day isn’t going to clean your house up fast. On the other hand, ridding your house, all at the same time, of every item of clothing that isn’t bringing you joy will feel so good, you will be less likely to “relapse” into bad habits or add more things to your wardrobe that leave you joy-less.

Same with that long list of activities you participate in!  Try listing all the things you do (aside from the necessary things, like feeding your kids and getting regular dental checkups) and then go through them one by one, all at the same time, and decide what really brings you joy.

“Start by discarding,” says Kondo. “Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.” [Emphasis mine.]

And by “space,” in this instance, we’re talking about your writing “space” – the time you spend, or want to spend – pursuing your goals and dreams.

Once you know what brings you joy, you know what to keep.  Ditch the rest.  Be a quitter and make time for the writing that you love and want more time for!

Final Quitting Thoughts

Remember, nothing is permanent.  If you quit something and then later find you miss it too much, you can always go back. As long as you aren’t doing it to procrastinate from writing.

If the idea of the KonMari method and quitting things all at once is a bit too much, or if you’re just not sure you want to give up a particular thing yet, at least commit to checking in again in six months to see if you still feel the same about it.  Once you’ve got the idea in your head that you may want to quit this activity, you might find all kinds of reasons cropping up that support this.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re talking about quitting things that prevent you from writing — writing that you have determined is a priority for you.

Quitting 101 isn’t a primer on how to quit writing.  Writing is hard work and not always fun.  But there’s a huge difference between quitting something because it’s hard sometimes and quitting something because it leaves you no room for what’s really important in your life.

If you’ve committed to a writing career and decided it is your priority, then look for things to quit that don’t support this priority.

Being a quitter isn’t always bad. Quit the right things. For the right reasons.

And then go Rock Your Writing with all that free time you have.

~  Shannon McKelden

Take the Hypocritic Oath

DO HARMCathy’s note: here’s another winner from our newest editor, Lewis! 🙂

If you’ve watched medical or police procedurals, you’ve probably encountered the Hippocratic Oath, associated with the Greek physician Hippocrates—that’s four syllables, Bill & Ted fans, four—at some point. The oath is often summarized as “do no harm” though those words are not part of the oath itself.

Today, I’d like to introduce a different oath, one for authors and storytellers.

I shall call it the Hypocritic Oath, which states:  “Do Harm.”

Think about it. A book where nothing bad ever happened to characters wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? Do you want to read a book with no barriers to success of the main character(s)? A book with no conflict?

Ok, so why “hypocritic”?

Because as an author, you do all these terrible things to your characters, introduce obstacle after obstacle into their path, so they can overcome them. You know they are going to overcome them (unless you’re the kind of crazy-popular author who can get away with writing themselves into a corner before killing everyone).

It’s all about balance.

The more spectacular you want your ending to be, the more triumphant your hero(ine), and the larger the scale of the story, the greater the obstacles there should be, and the more pain and suffering and sacrifice your characters should endure before they achieve victory.

So I am here today to give you permission, as I often have with authors, to Do Harm.

Let’s get started.

Repeat after me:

I promise…to do horrible things…to my characters. To fill their lives…with pain…and misery…to torture them…at every turn…and to never…ever…make anything easy.

So, what now? Should you drop meteors on your main character’s head in the first scene? Well, I suppose you could, if you want your story (or your character) to be very short.

In many stories, the stakes increase as the story progresses.

This is an easy way to build tension. There might also be an added element of time pressure that comes increasingly into play, like the bus your character is on that can’t slow down without exploding might be running out of fuel. Ok, seriously subconscious, why do Keanu movies keep popping up in this blog post?

There should also be a natural order to the challenges you present.

I’m going to pick on the wisest of sages for a moment, “Weird Al” Yankovic. Mr. Yankovic’s ability to devise dastardly doings is unparalleled. But sometimes, for comic effect, he likes to screw up the order of escalation. There are a couple of great examples in the song “Virus Alert” from the album Straight Outta Lynwood. If the titular virus has melted your face off of your skull, is limiting your iPod to only being able to play songs by Jethro Tull really much of a concern? Probably not. Similarly, if a rift in spacetime had been torn open, would we really be concerned about litter caused by Twinkie wrappers?

When you are crafting a story, the circumstances should become progressively more challenging as the stakes and pressure increase. Aligning these factors can really help keep the story moving along at a brisk pace.

But if the order is off, the pacing probably will be too.

Now that you’ve been officially indoctrinated into the Order of Hypocrites (OOH), we should talk about two of the greatest enemies of the Order, “almost” and “nearly”. Ever have a character nearly get hit by a car or almost get shot? If you have, ask yourself why that happened.

Why did that car/shot/meteor miss the intended target? Were you subconsciously avoiding inflicting harm (breaking the oath you just took and condemning you to an eternity eating shards of broken glass)? Were you perhaps afraid that if your character were injured you wouldn’t know how to deal with that? If the answer to either of those was “yes” then you are injecting yourself into the story, which should be avoided.

Most importantly, if the character had been injured at that point, would it make the story better? Would it add tension and help with pacing? Does the character need something else to overcome at that moment?

Story structure can vary, but in most stories, a series of Bad Things will befall our intrepid heroes after the midpoint, escalating in intensity toward the point where all their hopes and dreams seem to have been flushed down the toilet with all those Twinkie wrappers. One of the many things that Donald Maass talks about in his various books and workshops is taking a situation and making it more difficult.

Here’s an exercise.

Take a look at one of your own scenes. What’s the situation? How can you make the circumstances worse? Once you have an idea, how can you make it even worse than that?

Have fun with it. Get creative. But do make sure the complication you introduce is organic to the story and doesn’t feel forced, you know, like Keanu starring in The Watcher.

 

 

Say No to the Multitasking Mistake

multitasking
Photo courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ihavezlatathoughts/

We live in a world that is full of the drive to do more, more, more.  As writers, we suffer from this expectation maybe more than a lot of other people.

We are expected to write more, blog more, market more, be visible on social media more.  It is all Important, with a capital I.  Not doing all these things constitutes failure as a writer. Doesn’t it?

So a lot of us turn to multitasking.

What is Multitasking?

How many of you carry on multiple Twitter conversations while writing?  Or work on more than one book at once. (And by “at once” I mean at the same sitting, maybe even on separate screens.)

How many of you watch TV while working on copyedits or play solitaire while writing your rough draft?  Anyone ever burned dinner because you were sucked into some black hole of research?

The “busy-ness” of multitasking makes us feel like we’re getting a lot done.  If we’re honest about it, though, in most of the above cases, multitasking is really just another term for “unable to concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing.”

So what exactly is multitasking?  Multitasking is doing more than one thing, side-by-side, which requires one’s attention to be given equally to each.  But since your brain cannot actually focus on two things simultaneously, what you are really doing is switching your attention back and forth between the two things.

Write a paragraph, answer an email, write another paragraph, answer another email. You’re not really working on both at the same time. You’re alternating between two separate things, each of which requires your brain’s undivided attention at the time of the doing.

Writers and Multitasking

Keep in mind that, by “multitasking,” I don’t mean doing different writerly things on different days or at separate times. As a working writer, or one trying to establish relationships with their Right Readers, for example, you may need to assign different tasks to different days.  Writing Monday through Thursday, bookkeeping on Fridays, marketing on weekends.

Alternatively, some writers divide their days into different types of tasks…writing in the mornings and answering emails and doing other business-related tasks in the afternoon.   None of these examples really falls into the category of multitasking because you are focusing on one task at a time.

Sometimes you have to make time for other tasks besides writing spur-of-the-moment. If you’re published, you’ve probably been deep into the first draft of a new book, only to get your editorial letter or your copy edits and have to completely shift gears.  There’s not much you can do about that…because you likely have a deadline.

How Multitasking Affects the Writing

When it comes to the effects of multitasking on the writing, these are the main issues:

  • Decreased productivity. While multitasking may make you feel busy, scientists estimate that productivity is actually decreased by 40% when you’re doing more than one thing concurrently.

Switching your focus to something other than the writing every couple of minutes has the same effect as if you saved your document and closed your program after a few paragraphs, only to need to wait for it to open again to work on it once more a few minutes later.

When you work on something else, then come back to the writing, you have to reboot your brain to get reacquainted with where you were before you can start again. If you’d just kept going, that “reboot” time could have been spent actually writing.

  • Loss of focus. If the words aren’t flowing easily, they certainly aren’t going to flow any better if you allow yourself to shift focus to something else instead, even for a few minutes. You’d be better off staring into space when things aren’t flowing, and letting your brain work out the problem, instead of giving it something completely different to do.
  • Increase in mistakes. Typos, skipping important information in a scene, calling a secondary character by the wrong name.  Sometimes, when you’ve switched tasks, your brain is still back on the other one, which can cause errors.  Another way mistakes can increase is by loss of continuity.  Copy editing while watching TV can cause you to skip sentences. Your focus is pulled away to the television, and when you come back, you don’t go quite back to where you ended, and you miss something.
  • Greater stress level. Yes, believe it or not, task-switching increases adrenaline in your system and actually increases your stress level! While working on your manuscript, your mind may be stressing out over what you might be missing on Facebook.
  • Decreased likelihood of finishing things…like your work in progress. Starting multiple stories and working on them all at once means it’s going to take longer to get these things completed…if they ever do get finished. (You’re liable to get bored with one or both and move on to yet another shiny pretty new things before ever completing any of it.) Multitasking produces activity, not accomplishment.

 

Multitasking Solutions

Are we ever going to be able to get rid of multitasking completely?   Probably not.

But if you’re struggling to get that chapter done, feeling like you’re never quite “in the zone,” wondering why you feel like you’re missing opportunities on Twitter or Facebook to communicate with your readers, finding yourself making mistakes…STOP. Take a look at  your work habits.

It could be that you’re never giving one task all of your attention for any length of time.

Here are a few solutions to making the mistake of multitasking.

  • De-socialize. Turn off email and social media notifications while working. Don’t answer the phone. No one is going to miss you for an hour or two. When you’ve completed your writing for the day, feel free to play on Twitter all you want, giving it all your attention instead of only half of it.
  • Save things for later. DVR your favorite shows if they come on during your writing time. The show will be just as good at another time. Bonus…you will likely pay more attention to the show AND be able to skip commercials.
  • Get rid of distractions. Delete Candy Crush or any other addiction from your phone or computer.  If it’s not there, you won’t be tempted to just “play one more level” between paragraphs. Change when you write.  If all your writing friends hit Twitter at 6 p.m., can you write before that, so you aren’t tempted to multitask?
  • Check into distraction-free writing tools that will help keep you focused.
  • Schedule your tasks and your downtime. Put a day without writing on your calendar, and take care of personal things on that day, or feel free to explore marketing or social media more in depth. Schedule a couple of hours of research time in the morning and then work on the scenes you were gathering research for in the afternoon.  Don’t research as you go.

With a bit of adjustment, you can disable the multitasking bug most of the time.  You’ll find that once you’re focusing better on one task at a time, you’ll accomplish more, faster, and better.

Last month when I wrote my blog post for Rock Your Writing, it took me nearly a week of evenings. This month it took me a few hours one evening, including research time.

Why the big difference?  Last month I wrote while watching TV each night. (And if you don’t think Sam and Dean can take your focus away from what you’re supposed to be doing, you’ve never watched Supernatural.)

This month I turned off the TV and concentrated on one thing, researching and writing my blog post. It took me a fifth of the time.

If that’s not proof of the evils of multitasking, I don’t know what is.

Where do you find multitasking tripping you up?  How do you solve the problem? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Rock Your Writing!

~Shannon McKelden