Friday, May 28, 2010

Tracking Time

Most writers keep track of how many words they write every day, week and month. Many writers write and recommend a total of 1000 words per day. Stephen King in ON WRITING says he writes 2000 a day (by the way, this is the second post in a row where I've mentioned ON WRITING. That wasn't planned. I'm not a huge King fan. But ON WRITING is perhaps the best book I've read about the craft of writing. Worth checking out!). The joy of NaNoWriMo is pushing writers to write 50,000 words in the month of November.

However, word count has never been that important to me. While drafting Project Sparkle I kept track so I could get a sense of how many words I was writing a week and therefore how many weeks, at the pace I was going, it would take me to finish my draft. I've been using a writing tool called Scrivener (the best writing software ever. I'll have to do a post on that later), which keeps a running total of words typed per session and towards my total goal, so it was easy to keep an eye on word count.

But I set much more stock in "butt in chair" time. Every day in my notebook I start a new line, write the date and the time. When I'm finished, I jot down my end time and add up the minutes. Occasionally throughout the week I transfer those minute totals to an Excel spreadsheet. I total all of my minutes worked, Monday through Sunday, every week. When I was drafting Project Sparkle, I also listed all chapters drafted that week. In March, when I was aiming to finish Project Sparkle by mid-April, I was writing 4 chapters a week, roughly 5000 words.

Time spent is perhaps a more subjective measure of efficiency than word count. I could spend 45 minutes looking out the window (and I frequently do!). But sometimes I need to spend 45 minutes looking out the window to then turn around and write two chapters straight through. By tracking my time spent, I'm ensuring I have plenty of time to accomplish my writing goals. Perhaps it makes me a bit lazier than my word count counterparts, but it helps me focus on the one aspect of my writing I can control: how much "butt in chair" time did I put in today?

Now that I'm revising Project Sparkle, "butt in chair" time seems an even more accurate measure. Keeping track of how many words I've written isn't nearly as important as taking time to find the right one.

This post was inspired by a Tuesday Tip from Literary Rambles' blog. It's definitely worth a read. Guest poster Ryan describes how he tracks date, chapter, time spent, words written, and running total.

I find it really interesting that there's so much variety in how writers track their goals. How do you do it?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

When do you open the door?

"I never talk about a book until I'm finished writing it. And, I like to be alone when I write. It took me a year and a half to write Holes, and nobody knew anything about it, not even my wife or my daughter." Louis Sachar, website

"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." Stephen King, ON WRITING.

When do you open the door?

When I started Project Sparkle, I chose to emulate Sachar. Even Phil, with whom I frequently talk through writing difficulties, only knew I was writing a new book. When my mom asked about it, I felt crazy guilty, but all I wanted to say was "it's a young adult novel set in Chicago." The story was still emerging, bit by bit, and I was afraid if I discussed it with anyone, or even shared my idea, the story would evolve into something different, not my first vision.

Of course, my door wasn't completely closed. On my program I have to share new writing every two weeks! But I focused on workshopping only the first few chapters. I didn't realize how cagey I had been until a month ago, when I said quite casually over lunch what was going to happen to one of the minor characters. Everyone at the table was shocked. They hadn't known. I guess I kept the door pretty secure.

At the end of March I finished the rough draft. But instead of busting the door open, it's been a slow reveal. Mid-April I read a synopsis aloud to my class. I shared a chapter by chapter outline with my tutor, Julia, at the beginning of May. At the end of April, I read a short excerpt aloud at a student event. Phil graciously helped me practice, and once he knew the beginning, I started chatting through other sections with him. This past week Julia read the entire climax, which was really scary, as I knew it didn't quite work and was still a rough draft. Since the plot is still rough, I've been chatting about it with practically anyone who will listen over the past week. Yesterday in class I presented my whole outline and had my classmates pick it apart and brainstorm with me (extremely helpful!).

So, yeah, I guess the door is pretty wide open now. But the process has felt very natural and organic. Rather than flinging my door open, I've stuck my nose in the crack and peeked out. My classmates, tutor and writing friends have peeked in, always encouraging and helpful. And slowly I've gained the courage to open the door a little bit more and then a little bit more.

The funny thing is, I think I'm about to close the door again. I've gotten my feedback, I have a lot of revision to do, and I want to get back to work. Perhaps I'm starting the second draft and closing my door all over again. I'm thankful I have the whole summer in front of me in which to pull everything together. Hopefully by this fall, the door will be ready to be opened wide to everyone.

And because now I can't get this song out of my head:

Monday, May 24, 2010

What to do with all the books?

When I first moved to the UK, I had a strict rule of no material acquisitions. I knew I'd only be living in the UK two years and anything I bought I would need to either transport or get rid of when I moved. If I had to have a a pair of pants? I had to get rid of another pair. If I had to have a book? Another book had to go.

I was pleased with my frugality and my spacious bookshelf. Though if I'm entirely honest, I really missed my books. As a writer, I used them for reference frequently. How do other writers tell backstory in present tense? What kinds of language do other writers use in historical fiction? How are minor characters introduced?

Well, it's been almost three years since then. My visa was extended for another two years, and who knows what the future holds. And this past year I decided to pursue my dream and get my MA in Writing for Young People. So suddenly... I needed stuff. I agonized over buying a printer. But buying books? Bring them on! I love my books.

The no material acquisitions policy was happily scrapped as I bought books for my classes, swapped books with my new writing friends, got a new book every week for my publishing class. Oh, and then last week I won an award for perfect attendance (I know! It's like 5th grade all over again!) and got twelve more books.

The good news: I've got a whole library again. The bad? I'm running out of space.

The good news for my British friends? Sometime in the coming years, I'll have a lot of books looking for good homes. Keep in touch!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Do you write when you're sick?

So today marks three weeks of being sick. I know! Luckily (?), my doctor is taking my case a lot more seriously now.

But that brings me to a larger question... do you write when you're sick?

I usually go through two stages. Stage 1 I try to pamper myself, watch movies, read in bed, take naps, and hope that makes me get better faster. Stage 2 is when I'm still sick, pampering myself doesn't seem to be getting me anywhere, and I get back to work.

I might be hitting stage 3 any day now, where I'll have to blink to dictate my novel to an attentive nurse.
Just kidding! Being sick makes me so much more in awe of people who deal with chronic illness and so grateful for my own (relatively secure) health. And luckily I am nowhere near The Diving Bell and the Butterfly stage of sickness yet.

I don't mind light writing when I'm not feeling well: ie, blog posts, easy revision, emails. What gets me is trying to be creative. At the moment, I'm rethinking the climax of my novel. I also want to rewrite a few scenes to experiment with changing the age of one of my minor characters. And it all seems like an awful lot of work. But perhaps I need to keep Jean-Dominique Bauby in mind and just suck it up.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Over so soon

Today I'll hand in all my final coursework: my essay on cover design, two book proposals, 2500 words from my novel and a reflection on my writing process. Of course, I'm not yet finished. I have a few more deadlines along the way, and September 30th I'll be handing in (hopefully!) my completed novel (Project Sparkle). But I still feel strangely empty. Next week Monday will be my last class at Bath Spa University.

I'm certainly looking forward to having more free time. I've got my whole series of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books waiting for me. I've got the newest PD James mystery. I'm also looking forward to more writing time. I still have yet to figure out my climax.

This past year has been a lot of work. I've frequently dreaded class, thinking "Oh boy, what flaw in my writing are they going to dissect this week?"

Yet for all the challenges, it's been one of the best years of my life, one of the best decisions I've ever made. My writing has improved dramatically. I've become more critical of myself, more aware of my bad writing. But I've also become more aware of my good writing, and been so encouraged and supported in all the things I do well. I've read a ton. I've made friends. I've had the absolute privilege to be surrounded by people who share my passion for children's books and writing and reading. As much as I've dreaded my classes, every Sunday evening I've also thought, "Oh good, I get to go back to school tomorrow!" Every Wednesday morning I've waited expectantly to see what new book I would get to read for the week. So I'm really sad to see it all be over.

Course, I'll still continue to get together, online and hopefully in person, with many of my classmates. I'll still continue to visit Bath and meet with Julia. Next year at about this time my class will be launching our anthology of work with a launch party in London. So perhaps it's not so much of an end as another step forward.

But I'm still sad.

What a change from the beginning of the year, huh? Here's some of my first posts on going back to school and on my first day on campus as a student. I love how I actually have an online record of how much my life has changed.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The power of education

I thought this article was a powerful example of how much teachers can give to students as well as how much students can give to teachers. It's worth a read. Beautiful, fairly brief, and memorable: last night I dreamed of fields and open skies.

Carleton College Voice: "Speaking Their Language"
"Peter Hill ’00 has overcome personal and professional challenges in order to teach the endangered Lakota language to high school students on the Pine Ridge Reservation"

Note: I graduated from Carleton at the same time as Peter and we took many of our education classes together.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

So much to do...

Thanks to everyone for all the encouragement my last post generated. How good to know that I have a problem and so many people rally to help out! As Anna suggested, I've now talked my plot problems through with my husband and a few of my classmates. A Twitter friend suggested a plotting article. I still don't know what's going to happen, but I feel that figuring it out is much more likely now. I'll definitely keep you all updated.

Meanwhile, between being bewildered with plot and sick (I'm on antibiotics now, so hopefully this will clear up soon!), I hadn't realized how quickly my coursework deadline is approaching. By next week Friday I need to submit 2500 words of revised work, a 500 word reflection on my work, my 3000 word essay on book covers, and a cover (query) letter and synopsis for both Project Sparkle and another idea. Eeek!

All of the work has been started, but nothing has been polished. So all plotting dilemmas (and blog posts?) are being pushed to the side momentarily. Off to work!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Revision woes

Still in the throes of revision (and a cold, unfortunately). A lovely combination.

The good news is following my character through the drafting process worked. In combing through the first draft of Project Sparkle, all of the motivations make sense. Sometimes (much of the time?) they're not written out clearly, but they're there. Each scene follows on from the previous one. I feel really good about that.

The bad news is that my tutor thinks my climax is way too complicated. I agree. It's pretty cliche too. I think it mirrors about half the Law and Order episodes I've ever seen.

The worse news is that I'm not sure what to do about it. I know what I want to have happen generally. One character needs to go missing. Another character needs to find him and save him. Along the way, there is much scariness, but various subplots and minor characters band together and it all turns out hopeful. Specifics? No idea. One way to do it is the complicated Law and Order plot I've already written. Are there others? Probably.

I've spent much of the weekend in front of my notebook, playing out various scenarios in my head. I just can't turn anything into a concrete scene.

I probably will eventually. But for the time being it's pretty frustrating. Any advice?

Friday, May 7, 2010

What makes a bestseller?

Short answer: no one knows. If vampires could have been predicted, for example, some people might be richer right now.

Last week for my Contemporary Children's Publishing course, my classmates and I were each required to read a bestselling author. One read Eoin Colfer, another Jacqueline Wilson, another Charlie Higson. I read Ann Brashares' SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS.

It was funny reading a book with an eye on why it was a bestseller. THE TRAVELING PANTS was definitely bestselling material, almost from the first page to the last. It was all about females and friendships, so as a female reader I felt almost as if I were invited into a club just by reading. The topics were also of interest, particularly to young female readers: romance, friendship, family, body issues. The characters represented a wide (perhaps stereotypical) spectrum of women (different races, personalities, interests), so there was something for nearly every woman to relate to. But the characters were also flawed and human. The book was divided into very short sections, with cliffhanger endings which kept me compulsively turning the pages. The substance reminded me of a teenage EAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert. The fast-paced read reminded me of Meg Cabot's THE PRINCESS DIARIES.

I was a little embarrassed how much I enjoyed it.

It wasn't great literature. The girls felt a little stereotypical. By covering four characters' lives, Brashares had to spread herself quite thin: much more breath than depth. But in the end, as I told my classmates, had I had the next book in the series, I would have happily kept reading.

Well, that was a mistake.

Guess who has a teacher who's trying to clean out his bookshelves? No, no complaints, really it was quite sweet! I've got my guilty pleasures all ready for classes to end in a few weeks!

Our class didn't come to any conclusion about what makes a bestseller. All of our books were different in major, unpredictable ways. But a few similarities came up over again:
  • Famous authors
  • Series (the author or the story will have a brand, no one-offs)
  • Readable writing (not brilliant, but not dreadful either)
  • Topics which appeal to their readership (Young Bond, adult free lives, romance, etc).
Do you have any guilty bestselling pleasures? Or conversely, at there any bestsellers you've read where you just don't get it?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Revision the hard way

I'm in the midst of my first revision of Project Sparkle. As usual, I'm inventing the process as I go, trying to find what works best for me. At the moment, I'm going through the early chapters my classmates' workshopped, making sure characters, setting, and conflicts are set out clearly and consistently. I'm hoping if I can just get the first third or so right, then the rest will straighten itself out more easily.

Tomorrow I'm meeting with my tutor, Julia, to discuss my synopsis and a chapter by chapter outline. Plot is my biggest struggle, so I'm hoping she'll point out the overarching conflicts which are inconsistent with the characters or too complex or whatever, and then I can begin to work on some big picture stuff throughout the novel.

As I'm working, it's occurred to me that I have two revision modes: easy revision and hard revision. Easy revision is my favorite. Obviously.

Easy revision is when I craft individual sentences to make them pretty. Or I check every mention of a character to make sure her appearance is always described the same way. Or perhaps if I was told in class that a character seemed too angry in a scene, I might tone down some of her language. It's busy work and polishing, and therefore not overly taxing. As opposed to hard revision.

Hard revision is when I rethink (revisualize) everything. I think about the scene's purpose, each character's goals, each character's feelings. Sometimes I rewrite an entire scene in a new setting, or with different emotions. Sometimes I cut scenes. Instead of blithely making a character's language less angry, I'll explore her feelings, her motivations. If she's meant to be that angry, I'll show why, if she's not, then I'll tone down the language.

My problem is I'm lazy. Sometimes I'll find myself writing pretty sentences, when really the whole scene doesn't work. I have to remind myself every morning to start with the hard questions first, one after another, until I'm through them. And the worst? Many days I don't even let myself do easy revision because I'm still not sure I've got a scene right. It's a waste of my time to make it perfect if I may be drastically rewriting it. Though some days I can't move on from a scene until every sentence is lovely, even if I'll need to change it later.

It's not the most efficient process in the world.

How do you revise? Do you find yourself fixing the easy things first?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Reading aloud

This past week, Bath Spa had an "MA Showcase" event where students were invited to read short excerpts from their work.

As a former teacher, reading aloud and speaking in front of groups of people doesn't usually bother me. But I wanted to show my work in the best light possible. Also, I'm conscious that if I'm privileged enough to publish my work, I could be regularly reading it aloud in schools and at festivals, so I wanted to do a good job.

Lucy English, a performance poet and tutor at Bath Spa, ran a session for those of us planning to read. She didn't say anything new to me or shocking, but her advice was useful and of course timely.

Her tips on choosing a piece to read:

  • Choose a dramatic scene or description with clear images
  • Don't expect a piece to be representative of your whole novel
  • Avoid pieces which need lots of explanation

A few of her tips on reading aloud:

  • Choose one verb that describes how you want to appear, then decide how you can convey that through clothes, body language, and facial expressions
  • Pause for four seconds before you start reading
  • Move your arms in expressive gestures, but not your feet
  • Slow down, especially if you have a more unique voice (hello American accent!)
  • Think about pauses, varying your sentence length and pitch
  • Engage with the emotion of the piece
  • Keep your papers / book at your waist, not in front of your face
  • If something happens, just keep going--no one will know!
Useful, huh?

The evening went well--or at least, I felt good about it. I didn't fall over, pass out, or lose my place! Though my hands were shaking quite a bit when I sat down.

I read from the beginning of Project Sparkle, which currently opens with a dramatic scene, so that was an easy choice. And nice to begin sharing my writing with those outside my immediate class.

For those of you who do readings, do you have a hard time trying to decide what to read? What types of selections have you had success with? Do you still get nervous every time?