From The Writing Life

How to Set Writing Goals You Can Keep – and Make This Your Best Year Ever

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It’s still early in 2016, and at the beginning of the year I’m always thinking about writing goals I want to achieve. Is it better to impose deadlines, or to write every day? To schedule writing or allow it to happen whenever I feel the urge? To use prompts and exercises, or freewrite? To keep a diary or focus on my fiction? There are so many ways to walk the creative path, and yet without choosing specific goals for ourselves, it’s so easy to see a year slip by without any advancement, any progress made. That’s my fear, and so I do what I can to make sure my writing life doesn’t slip through my fingers.

Two pages a day

I heard one writing instructor of mine say that when he is working on a novel, this is the only goal he sets for himself. I love this idea, because it’s attainable, it’s not overly daunting, and yet if you stick to it, you’ll end the year with hundreds of pages to work with. In past years I’ve tried to stick to this as much as I can, and I’m trying it again in 2016. It doesn’t mean I’m actually going to get 2 pages every day; but I feel I’ve achieved a victory if I can get two pages done roughly every other day.

Going to a writing place

I’ve written in the past how important it is for me to be in a location conducive to writing. Just designating a space for writing only can be very powerful; when at home, in my usual office chair, it’s just too easy to pop up for a snack in the kitchen, or to fiddle with the stack of mail that needs going through, or to go on the internet for hours. So in addition to my 2 pages a day goal, I’m making it a goal to go to a cafe or the library with my notebook at least once a week, and preferably twice. When I’m there, I’m in writing mode. I’m not allowed to goof off on the internet, or even to do important work of other kinds. When I’m elsewhere, it’s a powerful motivator to focus on my story. In an odd way, it’s also liberating; with no pressure to do the myriad other things life requires, from cleaning to grading, then I’m free to wander in the worlds of my stories.

Read; daydream

Related to that, I don’t think there’s anything more crucial to my own writing then to swim in a sea of books. Looking back at some childhood papers recently, I was stunned to remember the sheer number of books I used to read every year. There was the list; I’d happily downed book after book, reading a whole book in a day. Now, with so many obligations, I find myself not reading every day, and that saddens me; there are few things in life that give the quiet joy of reading. I’m pledging to read a little every day, whether as an audiobook, opening my Kindle on the subway, or curling up in a chair the way I used to do for hours.

Give your creative life purpose and direction

Creative goals are essential because they allow you to check in with yourself throughout the year and see how you’re doing. They allow you to select a theme for your year and for your writing life, and shape your year consciously into the narrative you choose. It’s also important to remember that if you fail to live up to a high standard, that, too, is part of life, and beating yourself up and then giving up won’t improve things. Instead, forgive yourself, pledge to do better, adjust things so that doing better is more feasible, and move serenely on.

How to Make Writing Resolutions You Can Keep

Every year, articles and thinkpieces online inform us that our best efforts to make and keep resolutions are utterly doomed. We’re told that our pledges to lose weight, exercise more, eat better, and so on, are hubris at best, stupidity at worst. To some extent, the naysayers are right; the usual, vague resolutions, the ones that show little understanding of ourselves and our natures, are doomed to fail.

But that doesn’t mean we writers are stuck, or that it’s not helpful to make resolutions. In fact, i find it tremendously useful to look at my life with a macro lens once in a while and be ambitious and idealistic about what I really want to accomplish. The key, of course, is in making the right kind of resolutions.

1. Know thyself.

The first way to make a meaningful resolution is to actually understand your own habits, personality, and limitations. I don’t think I’m ever going to be the type of writer who wakes at dawn to write for two hours; I’m not sure I’ll even be the type of writer who writes every day. To set too ambitious a goal often comes from not understanding what we’re really capable of.

So I can’t write for two hours every day. But if I stretch myself a bit, I could write three days a week. I’m going to do my best to do that.

2. Be specific.

The other most common mistake resolvers make is that they make very broad, vague generalizations, hoping they’ll be able to quantify that success later. “Read more” is about the same as “Exercise more”; how am I measuring that? What level of “more” will I be satisfied with?

The resolution that is most likely to succeed is one that is truly concrete and measurable. Read a new literary magazine each week. Write two pages a day. Read more books than the number of books you read last year. These are things that you can measure and track; they’re goals that you can keep an eye on, and use to stay motivated. If you’re disappointed in your progress, it’s hard to get back on your feet; but if you have that concrete goal, those two pages to get done, you can keep improving.

3. Resist the “what the hell effect.”

In the dieting world, researchers have found that many diets are lost after one small violation. After violating the rules or failing in a small way, such as eating a dessert, people who wanted to lose weight then threw caution to the winds and overate. If we set too strict goals for ourselves, and then break them, that one disappointment can cause us to lose motivation entirely and backslide into old habits.

This applies to writing goals as well. Set a goal that challenges you, but forgive yourself if you fail to live up to it perfectly. Didn’t have the strength to write today? Then write a little tomorrow. Take good care of yourself, but push yourself too. Don’t allow any but the most emergent excuses from yourself; but if you do need to take a rain check, then roll out of bed the next day and do better.

What are your writing resolutions for 2016?

The First Fifty Pages

It’s time for another overhaul of the novel, readers.

Writing a novel takes patience. I’m learning that, slowly and steadily; and every time I get frustrated at the novel’s current state, I have to remind myself that it simply does take time for something as large, as ambitious, as intense as a novel to take the shape it needs. I also have to remind myself that as a writer, my weak point is structure. I have to re-adjust and change the novel’s shape. I have to work and re-work and re-work plot. More than anything, it’s amazing to me how if I just give myself a little distance from the novel, I’m able to see things that I simply couldn’t see before.

That change in sight is particularly evident in the first fifty pages, probably the most important part of any book. Because I know all the big events that will happen a hundred pages down the road, I now see that I’ve been coasting for the first fifty. I’m banking on a reader who will be patient and who will wait for something to happen; but the reader doesn’t have the foresight that I do. I can’t blame the reader, either — would I want to read a book in which nothing happens for fifty pages?

It’s astonishing to me, after all the careful work I’ve done on those fifty pages, to look back and be able to realize that nothing has really gotten off the ground yet. But it’s also galvanizing. I’m able to say to myself that I have the courage to make bold changes. I can do this, I’m telling myself. I have the freedom to shift and shuffle and re-think what’s going on. Why not begin in the middle of the crucial choice she must make, instead of waiting for that choice to show up at page 65? Why not just begin?

I think this is a tremendously common obstacle that writers encounter, and I see it in my students and colleagues’ work all the time. There’s this trepidatious opening, this timid little tap of the water to see how the temperature is. Are you liking this mood? We’re asking the reader. How about this character, do you like her? What if I change her in about forty pages? Would you prefer her fiestier, quietier, more insane? The first fifty pages of any draft are a nervous affair.

The funny thing is that those fifty pages endure into third, fourth, and fifth drafts. We’re still holding on to those fifty pages even as we boldly change what comes next, because they were the first foothold into that novel. Maybe it’s nostalgia that makes us cling, or deeply held affection for the way that things began, the first fruition of that little blooming bud of a story. Maybe it’s sentimentality. Or maybe it’s fear; in my case, I got positive feedback for those first fifty pages that encouraged me to write the rest of the manuscript. But now that I’ve completed the thing, I can’t cling to that first fifty just because I got a pat on the head for them. Now I can do better. And now I must.

This week, try looking back at the first fifty pages of your novel manuscript. If you’re brutally honest with yourself, does anything of import happen in that space? And if not, why not change it?

Crucial Steps You’re Missing in the Writing Process

YOU’RE MISSING SOMETHING. No, you remembered a title; there’s a series of sentences on the page; on the outside, your story seems to have everything it needs. But on the inside, it’s sorely lacking. It’s almost like you’re sending a human out into the world missing a liver and a pancreas. It’s not going to get far. Make sure your story isn’t missing any of these absolutely crucial elements.

Scene, scene, scene. It’s tempting to write a story that includes all the requisite plot points — but doesn’t actually show them happening in real time. It’s the difference between going to see a movie, or reading the summary on Wikipedia. We want scenes, and we want the important events in the story to develop in front of our eyes. Don’t just tell us the girlfriend cheated and they broke up; show us the scene of getting caught, getting confronted, and having the fight!

More than one character. There are exceptions to this, but not too many. We often write a first draft of a story as though one or two characters exist in some kind of vacuum; they’re the only human beings left on the planet, and so have to run into each other and talk to each other all the time. But a more realistic vision is a populated world, one full of taxi drivers and shopkeepers, nosy neighbors, annoying teachers, and casual acquaintances. Make sure your characters live in a populated world, or else it won’t feel real at all. Read more

When the First Roadblocks Loom…

My regular readers know that I always begin the fall season bursting with enthusiasm. I start this most productive of seasons full of ideas and plans for the months ahead. This season I have particularly lofty goals in mind with regard to my own writing and publishing career. But pretty soon, we all see the early hurdles rearing their ugly heads.

It starts small; perhaps we had the goal to cook more often, and then we discover how tired we really are at the end of a work day. We had plans for how to use the weekend, and then several weekends in a row seemed to be filled with errands and family obligations. All that time you thought you would have starts to evaporate before your eyes. This is a crucial period in the season; it’s a time of testing, and the outcome of the test can be deadly serious. Before you know it, the season you thought you would have can disappear. And that leads to feelings of profound disappointment and possibly even resentment toward the people you think stood in your way.

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Editing is the Difference Between Writers and Non-Writers

I’ve got a folder of unfinished stories right now. Being the organized type, I like to go on a purge through my folders once in a while, slashing and burning any story beginning that I don’t like. You had your chance to excite me, I tell the story, and send it flying to the trash. Sometimes, like now, the folder is filled with stories that are pretty far along; I’ve got at least three stories languishing in my “unfinished” folder that are nearly complete.

Wait — stop there. I may have gotten to the end of the story — but that doesn’t mean they’re complete. In fact, they are far from it. But this is the most delicate and dangerous stage in a story’s life. It’s the moment where I can choose to make it something good — or I can let all that work slip away.

The simple truth of the matter is that whatever you put into a first draft is going to be rough. It’s going to be too long in places, or missing whole necessary scenes. It will be relying on clichés in the parts where you were just a little sloppy that day. And often, you only discover what the story is about just about when you put that last sentence on the page. The story must be infused with its proper meaning — but how can it be in the first draft, when you just discovered what that meaning is?

First drafts are pretty bad, but it’s remarkable how many writers stop there. They feel the small sense of disappointment that the story wasn’t everything they hoped; then they either stick it in a folder, or half-heartedly (and ineffectually) send it out to a few magazines. When the rejection slips return, their already shaky convictions in their own writing abilities are toppled.

And that is honestly where the story ends for so many people.

So what is really the difference between those people — and the people who go on to become writers?

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Look at the World with New Eyes

I’ve been frantically busy the past month, readers. The summer was supposed to allow time for relaxation, but with visits from friends and relatives, a few major milestones, travel to and from home, and weekend adventures…well, you know the drill. Somewhere in mid-July you look up from your computer or from your car’s steering wheel as if in a dream, wondering the cliché: where did the time go?

As long as we do raise our heads, though, there’s hope for us yet. For the first time in millennia, I looked up today and realized I had time — time to think, time to write, time to work on the career side of my writing. I looked into sending stories a few places, realizing that my pipeline of submissions had become woefully depleted. I thought seriously about the three or four stunted half stories that are currently languishing in my notebook. It wasn’t yet work; but it was where work always begins, in the thinking, in the itch to write again.

Maybe it was my latest frenetic activity that has filled the well up again as well. Last weekend I got out of the city and took a walk through the countryside. I’m always a little stunned by the color green when I haven’t been outdoors for a while. The green is the kind of color that goes deeply into you, that reminds you that you are a part of the concert of living things. For a while, I looked at grass and trees and sky like a newcomer and though, Oh, yes. So this is how it is.

 

If we are to continually write fresh and interesting things, then I think we must continually refill our wells with interesting things. That does not necessarily mean traveling around the world or doing death-defying feats. It might mean getting out of your routine, your comfort zone, in any number of ways. It might mean walking beyond the boundary of your normal route, or striking up a conversation with a stranger even if that isn’t the sort of thing you do. It might mean looking at a friend or a lover or a relative in a new way, thinking about that person beyond the typical role you place him or her in.

How will you look at your world with new eyes?


Stuck Inside a Cliché


First, don’t panic. We’ve all been there. You’re writing your latest poem or story, really feeling great. This is going to be your best work ever. Then suddenly, you feel yourself sliding down some sort of funnel, down, down, into a cliche. There’s a phrase that you’ve used before sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s a situation which you’ve seen a million times before in other, better stories. There’s a character type who’s practically a walking stereotype, whether it’s the Goth loner or the dumb cheerleader. Suddenly, your special, wonderful story is trapped in the realm of cliche.

It can feel pretty desperate, and also pretty disheartening, to find your work here. It’s kind of like being stuck in the doldrums; what you wanted to be special is just a litany of weary sameness. But there ARE ways to get yourself out of that cliche, to escape back into the world of originality.

The key to escaping the cliche is to understand what cliches are and where they come from. Cliches are a kind of shorthand in conversation. When having a chat with someone, we want to meet on common ground, and we also want to convey information quickly. So we use shortcuts, established, commonly known ways of shortcutting through stories or description. We’ll see we cried buckets, or that the guy was the most boring guy on the face of the earth. We’ll say the little girl was as cute as a button or that we jumped for joy. And in casual conversation, we make ourselves understood. It saves time.

But in creative writing, it’s just lazy to use a cliche; it demonstrates a lack of imagination. It shows that we aren’t working hard to make our language beautiful, special, or memorable. We’re just leaning on the same old crutches to limp our way through an over-familiar story.

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New Stories Available Online

I’m so pleased to say a couple of new short fiction pieces by me have appeared online. The flash fiction piece “Bats” is available to read at Lumina, and another short piece, “Decide”, is up at a literature blog I love, The Toast. Have you checked these guys out yet? I’d love to have more readers, and I’m proud to be among some wonderful pieces of fiction there.

Both of these pieces were written very quickly this spring as I tried my hand at a bit of flash fiction. While fictional in plot, the emotions behind both of these were heartfelt, and the stories poured out of me with very little revision. Every now and then it happens that way, and it makes the months of tough slogging worth it.

You Just Wrote Something Terrible. Welcome to the Club.


I think the most jealously guarded secret in the world of writing may be that just everyone’s first drafts are really, really bad. Did you just write something that disappoints you, that just isn’t as good as you hoped it would be? Welcome to the club! Everyone struggles with their first drafts, and yet we all want to pretend like it was easy and effortless, as though a winged muse descended from the heavens and dropped a brilliantly packaged idea right in our laps. The more you write, though, and the more you get to know other writers, the more you realize that it just doesn’t happen that way. Not for anybody.

Even if you continue to work on writing at the college and graduate level, though, few people are going to admit this, and fewer people are going to teach you what to do about it. The only writers who succeed are the ones who are willing and able to revise their work, to commit to not letting it be done until it really is as good as it can be. Here are a few tips to get you started on the long, exciting, frustrating path of revision.

First: put it aside, and look at it with fresh eyes.

The moment you finish something, you might feel pretty great about it. It could be your best work yet. The temptation is to throw it into an email and send it off to your friends, to Teen Ink, to The New Yorker magazine, without any further thought. But you’re just too close to it right now to tell whether it’s really ready. You’re emotionally invested in it; you’ve just been fighting battles alongside with your characters. You’ve shed their tears. There’s no possible way you can be objective about the language, the plotting, the actual quality of the thing.

So put it in a drawer for a little while — or in today’s digital age, put it in a “needs revision” folder on your computer. Let it sit in there WITHOUT LOOKING AT IT for a MINIMUM of a week, but more if you can possibly stand it. Only then may you look back. You might be shocked to see how many errors in judgment, how many clichés or plot holes still remain in that first draft. And now that you can see them, you can fix them.

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