Word Counts vs. Balance

I recently mentioned that with my WIP– my third novel, the shortest and most planned of them to date– I have had some difficulty hitting my previous daily word counts. While in top form (i.e., during Nanowrimo when I am pushing myself) I can write upwards of 1,700 words a day, with Rory I am rarely making it over 1,200, and usually call it good after 1,000. So lately I’ve been asking myself: What is this? Is there something wrong with me? Am I settling for less? Am I lowering the standard? Why aren’t I pushing myself to do more, and should I be?

The answer: Perhaps– but I also think word count isn’t everything, and that there is merit in dividing my time more evenly between Writing and Things That Are Not Writing, because the latter feeds the former.

To arrive at a more conclusive answer, let’s examine some of the other ways I’ve been spending  potential writing time during the first draft of this novel, and whether those ways add to or detract from the writing experience.

Non-writing ways I commonly spend potential writing time:

  1. Exercise. Physical health is hugely influential in mental and creative energy. Use of time: GOOD
  2. Social activities. Recreation is fun, different environments are stimulating, and the meeting of minds invites new ideas and innovation. Use of time: GOOD
  3. Netflix. Stories on the screen. It’s like visual reading? Use of time: SUSPICIOUS
  4. Reading. Writing is a language and a craft, and studying it is how you learn. Use of time: GOOD
  5. Tumblr. It’s, er, author social media. And I get to see what my favorite authors are doing! And book news! And agent advice! And clever GIF sets! GIFs = laughter = soul medicine OKAY OKAY OKAY, Use of time: MORTIFYING
  6. Art projects. The right brain wants its turn, too, and there is little more spiritually nourishing/creatively regenerative than music + colors/pens/magazine scraps to paper. Or, you know, Photoshop. Or, uh…learning to make GIF sets for Tumblr… Use of time: GENERALLY GOOD

In the end I feel it is a game of balance. If you push yourself too hard, you will burn out and close up and struggle to get any words on the page. Conversely, if you spend too much time on Netflix or in Tumblrland, you will never write anything.

CONCLUSION: I could probably be getting more writing done. Since timed sprints (particularly 45 minute ones) have been working for me lately, I am going to try to fit in at least one more of those each day. I think we should be mindful of our distractions, but at the same time not give so much of ourselves to our writing that it ends up being counterproductive. Balance is key.

Good Writing Advice: The 45 Minute Session

Yesterday I tried something different.

I wrote in blocks of 45 minutes at a time.

Let me back up a minute. I’m currently at work on my third novel, a middle grade wonderland project I mapped out earlier this year. Ideas for this book had been steeping for months before I ever put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard); as a MG novel I intended to keep it under 60k; and lastly, when I finally put Juniper on submission and shifted focus to this new book, I had an extensive 16 page outline to work from. Given all this and the fact that at peak form I had no problem writing 1,500+ words a day with my previous novels, I expected this book to practically fall out of me.

Ha.

I’m not sure what it is, but with this book I seem to be capping at about 1,000 words a day. Well, alright, I can think of a couple reasons: 1) My previous book is on submission, so of course I am constantly (stupidly) checking my email a jillion times a day for replies and 2) I’ve recently discovered tumblr. Bad Julie! And sometimes life simply gets in the way.

Ultimately, however, I’ve been feeling sluggish. Like I needed to try something different. So the last week or so I’ve spent more time in a hardcover notebook, typing up what I’ve written at the end of the day. Effective? In some ways, yes.

But I’ll tell you what I like better.

Heather Sellers recently contributed a list to the 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far column in Writer’s Digest. In her seventh point she borrows Billy Joel’s term “in harness” to describe the butt-in-the-chair, door-closed, no distractions discipline with which a writer does her best writing. Take a moment to visualize what “in harness” might mean for you. No internet? No company? Music, TV, cell phone off or left in another room? Blinds down on a beautiful day? Think of it as making a space for you and your manuscript. An intimate, secluded table for two.

Now– how does one realistically commit oneself to such an intense focus without burning out or wrecking one’s eyes? Sellers answers: One writes in manageable segments. Segments of 45 minutes, to be exact (with 15 minute breaks in between if they are consecutive).

Of course, that’s what works for her. Others might find 30 minute or 2 hour sessions more productive. I’ve even heard of 25 minute pomodoros doing wonders. The magic here I think is in tricking your brain to believe “Hey, 45 minutes! That isn’t long at all! I can commit to my writing and absolutely nothing else for that long.” In my own experiment yesterday I found it much easier to shut myself in a room and disconnect from everything in 45 minute intervals. How’d it turn out? Well, in only four sessions (3 hours total) I managed over 1,000 words. Not lightning speed by any means, but certainly not shabby for the edits-as-she-goes type. It’s the same result for considerably less time than I feel it has taken me to achieve lately.

Do you write in short sessions? For how long? Let us know below! And I really recommend reading Heather Sellers’ entire writing advice list. They’re all great points that go way beyond the hackneyed show, don’t tell. Check ‘em out!

Upcoming July Contests for MG and YA fiction

Two exciting contest opportunities this month for unagented kid lit writers:

1. The Writer’s Digest 16th free “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest: Middle Grade. Happening now until July 30, 2014. Judged by Peter Knapp of Park Literary.

  • Submit: the first 150-200 words of your unpublished, completed book-length work of middle grade fiction; title; logline; proof of shares (see below).
  • Special rules: must mention the contest twice via social media and submit proof of shares with your entry.
  • Prizes: Top 3 winners all get: 1) A critique of the first 10 double-spaced pages of your work, by your agent judge. 2) A free one-year subscription to WritersMarket.com ($50 value)! But there is always the potential extra excitement of clicking with the agent who’s judging, too!
  • Full details here.

2. The Miss Snark’s First Victim July Secret Agent Contest (for YA, MG, and chapter books). Entry by lottery only. Enter on Monday, July 21, 2014 from NOON – 6:00PM EDT. Judged by a mystery agent whose identity will not be revealed until the contest is over.

  • Enter the lottery July 21 for one of 50 spots in the contest.
  • Submit: the first 250 words of your COMPLETED manuscript; your name/screen name; title; genre.
  • Prizes: vary each round. In May, THREE “winner” entries were awarded full MS requests (Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index was one of them! :) ).
  • Why this contest rocks: All 50 entries are posted on the MSFV blog and receive critique from both fellow entrants and the mystery agent. So even if you don’t win, you get helpful feedback! Can’t go wrong with that.
  • Full details here.

Happy submitting!

26 Things I’ve Learned So Far

I recently turned 26. Goodbye, quarter life crisis! Hello, glorious new year of awkward transitional 20s. (Don’t listen to me. I love my 20s.)

Taken on my bday. I am not 22.

Taken on my bday. I am not 22.

I don’t feel older, but I do feel more adult. There are still many regards in which I do not, but some things (liking chocolate doughnuts with rainbow sprinkles and YA books, for instance) will never change. I look forward to the next year of growth and experiment, and in the meantime present a handdrawn list of 26 things I have learned in recent years (inspired in equal parts by Laekan Zea Kemp’s traditional bday blog post and the 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far column in Writer’s Digest). Typed list follows for ease of reading.

26 things ive learned so far - 2 doc size

26 Things I’ve Learned So Far

1. Beauty, like humor, is subjective.
2. It’s better to buy one thing you need than two you don’t (even if the two things are cheaper).
3. True motivation can only come from within. You have to want something for yourself.
4. Everything you don’t absolutely need in order to exist is a luxury. Notice it. Appreciate it.
5. No two people, living or deceased, experience the world exactly the same way.
6. Life is a series of choices. You will have to make them.
7. No effort is wasted if we learn from it.
8. Love is free. Give it openly and make the world a better place—one smile, one affirmation, one kindness at a time.
9. People are sponges. You are what you eat, read, watch, do, listen to, associate with.
10. Don’t rely on other people to make your life meaningful. Make your own meaning. (But do let others add to it.)
11. Choose commitments with care.
12. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can anybody else?
13. Stress is a sign of growth. It means you are out of your comfort zone.
14. It is better to fail than to not even try.
15. Kindness can move mountains.
16. A person who shames others for loving something is arrogant and narrow-minded.
17. Confidence is everything.
18. Don’t judge a shirt by the way it looks on the hanger.
19. Small luxuries bring great joy.
20. Surround yourself with people you admire.
21. Remove yourself from negative/draining influences.
22. Pursue the things that energize you.
23. Keep electronics higher than liquids.
24. If you want more time, change how you spend it.
25. The longer you look, the more you see.
26. ENK (Everyone Needs Kindness).

Homemade Calendar – June

june 2014 calendarThis month is brought to you by tropical Skittles. Skittles: taste the lurid color!

And now on to July, in which I will continue the first draft of Rory and the Crow and have plans for several short term art projects. Stay tuned for details!

In the meantime, if you’re a fellow writer or book lover on tumblr, I am finally starting to get the hang of that young person’s jungle gym. You can find me on tumblr here.

Hope your summers are off to a good start!

 

From Chaos Comes Order, or: This is How You Write

This is something I have come to realize recently. I mean, really realize:

Writing is messy.

There’s simply no right way to do it. (There are, however, plenty of wrong ones: baking cookies, watching Dexter, and checking your email every seven minutes to see if Mr./Ms. Agent has finished reading your manuscript among them.)

You start with an idea. Probably a half-baked one, if even. We may be talking quarter or eighth or sixteenth-baked here.

The good (or stress-inducing, depending on your perspective) news is that you’ve got another fractionally-baked idea to pair it with. Yay! A salt and pepper set!

And then there are all those other little fragments of something rattling around in your head like broken filaments or a pick stuck inside a guitar. They want to be part of your story, too.

You shake all the pieces out, line them up on the carpet. Really, it’s a bit like emptying one of those $19.99 Everything jars from Goodwill onto the floor and looking at all the Legos and buttons and friendship beads and Canadian money and googly eyes and plastic dinosaurs and popsicle sticks with the jokes on them and stale candy and God knows what and saying, From this I shall build a DeLorean. A sane person would answer: You’re off your rocker and halfway to the moon.

But somehow you string the pieces together. Somehow your choking hazard avalanche of disparate ideas and disorder becomes an outline, then a draft, and then a novel. Give or take 3-300 revisions between.

How do you get from Chaos to finished product? It’s a mystery to me, and frankly some kind of miracle. But there are a few things that do seem to help:

  1. Time. Ideas need to steep. Suggestions need to sit. Parts need to come together. Most of which is outside the actual writing.
  2. Effort. Sometimes the only way to find the path that works is to try all the ones that don’t first. Multiply x 3,756 for all the individual challenges/creative problem-solving issues you might encounter in a single novel.
  3. Determination. Just keep showing up. And showing up. And showing up. You have to work and work some more until it’s done.

Those are the bases. Your ideas are the flavor.

What you make (and how) is up to you.

 

1) Walk into library 2) Pick a book off the shelves.

Today I’m writing because I’ve recently rediscovered the pleasure of something I haven’t done for fun since high school: walking into a library, picking up a novel I’d never heard of and had no prior plans to read, and getting sucked in from jacket to epilogue.

As a writer, I’m also an avid reader, but here is my issue: I almost always know what I am going to read. I like structure: I work from lists. I’ll read what a friend hands me, what catches my eye on Goodreads. With purpose: books that play off one another, novels I will later be able to watch the film adaptation of, research/background reading, comp titles, work whose writing mirrors what I intend to do next. I read on a mapped route. And to some degree, if you read a lot of the same author, or work through trilogies or series, or even have a favorite table or shelf you always check at the bookstore, you might do the same.

Here is what I think.

I think, like writing, our reading should sometimes surprise us. And not just surprise us; knock our socks off and eat them and spit out a pair of mittens. Okay, maybe minus the eating and mittens. Point is, a good story has the power to floor you. A good, unexpected story can obliterate you.

In the best possible sense.

So here is my reading challenge for you:

  1. Walk into a library or bookstore.
  2. Pick up a book you’ve never heard of (though by all means, read the jacket and go with one that snags your interest). Bonus points for a genre or age group you don’t usually read!
  3. Take the book home and read it.

If you’re lucky (do not underestimate luck), somewhere in number three you will enter a time warp because the book you’ve brought home to read is so ridiculously engrossing you can’t set it down ’til it’s over. Try it. See what happens.

Here are my latest treasure finds, the two books-off-the-shelf that inspired this post:

Wool by Hugh Howey

Thousands of them have lived underground. They’ve lived there so long, there are only legends about people living anywhere else. Such a life requires rules. Strict rules. There are things that must not be discussed. Like going outside. Never mention you might like going outside.

Or you’ll get what you wish for.” –Goodreads

 

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

“Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance (the boy protagonist of The Shining) and the very special twelve-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.” –Goodreads [abridged]

Full jacket copy here.