Review, Reflect, and Ramp Up

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Just two weeks remain to 2014, which makes now an excellent time to pause and think about the year coming to an end. How was your year? Did you meet the goals you set for yourself? Are you pleased with your writing progress? Where did you exceed your plans and where did you fall short?

I’m not big on resolutions because all too often they seem like vague wishes for things with very little planning behind them. Oh, not always. People who want to lose weight know they should watch their intake and exercise. Writers who want to publish understand it’s important to finish a manuscript, revise, submit. But there’s often a disconnect between the daydream and the planning part of achieving those resolutions. It’s easy to lose track of the plan unless you actually determine what you will do, how your actions will change in order to make your ultimate goal come to pass.

So as I said, now is a great time to look back, just for a moment, to see what went well and what didn’t go so well in the last twelve months. And then think about why. What steps did you take that allowed you to meet your goals, and what distractions or problems cropped up that railroaded those you failed to achieve. What could you have done better? Understanding the hows and whys, your motivations behind your actions, will help you to set new goals for the year ahead, and also determine how best to approach them.

Keep the successes and the goofs in mind as you figure out where you go next.

A few tips for goal setting for 2015:

1. Set goals outside your comfort zone, that force you to reach. They should be achievable, but not so easy that they fail to challenge you or allow you to slack off because you can handle them in a rush at the end of the year.

2. Make sure you set goals that you really want to achieve, not just things you think you should do, or that sound good if someone asks about your resolutions. Tackle things that matter, because your emotional investment will serve to motivate you.

3. Break your goals down into measurable components and/or actions. What steps do you need to achieve to meet your goal? How much time will each step or action require? Schedule regular check-ins for yourself over the course of the year (or however long your goal will take) to make sure you’re on track.

4. Determine what’s at stake. What do you stand to gain if you meet your goal? What will you lose if you don’t? Know the value of your actions long term, because that will help you resist the temptation to procrastinate in the short term. Post the stakes somewhere you will see them often enough to keep your focus.

5. Try setting some shorter-term goals and some big picture goals. Having a few goals of the year that you can finish by March or May will bolster you over the course of the year, and encourage you as you work on the longer term projects.

No matter what stage you are at in your writing career, there are always new goals to set, new hurdles to tackle. A writer can always improve their craft, hone their story-telling skills, or master a new facet of self-promotion. Other goals can include publishing a short story, getting an agent, signing a book deal, hitting a certain mile-marker for sales figures. Or you might approach tasks that are more straightforward, such as redesigning an author site or starting a newsletter. Think about what you’ve been doing, then consider how you can improve upon it. Mix and match your goals to meet your current needs. Don’t beat yourself up over things that haven’t gone well; instead allow yourself to plan out a new strategy for the year to come, and get excited about putting it into action. Good luck!

December Writing Challenge: Check In #2

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It’s the middle of the month, writers! How go your efforts to write every day? Are you managing to get in some time regardless of your schedule? Are the words continuing to accumulate between work and shopping and plotting festive dinners? Perhaps you find yourself sneaking the time. Jotting longhand in a notebook in the waiting room at the dentist, or waiting to pick up your kids from school.

No matter. The effort is what counts here. What I most want for you this month is to force your brain to show up at the party; make yourself write every day so that your mind understands what you expect of it. Ultimately, you may not be the type of writer who writes every single day once December is over, but you will see (and so will your subconscious or your muse or whatever you want to call that creative inner part of you) that writing is truly a habit, and your mind is a muscle, and training it all to work on command is a matter of repetition. If you only write when inspiration strikes, you’re not going to write on a regular basis, and while that can be a fun approach if you only write for your own enjoyment, it won’t get you far if you’re intent on writing for publication.

So keep at it! If you’ve missed a few days, don’t worry about it, just get right back in there and recommit to writing every day. Each morning, think of where your writing time will fit. Plan for it. Make it happen. If it’s important to you, it deserves a space in your schedule. And don’t feel you absolutely must work on the same project each day. I don’t recommend starting something new whenever you get a little stuck, but it can also be a good idea to have one or two back-burner projects that you can play with when your primary project gives you serious trouble. Just keep writing.

And for those of you working on secret projects, you keep writing, too! Play! Enjoy yourselves! Let your creative wings stretch a little wider, fly a little farther afield. Writing is hard work, but it should also be fun, so use your mystery project to remind yourself of all the things you love about your craft.

Get to it, writers! Wishing you a wonderful, productive week.

Reading Material for Writers

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As promised, I’m back with further gift ideas for the writers in your life, with a focus on buying them things to read. You may, of course, choose to simply provide your special writer with an enormous gift card to the book retailer of your choice, and no doubt that will make them very happy. However, if you want to be a bit more specific and personal, here are a few recommendations to check out.

Certain writing-related books get named quite frequently. They are wonderful classics, and deserve to be mentioned, but you should also keep in mind that many writers already have dogeared copies of these babies. But for the sake of thoroughness, I’ll run through them:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott — General writing advice mixed with personal history/anecdotes.

On Writing by Stephen King — Part memoir, part excellent writing advice.

Story by Robert McKee — On story structure, focusing primarily on screenwriting, but applicable to all fiction.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass — Advice on taking your writing to the next level.

These barely scrape the surface, of course, as books about writing seem almost as abundant as books in general some days. However, they are some of the most popular, and for good reason.

I also like to recommend the following writing-related books. Some are also well known, others less so, but I find they each offer good tips and inspiration.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose — Thoughtful analysis on the reading process and how writers can learn from the works they read.

The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante — A step-by-step guide focusing on short fiction, but applicable to all storytelling craft.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks — Another way of looking at story structure.

The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer — A huge collection of writing exercises to help get the words flowing.

The Elements of Style Illustrated by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White — The classic style guide, updated with fun illustrations.

Beyond books, subscriptions make great gifts for writers. They’re the gift that keeps giving all year long, plus in some cases they help the writer get a fix on what a certain publication is looking for so that they can in turn submit their own efforts. Here’s an assortment of both informational and entertaining periodicals for the various writers on your shopping list.

The Writer — A magazine filled with advice, interviews, and other information pertaining to the writing life.

Poets & Writers — A bi-monthly magazine focused on more literary writing, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, with an excellent list of upcoming contest deadlines, grants, etc., and annual issues dealing with MFA programs, writers’ retreats, and so on.

Publishers Weekly — The industry magazine for publishing. Much more business oriented than writing oriented.

Top 50 Literary Magazines – One site’s list of top literary magazines with links to each one. An easy reference to some of the most popular magazines currently published.

Asimov’s Science Fiction — Magazine for short science fiction, reviews, etc.

Apex – A magazine for science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine — Publishes short crime and mystery fiction.

There are many, many additional publications available, especially if you are shopping for a reader open to digital subscriptions, as some online publications do not issue print copies. For writers who love their e-readers, another option is a subscription reading service such as Oyster or Scribd, which allows unlimited access to their library of books for a monthly charge. Be sure you know what type of e-reader the person has before making digital purchases, as some services are not compatible with older models.

Wishing you all happy shopping, and some great reading of your own!

Friday Links

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Happy Friday! It’s a really wet day here in SoCal, complete with flash flood warnings and mud slides. The perfect day to stay in with a good book and/or a writing project. Of course, I have a rather limited supply of flashlights and candles, so I’m just going to charge up my iPad and hope the power hangs on.

In the meantime, however, I have Friday Links for you all! Some more good book recs, particularly for those of you looking for diverse reading material, plus the usual assortment of oddities. Whatever you have planned for your weekend, I wish you some good reading and writing time. Enjoy!

I Read 50 Books by People of Color This Year – One reader’s round up of a year in diverse reading.

Let’s Talk about Science Fiction Books by Women – Another good list, this time focusing on sf by female authors.

Elena Ferrante, Author of the Naples Novels, Stays Mysterious – Interview with the Italian author whose air of mystery has led to rampant speculation regarding her identity.

The Gothic Life and Times of Horace Walpole – Learn about the father of the gothic novel.

19 Short Story Competitions in 2015 – Start marking your calendars now with these contest deadlines for the upcoming year.

December Writing Challenge: Check In #1

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We’re a week into December, which means those of you participating in my December Writing Challenge have seven days under your belts (or a few less if you started late). How goes it, writers? Have you managed to write daily? Are you feeling more committed to your craft? Is making yourself and your writing a priority more or less challenging than you anticipated? Or maybe you’re working on a secret project. Does it feel extra special knowing that it’s just for you for the time being? I think it’s fun to have a secret this time of year that has nothing to do with the holidays — something private and personal.

Of course, writing every day when you have a busy life clamoring for attention can be difficult. But the truth is, something will always pop up to distract you. Sometimes it’s the day job, sometimes family members or friends, and sometimes it’s a chore you’ve convinced yourself is more important than your own writing goals. But if you want to write, if you’re serious about making it your career, then you can’t let yourself be drawn into every distraction. Only you can decide if there’s a real need for your attention or intervention, or if it’s something that can slide (or get solved by someone else).

So today, at this one week mark of the challenge, I urge you to stay strong. You’re not being selfish to want to spend time working on your writing. You’ve committed to the craft and the craft requires regular practice if you want to succeed. Whether you have a deadline looming or are struggling with your very first project with no contract in sight, writing is important to you, and you deserve time to flex your writing muscles, even if you can only manage a half hour each day. So keep at it, stay committed, and happy writing!

Friday Links

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TGIF! I hope you’ve all had a lovely week, and that at least some of you have embraced my December Writing Challenge and are getting words down every day, even if things are busy. Now’s a great time to look ahead to your weekend and determine when you’ll be able to fit in your writing time. Will you carve out an extra half hour before breakfast? Sneak in a mid-afternoon coffee/writing break? Be sure to allocate time ahead. Make it a priority. Your goals are just as important as everyone else’s holiday events.

Of course, today being Friday, I come bearing links. It’s a very bookish assortment this week, likely prompted by the start of the end-of-year best-book list season. These frustrate me sometimes due to their lack of diversity, by which I mean they typically focus on many of the same titles we’ve been hearing about all year. And while i don’t discount the quality of those works, I do wonder sometimes if it’s just a squeaky wheel situation. I suspect a lot of fabulous books just haven’t been mentioned enough for people to discover them. Still, I do sometimes stumble across new titles on the lists, or get reminded of things that I was curious about but somehow forgot in the jumble of new releases.

Whatever your weekend plans, I hope you have some quality reading and writing time on the calendar. Enjoy!

NPR’s Book Concierge: Our Guide to the Best Books of 2014 – A fun, interactive list that has something for everyone, including comics.

How Writers Read (vol. 2) – A continuation of the article I linked to last week.

Ursula K. LeGuin on Where Ideas Come From – Thoughtful look at the early phase of a writing project.

Plotting the Non-Plot-Driven Novel – Donald Maass on quieter reads.

A Reading List for the Month of Storytelling by the Fire – Reading suggestions compiled with a winter read in mind.

Holiday Shopping for Writers

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The gift-giving season is upon us, so I wanted to gather together some suggestions for things that might suit the writer in your life (or that you might want to add to your own letter to Santa). I’ve mentioned some of these in previous years, but a good gift is a good gift, and writers in particular tend to be appreciative of things that encourage them in their craft or enable them to spend time writing. Many of these will be appropriate gifts for readers, as well, for obvious reasons.

Writerly gifts:

Scrivener – Many writers swear by this software. It allows you to create your manuscript in sections that can be easily dragged around and reordered, has a built in cork board function where you can get an overview of the parts of your work, allows for research materials to be imported directly into the project, and much more. Once you’re done, you can compile the pieces of your manuscript into Word, script format, e-book format, and so on. Available for both Mac and Windows.

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Aeon Timeline – This software allows you to create a timeline not just for a single project but for an entire series. It will track character ages for different events, births and deaths, whatever history you’ve developed for your books, etc. Particularly helpful for anyone writing historical fiction, or anything involving extensive world building. Available for both Mac and Windows.

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Ecosystem Journal – These blank books are made from recycled materials and boast sturdy pages that protect against bleed-through from heavier ink, such as fountain pens. They come in small, medium, and large sizes, blank, ruled, or with grid paper, and in a number of bright colors as well as black. Great for the writer who keeps an ideas book, journals, doodles, or prefers drafting longhand.

Leuchtturm1917 Notebook – Another high-quality blank book, this features page numbers and a blank table of contents, in addition to sturdy pages of a lovely off-white paper. As with the Ecosystem, you can select type of page (ruled, blank, etc.) and the notebooks come in assorted colors. The company offers other types of books, as well, such as planners, if you’re looking to gift someone with a set.

Decomposition Books – Great notebooks in the old composition or spiral notebook formats, but with fun printed covers. Perfect for anyone looking for a slightly more utilitarian notebook.

Fountain pens – A slightly old-school gift, a lovely fountain pen — either new or antique — along with some ink, can be a beautiful gift for a writer.

Books on writing – Most writers love writing books. I’ll post a separate list of writing-related books I love in a couple of days, but you’ll find tons in most good bookstores, in the reference section.

A gift certificate for some pampering – Writing can be hard on the back, the eyes. All that sitting. Gift your writer with a massage or spa day, or a series of neck rubs. Writers — especially struggling writers — don’t often allot money for little luxuries, even when they need them.

The gift of time – Real life often gets in the writer’s way, making demands and allowing less time for writing. Take over a chore or responsibility for the writer in your life in order to give them an extra hour or two to write. If you live with the writer, make dinner a couple of nights a week. Offer to babysit or take their kids out of the house for a chunk of time on the weekend.

A writing retreat – If you’re looking to give your writer something a little more expansive, send them off for a quiet weekend at a cozy inn or cabin in the woods, just them and their muse. Don’t pick a tourist location that will tempt them to go out and sightsee, but somewhere quiet, or local, with room service and a nice desk.

Literary-themed gifts:

Shakespeare Insult Shirt – This t-shirt features a collection of witty insults by the Bard. Great for writers, Shakespeare fans, or anyone looking for a good come back.

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Classic Tote Bag – Give your favorite writer or reader one of these sturdy tote bags featuring art work from a classic novel, such as Pride and Prejudice, Animal Farm, or Gone with the Wind, or with some bookish feature, like a list of banned books. Great for carting books from the library, hitting the farmer’s market, or carrying a notebook and other writing paraphernalia.

Litographs Poster – This company prints literary posters where the design itself is created from the text of the books. Available for a number of classic titles, and the designs can also be purchased on t-shirts and tote bags.

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Read Harder T-shirt – One of several designs on offer from the new bookish store at Book Riot.

2015 Literary Wall Calendar – A different author/quote each month in a beautiful black-and-white design.

Evolution of Literature Poster – Featuring an image for each of 34 authors arranged chronologically. Posters featuring just one author are also available.

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Literary Cufflinks – Handmade, featuring text on the front image.

Subscription to a literary magazine/journal – Especially helpful for writers interesting in essays or short fiction. I’ll include a list of suggestions in my upcoming post featuring books for writers.

 

 

 

 

December Writing Challenge: 2014 Edition

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Writers never stop learning. No matter what stage you’ve reached in your writing career, it’s always possible to push yourself a little harder to improve some aspect of your craft or become a bit more dedicated in your habits. And any good writing challenge can be adapted to help you reach for the next level with your work.

Right now, I want you to forget previous writing challenges. I don’t care if you just finished NaNoWriMo or if the idea of writing 50,000 words in a month makes you physically ill. Today kicks off my December Writing Challenge, and the entire point of the challenge is for you to commit to yourself, and to your writing.

December can be a challenging month all on its own, filled with holiday gatherings, end-of-year work projects, bad weather across much of the northern hemisphere and a dozen other worries. And in the middle of all that, you can lose track of yourself and your goals. It’s easy to put things off, to make excuses. After all, the new year is just around the corner; you can easily pick up the pace once you turn your attention to resolutions.

But why wait? Is writing really something you’re willing to relegate to the New-Year’s-Resolution category? Or is it important? Is it a priority?

For those of you struggling to commit to your writing, I issue the following challenge: Write every day during the month of December. I’m not saying you need to write for a certain amount of time, or strive for a certain word count. But you need to actually sit down and string words together for some project of your own — no fair counting Christmas cards or a note to your kid’s teacher. It can be for fifteen minutes, though I’d encourage you to at least aim for half an hour. 30 minutes is approximate 2% of your entire day. Commit to taking that for yourself, and for your writing.

I do allow you two “excuse” days, if you absolutely need them. After all, there are holidays and holiday parties involved. So if you find you have to take a day or two off, go ahead, but really make an effort to write every single day if you can manage it.

What about the rest of you folks, the ones who’ve already committed to a daily writing practice? For you I have a slightly altered challenge: Start a secret project in December and work on it every day for at least a few minutes of your writing time. What sort of secret project? That’s up to you. But I encourage you to let your imagination run wild and experiment. Do you write fantasy novels? Try a mystery. Strictly a fiction writer? Give personal essays or poetry a try. Don’t tell anyone about it, don’t share it with your critique partner or your significant other. Just hide it away and work on it a bit each day. See what you come up with. Stretch your wings.

That’s my December challenge for you all. I’ll be posting some encouragement on here and on Twitter over the course of the month, so be sure and tune in. Happy December, and happy writing. Get to it.

On Challenging Yourself as a Writer

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The weekend is winding down, and with it the month. If you’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo, you might be basking in the glory of having hit your 50,000-word goal, frantically writing to finish up, or drowning your sorrows in hot chocolate because you know you’ll never close your 15,000-word gap by midnight. Regardless of your status, congratulations on your efforts. For those of you not caught up in NaNo frenzy, you might be polishing off the last of your holiday leftovers, plotting for the next holiday on the calendar, or enjoying a good book and ignoring the season entirely.

Whatever you’ve been doing this weekend, or even this past month, I urge you to wake up bright and early tomorrow morning to kick off the new month with my December Writing Challenge. Those of you who frequent this blog know my December challenge bears little resemblance to NaNoWriMo. No lofty word-count goals or frenetic write-ins at the local coffee shop. Instead I ask you to commit — to yourself, to your writing, to your own personal writing goals — as a way to get in shape for the coming new year. Forget waiting around for 2015 to kick off resolutions; December 1, 2014 is the first day of the rest of your writing career. I challenge you to make the most of it.

Details for the challenge will be going up first thing tomorrow, December 1st, so be sure to swing by and check them out. Happy writing!

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