7 Must-Follow Writing Resolutions

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Whether you’re pondering the end of the year or just want a fresh start in any season, having some ground rules for how you’ll behave with your writing can make a huge difference in the productivity and quality you get with your drafts. These are some of the writing resolutions I recommend to anyone who is serious about the craft.

1. Set yourself up with proper tools.

The goal here is simply to be able to respond wherever and whenever concepts come to you. That can be as simple as jotting down a single word for later, but the tools should be something you can share and backup easily, and that get you into a good state of creative flow. Decide what feels good to you and finally invest in what you actually need, rather than making do.

2. Get organized.

This doesn’t necessarily mean outlining everything, creating a strict writing schedule or eliminating desk clutter, although those efforts can be helpful for certain people. I’m talking more about not having 20 different digital files for the same story, folders for each work in progress or market, and having formal systems for tracking queries, submissions or general drafting progress.

Commit to sorting what you have and create new customized-for-your-own-goals methods for streamlining and preventing future messes. The more streamlined you are and the more cleanly you can work, the more efficient you’ll get overall in the long run. Efficiency can give you both more content and more enjoyable drafting time, so be patient and follow through on this point, even if it takes you a few days, weeks or even months to get yourself together.

One notable point here: As you submit, you’ll likely find that you create a bunch of documents based on specific requirements editors/agencies have. One might want a document with four chapters and a synopsis, for instance, whereas another might want 10 pages and your bio. If the requirements are outside your templates (#5), then save the documents in a separate folder. They generally end up never used again because they’re specific to one house/business/professional, so don’t put them where they will confuse you compared to your final materials/drafts, and have a regular time to empty the folder into the trash.

3. Stop judging.

I understand that everyone has a history. I get that people want something that is “sellable” to the popular market. And there is merit to critiquing yourself to make sure that you’re giving your best, to analyzing for the sake of the story. But what truly makes a great writer is their ability to find their own voice, to choose topics, words and structure that feel like home. You do not do that by censoring yourself on the fly based on what you think others will think or want. Judging your drafts too deeply as you write will either make the job feel weighted down or create cliches, and neither will help your career.

4. Actually study the market.

You should end up with something pretty unique if you follow #3. Even so, you need to know where your piece sits. What pieces are most like yours? How and where are they marketed? What specifically makes them different from yours? What’s your genre worth nationally and globally, and what’s typical for sales and revenue?

All of this information is essential for creating stand-out queries and proposals. Agents, editors and publishers want to know that you’ve got a grasp of the potential for the work, and you need to convince them that you’ve found the balance between sellability and freshness.

But studying the market also allows you to identify gaps, too. And if you see an area that writers aren’t filling, then you can create what is missing and have direction for future projects that aren’t like anything else anybody else is doing.

As you study the trends and needs, keep track of editorial changes and mergers/acquisitions of publishing companies/agencies. Most professionals in industry expect a formal salutation, and your chances of getting a query/submission read seriously go up if you take the time to verify who should be getting it in the first place. Also stay updated on standards such as whether to submit in-text or via attachment. Technology is shifting requirements fast, but if you organize well enough (#2), then you should be able to adjust quickly and flexibly based on individual requirements.

5. Create some templates.

I cannot stress this enough. Templates save you time, which you then can convert to real, creative writing. So where you can, create some boilerplates. For instance, even though you need to personalize your queries, you can create a template that at least has your contact information, bio paragraph, closing paragraph and clips/reference URLs. I have several of these tweaked to different markets, with each one holding different clips. This means that all I really have to do is create the hook and summary paragraphs for new works and I’m good to go. So think about what you will need to have on file to avoid doing the same work twice (or more). Take the time to prepare a bit to save hassle later.

6. Get out of your reading rut.

Some people swear by reading goals, but I’m not all about reading a certain number of books or words each day–I’d much rather that you worry more about whether you learn. So challenge yourself in your choices. Pick a few books out of your normal genre or even that you think at first glance you’ll despise. Some of it is just market research (#4 above). You need perspective about the industry as a whole. But it’s also about exposure to different voices and information, identifying what your own preferences are or why you think something does or does not work. Those points of clarity can lead you not only to develop your own style, but to find mentors and other authors who can support you.

7. Figure out social media.

You should be on social media to engage with other writers, editors and others, and to let readers know you’re there. Agents and publishers want you to have platforms, and social media can be a great way to stay on top of the market and present your writing. But always worry more about being genuine and contribute something of value than about technicals. There’s no substitute for seeming human and empathetic.

Lots of writers want to hurry through and won’t put the time or money into their career that they need to. These resolutions, however, are reminders that you should treat the craft like a real business, and that you have a great deal of say about how productive and enjoyable it can be. Keep them close and use them as your foundation for great everyday writing.

5 Rules for Creating a Killer First Draft

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Writing is a process, meaning that it’s not a great idea to expect to crank out a perfect manuscript on the first try. But I’m a sucker for efficiency and quality, too, and I also believe in creating first drafts that don’t leave you with a quite such bad taste in your mouth. So if you’re aiming for just moldy cheese instead of moldy cheese on a bed of sour tuna and limp pickle, here’s what you do.

1. Don’t write just to write.

Forced writing–the writing you do just to meet your mental deadline or because you “should” as a writer–is like the annoying thread on the edge of your hem. It typically doesn’t hold together during the final editing process, and the flow you usually get when you are responding to concepts in addition to trying to create them in an active way often is missing.

If you sit down during your scheduled writing time and it’s just not working, then don’t sweat it. Walk away. You’ll probably make up the word count on a “good” day later, so don’t buy into the idea that by waiting, you get behind.

2. Separate the writing and the editing.

Yes, it’s fine to rethink a comma or specific word choice on the fly, or to quickly move a paragraph with copy and paste to improve cohesion. It’s natural to think a little about the mechanics of it all as you work, and doing a little as you go means that there are fewer rough edges to sand down later.

But editing is like the sensible older sister who walks behind the wild younger sibling for both duty and love’s sake. It is analytic, concerned with how and why and all manner of things the younger sibling is too free to be bothered with. It is necessary to keep the story from dancing off a cliff. But it easily can disrupt your writing flow and cause you to question what you’re doing with your overall creativity.

So don’t let your editor and writer hats get confused in the wardrobe. Give yourself permission to write without judgment, no dramatic level of censorship allowed. Then trust that you can do the analysis and conscious decision making for the heavy trimming and refining later.

3. Identify the goals.

I’m not talking about word or chapter quotas. I’m talking about getting in tune with the clear attitude/intention you want for the text. Know what you want a scene to do for the reader and where it fits in the larger plot arch. This is as much emotional and empathetic as it is technical. Knowing what you want to accomplish will keep you on track in terms of length, word choice and even specific mannerisms a character shows off in the moment. The editor’s cousin, attitude/intention lets you visualize the story within a predefined rule set that keeps everything from getting too wild and irrelevant.

4. Let the story direct itself.

Genres do have a certain degree of formula to them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that some publishers won’t accept manuscripts that deviate from the formulaic expectations, despite their calls for work that is “fresh”. Books also can’t survive without readers, so you can’t ignore their preferences completely. This is the delicate balance between originality and sellability.

But on the whole, great stories honestly don’t care two pittance about the reader. (A shock, I know.) In truth, great stories often challenge the reader and go in directions that make them question everything. They take on a life of their own. Characters are who they are. The ending is what it is–what it needs to be. And this is much more reflective of real life, in which we don’t always get what we want, situations are unfair and there’s not a quick, easy line to the next chapter.

So let the draft have its own life. Don’t do it the disservice of confining it to preconstructed rules of this time or society. The more you follow Rule #3 and connect with purpose, the more likely it is that you will create something that, for its novelty and ability to wake up the spirit, is truly memorable beyond short-term “bestseller” trends.

5. Have people read as you go.

The purpose here is not to let the readers direct the story and take you out of the driver’s seat. The purpose, keeping Rule #3 in mind, is to check that you actually are achieving the goals you defined for the paragraph, chapter or entire manuscript.

If your feedback aligns with the goals you set, then you know you’ve hit the mark. If the feedback shows that you’re communicating something other than what you intended, though, then you know you’ve got to rework.

Try not to get hung up on the “flaws” as they are pointed out to you. Just let them run around in your brain as you do dishes or take a shower and take a few notes–they can shape what you write going forward, but you’re just highlighting things at this point so you don’t forget to come back to them later. Give those areas your full attention when it’s time to do a true edit.

Every writer has their own method of working–there is no one-size-fits-all for how to write. But certain concepts can apply regardless of personality, schedule or tools. All of the “rules” above are in this vein and are meant to get you to a point of greater initial freedom on the page. The balance of freedom and conscious awareness is always the foundation for creating a killer draft every time.

 

The Value of Leaving What You Write Sit Unfinished

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When I was back in college, I worked at the writing center for the university. Some nights, it would be ungodly slow, and there would be long lulls between helping students with their work. On one of those nights, to entertain myself, I drew a little picture of a character and mentally came up with a funny story for it.

And over the next year or so, I wrote about 70 pages.

Then, the pages got put on a shelf.

They sat.

For 15 years.

The story sat not because I lost interest, but because all of the potential paths felt “OK”. None felt perfect. And I hate settling for what “sort of” works, just to say a draft is done.

But then, on a mommy-daughter day, I told my daughter about it. And in doing that, suddenly the right path was there. It made sense. All the puzzle pieces had the connectors I needed.

So I opened the document on my computer. Two weeks later, the story was done.

I tell this story not to focus on the specific manuscript, but to focus on the fact that I didn’t press delete on the story. I could have. I could have just assumed that, if 15 years already had gone by, I simply wasn’t going to get out of the weeds and find a fix.

But I didn’t. Why? It wasn’t that I was confident in my ability to write. It was that I understood that the subconscious mind doesn’t make connections on demand. It makes connections when the time and environment are right, as new bits of information arrive to add one more link in the chain. I trusted that that process was happening, even though I couldn’t foresee when it would be done.

Today’s society is one of impossible deadlines in overwhelming quantity. It is one where immediacy and formula have the value of the phoenix and patience gets dismissed as old-fashioned. So writers can get the impression that there’s somehow an expiration date on drafts.

There isn’t.

When you leave a draft for a while, you’ll come back to it with different experiences, information and even feelings. And all of that allows you to approach the manuscript with a more objective lens of possibility. And often, I’ve found that hurdles I thought were hurdles weren’t. A little older and wiser, my brain wasn’t stuck anymore.

Now, I’m not saying you should leave all your drafts for 15 years. Sometimes you just need to sleep on it, or just go walk around the block with a coffee. I’m simply saying that your best writing is on its schedule, not yours. Be open to that and don’t judge yourself if you find yourself waiting, unsure of where to go. It will come.

So although it’s OK to be realistic and retire pieces that just don’t interest you anymore, or that you can recognize really do have serious problems you don’t care to tackle, don’t be too quick to toss idle drafts away. Even those often have snippets that are worth saving and crafting into something new. The draft I finished I now consider to be some of my best and most enjoyable work, because I wasn’t trying to control it. I let it direct me instead.

I have held this philosophy for years. It’s why my business is Takingdictation–I believe in waiting, in listening, and then writing what my mind whispers to my ear. To me, it always has felt like a very passive process. If you balance that kind of trust with a little world practicality (e.g., working with an editor), your level of productivity will be outstanding.

Why Standup Comedians Are the Best Writing Teachers Ever

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For a while now, I’ve been indulging in standup comedy online during my teeny bits of free time. (Netflix specials are fun, as are the late night shows.) If you’re a writer who doesn’t do the same, I highly encourage you to start.

First, good standup inevitably gets you in a better mood. And I’m convinced that you do your best writing when you are relaxed and happy. Even if you choose to write on a darker theme, there’s a clarity and ease that comes from approaching the theme without stress and worry.

But beyond helping you let go of your troubles for a while, standup comedians are also some of the best storytellers in the world. They have perfected the art of making tales engaging yet brief, and they understand the art of delivering their communication in ways that are easy to understand.

What really makes their efforts work, in my opinion, is that standup comedians are so beautifully aware of social constructs and expectations. They find dozens of instances in everyday life when people have challenged those constructs or gotten into sticky situations with them. Then they use the audience’s understanding of those violations or expectations to connect and get laughs. Through this process, they also relate the stories in a honest, often almost crude way. Their analogies or metaphors have a sense of poetry and rhythm, but they also can be so out of the box that those in the audience are happy that what the comedian is saying is novel. Those who listen appreciate that the comedian takes the risk of putting what is or could be considered taboo all out front in the open.

So it’s not that standup comedians are funny. It’s that they understand more deeply why something is funny. And if you start dissecting that a little bit as a writer, you start to see how people really work within the immediate culture. All of the biases and ways individuals and groups interact and influence each other are laid bare. And once that happens, it’s much easier not only to imagine viable situational plots, but also to establish characterizations based on expected behaviors and how characters adhere to or violate those norms. And on some level, you also gain a sense of how to balance kernels of truth against what others might see as offensive.

So next time you find yourself bashing your head against writer’s block, step back for a moment. Pop some popcorn. Go find a comedy show that appeals to your sense of humor. Take some relief in watching a great storyteller on their feet. Think about all the buttons they are hitting and understand that those strikes are part of an intentional, carefully scripted strategy, rather than the result of a spontaneous bit of luck and personality. And from there, it’s just a matter of choosing which buttons to line up for a story all your own.