Archives for category: Writing Tips

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I’ve been working as a fiction writer from home for the past two years, and many times, when I tell people what I do for a living, I get this reaction: “I could never work from home. I don’t have the discipline.” The truth is that successfully working from home does require discipline. It’s been my experience that this discipline doesn’t come naturally. It took me a year to get my priorities straight and to find an effective work rhythm. Below are some practices that have helped me along the way.

Please understand that everyone’s work experiences will vary. What works for me may not work for you, and you might come up with tips that I haven’t discovered yet. Feel free to leave those in the comments. Also, working from home isn’t for everyone. Some people enjoy going to a place of work, and they are better producers in that environment.

If you do work from home, then I hope you find these tips to be helpful:

1) Be social. One of the greatest challenges that I face at home is not having colleagues to interact with on a daily basis. For me, social media has been a great solution to this problem, specifically Twitter. I’ve formed and maintained relationships with several people through Twitter. I’ve found that mindfully communicating with about 100 users, as opposed to trying to reach out to all 1.3K of the folks I follow, has helped me to share information, stay informed, and improve my craft.

As great as social media can be, I also strongly suggest meeting up with friends in person. Over the past two years, I’ve identified other people in my life who have flexible schedules. I schedule at least two in-person lunches or coffee dates with these friends during the week. I’m always amazed by how these appointments energize me and push me to hustle to meet my work goals.

2) Break the silence. Some people like to listen to music when they work, and that’s fine. I, however, need silence in order to write effectively. As much as I appreciate and love silence, I find that I grow weary of it over time. To combat this silence overload, I sometimes listen to classical (or lyric-less) music while I work on less mentally demanding tasks, such as checking email or cooking a meal. I also listen to podcasts when I work out or take an extended break. My favorite podcasts are those that stimulate my thinking, such as The Accidental Creative, TED Radio Hour, and Ravi Zacharias’ “Just Thinking.” I also sometimes listen to audio books and short stories.

3) Set a daily work goal. First, determine what a full day’s work looks like for you. Take an 8 hour chunk of time and just work. During this stretch, take a 5-10 minute break every hour, and a 30-45 minute lunch. The work that you accomplish during these 8 hours is your work goal for an ideal day’s work. Going forward, if you meet this goal or can come within 80% of completion, then you’ve put in a full day’s work. If you meet half of this goal, then you’ve worked a half day. Sometimes, you will have other tasks and activities and will only be able to partially meet your goal, which is okay. If you worked at an office, you would sometimes work half or partial days on account of meetings and/or other scheduled events. In general, since you don’t work at an office, try to hold yourself to a full day’s work.

4) Periodically reassess your daily goal. The more time you spend working from home, the more effective you will–hopefully–become at accomplishing your work. Every few months or so, reassess how much work you’re capable of completing in 8 hours. You will probably find that you’ll be able to up your workload as time passes. Either that, or you’ll affirm where your limits are and strive to maintain them.

5) Exercise your body. Yes, get up and do something physical. Walk, jog, swim, dance, lift weights, train on the elliptical, take a Pilates class–whatever gets you moving. Do it! I like to workout for 45-60 minutes, 4-5 times per week. At minimum, aim for 30 minutes, 3-4 times a week. An oxygenated brain is sharper and healthier than one that doesn’t get oxygenated. Not to mention, the kinesthetic break helps your brain to reset for your work tasks.

6) Structure your day. Understand that even in an office setting, you probably wouldn’t be off in a corner working for 8 hours straight. Shape your day by incorporating short, regular breaks, and treating yourself to a longer lunch break when you need to refuel. The key to structure is balance. Don’t work for too long without taking a break, but also don’t break from your work for too long.

You might try breaking up your daily work goal into chunks that can be accomplished in 1-2 hour intervals, and take small breaks afar completing each chunk. Everyone will structure his or her day differently. Some people have a more freestyle approach to structure, knowing what tasks they need to accomplish and squeezing them in as they can. Do whatever works for you, but be sure that your structure fuels your work. Ineffective structure can create a false sense of accomplishment that will ultimately leave you short of your daily goal.

7) Exercise your mind. In addition to exercising my mind by listening to podcasts on breaks, I enjoy reading the news and following various blogs on a daily basis. I have found that taking 30-60 minutes to do this every morning refreshes and energizes my mind before setting out to hammer out my word count. I also like to always be reading a book, and I aim to complete one book ever 1-2 weeks.

8) Enjoy the perks. When you work from home, you lose the perks of working in the office, like having colleagues, attending work events, having a set schedule, and having a boss. Yes, having boss can be a perk, especially to people who thrive when someone holds them accountable for their tasks. When you work from home, however, you gain other benefits, like skipping the morning commute, working in your pajamas, having access to your kitchen, petting the cat, having a flexible schedule, being able to squeeze in domestic duties during breaks.

Don’t let the perks detract from your work, but rather appreciate these perks, and use them to nourish your work. For me, getting to work in my bathrobe is one of my favorite perks. My robe makes me feel warm and comfortable, and it settles my mind so I can create more effectively. On some days, however, I need to wear my regular clothes because the comfort of my robe can be too distracting, particularly if I’ve suffered from a poor night’s sleep.

9) Get out of the house. By the time my husband comes home from work, he just wants to sit on the couch and relax at home. I, having been in the house all day, sometimes want to get out. I’ve found that getting out during the day helps me to strike a balance here. I might go to the gym, rather than workout from home, or I might run out for groceries on one of my longer breaks. Physical distance from the workplace can be quite energizing, but when I’m out, I almost always have to fight the temptation to leave my work behind for too long. I like to stop and ask myself, if I had a boss, would she approve of me taking time from work to complete the task I’m doing?

10) Respect your workday. When I first started working from home, I dove into all kinds of volunteer work and offered myself freely to friends in need of personal favors. As important as it was for me to help others, I quickly realized that I wasn’t getting my work done. I was frustrated that others weren’t respecting my time, but the truth is that I wasn’t respecting my time. I’d ignored the schedule component of my flexible schedule.

Once I learned to respect my time, I began to schedule volunteer activities for evenings and weekends, just like I would if I were working at an office. I also began to limit my personal favors to emergency situations only. If a friend can hire someone else to complete the task she’s asking me to do, then she might just need to do that. Also, if my friend wouldn’t dream of asking someone who goes to a physical place of work to complete the same task, then why is she asking me? Yes, I work from home, but I do work. At first, it was difficult for me to not take offense to personal requests, but as I learned how to respond to these requests–kindly yet firmly–I became less frustrated.

As per emergency situations, I’ve come to define a true emergency as a special situation that can’t be planned for ahead of time. Emergencies happen, but not nearly as frequently as some might imagine. Exercise your best judgment when trying to distinguish between true emergencies and situations that can be managed without your assistance.

Basically, effectively working from home comes down to finding out what works for your work, and sticking to that. Producing good work from home is a struggle, that I can guarantee. I can also guarantee that the struggle is worthwhile. For me, it’s astoundingly rewarding to meet my daily mark, while also having a home cooked meal ready for my husband.

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Yesterday I spent the entire day preparing for a vacation I’m about to take, but instead of cramming in as many words on my WIP (work in progress), I spent the day scheduling my tweets for the week. I have an unspoken rule with myself: in order for me to call a day “productive,” I must meet a minimum word-count requirement of 2K, ideally 3K. According to these terms, yesterday was a very unproductive day. When I think about it, Twitter and blogging are the two activities that normally hinder my word count on these less productive days. I began to wonder if I should reassess my definition of “productive.” Yes, writing is all about the writing, but there’s got to be a reason why I spend so much time tweeting and blogging.

For me, Twitter is like a water cooler. It’s were I go to mingle with other writers and to gather information on the industry. But Twitter can also be a time drain for many writers. I know this from personal experience. Far too often, Twitter is like my candy dish, as opposed to my water cooler. I know I shouldn’t reach into the dish every time I pass it, but I do.

When all is said and done, I am a writer and my loyalties rest with my word count. Yes, it’s okay to have a day or two of Twitter/blogging activities every so often, but anymore than that, and I’m only making it harder for myself to jump back into that WIP.

Here are some tips I’ve developed in attempt to keep myself from falling into the “Twitter Abyss”–that nasty state of wandering from tweet to tweet while ignoring your writing. I hope other writers will find these tips helpful in structuring their days and in improving word counts.

1) Know your ideal word count, and aim for 50-75% of it every day. To determine your ideal word count, pick a day without distraction (yeah, right), and write for 5-8 hours straight, taking a 10-15 minute break after each hour of writing. Make sure to have an outline for each scene before you start this day, and make sure to keep writing, no matter what, in between those sweet breaks. Your word count at the end of this session is your ideal word count (for now). Your ideal word count will most likely increase as your writing skills grow.  Now, calculate your daily word count goal. So, if you wrote 3K in 5 hours, then you should aim for a minimum of 1.5-2K words/day, 4-5X’s/week.

2) Post your daily word count on Twitter at the end of every day. I started doing this a few months ago, and having that public accountability has upped my sense of duty. I want to meet my word count because I know I will be posting it for others to see. This was terrifying for me at first, but now that I’ve been doing it, I can’t stop.

3) Host writing sprints on Twitter. If you’re dragging or feeling distracted, send out a tweet inviting others to join you for a writing sprint. Set the time. I like to do 30-60min sprints, during the afternoon. Ask participants to tweet their word count at the end of the sprint. Then, write. To illustrate, the last sprint I hosted was a half-hour lunch sprint in which participants wrote as many words as they could from 12:00-12:30p.m. EST (or something like that). This little sprint motivated me to write 500 words during that session, and I’m hoping it motivated others on toward their goals too. Just imagine how many words you could write per day with 3 one-hour sprint sessions.

4) Use TweetDeck to prioritize what tweets you actually read. HUGE TIME SAVER. I do this, and now, instead of weeding through tweets from the 1K+ accounts I follow, I can simply create a column for my top 40 accounts. I only see the tweets from those accounts, so I’m less tempted to keep scrolling through the endless feed from every account I follow. Okay, I still scroll through the endless feed sometimes.

5)Use a service like FutureTweets to schedule your tweets ahead of time. I find that I’m less tempted to search around on Twitter when I do this. I also feel less pressure to constantly log on, find something to tweet about, then tweet. I can take care of all my tweets in one or two sessions per day, and I don’t have to worry about killing my followers with a pile up of tweets at one time.

6) Twitter and/or blog on your breaks. At some point, you will need a break from your writing. I like to take mini breaks (5-10min) every hour, and a longish lunch break. Whenever I return form these breaks, I usually check my Twitter feed. Yes, these Twitter diversions sometimes take much longer than anticipated, so you might want to only check Twitter once every two hours or so.

The Key to Avoiding the Twitter Abyss

Whatever the case may be, I’d say that keeping yourself on the “write track” and not falling into the Twitter abyss boils down to 1)knowing your word count and 2)developing and sticking to a daily routine that helps you to maximize that word count. As much as writers may resist cliches, I can’t help but say it: The numbers don’t lie.

This weekend I attended the Atlanta Writers Conference at the Airport Westin. This conference is very basic in its layout, and if you sign up for the right events, you can get some really great industry feedback. I’ve attended AWC twice so far, and I’ve found that the most worthwhile events are the mixer, the query letter critique, and the pitch sessions.

The mixer is free with your registration for any other conference event, and the agents and editors are obligated to attend. For the cheapest access to the mixer, attendees can sign up for a 30.00 Q&A panel and pay the required Atlanta Writer Club fee, which is 40.00. That would get you into the mixer for 70.00. Yes, for just 70.00 you can spend 3 hours nursing a martini while mingling with 6-8 industry professionals. I’ve made more contacts, and I’ve gotten more requests at this informal event than I have at any other formal pitch event that I’ve attended. Not to mention, I’ve met some of my best writer friends at this mixer.

Another great event is the query letter critique. For 50.00, participants get feedback on their query letter, and at the end of the session, you can always ask your industry professional if s/he would like you to email them your revised query letter. If s/he says “yes,” then you’ve just tacked a successful pitch onto your critique. Way to kill two birds with one stone. Also, when I attended the query letter critique, there were two industry professionals present, which doubled my chances of getting a request.

Lastly, the pitch sessions can be helpful. I had a mixed experience with this event, as the written instructions didn’t match up with what the industry professional was expecting. The person who pitched after me had the same experience, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many others did as well. I’m guessing there was a miscommunication in the written instructions that we’d received. It’s really unfortunate to be in a situation like this, as it can sour the tone for everyone. Even so, the feedback from the pitch sessions is generally helpful.

On the flip side, I’ve talked with conference attendees who’ve expressed feeling disrespected or misinformed by their industry professionals during the pitch events. I’d imagine that this happens a lot at conferences everywhere. Think about it: A handful of weary, travel-worn agents and editors are in constant contact with droves of aspiring writers. Someone is bound to get cranky. It is unfortunate when feelings get hurt, and in my opinion, disrespect of any kind is inexcusable. But who am I?

There are some events at this conference that could benefit from improvement, namely the workshops. I usually pay for these because the titles sound enticing, but I have yet to be impressed by any of the speakers or the content.

I have never attended the manuscript critique, which is the most expensive event, at 150.00. I have nothing to say about this event as of yet.

I also have yet to attend the Q&A panels, but I’ve talked with other attendees who have said that the panels are helpful.

A word of advice to writers who are planning to attend an AWC event. You will maximize your time there if you research the industry professionals beforehand. Chances are that of the 6-8 editors and agents who attend, only 1-2 will be acquiring projects in your genre. I highly recommend studying their Twitter pages, bios, and any other relevant information you can find. Know thy audience, right?

I remember fondly learning about the Freytag Pyramid in elementary school English. The pyramid was a great introduction to my understanding of plot and climax, but as I got older, and the stories that I read became more complex, I discovered that this neat little pyramid just didn’t cut it. But through college, my lessons on plot never seemed to present anything different. Even recently, I attended a presentation in which the pyramid was brought up by industry professionals when discussing plot. That’s when I began to seek out some other analogy that would help me to better understand plot structure. 

I love a good roller coaster as much as I love a good book, and just this weekend it hit as to why that might be. Both roller coasters and (many) books are structured to give those who dare to enter a thrilling ride. I’m generalizing here, and I’m well aware that not all books and roller coasters are created equal. But for many books, I think that a roller coaster may be a more relevant analogy for plot than is the old pyramid. 

For those of you who might be scratching your heads when I mention the Freytag Pyramid, here’s an illustration of what I mean. In a nutshell, pyramid plot structure dictates that the story should begin in a state of normalcy, become complicated and conflicted, rise to a climax, and then return to a changed or renewed state of normalcy. I love this pyramid explanation of plot, and I think it’s a great way to get novice readers and writers to understand structure.

But I think a roller coaster is a more appropriate analogy for novels, especially the high concept ones. Here’s why: A roller coaster usually has more than one peak, or pyramid, if you will. I can’t think of any novel that I’ve recently read that didn’t have multiple climaxes. Yes, many stories contain a single major climax, or pyramid peak, that encompasses all of the others, but there are other climaxes.

In this way, each drop of a roller coaster is its own pyramid. Notice how many roller coasters begin with a huge drop. In stories, this first major drop is the first major incident in the novel. It’s the event that turns the main character’s world upside down. It’s the event that sets the tone and the course of action in motion for the rest of the story. In many ways, this first event is like that first gut-wrenching drop of a roller coaster ride. As a friend pointed out, this biggest drop should actually come at the end of the story. As you can see, just as roller coasters are limited by the laws of physic, this analogy has its limitations.

Secondly, roller coasters, like stories, contain loops–events that literally reverse the events of the story. These loops are the moments at which the reader realizes that a certain character isn’t who she said she was, or those moments at which the main character is set back on his or her journey. We could say the same of twists, too. Story twists, like roller coaster twists, throw unexpected motion into the plot.

Thirdly, many roller coasters have a big drop or surprise toward the end. In stories, this final surprise is the main character’s final obstacle. Oftentimes, this obstacle is surprising and unexpected. For instance, it’s when the villain who we thought was killed comes back to life, grabs his gun, and aims it one last time at the hero. Good stories, like good roller coasters, save this thrill for the end, executing it at the moment at which the audience least expects it.

And finally, a good roller coaster will gently drop you off at the exit, unharmed, but changed and exhilarated. Isn’t that just how a good story should leave you off? 

This roller coaster analogy is particularly helpful to me when I think of my role as a writer. I’m an engineer, a job title that is a lot easier for me to understand than “pyramid builder.” I guess writers are pyramid builders to some degree, setting our stories into place one brick at a time, but when I think of myself as a roller coaster “engineer” I can visualize my role better. I can see the design. I can feel the weight of responsibility in building my tracks properly. I can almost hear the screams and can picture the thrilled looks on my riders’ faces. As a story engineer, I understand better what it means to gain my readers’ trust while leading them through a perilous journey that makes harrowing amusement park lines well worth the wait.