Writing Habits


flickr_journaling_vic

Picture taken by Vic on Flickr.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I lost a ton of time this year by trying to bully myself into coming up with awesome ideas, on a deadline, during my daily hourly writing time.

It really, really didn’t work.

And because this wasn’t working, I decided to try some other, gentler brainstorming techniques. And while most didn’t do too much for me, journaling turned out remarkably well.

Here’s what I did.

First, let’s set the stage: I had a draft of a novel I didn’t want to use and a lot of ideas I didn’t like that much.

I wrote a novel for last year’s NaNoWriMo that was, unsurprisingly, not very good. I outlined it a week before I started and didn’t have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I stopped at 70,000 words.

And while NaNo was fun, the story was a mess. It had multiple points of view, and one of them–which made up a bit less than half the story–was pointless. The two POVs never interacted in any way. The main villain was a ton of fun to write, but she didn’t really do anything. This left the protagonist to kind of… wander around, do her own thing, and have a small, meaningless little adventure until it got trashed in the climax.

It was not a good story.

The more I dug, the more I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the secondary characters. I didn’t like the backstory I had created. I didn’t like the big reveal at the end of the book. I wanted to throw it out and do something totally different with everything–the characters. The story. The lore.

I needed to do a lot of thinking. I started by trying a lot of things that didn’t work. Then I tried journaling.

What do I mean by “journaling”?

Basically, I just sat down every day during my scheduled writing time, opened a Word file, and wrote about my feelings. I wrote about things like:

  • What ideas in my story did I like? Why?
  • What ideas did I not like? What bugged me about them?
  • What kind of characters do I usually like? What character dynamics do I like? Why?
  • Why did I not like the characters in the previous draft? What bored me?

So on, so forth. I wrote down my thoughts about my plots. I wrote my feelings about my backstory. I wrote about my theme. I wrote down what sort of things I enjoyed and what sort of things I didn’t.

I didn’t not come up with solutions. (But if one burst into my head, great! I’ll take it!) But if I didn’t know what I wanted, that was fine. If I did try to come up with new ideas, I’d just be brainstorming. And brainstorming is good, but I–again–had spent several months being bad about brainstorming. So I tried, very hard, to not pressure myself.

If my thinking aloud naturally, gracefully led me to an idea, I followed it. But if I was just angry and tearing apart my old story and ranting about how it bored me, I just let myself complain, then moved on.

Some approaches worked better than others.

I had never done this before, so I wasn’t quite sure how to do this correctly. It took me a while to figure out some good techniques:

  • I tried to balance “why didn’t I like [something I made]” with “what do I like?” I wasn’t trying to start a pity party. I was just trying to pinpoint why I didn’t like certain things, not insult myself.
  • I eventually pulled all the ideas I liked into a single file and tried to imagine a story that included all of them.
  • Similarly, I played around with how it’d feel if I removed everything I didn’t like from the original story. What was left? What holes were there? Could I fill them with the good ideas?
  • I also wrote down things I enjoyed from my favorite books, stories, and games. Why did I like them? What appealed to me? Why?
  • I tried to fangirl a little. What if I took the ideas I liked the most and tried to make them as big and dramatic as possible? What if they were the crux of the story? What if everything revolved around them? What is the coolest scene I could do about them?

Could I have just laid down and thought through all this? Sure. But writing it down made me process these thoughts more slowly. And, more importantly, it created a record of them. That let me come back the next day, look through my previous thoughts, and analyze them more deeply.

It helped a lot, actually.

For several weeks, this is all I did. I mused. I wrote down my thoughts. On most days, I made no measurable progress at all. I just thought.

But when I started making lists of everything I liked and didn’t like, and started to imagine a story that had all the good stuff and none of the stupid stuff… it started to congeal into a better story. And I started to outline.

It wasn’t perfect. There’s still a lot of messiness, a lot of weirdness, and at least one giant hole in my outline. But it’s definitely better. And there’s a lot more in this story that I’m genuinely excited to write.

And it worked because I wasn’t just brainstorming. I wasn’t sitting down, revving up my brain, and expecting fully-formed ideas to fall out. And because I was just working through my feelings, there was no way for me to slot my days into “success” or “failure.” (And if you’re just brainstorming? Yeah. Ideas you can use = successful day, no good ideas = hurray, I just wasted my time.)

I have a terrible habit of pressuring myself to produce something measurable, quickly. New words! New stories! New ideas! NOW. It helps to have a technique in the toolbox that lets me feel a little productive–I often came up with hundreds (or thousands!) of words of journaling every day–while not actually requiring me to produce!!

So if you fall prey to the same vicious thoughts, give it a shot. It’s like tricking your brain into a kinder, gentler form of brainstorming. Maybe it’ll help!

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Notecard that reads 'Today has mostly been about frustrations and disappointment :('

Photo by Sarah Barker on Flickr.

I’m no stranger to creative slumps. Every year, I crash at least once, wonder why I write at all, and take a few weeks off. It eventually pases, all is well again, and I get back to work.

But not this year! This year has been terrible. I finished the edit of my most recent project earlier this year. (The edit itself took a year and a half. It was grueling.) Then I started querying. Querying was depressing, so I started outlining my next project. Everything went wrong.

The story I most wanted to work on was missing everything between the beginning and climactic battle–like, you know, a world for the rest of the story to happen in, characters who weren’t the protagonist and antagonist, and a plot. Uhhhhh…

So I tried another story–the sequel to the one I was querying. Nope. I’ve got a theme and a city, but not a plot. That… wasn’t helpful.

Then I went back to a story I wrote during NaNoWriMo. I already had 70,000 words down, so it had to be be easier to fix, right? It was half written! And… no. It was the wrong story, with the wrong villain. How did I even do that? I needed to start over. I probably couldn’t save anything.

And after months of bouncing between these stories, I had nothing to show for it. A stack of notecards, a few outlines on the wall, and… nothing. The year was more than half over and I had nothing to show for it.

So I sat down for my daily hour of writing time, determined to do something. And then that went wrong, too.

I have a bad habit of downplaying any work I do that isn’t “productive” enough.

I have a bad habit. I associate “productivity” with producing words. I’m not the worst about it, admittedly. I think all sorts of things are a good use of my time, even if they aren’t strictly “writing.” I feel good when I:

  • Add words to an outline
  • Create character sheets or worldbuilding documents
  • Edit old content
  • And, of course, just write an actual story.

But I wasn’t doing any of that. None of these stories had plots, remember?

What I really needed to do was brainstorm. And that was the problem. Brainstorming feels unproductive.

When I write or outline something, I can measure my progress: I wrote words. Yay! But if I spend an hour brainstorming, I can’t guarantee I’ll do anything. Maybe I’ll come up with an idea. Maybe I won’t! Maybe I’ll spend hours thinking and not come up with anything usable at all!

And I hate that.

I wrote 200,000 words last year–and now it’s August 2018 and I’ve only written a fraction of that. I need an idea now so I can write something now, and I need to get past the brainstorming and into the actual writing or I won’t produce anything at all this year and–

So I kept settling on any idea–anything at all!–that felt good enough that I could start working on it. Nothing’s perfect, right? I can fix it later, can’t I?

And… no. No. That’s terrible. Why did I do that? Why did I do it more than once? I kept glomming onto bad ideas and, unsurprisingly, deciding they were terrible a few days or weeks later. Then I’d toss them out, feel even more like I was wasting my time, and do it again.

Weeks passed. I was even angrier at myself. None of this was working.

I had to redefine what a “productive use of my time” was.

I needed to stop doing this. But how?

First off, I had to detangle this awful, messy, stupid knot of feelings. I was measuring my worth in a binary way: either I produced an idea, outline, or story and was good, or I spent an hour coming up with nothing and was bad. I was forcing myself to produce ideas on demand and beating myself up when I couldn’t.

I needed to reframe my thoughts. I started by trying to identify what was good about what I was doing:

  • Time spent thinking about a story is useful, even if I don’t come up with a solution to a problem. I should consider a brainstorming session as valuable as a writing session–it’s still time actively spent thinking about a story.
  • Word count is not the only measure of a good or active writer. A day where I spent time working on a story is a productive day. Period.
  • If my current brainstorming style isn’t working, I should try something new. Mixing it up could help.
  • And I really needed to pay less attention to my word counting sheet. I love it dearly, but if I’m brainstorming, I have no meaningful way to record that. It’s just a “zero word” day, which looks terrible. I had to think of another way to feel like I was doing something.

So I gave it a shot.

Little by little, I took some of the pressure of myself.

In my quest to “try other ways of brainstorming,” I started trying techniques I had seen other people use:

  • Journaling my thoughts and feelings about my story
  • Making Pinterest inspiration boards
  • Finding art that reminded me of my world

And because my word counting sheet was making me feel bad, I tried something simpler. I just used a calendar. If I spent any time working on my project, I’d put an X on that day. I was productive that day. No judgement. No word count. Just work = success = good.

It did feel a little silly. These felt like… fluffy things to spend my time on. But it was still better than going “Do I have any ideas? No? Let’s get angry at myself for 30 minutes, then give up and play videogames.”

And for most of a month, I really didn’t do much. I wrote down feelings. I checked off days. I didn’t produce much, but I was sticking to my schedule.

And then things started to get better. I had a few ideas. I started an outline. And I–maybe? Hopefully?–started to find things I wanted to write again.

It’s still to early to see if it really helped, but…

I only just now started making progress, so who knows! Maybe I’m just doing what I did before: making a little progress, glomming on to it, and swearing that this time I’ve broken the curse.

But I do know that throwing down a deadline and forcing myself to make words didn’t help. Demanding that I make ideas, now, within my 60 minutes of writing time didn’t help. It seems kind of obvious to say “Hey, have you tried not being such a jackass to yourself?” but, well, sometimes we miss the obvious solutions.

Honestly, though, if there’s one thing that helped me the most, it was the journaling. I’ll write more about that in my next post, because it was genuinely surprising how much it helped me clear my brain out.

But that’s a post for another day!

Are you a plotter or a planner? Well? Do you plan things or do you wing it? Are you organized or spontaneous? Do you structure your books or do you wait for the muse to take you by the hand?

You’re one or the other! Choose!

If you’ve been writing any amount of time, you’ve heard this approximately five million times. And like most things that separate people into groups, people can get tribal about it.

And you know what’s nuts? It’s nonsense. There’s no black-and-white line between plotting and pantsing. I don’t even know how we got here. Who decided that the only choices available are to write a story completely blind or to plan everything ahead of time?

When it comes to planning a story, your choices aren’t “plan everything” or “plan absolutely nothing.”

Here’s the problem with plotting and pantsing. If there are only two choices and you have to choose one, you might think there are only two ways to write: you plan everything in advance or you plan nothing.

This is so, so limiting.

I’ve seen people commit to planning, try to figure out every scene in their book, then despair when they come up with new ideas mid-story. They act like these unplanned-for ideas mean they did something wrong.

And I’ve seen people try to pants a story and hit a creative wall. They don’t know what to write next. Nothing seems natural, the characters could go a dozen different ways, and they may not know where the story is going. But they’re so bought into the idea of creativity as spontaneous experience that they feel they are not allowed to plan ahead at all.

These people have squeezed themselves in tiny little holes. They’re a “planner,” so innovating in the writing phase is wrong! They’re a “pantser,” so planning ahead is forbidden!

Why do people do this to themselves?

Plotting and pantsing is a continuum, not a binary choice.

OK. So let’s throw away the idea that you have to be in either Camp Planning or Camp Spontaneity. Let’s think of it like a continuum.

Imagine a line. On the faaaaaaaaarthest left side is “plan absolutely everything in your story.” And on the other end, the line ends with “plan absolutely nothing.”

And in the middle is a great, vast expanse. What belongs there, you ask? Everything! Anything! Because you know what? There are degrees of planning and degrees of spontaneity.

  • A really hardcore planner might map out all ~40ish scenes in their book before beginning.
  • …But they could still give themselves permission to deviate from it if they come up with a better idea when they’re writing it. They may even end up with a totally different book than what they planned.
  • Or you could do a lighter outline and sketch out bullet points for each scene (or chapter!), but go into the story not specifically knowing how all those events will happen.
  • Or hey, you could do some really light planning and go in only knowing your Inciting Incident, Midpoint, and Climax, and wing everything in between!
  • Maybe you like to plan your characters and world, but not your plot? That’s good, too!
  • Or you could jump in without an outline, pants the story, but “micro outline” one or two chapters ahead of where you are, so you never start a writing session “blind.”
  • Or you can wing the story, but have a backup plan in case you ever hit a wall. Maybe you can be spontaneous until you really don’t know what to do, and then you can brainstorm some ideas, write down the best of them, and see how to integrate them into your work.

Or maybe you have your own technique! That’s even better!

And you know what? These are all perfectly viable techniques. You can plan a lot or a little. You could write an outline and also write organically. You can wing a story but still plan certain parts of it. You can make your own system, where you do the things that work for you and don’t do the ones that don’t.

And you know what? I’m willing to bet that most people do this. The people who pants an entire story and start without knowing anything that will happen? They are the panstiest pantsers there are, but they certainly aren’t the majority. They’re just as much an outlier as the people who plan 100% of their stories in the outline phase and never, ever deviate from it.

And if you’re not trying to cram yourself into a box, you can take advantages of BOTH ways to be creative.

And that’s the magic: planning can be useful. Letting the story guide you in an unexpected direction can be useful. So wouldn’t you want to give yourself permission to do both? It just gives you more tools to use.

And who wants to cram themselves in a box, anyway?

So, seriously: why is this a thing? Why are people so rigid about it? Can’t we treat plotting and not-plotting like techniques we can all use, and stop telling ourselves that we “have” to be creative in a certain way?

Just do whatever works for you.

Within the writing world, you sometimes run into people who are obsessed with finding The Best Idea Ever. These are the folks who write posts like:

  • I’m terrified to talk about my story because someone will steal my idea!
  • I have an idea for a story that’s so good that it’s guaranteed to get me an agent!
  • I keep abandoning stories because I want to find The One Idea that is guaranteed to be a success!
  • And, of course, everyone’s favorite: “I’m an idea person, but I hate writing, so I think someone should write my idea for me and split the profit 50/50!”

These people believe the idea is all that matters–that their idea will get them published or that their idea is worth something. Sometimes you even encounter writers who are afraid to write at all until they hit on the best idea.

And all these people are getting hung up on the wrong thing. A good idea won’t get you published.

First thing’s first: having a good idea for a story DOES matter.

Ideas aren’t completely worthless. It is good to start with an idea that’s unique or underrepresented in some way. A fantasy that involves a dumb barbarian, an archer elf, and a drunk dwarf on a quest to destroy the Lord of Darkness is probably extremely cliche. Everyone on earth has already seen Harry Potter, and there are now two decades of “So-and-so is a [fantasy creature], in [fantasy creature] school!” stories. Overdone ideas are hard sells.

Does that mean they can’t sell? No, of course not. That’s the whole point of this post!

And if you have a unique, interesting twist for a story, then awesome! That’s a great starting point, and it may very well help you sell your story.

So that’s good! But it’s not enough. That one beautiful idea won’t get you published. And even if your idea is kind of overdone? That doesn’t mean you won’t be.

You see, I have an absolutely shocking truth to share with you.

What actually gets you published is the quality of your writing.

Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t warn you! You should have been sitting. I’m sure you’re all beside yourselves with shock now. It’s all right. Take a moment. Relax. Let that settle in.

Yes, unsurprisingly, the thing that agents actually care about is the quality of your writing. And “writing,” in this case, refers to the five zillion skills any talented writer has to juggle. Grammar? Absolutely. Excellent word choice? Yes! But also pacing, plotting, characterization, and an understanding of the genre they’re writing in. And more! Writing is complicated!

And let me tell you: good writing can make anything good.

I’m sure you can think of books that are popular, that have a lot of readers, and that have an extremely common story at its core. Heck, just look at the entire trend of fairy tale retellings: yes, they’re generally a mixup of Common Fairy Tale + Interesting Twist, but part of the challenge of that genre is taking a familiar story, with familiar themes, and making it new.

A really good author can take an idea that you’ve seen a million times and make it genuinely engaging. Their characters are just that dynamic, or their worldbuilding that gripping, or their tension that absolutely page-turning. If you reduced their story to a one-sentence summary, it might not sound like a completely groundbreaking concept–but it’s still good.

And, sadly, the opposite is also true: a bad writer can ruin a good idea.

So you have a really awesome concept. That’s great! But maybe your characters are flat. Maybe your pacing is terrible, and you spend thousands and thousands of words on scenes where no one learns anything and nothing happens. Maybe you struggle with words, and your story is riddled with grammatical errors and strange word choices.

No one–no agent, no publisher, and no reader–is going to say “Well, the underlying concept is cool, so I’m going to read this absolute mess of a book anyway!” It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to find an agent, a publisher, or if you just want to self-publish. A good idea is not going to give you a golden ticket to success if you don’t have the writing skills to back it up.

For that matter, two people can start from the same idea and write totally different books.

And if you’re one of those souls who worries that someone’s going to steal your ideas, stop. Just stop. It’s fine. Idea theft generally isn’t a thing, but even if it were, it doesn’t matter.

A villain could steal your complete and final draft and do harm to you, sure. (That also doesn’t really happen, but whatever.) But no one can really steal an idea.

And that’s because of what I said above–an idea fits in a few paragraphs. A story may be 100,000 words. Can you just imagine how many decisions someone has to make to write 100,000 words? You have to write dozens and dozens of scenes. What happens? In what order? How are those events described? What details are included? Which aren’t? What characters are in those scenes? How is the world set up? How is the tension described?

I mean, just look at writing prompts! Do you think everyone who uses the same writing prompt ends up with the same idea? I attended a writing group just this weekend where everyone wrote about “Two people meet for breakfast.” We ended up with a paranormal fantasy, a thriller about someone getting kidnapped, and a romance about two old flames. Do you genuinely, sincerely think that two people can write two stories that even vaguely resemble each other unless they’re working from a full-novel outline and the same batch of character/worldbuilding notes?

And no, of course they can’t.

In the end, good ideas are nice. But it’s only your writing that matters.

That’s basically it.

Your agents, publishers, and readers are not going to settle down with their Kindle and read your ideas. They’re reading a novel. And in the end, that matters: your writing. Your skill. Your craft.

So don’t let yourself get hung up on ideas. They’re the sprinkles on top of the cake–but they don’t do you a ton of good if you don’t know how to bake one.

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before: get your first draft down. Don’t overthink it. Just get the thoughts down, get the words down, and finish.

It’s common advice, and it’s not hard to see why. One of the hardest lessons for a new writer to learn is that you have to actually finish projects. And that’s really friggin’ hard! Unless you’re very, very fast, writing 80,000+ words will take several months of work. And that’s just finishing draft #1!

Thus, the advice: just finish, even if it’s garbage.

But you know what? “Write a shitty first draft” means totally different things to different people.  So here’s what it means to me, and why I think it’s an excellent idea… if you’re doing it the way I do.

What does it mean to write a “shitty first draft”?

So, first thing’s first. Finishing is important. Finishing is really important! But this doesn’t mean anything goes. Specifically:

  • Write all the events that you want to happen, even if they’re out of order or don’t have the right emotional tone.
  • If you have scenes you absolutely love to death, put them in here.
  • Connect those scenes as best you can, and foreshadow them as best you can, even if you aren’t 100% sure you’re going to keep all this content.
  • Don’t worry about how nice it sounds. Your scenes don’t have to be beautifully crafted. They just have to exist.
  • Attempt to put all the connections in. For every plotline or character arc, you should put all the major events in: every plot twist, every reveal, every important landmark of character growth.
  • Write all the way to the end.
  • Try to structure it as a story. This means that there are no holes, no “And then everyone was somewhere else, with no explanation!”, and no “WRITE FIGHT SCENE HERE”s. Try to connect the dots.

Does that mean that you only write stuff you want to keep? Of course not! I always have a few scenes (or a few chapters, or many chapters…) that I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to throw out. But I write them if I have to do so to finish the story, then push through to the ending. But I write everything I know I want, connect it with stuff that will probably be similar, and finish.

The end result usually looks like a coherent novel that you could theoretically read and understand. It’s just not very good.

What does a “shitty first draft” NOT mean?

So here’s the problem: I’ve seen people take this advice really differently. “Just finish, no matter what? Great! There are no rules anymore! Nothing matters! There are no standards! Now, as long as I reach 80,000 words, I’m successful!”

And then they just write nonsense. Your story isn’t long enough? Throw in two chapters of backstory! Add characters or events for no reason at all! Who cares! We’re just aiming for a word count!

No! No no no no! You should definitely not:

  • Write nonsense.
  • Completely give up on telling a story and only care about producing a full novel’s worth of words.
  • Change your mind about the story you want to write, but write the old idea anyway so you can “just finish” something.
  • Write filler for the singular purpose of raising your word count.
  • Give up on writing anything that resembles a linear story.

And why not?

The point of finishing a story is to create something you can edit.

When people say “JUST FINISH THE STORY,” they aren’t giving you permission to write anything–anything at all!–as long as the end result is longer than 80,000 words (or whatever your goal is.)

The goal isn’t only to finish. If you want this to be more than just a learning experience, you also need to make something you can edit. And what can you edit?

  • Characters you want to keep
  • Events you want to happen
  • Plot arcs you like

…Even if these are all trash! If your characters exist but are poorly fleshed out, you can fix them. If you have events you like, but they’re not in the right places, you can move them. These things may be poorly written and not very engaging, but they exist, and you want them, so you can fix them.

But if you needed 20,000 words to finish a story, so you padded out the ending… who cares? You don’t care about that content. And when it comes time to edit, and to decide what stays and what goes, your only choice will be to throw it all out. And now you’re 20,000 words poorer and you have nothing to edit.

Remember: it’s okay to write messy. Just be strategic about it.

A first draft is like a puzzle. You can finish it if you have all 1,000 pieces on the table in front of you. If your pieces are gross? That’s fine. You only have the outline, and you’re missing big parts of the middle? Still a place to start. You have a bunch of pieces that don’t even belong to this puzzle? That’s okay! You can fix it.

But you can’t make a puzzle by starting with 1,000 mixed-and-matched pieces, especially if your master plan is to just sweep the table and start over from scratch. In that case, why bother? You wrote a full-length novel, sure. But you didn’t make it any easier to write the story you want to write.

So write messy. Write imperfect sentences. Write not-beautiful things. But write with purpose, too.

I looooove Sarah Andersen’s comics. They’re one of the only reasons I check Twitter, because I’m clearly not going to get over my social anxiety and talk to someone.

This gem came out over the holidays. Let’s talk about it!

Practice! Practice. Practice. I want to keep its URL in an easy-to-reach place and paste it into every “I’m new to writing, and I don’t know how to…” post. I want to smoosh it into the face of every person who claims “I’m just not good at [thing]!”

This comic speaks to me. Now I will speak to you. About the comic. And creativity. And practice!

The Myth of Innate Artistic Talent

Let’s talk about drawing for a little while. This problem exists in the writing world, too–and I’ll talk about that in a second–but it’s more obvious with art.

Here’s the myth: many people believe that creativity is an innate part of your being. It’s not something you learned–it’s who you are. You don’t have to study or practice it. You have nothing to learn. You were born with a natural talent for art, and this makes you better at it than other people.

Before we go farther, check out the comments on the above comic. People vehemently disagree with this comic. Let me paraphrase some of those comments. (These’ obviously are not quotes.)

“This isn’t true!” they argue. “I could practice every day and never draw well.”

“It’s definitely not all practice. I can barely draw stick figures. So obviously, I could never get better, even if I tried.”

“But two people can practice the same amount and one will get better faster. Obviously some people will just never be good.”

“It’s all practice,” an artist who has put in a lot of hard work and practice says, and people fight it! I think this is fascinating. Americans have a complicated, weird perspective on work ethic. This is a culture that believes anyone can become better if they try harder. It’s a culture that says that everything you get in life is a result of your own personal choices, and that if you really want something, you should work harder for it.

Unless it has to do with talent.

Then we give up. Talent! No, you’re born with that. You either fall out of the womb with a preternatural talent for art or you will never, ever, ever be good at it. In fact, if you have to work hard at being creative, you should be ashamed of yourself. You are bad, you will never be good, and you should just accept it and find something else to do in life. You are making a fool of yourself. What are you doing? Don’t you have eyes? If you were meant to do this, you’d already be good at it.

Holy moly!

Some people really believe this. They deeply, fiercely believe this. And when someone struggles, this is the first thing they club themselves with:  you must not really be an artist if you didn’t figure all of these out yourself.

But you know what? This is nonsense.

You could learn how to draw. Yes, you. Even if you can only draw stick figures. If you took lessons, practiced every day, and put in hundreds of hours of practice, you would get better. You could, if you tried hard enough, even get good at it.

Don’t believe me? Check out this Reddit post. That person wasn’t blessed by a fairy at birth. That’s practice. And heck, even in the comments, you’ve got the same argument going on: artists who have put in the time to learn these techniques saying that it’s all hard work and learning the right technique, while complaining that everyone blames it on “innate talent.”

How this all applies to writing

The same assumptions happen in the writing world, although they take more time to play out. You can look at a piece of art and see that someone’s talented in a few seconds, but it’s much harder to objectively label a book as “good.”

But everything I mentioned above? The complicated feelings? The “I’m not good at this now, so I am completely incapable of ever getting better” thing? That happens in writing, too. It happens all the time.

People think writing is an innate gift, too. They think that you either have a talent for ideas, worlds, and words or you don’t. They assume that if you’re “meant to be” a writer, you’ll effortlessly write publication-ready, agent-worthy pieces, and vault right over that awkward “no agents will even respond to me” phase.

And people absolutely maul themselves over this.

“I’m not good at coming up with new ideas for stories, so I obviously have no ideas and am not creative. I can never learn these skills or practice them, so I guess I’m not an author.” Yeah. I’ve seen posts like that. Heck, I literally argued with someone who said, “if the first book I write isn’t agent-worthy, I’m never going to write again–it’s not worth practicing writing unless I know I’m good at it.”

Good golly! So let me get this straight: you’ll consider practicing after you become a professional? It doesn’t work like that. Nothing works like that!

Your favorite authors did not spend their lives not writing. They did not go from “never writing a single word for fun” to “writing a masterpiece.” They’ve probably written for years. They probably produced a lot of junk before they started producing professional work. They might have a natural gift for wordplay or clever ideas or realistic dialogue, but they still had to hone that talent into something useful, and they probably produced a lot of awkward garbage while they were figuring it out.

It’s practice! Practice. Practice!

It’s all about practice!

Does talent exist? Maybe. Something probably separates the grand masters from people who are just really, really good at something. But having a natural talent for something doesn’t mean you’ll never have to work at it at all. That’s just a fixed mindset.

We should definitely stop thinking “if I’m not good now, I’ll never be good.” You don’t know how good you’ll get if you put more time and energy into it. How good you are now is no indication of how good you could be.

Art is not an innate part of your being. It’s something you learn over time by practicing and doing. And if you aren’t where you want to be right now, that’s okay–just keep practicing. Just keep doing. Just keep learning.

It’s practice! Practice. Practice.

National Novel Writing Month logo

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is one of the most well-known writing events out there. Every November, NaNoWriMo challenges you to write a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month. People hold local write-ins in their communities, meet other local writers, and write like crazy.

And it’s hugely popular. Every November, every author community becomes NaNo central. Heck, I’ve had people who aren’t writers at all ask me if I’ve done “that NaNo thing.”

Despite this, I’ve never seriously considered doing it. I tried once–half-heartedly, for a week–during NaNo 2002, but it really wasn’t for me. And why is that?

Well, it depends on what your goals are.

When I didn’t know how to write a novel, NaNoWriMo was really stressful.

NaNoWriMo is a trial by fire. That’s the whole point of it. Hitting 50K in 30 days means you have to average 1,667 words a day every day of the month, without stopping. It’s not an impossible number, but it’s relentless, and missing just a few days can leave you struggling to catch up.

But when I was new to writing, NaNo was… agonizing.

I didn’t outline. I had never finished a book. I didn’t know story structure. I did write then, but I was all over the place–“writing,” to me, meant coming up with a half-cool concept and immediately starting on Chapter 1. I didn’t plan anything.

Consequently, I had no coping mechanisms:

  • How do you know what comes next?
  • What do you do when you run out of ideas?
  • What’s the difference between fluff and meaningful story development?
  • How do you break a big idea into a smaller, linear sequence of events?
  • How do you write the middle of a book without it dragging?
  • How do you finish a book? (Not like I ever finished anything back then.)
  • For that matter, how do you start a book?

For NaNo 2002, I did what I always did: I wrote 3 chapters, didn’t know what to do next, and quit.

NaNoWriMo is promoted as a great way to force yourself to write a novel if you–like so many people in the world–have an idea you want to write, but have never gotten around to doing it. It forces you to put in the hours and time to learn the process.

For some people, this is a great way to finally get their butts in a seat and learn this thing they’ve been putting off forever. It’s hard, and they struggle, but it makes it all the cooler when they finish.

But I’m not a “learn on a deadline” kind of person. If I don’t know how to do something and you give me a deadline, I panic. NaNo felt like failure to me. It was a great, big, glowing reminder that I had no clue what I was doing.

I needed to learn how to write every day, forever.

What helped me the most was creating a regular writing habit.

NaNo is not sustainable (at least for most people.) 12,500 words a week is a pretty high number for someone who doesn’t write for a living. But since I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to make writing part of my life, I needed a schedule that I could do forever. Every day. For the rest of my life.

And that was much, much less than 12,500 a week. Heck, even now I average somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 a week. When I started, it was closer to 3-4K.

Almost immediately, I started finishing novels. And since I didn’t have a deadline, so I couldn’t “fail.” I could take all the time I needed to learn.

This scheduled worked out so well that I didn’t feel like I needed NaNo. I usually finish an 80K to 100K novel in 4 months. Four months! That’s not terrible at all! And since NaNoWriMo pushes you to do 50K in a month, which isn’t even a full-length novel for most genres, I could win NaNo and still not finish a novel. I’d have to keep going another month.

So I’d be doing a 4 month project in 2 months. In exchange, I’d be stressing myself out. Was that actually worth it?

For a long time, it wasn’t.

But now that I have several projects under my belt, it seems like an interesting idea.

I’m in a very different place than I was 15 years ago. I’ve written several novels and have one published. And now that I actually know how to write a novel semi-quickly, there are some actual benefits to NaNo:

  • I have too many projects I want to do right now. This is the big one. I’m almost ready to query a novel (which could potentially have sequels), I have a new series bouncing around in my head, and… of course, there’s the book I already have out. Which ends on a cliffhanger. Oof. Too many books! If I wrote these all at my normal pace, I’d be done with all three books in 2021. Ahh!
  • I could make some local friends!
  • Since I already have a strong writing habit, writing 12.5K a week is less of a life-changing sacrifice and more of a manageable increase in my workload.
  • And, most importantly… since my next novel is going to be at least 80,000 words, I don’t honestly care if I win NaNo or not, since this project would take at least 2 months anyway. If I hit 40K and got halfway done, that’d still be twice what I do in a normal month.

So here’s what I’m doing this month.

I’m writing a sequel to Justice Unending. So, uh, all you people who keep writing reviews that include the phrase “I’m looking forward to the sequel”? It’s in the works.

My goal is to get at least 40,000 words into it, which’d put me in an excellent position to finish a first draft in December. If I actually hit 50K? Sweet. But I’m not going to kill myself.

My main goal is to actually meet writers in the area. I’m capable of writing a novel already, but I am absolutely abysmal at getting out of the house. So that’s one of my main goals! I’m going to go to at least one write-in, and preferably more.

Because of this, blog posts will be few and far between this month. But I’ll toss in an update every now and then, even if it’s just on Twitter.

And if you’re doing NaNo this month, good luck and have fun!

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