Thursday, September 10, 2015

World Building AFTER the First Draft

So. I just finished another book. It takes place on a fantasy world, and, like any good writer, I had to create a set of rules and history in which to base my story. In addition to creating races of sentient beings, I had to create rules for magic and laws to govern it, and these regulations had to be consistent and carry their own logic.

But... I didn't.

Sure, sure, that's crazy.  I realize that most fantasy writers would be horrified by the thought of going blindly into a new world. BUT I didn't feel blind. I felt determined. I had a destination in mind. I knew the story, and even if the main characters were not human in any way, I still knew which direction their story was heading. In essence, I worked on my plot first, weaving the characters together. When I was finished with my first draft, I had much better idea on how the laws of my new world worked. In fact, I felt better prepared for tidying up the loose corners of the histories and consistencies within the story arc than I did beforehand, because I knew exactly what was going during the story. I also had a lot of fun creating certain names of my characters and locations. In fact, world building at the end of the story-writing process actually worked better for me than doing it beforehand. Not only did I not get so caught up in the details of my world that I did not finish my story, I also felt more in control of what I was creating. 

So many times, I meet or talk to aspiring writers who say they've been working on their world for years and are thinking about starting their story. No! No no no. Write the first draft. Write the first draft!!!! Get it on the page. Get something on the page. It can be terrible - it's okay, it's a first draft. No one but you ever needs to see it. But to get better at your story, you need to write your story out. You're flexing a muscle. You can't build it unless you use it. World building is fun and wonderful and I enjoy it - I'm a fantasy writer, of course I do. BUT if never got around to actually building my plots, I'd have no book. 

I was once in a writing group that was reviewing a book a few chapters at a time. One of the complaints I most remember was for my repeated typos. I kept telling them, I'm not worried about that right now. First I have to see if this story is working. Why spend time editing if I'm going to erase the whole page at a later date? In addition, I'd already written the first three chapters several times and had yet to go any further. The time was right at that moment. I wasn't going to stop anymore to world build. I was going to finish my story. The rest of it - names, maps, magic - that would come. Some while I was writing, some later on during a research phase. But right then, I wanted the plot done. And it worked. I got through the story and was able to figure out my world and where I was going with my characters much more easily.

So my thought to anyone reading this is, if you are stuck, try letting the world building go for a while and focus on the story. See what happens. It might be a little scary, but... it might also be a little fun.

P.S. I also write super technical science fiction, and in those cases, I absolutely research before, during, and after, as that helps me understand my story better since it's generally based on our current level of technology. But more on that another time...

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Getting Back into the Groove

I recently had some friends ask me about how I sustain my creative output. They are interested in getting back into writing, but find they easily get distracted or don't know exactly what to write, they just know they want to do it.

First let me start by saying I don't recommend binge-writing over a long period of time. For me, that leads to burnout, and I can barely look at a keyboard or pen for weeks. Fortunately, I only did that once and though I'm quite happy with the book that came from it, it also took me a little over a month to recover.

On a more practical note, writing consistently, like everything else, is a habit I had to learn and train myself into. In the beginning, I just wrote, blindly, hopping from idea to idea without a clear path. Over time, my process became more structured, and that is what I want to share.

1. Daily word count goals. These can be as little as 500 words and as big as 3500. For a writer just getting back into the groove, I recommend 1000 words a day, especially if you have another job, family, or go to school. The only time I consistently wrote 3500 a day, I'd pushed myself into burnout, so I'd only recommend that if you have a deadline and know you can take a break after. 
2. Stick to your daily word counts. Much like any other practical endeavor, the more you write, the better you get at it. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. For example, setting out to run 5 miles isn't just a state of mind. You have to work at it, build up to it, train your muscles to work that consistently. Likewise, if you want to write a book, you have to train yourself to remain consistent about writing.
3. Don't get distracted. It's very easy to run off into Internetland and never return. Sometimes, that's justified if you are doing research. But you have to discipline yourself with the thought of results. Sometimes, having someone(s) waiting to read what you've written that day is a great way to get you to finish. Other times, you have people in your house wanting to talk to you. Just because you're sitting at a computer doesn't equate to working in their minds. They have to be trained, too. In the beginning, I used to tell people that though they could see and talk to me, they still had to pretend I was at work and ignore me. It was tough, but over time they started to see the glazed look in my eye whenever they asked me a question and left me alone. If you need to, make a three-fold sign to put around your computer (or journal or notebook, etc.) that tells people you are working.
4. Have a plan. This has by far when one of my most effective tools for remaining consistent. Though I don't often write elaborate outlines for my books (if any), I will spend a lot of time create a plan to finish my book. I create deadlines I hold myself strictly accountable to - usually an event or the like - and tell myself the book must be in my hands by that point. I automatically subtract 10 days for shipping, then two days for submitting and waiting for the book to get approved (this process can be longer depending on your publisher). Prior to that, I give at least 3-4 weeks for editing and copy editing. Then I look at the date I'm in. After subtracting all those day, I count how many days I have left. Let's say there are 60 days. I divide that by my word count goal for the book. If that's 60,000, then that's 1000 words a day to finish the first draft. But if I want to take days off or I have a some days I know I'm too booked to write, I'll readjust. So say I end up with 50 days I can actually write, that turns in to only 1200 words a day. Then I write out a calendar (usually in a table) with every day on there counting up to my word count goal. Every time I write, I update my calendar. It's open with all my documents. Some days, only my desire to reach whatever number is on my calendar is all that gets me through my writing for the day.
5. Take days off. As I just stated above, I always make room for days off. Some days I'm at other events. Some days I've worked so much I just don't have the energy to write. Some days I'm sick, or taking care of someone. Some days I just want to rest and be lazy. Whatever the reason, taking days off from writing is healthy for your mind and back!

Now, let's you think, fine, that's all well and good, but what exactly do I write? Personally, I used a journal if I need a kick in the butt. It can be as simple as saying, Today is Tuesday and this is my first attempt to write something. I don't know what to say I don't know what to say I don't know what to say I really hate repeating myself yet many people think repetition is important. Why is that? You see, sometimes the process of writing words down gets your brain moving. Just start writing mundane observations, then write down interesting or not interesting aspects of your day - something that made you laugh or frown or think. Over time, a story will develop. Or at least, an idea for one. Also, writing in a journal after a physical activity helps. I teach a workshop called Bootcamp for Writing where we literally run/jog around before writing. It's a great way increase bloodflow to the brain, which increases oxygen levels, which increases the ability to think. Ta-da! Here come the words.

Another method is world building. It can be quite fun, though I don't tend to use this method (at least in this order), many other writers do. Start by creating names and places and definitions for the story you want to write. When I used to teach high school theatre, we wrote a play together every year. The way it went was that we'd spend a whole class (45 min) just creating characters, but in the process of doing that, we learned a lot about our story. Example: Juan is 12 and likes to skateboard. Great. I know a whole lot more about my story - it's either for younger audiences or a prologue to a more adult story, Juan is either from immigrant parents, an immigrant, or someone whose family has been in the US a while and his culture is mixed. He's 12, so in 6th or 7th grade, and hormones are starting, so he's got good and bad days. He likes skateboarding, so if he's any good, he's likely very wiry in build and is good with pain, as he's prob'ly had several injuries already (every skateboarder I know hurts themselves). You see how this story starts to build itself? Even a simple description helps us understand our stories better when we take a moment to analyze.

So there you go. Some tips for getting back into the groove. Now get your plan together and get writing! There are stories waiting to be told.