Bite-Sized Goals and Mousey Nibbles: Managing Lengthy Projects

Working your way through large, lengthy projects, like . . . oh, writing a novel, for instance, can be overwhelming, can’t it? First you have to write down the words, then you have to fix the words, then you have to fix them a second time, and possibly a third or fourth or fifth time. Then you have to figure out how to get those words out into the world, whether via traditional methods or indie. And while you’re trying to accomplish all of this, you have everyday life stuff to deal with too: jobs, family, chores—as well as non-everyday stuff, such as illnesses, vacations, bad mental health days, holidays . . . I could go on and on.

Of course, it helps to get organized by setting goals and deadlines—to mark on your calendar in bold when you want your first draft to be finished by, when you need to be done with the first round of edits, and so on. But when setting these longer deadlines, it’s easy to underestimate how long you’re really going to need.

I’ve made this mistake many times. I’ve tried to prevent it by calculating out how many words I need to write each day leading up to my deadline in order to reach it—making room for days when I know I’ll have less time to write. As long as I write the prescribed number of words each day, I’ll be perfectly fine, right? But then, life throws obstacles in my path, and soon I’m failing to meet my word counts and falling behind. The farther behind I fall, the more frustrated I get. I move my deadline out. I recalculate my word counts. Then I fall behind again. I get discouraged and overwhelmed over, and over, and I start to think I’ll never finish this darn thing.

Does this sound familiar?

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you do well with large goals and a daily word count system. Maybe that’s all you need in order to get things done. If so, that’s fantastic! It’s common advice, so it must work for a lot of writers, right? But if it’s not working for you, just as it hasn’t been working for me, I’d like to suggest a few things that have been working for me lately, in the hopes that you, too, will find them helpful.

Make 2-3 Bite-Sized Goals At A Time

I still plan out the large goals (finish draft, revise draft, edit draft.) But I’ve lessened their importance in favor of smaller, bite-sized goals (that, I must stress, aren’t word counts,) and I only plan out a few of these goals at a time. For instance, my goal this weekend was to re-examine my outline, because I’ve discovered I need to throw out some scenes and replace them with brand new ones. I wasn’t writing the scenes this weekend—just taking a look and deciding what I need those scenes to do. My next bite-sized goal will be to outline those scenes. The bite-sized goal after that will be to finally draft those scenes. And . . . that’s it. That’s as far ahead as I’ve planned. Obviously, I have an idea of what I’ll need to do after that, because I know that my ultimate goal is to finish revising this entire draft. But for now, I’m not going to worry about anything further than getting through these next few scenes.

Keeping my goals small and few in number helps me feel like I’m actually making progress. If I look at it in respect to the larger goal of finishing my revisions, it won’t feel like I’ve done much at all. I’ll feel like I’m moving at a snail’s pace, and I’ll get frustrated. So I don’t do that.

Only Work Under Your Best Working Conditions

Pay close attention to when and where you do your best work. Do you get more done in the morning? Then work in the morning and don’t try to squeeze more work out of yourself past that time (unless you absolutely must.) Do you have specific days when you’re less likely to be able to focus? Keep your expectations low on those days. I have a standing appointment every Tuesday morning that tends to throw off my concentration for the rest of the day. I’ve come to accept that if I do get any writing done on Tuesdays, it’s a bonus. I’m better off using Tuesdays to catch up on chores or other things that don’t require me to think too much. I’m having a harder time convincing myself that writing post-children’s bedtimes is also a lost cause. But it’s a fact that I’m usually too tired and brain-drained to do much of anything by then. My best times for focusing are late morning and early afternoon when the kids are at school, so that’s when I make myself sit down and work. I also pay attention to my energy level. If I try to work with my laptop on the couch, am I more likely to nap instead? If so, I’ll make myself a cup of coffee or tea, and work sitting up at my desk. Is my back bothering me to the point where sitting at my desk will make the pain worse and/or distract me? Then maybe the couch would be better after all.

Just Take a Mousey Nibble

Okay, this one probably needs some background. My oldest son is a very picky eater. Always has been. He has texture issues and we suspect he may also be a super taster, because he will often complain about things tasting “too strong.” There was a period when he was younger where he was so anxious about trying new foods, that he would burst into tears at the mere suggestion. That is until one day, he told us that maybe . . . maybe he could just try a mouse-sized bite. A little mousey nibble. A nearly microscopic taste that, like sticking a toe in the water, would help to alleviate some of his fear of the unknown. This still works with him. “Just take a mousey nibble, and if you don’t like it, that’s okay,” we tell him. And so he does. And then sometimes, all on his own, he will decide to take a larger taste afterward.

If, even with your bite-sized goals, you’re still feeling anxious about sitting down to work, or you’re not sure how to get started, or you’re just plain unmotivated, tell yourself that you only have to take a mousey nibble. Open your document and commit to five minutes. You don’t even have to type anything. You can use those five minutes to look over your last paragraph, or glance through your outline, or heck, just stare at the blank screen. Chances are though, once your timer goes off, you’ll be able to settle yourself into your task. And if you still can’t, that’s ok. Take a break and try another mousey nibble later. Maybe it’ll taste different next time.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Do you have any other tricks up your sleeve that help you get through large projects? Please share them with us in the comments.

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard, Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele, knitting, or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys and three mischievous cats. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

The Gamification of Writing

Gamification is one of the biggest buzzwords in business today. As defined by the Financial Times:

Gamification is an emerging business practice that refers to the use of digital game design techniques and video game elements to solve non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges. It is applicable to a number of business areas including human resources, sustainability, innovation and marketing.

To those who are paying attention, it seems like practically everything is being gamified today. Any process that can be tracked and measured, the results ranked and made public, is certain to get this treatment.

A few months ago, my company’s technical support group got gamified. The manager divided the techs into teams and assigned point values to certain types of tickets. The two-week competition got pretty heated as the guys ended up gaming the gamification—trying to win at all costs. In the meantime, they managed to clear out a backlog of lingering support issues. Gamification FTW.

Not everybody likes having their jobs (or their lives) gamified, though. For a good illustration of this, check out the top definition of the term on UrbanDictionary.com:

A cynical practice by corporate douches where workers are supposedly motivated to work even harder on menial, pointless tasks by rewarding them with lame titles, meaningless rankings, coupons or a variety of other real-life trash loot.

I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing someone couldn’t quite make it to the top of his call center’s leaderboard.

TTOF---gamify---badges

Badges? We need some stinkin’ badges!

Regardless of what the critics say, turning an essentially non-competitive activity into a competition can be highly motivating. When I bought my wearable fitness tracker last year, Garmin immediately started awarding me “badges” just for walking around. I got a “5,000 Total Steps” badge on the first day I wore my tracker. They had gamified the very act of walking! Thus encouraged, I found myself ducking out a couple of times each day for a quick jaunt around the block, just to get the extra steps in. Thanks to Garmin’s behavioral conditioning, it only took me until October to get “2 Million Total Steps.” Woo-hoo!

Back on February 25 of this year, I earned Garmin’s “Quadruple Goal” badge for racking up 53,545 steps in a single day. When I bragged a little about that little achievement on social media (with gamification, bragging is practically compulsory) one of my Facebook “friends” actually accused me of cheating. “What did you do, attach your FitBit to a ceiling fan and let it run all day?”

In reply, I posted screenshots from MapMyRun, another gamification app:

TTOF---gamify---dogtown

The app measured and showed exactly what I’d done: back-to-back half marathons … like a boss. It was all there in the stats: distance, time, pace, calories burned. My friend’s response to this was, “Oh.”

If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo, you’ve had your writing gamified. I’ve done and won NaNo five years in a row now, and I freely admit I’m addicted to racking up the word counts. There’s nothing like a daily bar graph to encourage you to stay above the trend line. If you have a day when you don’t write as much (or at all), you see the disappointing flat bars. If you have a particularly productive day, the bars soar up. Sure, the motivation might be a little artificial, but it can also be very compelling:

TTOF---gamify---nanowrimo

I worked my tail off last year to hit 75,000 words—my best November ever. Were they all good words? Of course not. But you can’t edit something that’s not drafted, and you can’t trim words that haven’t been written.

As great as NaNoWriMo is, I wish the system provided even more in terms of stats and tracking. I love the fact that I can look at a running log on MapMyRun and see how elevation and fatigue affected my pace. I enjoy challenging myself to go faster on the uphill stretches or to finish strong after a long race—and then seeing my results in the workout log afterward. But NaNoWriMo’s “daily stats” only tracks a project’s progressing word count. I want more gamification, dangit!

This month, since I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo while also preparing for a marathon, I thought I might start tracking my writing sessions in a little more detail. Just as MapMyRun records the pacing of each mile, I’m using a spreadsheet to log each of my writing sessions, tracking my start and stop times and my beginning and ending word counts. The sheet calculates the total time, the total words, and the combined words per minute and words per hour.

Camp-NaNoWriMo-Session-Log

Since I generally go somewhere else to write, I’m also making note of where I spent each writing session. I want to know, when the month is over, whether certain locations might be more productive for me. As one of my marketing mentors used to say, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” And yet, all these years I’ve never really done much measuring when it comes to the creative process.

So far, what I’m finding is that I’m much more motivated to crank out words when I know the clock is ticking. In other words, the very fact that I’m tracking time and word counts impacts my behavior. (In physics, this is known as the “observer effect,” a phenomenon that’s also observed in quantum mechanics.) I’m also seeing that my level of preparation—essentially, how much I’ve thought about and planned out the day’s chapter(s)—affects my total production as well as my production rate (words per hour). It’s hard to know how to measure that, though.

I know there are those who might shy away from such an overtly nuts-and-bolts approach to the act of creation. To me, though, drafting prose is not about creating art. It’s about generating the raw materials for something that I hope will be compelling, inspiring and artistic. The first draft is the block of marble. The fifth or seventh or twentieth draft is the finished sculpture.

It might sound a little weird, but I figure if there’s anything I can do to streamline the process of pounding out that first draft, I’m willing to to try it. And that includes a little over-the-top gamification.

TTOF---gamify--featured

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics.

Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

13 Ways to Get OUT of Your Writerly Funk

FUNKSometimes we have a retreat, and we want to write ALLLLLLL the words ALLLLL day, but we get there, and… our brains don’t cooperate.

Sometimes we’re trying to finish a project over several months time, and it’s just not…happening.

 

Here are few tips to help you reset and start writing again:

1. Take a break. I know there are a TON of writers who say you have to write every day. You do not have to write every day. And most importantly, you need to not feel guilty about taking breaks. (If you’re at a retreat, don’t be afraid to step away from the computer for a while).

2. Remember that publishing is not personal. Sometimes passes (the nice way to say rejections) can get you down, but you HAVE to keep in mind that it’s the RIGHT project, in front of the RIGHT person, at the RIGHT time. That’s a lot of things that have to fall into place for a YES. Move forward. Prove them wrong.

3. Sometimes we have this precious chunk of time – a couple hours with a babysitter, or away from work, or at a writing retreat, and the words just aren’t coming. Remember there are a TON of non-writing things you can do to move your MS forward. Character sketches, character and setting pictures, storyboards, use a pacing or plotting tool to set up where your story is going next… Just because you’re not putting WORDS into your story, doesn’t mean you’re not putting WORK into your story.

4. Pick ONE thing you know is coming up in your story, and write that – even if it doesn’t come next, which brings me to…

5. Don’t be afraid to write out of order. Now, if you write the ending early on, chances are you’ll have to redo it when you get there, but it gives you SOMETHING to write. Sometimes writing ANYTHING will lubricate that sticky brain.

6. THEATER EXERCISES! Look up breathing, and characterization exercises. Getting into your character’s head can be a brilliant way to unlock those words, which leads me to…

7. Write something unrelated from your MC’s point of view. Maybe an essay on their thoughts after the end of the novel. Maybe an essay or their thoughts on one of the things you’ve put in your story to torture them.

8. Ask yourself, Did I make this big enough? The plot, the plot points, my main character – will be people be rooting for this to work out? Is there something else I can do?

9. Set the mood: Gum, snacks, drinks, music, smells… Maybe go a step further and pick stuff your MC would like.

10. Prep before your writing time. Try to think ahead…

11. Set a timer – YOU HAVE TO WRITE ANYTHING FOR XX MINUTES, and then you can break.

12. MOVE YOUR BODY. I promise that moving your body, lubricates your mind. Yoga, walking, stretching, running, swimming, biking… Bonus if it’s something your MC would like too 😉

13. DON’T PANIC. Finding yourself in a funk happens to everyone 🙂

HAPPY WRITING!!

~ Jolene

17361785_1313033622107898_5983686946276267719_nJolene Perry writes YA fiction for AW Teen and Simon Pulse. She writes about writing on BEEN WRITING? And you can stalk her on her website HERE. She’s also the vice-chair for the LDStorymakers Conference. YOU SHOULD COME…. Join the Tribe…

 

 

How to Write When You Just Don’t Wanna

Can we all just agree that the last two weeks have been the worst? I mean it. No matter what side of the political debate you fall on, the aftermath of this election has taken a toll on all of us.

I’m not here to get political, but I do want to address this toll and the effect it has had on our writing. Many—MANY—of my friends and colleagues have expressed how hard it has been for them to write lately. Many haven’t been able to write at all. I’ve seen several posts over social media bemoaning the looming end of NaNoWriMo and how behind everyone is because the election stress threw such a wrench in their ability to focus.

I’m one of them. At 22,000 words, I’m over 10k behind where I should be right now. I have massive amounts of writing to do if I’m going to hit 50k by the end of the month. I could just give up. I mean, it’s just an arbitrary contest. It’s not like my career is hinging on whether I can write 50k in 30 days. And everything else going on in the world right now feels much more important to me than finishing my draft.

Besides, I’ve failed NaNo before. Several times before. It’s not a big deal. But here’s the thing: at the beginning of this month, I made a promise to myself that I was going to REALLY DO THIS this time. I was going to finish this novel this month, come Hell or high water. Well . . . some might argue that Hell and high water are here, and now I’m struggling to keep my promise. I do still want to reach my goal, but when it comes to actually sitting down to write? I . . . don’t wanna.

I. Just. Don’t. Wanna. I mean, I do, logically. But I don’t have the mental energy for it. I’d rather take a nap, thank you very much, and hopefully not wake up until the year 2020 has come around.

Despite this, however, I’ve been managing to push myself through this writing slump, and so I thought I’d share some tips for how to get words down, even when you just don’t wanna.

donwannawrite

1) Allow yourself a few day’s break

This seems counter-intuitive. “Wait, so in order to get yourself to write, you . . . didn’t write?” Yup, I didn’t write. I gave my brain and emotions some time to try and work themselves out, with the promise that after a certain amount of time, even if I still didn’t feel like I was in a place where I could write, I would try to write anyway. That day came, and I turned off all social media, and told myself I couldn’t get back on until I’d written 4k. And amazingly, I wrote 4k. I’m still not sure how, but I did. And you probably can too if you really set your mind to it. But first allow yourself that break.

2) Break it down into small chunks of time

Not words. Time. You’ll probably surprise yourself by how much you’ll get written in that small amount of time. One thing I’ve done on days when I’m especially having trouble focusing, is I’ve set my alarm to go off once every hour. When it goes off, I drop whatever I’m doing (or not doing, as the case has been lately) and write for five minutes. If I hit flow, I’ll keep going. Sometimes that’s all it takes. It’s like a little shove on the back of the sled to get you to the start of the slope. Once you’re there, your sled will tip, and gravity will carry you the rest of the way down.

3) Multitask

I’ve become quite the fan of writing via dictation, and the bulk of my NaNo draft has actually been written via this method while I’m doing other boring tasks, such as folding laundry, picking up clutter, and waiting in the carpool lane to pick up the kids from school. Somehow, for me, I’ve been finding it easier to break through the I-don’t-wannas this way. It’s not for everyone, but if you haven’t tried it yet, I recommend you do.

4) Find a second creative outlet

Set aside some time every day to work on something else creative and/or relaxing that has nothing to do with your draft. Adult coloring books are great for this. Also crafts, such as knitting, crochet, or other needlework—basically anything that relaxes you but also stimulates the creative side of your brain. Sometimes when I do this, I’ll find my mind wandering off to work on my story without me, solving plot problems, coming up with new characters, all while in a nice, relaxed, state of mind rather than while stressing out over a blank page.

5) Don’t panic

If none of this works for you, and you just can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up about it. Stress is a nasty beast that sometimes takes longer to defeat than we would like. Allow yourself the extra time you need. Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, go to bed at a decent hour, and take lots of bubble baths. Your ability to write has not left you forever. It will come back when it’s ready.

I do hope these strategies help you as much as they’ve been helping me. I will point out that they don’t work one-hundred percent of the time. Some days I just have to throw in the towel and admit that writing isn’t going to happen. But even if it works only a third of the time, that’s better than not at all. Also, if you have any tips of your own, please do share them in the comments. I’d love to give them a try.

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Speak Your Mind: A Real-Time Dictation Experiment

This . . . is going to be an interesting post to write. I need you, Reader, to bear witness to a little experiment.

Here’s the background: I’ve been playing around with Dragon Dictation for my iPhone lately, mostly to record quick ideas that I come up with while I’m in the car and can’t safely type. I’ve found that it picks up on my speech very well. So today, with this year’s upcoming NaNoWriMo in mind, I decided to go ahead and purchase the Home version for my PC Laptop. It’s a bit of a splurge, but I feel like it will be worth it to keep my writing flow going. I could just go ahead and keep using the mobile version, but the problem, I’ve found, is that the mobile version will randomly stop recording (maybe because I’ve paused for too long? I’m not sure), and I won’t realize it until I pull my phone out of my pocket to see where I’m at. The PC version isn’t supposed to do that. So far, I’m finding this is true. The mic hasn’t turned off unless I’ve told it to.

Anyway, I mentioned an experiment. This is it. This post that you’re reading right now . . . is the experiment. I’m using Dragon on my laptop for the first time while “writing” this, and I will now tell you, in real time, what’s working for me and what’s not. I know. Meta.

speakyourmind

So here’s the first thing I’m noticing: remembering to add in punctuation as I speak is really slowing me down. It’s tripping up the flow of my thoughts. In fact, remembering to say “comma,” “period,” and “new line” means my dictation is actually much slower than my typing. This may change as I get used to it, but . . . hmm . . . how about I try something else? How about I just ignore all punctuation, and speak, not as if I’m dictating, but as if I’m casually talking to another person in the room? I can go back and edit in the punctuation and paragraph breaks afterward. (Obviously, most of the punctuation that you’re seeing right now has been added post stream-of-consciousness word vomit.)

The main purpose of writing via dictation for me is to get my thoughts out of my head and onto the screen. Sometimes (not all the time) I have trouble doing that while typing, as if somewhere along the journey between my neural pathways and the muscles in my fingers, my thoughts run out of gas and have to pull over—a bit ironic seeing that I’m writing this post for a blog called Thinking Through Our Fingers.

This occasional brain-to-page disconnect is why editing and revising is so much more pleasant for me than drafting. Once I have my thoughts down, I have something tangible to work with. It’s easier to replace and move around words that are already there.

A way that I’ve sometimes been able to get past this is to switch back and forth between typing and handwriting. And now I have dictation as a third option. And that makes me think of another way in which I will surely be using dictation to assist me with my writing—dictating handwritten pages into my word processor will be so much faster (and easier on my joints) than typing it in.

And here’s something else I’m enjoying about dictating this post. I can get up and move around. I’m not tied to my keyboard. Sometimes pacing and other forms of movement can help get my thoughts flowing, and I know this is true for a lot of other people as well. I may, (dare I even think it?) even find myself dictating my novel while exercising, or doing the dishes, or knitting, or even soaking in the tub. Yes! While taking a bath! With my laptop out of harm’s way, if I speak loudly enough for the mic to pick up my voice, I’m sure it could work. This also means I have no more excuses not to write. Hmm . . . maybe that isn’t such a bonus after all (says the chronic procrastinator.)

Now let’s pause for an update. Remember how in the beginning of this post, I observed that having to dictate punctuation was slowing me down, so I decided to stop? It has now been about five minutes, and I’ve written about 600 words. That would normally take me a half an hour on a REALLY good day—and hour or more on a bad one. Granted, here’s a screenshot of those words:

dragonunedited.JPG

Ugh. It’s one huge run-on-sentence, stream-of-consciousness paragraph. The editing may take me at least three times as long as the initial dictation took. Not only will I need to add in punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it looks like I’ll also need to remove or rewrite garbled sentences that I swear sounded much better out loud than they look on the page. But as I said earlier, I’m fine with that. I’m just thrilled to have so many words down so quickly; so many words to work with that would never have made it onto the page before.

Overall, I’d say that for me, this experiment has been a success. I am going to dictate the heck out of my NaNoWriMo novel. It’s going to be so great. I’m am so very, very excited. I may change my tune in December when I’m faced with gargantuan revisions, but for now, I think this is going to work.

Do you use dictation for writing? If so, please tell us in the comments what you think of it, and if you have any good tips!

(Note: I forgot to keep track of how long it actually took me to edit this, but I’d say it was probably around fifteen minutes, for those of you who are interested.)

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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

The Reductive Revision

So far this summer, I’ve been drafting a new project, rejoicing as my word count goes up and not worrying in the slightest about messes and holes I’m leaving along the way. But soon, I’ll receive a new round of edits and it will be time to revise. Again.

Revision is the time to clean up the messes you’ve made, and for many of us, it’s a time to rejoice when the word count goes down. Often this involves axing entire characters and scenes, killing subplots, or any other variety of painful, violent things. If this is what the story calls for, you absolutely have to do it. But there’s another method that often gets overlooked, and, when combined with the bigger cuts, can help tighten your writing and decrease your word count.

The term I use for this is the reductive revision, and I first read about it here. Since then, I’ve recommended a reductive revision to almost all my critique partners and beta readees. I’ve also used it on every single one of my own manuscripts.

A reductive revision is a careful pass through your entire manuscript, looking for every extra word and superfluous sentence. It’s ruthlessly and repeatedly asking yourself, “Is this word/phrase/sentence/paragraph absolutely necessary? Is it moving the story forward in any way?” If the answer is “no,” cut it. (If you’re doing it right, the answer will be “no” hundreds of times.)

There are small things to look for, including:

  • Dialogue tags that are immediately preceded or followed by the character’s name, or an action by that character. By all means, combine these!
  • Redundancy. This is a huge one. Readers generally understand things more quickly and need far fewer reminders than we think they do.
  • Showing, then telling. (Or vice versa.)
  • Shrugging one’s shoulders (Just shrug! We know it’s the character’s shoulders)
  • Kneeling down (We know they’re not kneeling up!)

So what does a reductive revision look like? With my critique partners’ permission, here are a couple of passages from the pages we sent for our last meeting, both before and after a reductive revision. Keep in mind that these are brilliant, advanced writers (as you’ll see), and they still have words that can be cut!

Here’s the first one:

He’s staring at me with blatant suspicion. Looking down his nose at me like I’m just some punk on a bike who has no business being here. I hunch over the handlebars and try not to glare at him, but my head fills with self loathing because that’s not too far off the mark. (54 words)

There are a few things here that could be considered redundant. The “blatant suspicion” and “looking down his nose” cover mostly the same territory. The head filling with self-loathing can be stated more succinctly (and maybe more closely to this character’s voice as well), and modifying this part just a little will also remove a reference to the characters head, which is always a good thing. (Heads, hearts, chests, stomachs…) Note: There are times to use repetition for emphasis or voice, but use it sparingly! <– Says the girl who has a tendency to use it too much.

So if we make these changes:

He’s staring at me with blatant suspicion. Looking looking down his nose at me like I’m just some punk on a bike who has no business being here. I hunch over the handlebars and try not to glare at him, but my head fills with self loathing because that’s hating that he’s not too far off the mark.

We end up cutting roughly a third of the words without losing any of the meaning, characterization, or story:

He’s looking down at me like I’m just some punk on a bike who has no business here. I hunch over the handlebars and try not to glare, hating that he’s not too far off the mark. (37 words)

Okay, here’s another, from a different author and story:

Her phone rang. Glancing down, Sophia saw it was Emma’s name and hit the button to ignore the call. Two more times, Emma’s name appeared on the screen, each receiving the same reaction. (33 words)

There’s not much here that’s redundant, but it can definitely be trimmed. In this case, there are excess  words describing things readers will be familiar with, and shorter, more abrupt sentences might serve even better to underscore the main character’s actions of cutting her sister off.

So if we make these changes:

Her phone rang. Glancing down, Sophia saw it was Emma’s name and hit the button to ignore the call. Emma. Twice more, Emma called, and twice more, Sophia sent her sister straight to voicemail. Two more times, Emma’s name appeared on the screen, each receiving the same reaction.

Her phone rang. Emma. Sophia hit Ignore. Twice more, Emma called, and twice more, Sophia sent her sister straight to voicemail. (21 words)

Again, the passage is roughly a third shorter, and nothing has been lost. There’s even a little repetition in there, but I’d argue that it works in this case, and the passage is better for it.

The cuts won’t be this severe everywhere, but I’ve never read a manuscript that didn’t have fat to be trimmed. Making a pass through your whole manuscript with this specific purpose in mind will make for a tighter story that’s easier to read and harder to put down.

What do you think? Have I cut too much? What other cuts would you suggest? Do you have other suggestions for trimming these passages, or for reductive revisions in general?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂

On Writing Stress and Silver Linings: Why Daily Word Counting Isn’t a Good Strategy for Everyone

How many of you writers find yourselves obsessing about word counts while writing?
 Word counts, word counts, word counts.
(Current blog post word count: 24. Make that 27. 28….)
I’ve been working on the last book of my YA trilogy since last summer. Before I started, my projected word count was 100K (based on my other books in the series). Since last summer, I struggled with the process of drafting for the following reason: 

When I started writing this book, I had a basic synopsis and an outline (a rough outline because I’m actually a pantser writer at heart). I had a plan. I had a daily word count goal. I was ready to go. I planned to be done by December.

I wasn’t where I wanted to be in November, so I joined National Novel Writing Month to help motivate me to write more every day. But I struggled to get those daily word counts. I did wind up writing about 28K, which was decent considering that November is one of the busiest months for me at work. But I stressed over word counts the entire time when I saw I was “below the curve.” Every day I got a little report of my progress and how much I needed to write to “win,” and the number of words I had to write each day kept increasing as the month went on.

(BTW, if you don’t know what I mean by being “below the curve, it looks a lot like this:)

(my actual sucky word count graph from Nov. 2014)

I joined a FB writing challenge in January and did something similar. I set a monthly goal of writing another 30K and was given a lovely spreadsheet to keep track of my daily word counts. I continued to struggle to make my daily goals (I think I reached it once). I joined sprints and reported word counts after 30 minutes averaging 200-300 when others were reporting 800+.

At this point, I was staring at my deadlines in the eye and approaching official panic mode…

…until I decided to stop keeping track of daily word counts.

Why?

Because I don’t write that way.

My writing style is not amenable to these sorts of daily word count challenges. Don’t get me wrong. I love to cheer on my friends as they report their counts. I’m happy that this works for them. However, it doesn’t always work for me. I tend to write and revise simultaneously (something the NaNoWriMo experts specifically advise against). But as I mentioned above, I am really a pantser at heart and so I often discover new twists in my story that I didn’t know about when I wrote my “outline.” I often go back and layer in shiny new things as I draft. I often go back and do what some of my friends describe as “tinkering” with various elements of the story. As a result, I am a very pokey writer.

There’s a silver lining to all of this.

Last weekend, I reached the point where I felt like I could finally start getting my MS ready for beta readers. In preparation for revisions, I cracked my knuckles, put on my revision hat, and started on chapter one. By the end of one weekend, I had flown through revisions on over 20 chapters (approximately 63K words). I had revised so much while drafting that I only needed to change minor things during my revisions. I was ecstatic, and even more than that, I was relieved. I’ve had editors tell me in the past that my “first drafts” are more equivalent to fourth or fifth drafts because I revise and polish as I go. I knew this, but after seeing myself beneath the curve for so many months, I’d forgotten.

So here’s the take-home message from all of this:

Embrace the unique type of writer that you are.

You have your own style and process as a writer, and this process may even change for you from MS to MS. This was my story, and yours may be different. No matter what, don’t feel like you have to compare yourself (or your word counts) to others. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy looking at a graph of projected word counts and seeing myself be under the curve. I like progress as much as any other writer, and I believe in being accountable for my progress. But from now on, it will be on my own terms.

Update: My MS is currently sitting at 107K words, and I arrived at that word count in my own way.

Happy writing! Here’s to silver linings for all of you! 

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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL (coming 2015) and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. She is also one of the authors of the YA/NA crossover anthology LOSING IT.