Starting the Month Off Right

I’m a bit of a nerd, in that I love setting up a new worksheet in my excel file where I track my word counts for every month. There’s nothing like looking over your progress for the last few months to get inspired. June is a tabula rasa – 30 days where I can write anything. The potential is there, and all I have to do is fill in the blanks.

Easier said than done. This I know.

I first started tracking my word counts during my attempt to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) last November even though I didn’t make it. I only logged about 22k, but at the time, that was a personal best for me. In the months since then, I’ve averaged between 10-15k per month, with nearly 29k in March (most of which was attributed to the first draft of one of my SF WIPs). And I couldn’t be happier.

I try not to beat myself up if I can’t eke out some time to write every day. After all, chores don’t do themselves, I still read widely, and sometimes I just need to let myself think and reflect before I can put pen to paper or start typing away and the keyboard. Plus I spend just as much time if not more revising in addition to generating new content, and I haven’t worked out a good way to account my time spent editing. Sometimes I’m adding words, but more often than not I’m cutting or condensing. So I just set a monthly goal, usually 10 or 12k and track my progress without stressing over the details. Usually just seeing how my daily word counts eat away at that target is incentive enough to keep going. And since I like to emphasize quality over quantity, I don’t get upset if I don’t reach my target, so long as I am happy with the work I produced over the course of the month. Because as we all know, one strong sentence can matter more than reams of drivel.

Now that it’s June 1st, I’m ready to reset my target and start the process all over again. I’m optimistic of course, but then again I always am when I’m on the threshold of a new beginning. If you have any writing rituals you like to do at the beginning of each month, please share.

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In other news, two of my tweets were featured on Nicole Humphrey Cook’s post Favorite Tweets For Writers This Week (May 24 to May 30, 2010), and I was thrilled to be included alongside other heavy hitters in the writing Twitterverse.

I also won a copy of Leah Stewart’s Husband and Wife after commenting on the interview with Stewart hosted at Diary of a Virgin Novelist, which you should definitely check out along with another interview with Allison Winn Scotch.

Finally, I’ve been tinkering a bit with my blog’s layout. So keep your eyes peeled for some changes there. Oh, and the second part of my Resource Roundup series will be posted sometime this week.

Onwards!
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Acknowledging My Fears of Submission

As I was reading over my post from Monday “How Do You Prioritize Your Writing?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe I wasn’t pushing myself far enough, fast enough. That perhaps I was tackling other stories instead of seeing the more or less completed ones through the publishing gauntlet.

After all, my historical romance novel has been in pretty good shape now for months. I should be querying. But I’m holding off, working on other stories and devising new ones. Why? I tell myself it’s because I want to see how I do in the contest I’ve entered first, and then armed with that feedback, I can polish my MS one last time before subbing. But is that the real reason? No. As strategic and prudent as it may seem to wait, I’m just using that as an excuse not to take the next step with this project. The big one. The soul-crushing one.

I’m avoiding the inevitable rejections that will come my way once I send my MS off into agentland. I’m afraid of my dreams of writing a book becoming real. Because then the book becomes a responsibility. No longer can I tuck it in a drawer or push it to the back of the closet and pretend it doesn’t exist. I must own this process – the good and the bad – if I want to succeed. And unfortunately, there are no safety nets.

So as I fretted that I was responsible for holding my work back, I came across a post this week that echoed my concerns. Shonna Slayton’s post at Routines For Writers called “Don’t Reject Yourself” was basically a brief but powerful pep-talk on eliminating procrastination and getting your work out there. Digging a little deeper, I found the post “Things Procrastinators Fear” with links to in-depth discussions on fear of rejection, fear of success, fear of failure, and fear of not being good enough and ways to combat them (all of which are worth a look if you are struggling with any of these issues). Now, I don’t necessarily think I’m procrastinating so long as I am still working on other writing projects, but I must acknowledge that all the different projects I have on my plate do divide my attention and keep me from moving forward. How convenient.

I realize I’m not alone in my fears. That’s why we blog, swap stories, spread encouragement, and foster community among our ranks. But it’s hard to push past the inertia and get your stuff out there. That’s part of the reason why I started this blog. To get my feet wet in a public forum. It’s also why I joined a new writing group, so that I would be working alongside others on the road to publication. Other writers to be accountable to; other writers to help me set realistic goals; other writers to support me on my journey. And it does help.

I may still hold off querying my MS until I have the results of the contest, but I won’t let anything else slow down the process. And in the meantime, I have other pieces I need to submit. It’s time to get out there. My fingers are crossed.

Erica Marshall of muddyboots.org


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How Do You Prioritize Your Writing?

Currently, I’m in a bit of a quandary as to the best way to prioritize my writing tasks. A year ago, this wouldn’t be an issue. I had one WIP and a short story or two knocking around in my noggin. But as the months passed, and story ideas accumulated as I made the time to write the way I’ve always wanted to, I now have a number of writing projects demanding my attention:

  1. Historical Romance Novel – STATUS: Complete, awaiting feedback from an editor I met at a conference and a critique as a result of entering a contest. NEED TO: Query agents, contemplate entering the Golden Heart this fall, preferably armed with the aforementioned feedback from the editor and the contest.
  2. Science Fiction Novel 1  – STATUS: First draft complete. NEED TO: Revise, paying particular attention to the character development of one of the MCs and the antagonist, and focus on worldbuilding. I also need an additional 20-30k to meet customary word counts for the genre.
  3. Science Fiction Novel 2 – STATUS: 20K of first draft. NEED TO: Decide whether I’m keeping it in 3rd person or shifting to 1st person, layer in some plot elements in the 20k I’ve already written, and finish the draft.
  4. Literary Short Story – STATUS: Complete, awaiting feedback from writing group. NEED TO: Revise based on feedback, and start targeting possible venues.
  5. Flash Fiction – STATUS: Complete, awaiting feedback from writing group. NEED TO: Come up with a title, revise based on feedback, and target possible venues.
  6. Science Fiction Short 1 – STATUS: First draft complete. NEED TO: Read over reference materials from library to finish researching one aspect of the story, finish the story, polish, share with writing group, revise, and then consider submitting it.
  7. Science Fiction Short 2 – STATUS: Partial first draft. NEED TO: Complete draft, polish, share with writing group, revise, and then consider submitting it.

Now, there are other story ideas floating around in my mind, abandoned on my hard drive, or languishing in one of my notebooks as well, but the projects I’ve outlined above are the strongest, have the most potential, and get me the most excited when I think about them.

In a previous life, I was a research project manager. Every day I had to assess where we were at with a project and identify where we needed to be and how to get there. I was constantly adjusting my priorities, moving things up on the to-do list, pushing things off until another day, and delegating like crazy.

With writing, there’s no one to delegate things to (except my husband/beta reader who gets the first pass on most things I write). And that’s usually not a problem. In fact, I love the independence that’s needed in writing. Except for the times when the ideas don’t come and I’d love to have someone at my level to bounce ideas off of. Or someone to help me figure out the oh-so-important title. Which is often the hardest thing for me to come up with for a writing project. And as a result, these are the things that I keep putting off in my WIPS.

So how do you prioritize? Especially when each writing journey is different, when your end goal may differ from another’s, when your work is so uniquely yours it’s not apparent how to move forward… Sometimes, it seems that making a decision via Rock, Paper, Scissors can be just as reasonable as a more elaborate decision-making process. And sometimes, I suspect, there’s no right answer.

I don’t have any hard or fast rules. I try to take the pieces that are closest to being of publishable quality (still trying to come up with a litmus test for that – ha!) and send them off to contests or get them in the hands of my writing group, so I have a bit of breathing room to consider my next move. Then, during the in-between times, I work on the other pieces that aren’t quite ready for primetime. Usually I select the projects that need the least amount of work before moving on to the ones that require more mental effort and preparation. Case in point: Project #3 on the list was started well before #2, but I ran into trouble and starting doubting my initial POV choice. Instead of slogging through it, I put it on hold and completed the first draft of #2, which was more straightforward in terms of structure and plot. I wouldn’t call myself work-adverse, but this was certainly a case where I avoided the project that demanded more of me in favor of something slightly easier.

Part of me wonders if I am making these choices because I’m (relatively) young and impatient and want to get my work out in the world now. Will I prioritize my writing projects in the same manner five, ten years from now?

How do you prioritize your work when you have competing projects vying for your attention? And if you’ve come across other blog posts tackling this issue somewhere in the intertubes, please post links in the comments below. Thanks!
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Getting Serious about Submitting

I’m getting close to the point where I’m ready to submit a novel I’ve been working on, on and off for the last fifteen years. That’s a long time. As such, the work is the most fully conceptualized out of all my other WIPs. It’s good, I know that much, but it still has flaws. How do I know? One, because I started it in my early teens. And two, because as soon as I think I can do no more with it and put it aside to work on something else, I come back to it with fresh eyes and new ideas to make it better. The problem with unpublished works is you can keep tinkering with them for years.

But this time, I’m ready. And I have a plan for publication. But for starters, I will be submitting the first twenty pages into a contest hosted by a regional writer’s organization. Every entry is critiqued, and I want to use that as a way to see where I’m at. Like I said, I think it’s good, but it’s hard to be objective when I’ve been living and breathing this story for so long. I also haven’t had a lot of people read the work. For a number of reasons. Primarily because of lot of my friends would not be the best choice for feedback on a historical romance, and a medieval one at that. Plus, they don’t really know I write… Awkward.

So anyway. Contests. Fortuitously enough, I recently stumbled upon Miss Snark’s First Victim’s blog and learned Authoress would be hosting a 25 word challenge where people submit their first 25 words (or up to 25 words that ended in a complete sentence) to see if people would be hooked enough to keep reading. I submitted the first 17 words of my WIP along with 175 others and got some comments. And all it took was an email and poof! Instant feedback. Part of me was just so excited to have feedback from other like-minded individuals. Some of the comments surprised me, but they signaled things I need to keep in mind as I move forward with my WIP.

Granted, the first 25 words will not make or break an entry, but I found the experience invaluable in terms of getting other eyes on my work. Blogger Sharon Mayhew, inspired by Miss Snark’s First Victim, is hosting another contest, this time the first four sentences. And I have happily submitted my work to this contest as well. These mini challenges have been a great way to jumpstart my final stretch edits as I prepare my manuscript for the regional contest. Hopefully the momentum will keep me going!
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Three Minute Fiction Entry

The winner of round three of NPR’S Three-Minute Fiction was announced last week. Sadly it wasn’t me. But I enjoyed many of the selected entries, finalists and honorable mentions alike. I participated in rounds two and three, and even though my work hasn’t been featured, it has still been a rewarding process for me.

How can I say that when I have nothing to show for my efforts? Simple. Unlike submissions to a literary magazine or publishing house, all these short stories evolved out of a single prompt. Round two was an opening line: The nurse left work at 5 o’clock. Round three was the evocative image below. All the potential writers were given the same handicap if you will; only skill and imagination set the entrants apart.


Having submitted my own story, it was fascinating and hugely instructive for me to read the selected entries, noting not just writing technique and word choice, but the writers’ basic premise and how they negotiated the prompt in their work. Round three had far more entrants than round two, which means competition is only getting fiercer. Every literary/intellectual type out there thinks getting featured on NPR is the ultimate wet dream. I can only imagine the bar will be raised yet again for round four, featuring judge Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto.

I’ll be entering no matter what, but here are a few caveats I’ll need to keep in mind. Since this is now a hugely competitive contest, my work must be perfect if I’m going to hang with the alpha-dogs. I must also avoid the obvious interpretation of the prompt. Or if I do go with the obvious, I must give it my own patented twist. When we did round two in my writing group, everyone followed the nurse home in their stories, while only I stayed at the hospital. I’m not saying my story was more successful then the others, but I did something different, which can only help when you are competing against thousands of other entries.

When working on my round three entry, I kept seeing heartbreak and loneliness and all the sap that goes along with those themes whenever I looked at the picture prompt. I knew I couldn’t write a story around those issues because it seemed too obvious. When I told my husband that, he said, “Well, you could go in the complete opposite direction and make a story about terrorism.” After he said that, I couldn’t get the notion out of my head. So my story became a what-if exercise exploring that idea. I also used 2nd person, a first for me, as a way to stretch myself. I knew my entry had shock value and a good energy to it, but I know my craft is still being developed and probably wouldn’t hold up against the readers from the Iowa Writers Workshop NPR brought in to winnow down the entries… It didn’t, but I am still proud of my piece because I stretched myself in the writing of it.

If you aren’t pushing yourself or discovering something new every time you sit down to write, then you must ask yourself why you are even bothering.

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Here is my entry for round three:

By Design

You have no idea. You only spy the discarded newspaper as you scan the café and think you’ve finally caught a break. After all, you no longer carry loose change and news racks don’t take debit cards. You thrill at the thought of getting something for nothing as you claim the stool so recently discarded and smooth out the newsprint in front of you. Despite your good luck, you still inwardly cringe at the residual body heat that confirms my existence at that very same table only minutes ago. You want my crumbs but you don’t want to have to feel grateful about it. But all that’s forgotten as you read over the headlines in a desperate bid to ease the comfortable monotony of your existence.

You don’t even pause to question what I was doing at that table before you walked in and ordered your skinny soy latte with an extra shot of fair trade espresso. I could be anyone: the jihadist next door, the cokehead in over his head, or the local crackpot who amuses and frightens in equal measure. I could be any number of people pushed too far who inhabited your space moments before. The newspaper is our only link, but you try not to think about that. It’s too intimate. Just as you avoid looking at the fingerprints stuck to the table. You’re not ready to acknowledge the world we live in.

Had you looked out the window instead of answering your cell phone, you might have figured it out in time. You might have seen the backpack shrugged off by someone who immediately fades into the mid-morning crowds. But you sit there and ruffle through the paper sections as if you hold the key to the universe at our little table. You won’t find the answers on inked newsprint, only yellow lies and agitprop. But you don’t realize that. When you hear the explosions across the street you still won’t understand. Not right away.

Not as chunks of concrete and twists of rebar fall from the sky. Not as I slide into a window seat on the city bus as it groans down the street and out of sight. Not as people cry out in fear or pain or disbelief. You have a front row seat to the destruction of what offends me most, and you can only gape and take a sip of your drink and think on how you’re going to get back to work. Only later will you realize luck had nothing to do with it.
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