Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Magical Mayhem of Rough Drafts

During the very first of the Tea Party Chronicles, we talked about the magical mayhem of working on the rough draft of a story. Everyone was full of helpful advice, and I was delighted to share some of the things that have been working for me, too. Some of the highlights were:

  • knowing your first and last lines before starting the rough draft
  • some of us write better with music in the background, some without
  • a fun discussion about accuracy in historical fiction
  • the importance of character development, in everything from plotting to worldbuilding

We also explored how writing a rough draft is like sculpting from clay or painting on a canvas. We wouldn't expect perfection or even to see the finished image in our art straightaway, yet somehow we put pressure on ourselves if our rough draft doesn't feel up to snuff. Yikes!

There are a few more nuggets I’d love to share with you, so pull up a chair and let’s catch up!

A brief guide to the ups and downs of writing the rough draft of a novel, from a Tea Party Chronicles gathering. | Something Delicious

What to do when the rough draft grinds to a halt

Depending on how frustrated I am, I might set it aside and walk away for a while, play a video game, watch an episode of Heartland, or work on some administrative stuff. If I’m stuck but feel like the answer might be nearby, I try and logic it out, and/or brainstorm with my mum or my boyfriend, both of whom are awesome writers themselves.

“I don't force myself,” Emily L. Scott shared. “Instead, I take a break and do something else creative (like writing poetry or painting). Journaling usually helps me dig up what's stopping me from moving forward, and from there, I find I'm able to ease back into the story.”

“Generally, when I hit a wall in my drafts I will walk away from it and go to books and movies,” Eden S. said. “I will read/watch things in the genre I'm writing and I will analyze it and see if there are any ideas I can use in my writing.”

I was glad to see that none of us were forcing ourselves above and beyond the call of creative duty. Writing is sometimes hard work, but we have to be able to recognize the difference between feeling antsy and deepening frustration.

Must-haves for starting a rough draft

I know I’m ready to move from the prewriting to the drafting stage when I have:

  • a bit of appropriate music or background noise, e.g. Rainymood, one of the HDSoundI playlists on YouTube, or Lindsey Stirling
  • a solid sense of the characters and the dynamics between them
  • a feel for the plot and the story (including the main conflict)
  • a very general idea of the setting
  • an idea of what sort of elements I’m playing with ... e.g. the main character I’m writing about at the moment is incredibly talented in the kitchen, so I’m enjoying weaving food and cooking and baking into scenes, either in front and centre ways or just as a part of her everyday life

Some of the other things that came up were:

  • character profiles
  • notes about setting and magic rules
  • a theme
  • a firm idea where the story is heading

Over or underwriting a rough draft

While some people lean towards overwriting in rough drafts and slicing out the fluff in future ones, I’m the opposite. If I know my characters well and sort out a decent plot structure as I’m writing the rough draft, I can layer in and unveil more of the actual story and the colourful pieces and layers in subsequent drafts.

I try my darndest to sort out any major structural issues in the rough draft, though, because I don’t fare well with major rewrites. I can do line edits until the cows come home, and I enjoy enough aspects of the rough draft for it to feel manageable, but a rewrite feels like doing a rough draft all over again, and I struggle to get through one without it feeling tired and overwrought.

Motivation and rough drafts

The most helpful thing I’ve tried recently was a Twitter word sprint. I managed to write 800 words in 25 minutes, which was kind of crazy for me! O.o

This is also the part when we had to be careful not to slosh tea all over the table, because we got a little excited when the conversation shifted to our plans for NaNoWriMo. I’ve had hefty writing marathons before, but nothing like NaNo, so I’m bound and determined that this will be the year I bloody well stick to it! Nearly every past participant seems to agree that there’s little else like it for motivation and collectively focused energy in the writing world.

Helpful resources 

During the tea party, I mentioned a few blog posts that have been a huge help, as I've been tackling a new challenge in my rough draft and needing to relearn (or learn in a new way) certain writing concepts. I hope they'll clear things up for you, too!

There is a fair bit of overlap between a few of these articles, but that was a plus as far as I was concerned: what wasn't clear in the way one person wrote about a concept was soon clarified by someone else. Yay!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek inside our cozy get-together! If you’d like to partake of a cuppa in the future, you can learn more about the Tea Party Chronicles right here. The writers who attend are all wonderfully kind, supportive, and creative, so I know you’d fit right in.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear in the comments below about your own experiences in writing the rough draft of a story! What’s the hardest part, the strangest part, the best part?

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

How to Use a Writing Life Wheel

What is this magical tool that aids in bringing balance to the choppy seas of a writer's life?  Let's find out how a Writing Life Wheel can make all the difference in cultivating a life that supports your writing! | Something Delicious

While there’s merit to the “sit your butt down in the chair and WRITE!” sentiment, I’m a firm believer in crafting a life that’s supportive of your creativity.  How to go about that, though, especially when it feels like virtually everything needs work ... there’s the rub.

I’m somewhat of an organization and productivity geek, especially when it helps me live an even more creative life, so I’m always on the lookout for ways to hack through the brambles and clear the path for myself and the writers I work with.  One day, I stumbled on an oft-used tool of life coaches, a life wheel.  The more I researched, the more it felt like this could be a valuable tool for writers, so I set about adapting it and putting my own spin on it, until at long last the Writing Life Wheel emerged.
What is this magical tool that aids in bringing balance to the choppy seas of a writer's life?  Let's find out how a Writing Life Wheel can make all the difference in cultivating a life that supports your writing! | Something Delicious
A Writing Life Wheel is a visual representation of the parts of your life that connect to your writing - like your support network and your goals - and how satisfied you are in each, on a scale of 1 to 5.

One of the most important things is to fill out a Writing Life Wheel honestly.  If you fill it out according to where you wish you were or where you think you might be in a few weeks, rather than where you are right now, you won’t gain the valuable insights that you would otherwise.  Authenticity and, yes, some vulnerability is key.

If you’re a people pleaser, used to downplaying your struggles, or tend to be overly harsh on yourself, filling out the wheel is going to require kindness, understanding, and bravery on your part.  Have courage, creative soul!  No one has to see this wheel unless you want them to, so be as honest as you can.  If you feel like you’re kicking butt in some areas, own it!  Those areas shore up the foundation of your writing life and will help you fly.  If you feel like some areas are covered in giant seagull splots, it doesn’t make you a failure or an uncommitted writer.  It’s a hint of where to spend some time and mend some fences.

How does this help?

A filled-out Writing Life Wheel offers clues about what’s holding you back and what is or could be propelling you forward.  You can then go on to use this newfound wisdom to create a plan for bringing your life back into (relative) balance and sail the calmest creative seas possible.  The further I get in my own creative journey, the more I’ve realized how important it is to acknowledge strengths and weaknesses and develop an understanding that things are often in flux.

To give you an example of how the Writing Life Wheel works, let’s look at a portion of my own.

My personal satisfaction level with my support network at the moment is a 5 out of 5.  Between my mum, Ciaran, Emily, the lovely guests who attend the Tea Party Chronicles, and the connections I’ve made through social media, I feel incredibly lucky and supported and wouldn’t change a thing.  A little down the road, if I’m looking for a few more beta readers for my current work-in-progress, that might change to 4 out of 5 until I’ve made the right connections.  For now, though, a definite 5!

My schedule and routine, on the other hand, is currently more like 2 out of 5.  Some shifts have occurred in my life that necessitate a rethinking of my writing schedule and I haven’t quite made it happen, so I’m not writing as often as I’d like.  I am getting a good session in every few days, though, so this merits a rating of 2 in my mind, and it’s obvious where there’s room to improve.

Herein lies the magic of the Writing Life Wheel: by having each section set out clearly, I can draw connections and figure out how to mend the weak points by drawing on the power of the strong ones.

In this case, that could mean drawing on my support network to help me get back into a steady routine and schedule for my writing, maybe by:

  • doing word sprints together
  • having writing chats on a regular basis (the Tea Party Chronicles have been awesome for this!)
  • sharing my plans and reporting back on how they went
  • seeking reassurances that, yes, this is doable; yes, I've done it before; and yes, I can do it again (because we all need those reassurances from time to time)

See what I mean?  It’s much easier to create a life that supports your writing when things work in concert rather than acting as disparate entities.

How do you fill out a Writing Life Wheel?

The idea is to rate different areas of your writing life, as it stands now, on a scale from 1 (least satisfying) to 5 (most satisfying), and then use highlighters, crayons, coloured pencils, or your implement of choice to fill in the appropriate number of sections in the wheel.

To figure out how to rate an area, consider it with a few questions in mind:
  1. Does thinking about this area make me feel excited, content, or antsy?
  2. Does thinking about this area make me feel confident or lost?
  3. Is this area straightforward or confusing to me?
  4. Is this an area I find myself wanting to improve or seeking help with?
  5. How would this area need to look and/or feel for me to be completely satisfied with it?
Do your best not to pad your wheel with higher ratings to make it look better or downgrade ratings by being too hard on yourself. Trust your instincts.  Your wheel will shift and change over time, always with room for improvement and celebration!

These ratings must be based on your personal level of satisfaction with each of these areas.  It doesn't matter, for example, if the rest of your household thinks your writing area is a mess.  If it gets you excited to sit down and write, then your writing space is easily worthy of a 4 or 5 rating, no matter what anyone else thinks.

(Make sure to read to the end of this post for a blank copy of your very own Writing Life Wheel!)

What happens now?

There are all sorts of things you can do with a completed Writing Life Wheel, but these are a few of my favourites:

  • For each area, look at (1) how you rated it, (2) what’s working, and (3) what could be tweaked, what you’d like to try, what you could improve on, or what’s missing
  • Write down what surprised you as you filled in the wheel, if anything
  • Reflect on which area you’re most excited to work on and/or which area makes you break out in a cold sweat
  • If there’s someone with a great deal of insight and knowledge into your writing life, show them your completed wheel and see if they notice anything you’ve missed
  • Have a trusted writing friend complete their own wheel, and then have an open-minded, kind-hearted discussion on what comes up for each of you
  • Complete the wheel anew every six months to (1) look for patterns in what changes and what doesn’t, (2) figure out if anything feels stale, and (3) celebrate whatever progress you’ve made

Are you ready to fill out your Writing Life Wheel?

If you want to give this a try (and I hope you do!) click here to download a copy of your very own Writing Life Wheel.  If you don't have a Dropbox account, click "No thanks, continue to view" on the box that pops up.  You can then download the file by clicking on "Download" at the top right-hand corner of the screen.

Today, I'll leave you with a gentle nudge: once you've downloaded the wheel, print it out (or draw it out, if you don't have a printer) and fill it in as soon as possible!  It's best not to overthink it but to dive right in.  I've even included some sample questions for each section of the wheel to guide you along.

Have a wheely good time, and happy writing!
Handwritten signature that says "Victoria"

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Discovering the World's Best Writing Guide

What if the best writing guide you'll ever meet is in the room with you right now?  What if they could tell you which advice to follow and when to trust your own instincts?  Find out how to discover your strongest, most intelligent writing guide in this blog post. <3 | Something Delicious

Something that's been niggling at me quite often of late is the plethora of writing advice available to us, both online and off, and the quagmire of emotions surrounding that advice.  My latest Letter from the Burrow dove into this muddle headfirst, and I wanted to share it here with you, as well, because this is something I think every writer needs to hear.

Writing isn't something that we can learn from beginning to end and eventually discover we know everything there is to know.  There's always something we'll be unsure of or that feels new or that just doesn't seem to stick in our minds, no matter how hard we try.

With such an open-ended craft, it's no surprise that we can spend hours, days, or even weeks reading about writing and never actually writing.

What's just as bad is that, the more we read, the more we may start to doubt our own instincts.  Our creativity gets tamped down by all the rules and suggestions and "must haves" that we forget how to just sit down and let words spill onto the page.  We might even lose touch with why we're writing in the first place.

There's absolutely a place for writing advice beyond the scope of our own knowledge, but when we stop trusting what we do know and how we feel in our heart of hearts, we get into tricky scenarios.

For example ...

When you're working with an editor, there's a difference between looking at the red markings on the page and thinking,

Yowch!  Some of these feel a little off, but she's the professional, so I'll just go ahead and make all the changes ...

as opposed to thinking

Wow!  This is a bit painful, but most of these changes are going to bring my story even closer to the way I want it to come across, so I'll make those for sure and consider the rest.

When you hear about an upcoming writing workshop, there's a difference between thinking,

Oh, that sounds interesting!  I should really take that ...

as opposed to thinking

Hmm ... that's something I've been trying to work on and haven't had any luck.  I'm going to look into that workshop and see if it's a good fit.

Can you feel the difference?  One of those thoughts is reactive, perhaps leading us into a scenario that will cause overwhelm or even regret, while the other is measured and thoughtful, allowing us to channel intuition and past experience to figure out what our next step should be.

Finding the Right Help at the Right Time

My personal hope is that the resources I provide reach the writers who are looking for them at the time when they most need them, rather than add to the confusion and the chaos.

Ideally, any book or workshop or service you partake in within the wonderful world of writing won't make you dependent on it but will empower you to carry on, walking your own path; learning to trust your creative instincts and know what works and what doesn't; when you need outside help and when you need to keep things up close and personal.

That ebook on outlining worked wonders for your last book but is tying you into knots with this one?  Let it go.

Feeling the urge to find some outward accountability, but fearing being told that you're lazy and unmotivated?  To heck with that!  Do whatever you need to do to put that accountability system into play and then start writing so you have something to be accountable about.

Getting lost in character questionnaires and still have no idea who your character is?  Set aside all the blog posts and workbooks and just sit down with a piece of paper and ask them, "Who are you?"

Trust Yourself

There are no right answers.  No perfect strategies.

However, I do believe we know, deep inside, when we're procrastinating and when we genuinely need help.

Writing can be mind-boggling, and at best that's one of the coolest things about it; at worst, it's one of the biggest things that can stop us from moving forward.

Rather than looking at outside help as the enemy or as laziness or as a creative saviour, let's develop a relationship with it that has our own gut feelings and creative eccentricities and passion at the core.  When you really, truly need help, draw it into your orbit without shame or fear, get what you can from it, and then gently release it.

Trust yourself.  Trust your instincts.  Trust your creativity.

That trust will guide you home to the most incredible stories you'll ever write.

You are the best writing guide you will ever meet.

Is this easier said than done?  Some days yes, some days no.  If the gap between here and there feels wider than you're comfortable with, spend a few minutes with these questions and see what comes up.  They'll help you find more ease and bridge that gap.

When it comes to writing ...

... do I feel like a novice?  an old hand?  a beginner?  a guru?  a hack?  a hard worker?  Why do I feel this way?  When do I feel this way?  Have I always felt this way?

... which characters hold my attention more than others?  What is it about them I love?  Are there any common threads?

... how do I know what to write?

... when do I feel most content?

... when do I feel most confident?

... when do I feel most unsure?

... when do I feel powerful?

A Day to Write Without Walls

I hope today, if you have time to write, you'll spend a bit of time with the wisdom and knowledge you already possess.  There can be a beautiful sense of space and ease in writing with no outside forces at work: no prompts, no guidelines, nothin'.

If it feels strange or unfamiliar or even a little uncomfortable, that's okay.  Doodle on the page or watch your mouse cursor move in lazy circles for a few minutes if it helps you relax.  Just spend a bit of time with yourself and your writing and see what happens.

Happy writing, creative soul!

Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Writing Secrets Hidden Within Mass Effect

One of my favourite science fiction stories of all time is not a book or a movie or a TV show. It’s a video game trilogy by the name of Mass Effect. This is a series that’s incredibly fun to play not just because of the game mechanics, but because the characters feel like real people and the universe feels rich and diverse. As a writer, playing (and replaying) this game holds even more appeal: as I navigated the Normandy amongst the stars, I was unlocking valuable lessons about fiction writing.

The Mass Effect video game series is full of incredible characters and rich worldbuilding.  As I navigated my ship amongst the stars, I unlocked valuable lessons about fiction writing, and now I want to share them with you. | Something Delicious

Your readers will surprise you

Garrus Vakarian is one of only two characters throughout the trilogy that isn’t just on the Normandy with you but a squadmate you can bring out on missions. If you choose to have him as a friend, he’ll become your best friend. If you choose to romance him, you’ll be treated to some of the dorkiest, sweetest interactions in the series. His character arc throughout the series is fascinating, especially if you encourage him to reform his vigilante ways, and the conversations you can have with him about the global conflict within the Mass Effect universe are thought provoking.

He also happens to be a turian, a humanoid alien with avian features.

Because he looked so different from your average heartthrob, the game developers didn’t bother making him romanceable in the first game. This changed in Mass Effect 2 and 3, after they realized that Garrus was a fan favourite. Many players (myself included) find it difficult to romance anyone but Garrus, even on a repeat playthrough.

Lesson Learned: No matter how you think your characters will come across, there will always be a reader (or a legion of readers) who think differently. Do your best to write your characters as consistently and genuinely as possible, and your readers will take it from there.

Give readers something or someone to root for

The overarching plot of the Mass Effect trilogy is a universe-wide crisis that could result in the destruction of all life. Definitely something to root for. Shepard is also a compelling hero/heroine you can’t resist cheering on.

That’s not all there is to it, though. The sense of impending doom gets its hooks into you because you meet people like Charr, a krogan (one of the most trigger-happy, warmongering races) reciting sappy poems to woo his love interest. You can discourage this - boo! - or nudge her in his direction - yay! Then there’s Erinya, an asari widow who blames aliens for the death of her entire family: her partner was on a different world studying quarian music, and her daughters were both working for aliens on the Citadel, a massive space station that suffered a devastating attack. Erinya slowly comes around when she remembers her departed family’s love for other cultures, and her partner’s belief that quarians possess old souls, something that comes across in their art and music.

It’s largely because of these people, their lives and stories and hopes, that you feel compelled to see things through, to save the day, not just so you can say you beat the game but so these people have a chance to realize their dreams. In the words of my boyfriend, “[They] add to the gravitas of the galaxy and what you're fighting to save. You're after a future that lets the quarians have their music again. Or maybe you're willing to sacrifice that future for everyone's sake.”

Lesson Learned: Writing about a universally understood theme is only half the battle. Don’t just write another war story or post-apocalypse story or meeting a perfect match story. Find the little moments and nuances that make it matter.

Avoid avoid easy, cut-and-dried scenarios

The Mass Effect series has no shortage of examples for this, but let’s highlight one in particular. In Mass Effect 2, you run into a friend from the first game, someone who, until recently, thought you were dead. This run-in not only confirms the rumours that you’re alive (and didn’t tell them) but that you’re working for Cerberus, a group that seems like little more than a terrorist organization in the first game.

The approach you take to this conversation, and to Cerberus throughout the game, is intriguing, to say the least. There are no easy answers. Even though Shepard’s reasons are understandable (it’s a “for the greater good” kind of thing), they’re still questionable, and sometimes that’s a good thing. There are a lot of people working for Cerberus who are themselves well-intentioned, which blurs the lines even more. I much prefer this to an across the board “they’re actually the misunderstood good guys!” approach.

Lesson Learned: If everything a character or organization ever says or does is 100 percent defensible, with no room for debate, they’re not going to seem real. Some scenarios have no easy answers, and memorable scenes result from your finding a way to write about them regardless.

Don’t write skippable fluff

There’s a difference between scenes and dialogue exchanges and moments that make the story world feel real or endear the characters to you, and ones that are all fluff and absolutely no substance. If every single one of your beta readers is telling you that they took a nap during a particular section, you need to think long and hard about whether it’s worth keeping. The aim is to write a story where readers, generally speaking, don’t want to “skip to the good bits,” at least not the first time they read your book.

When playing Mass Effect, you have the option to skip through cutscenes and most conversations if you want to. Even when I’m replaying the trilogy, however, I will still let the vast majority of the game play out rather than just speedreading the subtitles because the conversations and characterization and world are so nuanced and interesting. I can’t resist experiencing it all again, even if I’m making all the same choices in the dialogue wheel, because it’s that good (and because I inevitably pick up on something I missed the first time around).

Lesson Learned: Whether you’re writing description, dialogue, or narration, focus on what subconsciously and consciously matters to your characters. Does a scene feel too woolly? Read it line by line and ask yourself, “Why does this matter?”

Poor endings poison the whole experience

Talk to anyone who’s played the Mass Effect trilogy and you’ll find someone with a strong opinion about the ending. It was originally so unsatisfying that, for many players, it overshadowed what had up to that point been an incredible experience. People felt cheated after having invested so much time and emotion into the trilogy. Bioware released a patch after the game’s release that added some content and made the ending somewhat more palatable--I, for one, was appeased by it--but it wasn’t enough for some.

Conversely, the endings to various subplot missions throughout the trilogy were handled so well that I’m still thinking about them. They weren’t cut off and never mentioned again once they’d finished. For example, after doing Tali’s loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, you’re prompted to go back to your ship. However, if you ignore that prompt and stick around, you can strike up conversations and get a sense of how your choices throughout the mission have impacted different characters. Some of these conversations influence the third game, as well. This ripple effect is what makes a story feel grounded, relatable, and memorable (in a good way, this time)!

Lesson Learned: A poor ending will linger in a reader’s memory and overshadow even the best of experiences. It’s not enough to say your heroes won; you need to show they won.

I’m not the only one who thinks Mass Effect has some amazing writing lessons to teach us! Let’s have a look at what E.M. Welsh, a fellow writer and Mass Effect aficionado, has to say …

Side characters are as crucial as main characters!

Mass Effect, like nearly all Bioware games, has taught me first and foremost how to craft unique and authentic characters. Despite having a party of up to twelve people in Mass Effect 2, I can still to this day envision each character and how they stood out. That’s something that is incredibly hard to do in something like a movie or book, so I was really fortunate in that I was able to learn about how to explore character’s backstories via video games.
The fact that as a player, you get to have in-depth conversations with Garrus and Liara, Miranda, and Jack, Thane, and Legion, and learn their backstories not only through conversation but through a direct engagement with their own side stories, made me realize just how exciting side characters and their own personal backstories could be.
I used to think that people only cared about the main character’s backstory in movies or books, but Mass Effect quickly made me understand that if the character is complex, with a worldview different from your main character’s, they can supplement the story and the world in a way that no protagonist can.

This, in turn, led me to understand another facet of writing that I believe Mass Effect explores so well – possibility with said side characters. Take, for instance, when you wander through the Citadel, the main hub in the game. Depending on who you bring to the Citadel in your party, you’ll get different reactions and different comments from people in the city. Additionally, certain people in the party will have conversations – or maybe arguments – as you walk around, and this really led me to think about how different characters interact with one another and how the world receives them, not just your main character.
Of course, I could go on and on about the world building and the lore that Mass Effect introduces, intriguing you from the get go and providing just enough information to keep you satisfied, yet still inquisitive. But if there was one stand out feature Mass Effect has taught me about, it was how to write fascinating and unique side characters who stand out as strongly as your protagonist.”

I think Emma and I could go on talking about Mass Effect all day (this won’t be the last time it pops up here!) but right now I want to hear from you: what writing lessons have you learned from video games? I’ve kept this post spoiler-free, but feel free to get more detailed in the comments!