It’s the New Year – new calendars, new notebooks, a new start!
I am a New Year junkie. I love the reminders to reflect on the previous year and lay out plans for the year to come. But as a staunch list-maker, I don’t just noodle on my goals for the year, I write them down.
At the end of each year, I pull up my 12-months-old list, x-ing out the goals I’ve accomplished, and mulling over the ones I haven’t. Some goals surprise me – did I really think that was a priority in 2016? And some are oddly outdated, reflections of circumstances that no longer exist in my life, like the year I insisted I was going to get back into shape, only to discover I was pregnant before I could even make the appointment to tour the gym.
I have a friend who writes herself a letter every New Year’s Day, telling her future self about the things she hopes to accomplish, the problems she’s currently facing and the hopes and fears she holds for the coming twelve months. The next New Year’s Eve, she opens the letter and reads the time capsule from exactly a year ago.
It turns out, my friend and I both practice a key strategy for success: writing down your goals.
New research reported here in NYMag.com, appears to show that the simple act of writing down your goals makes you much more likely to achieve them.
Of course, a big section of my 2017 Goal List is devoted to writing. Every year, I think about where I am now – what am I working on? What do I have waiting in the wings? How much time/energy will each of these projects take? Where do I want to go with each? And then I formulate a plan.
Are you ready to set your writing goals for 2017? Grab your coffee, your notebook and some chocolate and follow these tips:
DO be specific:Write a best-seller is not a great goal. Not only is the sales status of your book almost entirely out of your control, but the goal itself is too vague to be of use. Instead try to hone in on what you’ve already got going on. Finish first draft of my dog in space book or Query Yellowstone Adventure YA are more realistic.
DO set deadlines: I love to give myself a rough timeline. On my list this year is Finish first draft of YA WIP by March. Knowing how much I have to go and my current pace, this feels like a reasonable, achievable goal – and it serves as motivation if I start to slow down or slack off.
DO be flexible: Sometimes we can’t or don’t accomplish our goals for reasons out of our control. Sometimes our goals change completely. You can be determined to query your picture book about fairies, but if you hear fairies are done, or you suddenly realize you were meant to write adult true crime, that’s OK. Adjust mid-year.
DON’T beat yourself up: All too often, I’ll check in on my goals halfway through the year and zero in on how much I haven’t accomplished, instead of seeing how much I have. If you need to course-correct, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad or lazy person. It means you have a life! And you still have another six months to get back on track.
For me, the act of writing down my writing goals also becomes an affirmation that this endeavor is important, worthy of my time and attention. And in a business where progress can be achingly slow, it is heartening to see that I really have moved forward as the months have rolled past.
Do you write out your writing goals? How does it work for you? And if you’re trying it this year for the first time, let me know how it goes! Maybe we can do a check-in in June and see how much progress we’ve all made.
1. Writing exercises can help. NaNoWriMo started on November 1 and the @NaNoWriMo and @NaNoWordsprints Twitter feeds will be full of daily inspiration and prompts. I have used these in the past to map out aspects of my story that I know need to be written even if it means writing out of order. Sometimes just writing a scene or a short sketch will get the creative juices flowing in other areas.
2. Don’t be afraid to write out of order or to use brackets to leave place-holders when you feel stuck. My first drafts often say stuff like [Something needs to happen here so that MC feels this or does that] and then I go back and fill in the blanks on revision, or later on whenever I have an ah ha moment.
3. If you know, for example, that you need to write a love scene and you’re not feeling inspired, read a few of your favorites from other authors. I was struggling to add life to my Seattle-based setting in my current ms (some of my other settings have been more far-flung or exotic, so the urban scene felt blah to me) so I read some urban fantasy to get a good feel for what I could do. Even though my MG is a far cry from gritty urban fantasy, it really did help shake some things loose.
4. Just keep writing, even if you know what you’re writing is bad. You can’t wait for inspiration to come to you–you have to write yourself into inspiration. And that only happens with regular sessions of butt-in-chair.
5. Have a conversation with one or more of your characters. This often goes something like this: “OK, MC, I don’t know what’s supposed to happen here. How would you react if Love Interest does X? What if he does Y? What do you WANT him to do?” It sounds cheesy, but if you can get out of your head and into your gut, I think that’s the place from which your characters will start to tell you what needs to happen to move the story forward. Some writers call this getting into “flow” and it’s a truly beautiful feeling (although I spend hours writing when I’m not in flow–it’s not something that you can maintain for an entire draft).
I asked the rest of the Pennies for their tips and here’s what they said:
Richelle Morgan: Fresh air! I find walking the dog to be my most productive “writing” time most days — as long as I remember to write down all my insights when I get home! Sometimes I even record them into my phone as I walk…there’s something about using my whole body that gets my sluggish brain moving.
Also, when I was in college, I took some random class that ended up being primarily about lucid dreaming and how you can make your brain work for you when you’re asleep. Ever since then, if I’m stumped about something, I tell my brain to find an answer right before I go to sleep. Usually, within 24 hours or so, I’ll have it figured out. Works like a charm with writing — though sometimes my brain wakes me up mid-sleep to tell me the solution!
Gita Trelease: Once, when I was working on a hard part of my dissertation (19th century British lit), I took a nap. In my dream, I saw a hand writing out, in perfect 19thC boilerplate script, a paragraph in which the argument I needed to make was made with exemplary clarity. Woke up and wrote it down! I just want to make this happen more often.
Reading something truly excellent (regardless of genre) or watching a movie set in the place or time period I’m working with. Here’s something new I discovered: When I’m struggling to uncover what my characters are feeling, I find I can access the thoughts and emotions more authentically if I write them out by hand. Maybe this connects to the feeling of writing in my journal, which I’ve been doing since I was in 4th grade? Or maybe it connects to the unconscious, like walking or dreaming does?
Gabrielle Byrne: Long walk. Long shower. Stop pushing and read a book. Give yourself permission to breathe for a day.
Mark Holtzen: I love the quote about writers block that says simply “lower your expectations.” And for me getting outside it is vital. Going for a bike ride we’re going for a long walk. Also reading something completely out of genre is really helpful for me. Even if it has nothing to do with my topic it always shakes something loose.
Laurel Decher: Motion! Getting your brain to relax is key. Asking the “boys in the basement” to send up the answers (like Richelle’s lucid dreaming up above.) Lowering expectations.
National Novel Writing Month can be a transformative experience because you learn to feel the abundance of words and story and inspiration. Being amazed at how much you can write makes you hold those precious words much more lightly.
How do you cope with Writer’s Block? Have you tried any of these tips?
I had the COMPLETE PLEASURE of chatting with Kelly Barnhill, author of THE WITCH’S BOY, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON (which I reviewed here last Friday), and many other beloved middle-grade fiction and nonfiction books. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is my ✨Favorite Middle-Grade 2016 Read ✨ so far, and I couldn’t think of any better way to celebrate #NationalBookLoversDay AND THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON’s book birthday than to share our hot-off-the-presses interview with you.
Kelly, welcome to The Winged Pen and thanks so much for chatting with me! Your prose is like a lullaby, so smooth and lush. When I read your enchanting words, the rest of the world slips away. I don’t get it. How do you do that? Am I truly being enmagicked? Or would you possibly share some of your craft secrets to those of aspiring for the same type of effect? Do you read your work aloud? Do you spend hours making each lovely sentence?
So, here’s a thing about me: I’m an aural thinker. I don’t “think in pictures” and if I want to try and get a visual in my head, it is a tremendous amount of work. I think in words and words and pretty words. For me, landing on a sentence that pleases me — that feels good in the ear and the mouth and that resonates in the body when you say it out loud — that’s the fundamental basis of the story. Everything else builds around it. When I’m writing and when I’m editing, I do an embarrassing amount of work out loud — so much so that I can make myself hoarse after a long day. I will read a section over and over and over again out loud — often standing and performing to no one but the guinea pig and the dog — until it feels solid and correct and true.
Love the visual of you performing for your furry friends! What is your work/writing schedule?
Typically, I get up, get the kids ready for school, go for a run, and then write until they get home at the end of the day. Assuming my day isn’t disrupted by doctor visits or teacher visits or volunteering or cleaning the house. On a good day, I can get four hours of writing in a row. On a less good day, it will only be fifteen minutes. I do try to do something on the book each day – whether it’s writing, note taking, researching or laying flat on my office floor, just thinking.
It’s inspiring to know that you find a way to make the most of even fifteen minutes!
You’ve published short stories, nonfiction, and middle-grade fiction. Whew! Do you work on multiple projects at a time?
Always. I am restless, impatient and easily bored.
What is your most difficult craft hurdle?
Self doubt. Crippling, nasty, mean, and near-constant self-doubt. It can stop any decent story in its tracks and can send any deadline hurtling into the emptiest reaches of the universe. My third book, The Witch’s Boy, almost didn’t exist at all. I had completely given up hope on it and erased the whole thing – poof! Fortunately, I have a very excellent writing group who are all very bossy, and they just emailed the draft that I had sent them back to me and told me to stop being such a dummy. For those of you who struggle similarly with crushing self-doubt, I suggest getting a critique group — the bossier the better.
So glad that your writing group saved THE WITCH’S BOY from the emptiest reaches of the universe! You are so right about bossy critique partners. Here at THE WINGED PEN we often peel each other off the floor, dust each other off, and give a swift pat on the you-know-what when necessary. I couldn’t imagine trying to write without a community of supporters. (Sending out love to all my CPs right now. ❤️)
Which writers inspire you? Is there a recently published book you’d heartily recommend?
My reading tastes are all over the map. I recently read A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab, which was fantastic, and The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli was mind-blowing. I finally forced myself to read The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett’s last book, and it broke my heart just as I thought it would — and mended it right back up again. Good old Pratchett. The world is a gloomier place since he left us. And I am re-reading Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, just because.
Oooh! Just hopped on Goodreads and added those to my TBR! Thanks!
Do you have any strange writing habits?
Not really. I think my writing life is actually very dull. I wake up early, get my kids ready for school, walk the dog (his name is Sirius Black), and then get to work. If I get stuck, I do push-ups until I can’t stand it anymore and then return to the page. Sometimes I go for a run, and write in my head, stringing sentence after sentence like beads on a string, writing it all down when I get back. Mostly, though, it’s just banker’s hours, every day, me and the page, sentence after sentence until the thing is done.
❤️Sirius Black. Don’t love push-ups! Wow oh wow! Push-ups ’til you drop. *flexes bicep, sighs* You’ve inspired me. I’ll try to learn to love them.
Why do you write for children?
I write for kids because the world is strange, and children like strange things. I write for kids because I like kids, and I like how they think. I write for kids because childhood is, by its very nature, expansive, exploratory, and utterly wild.
You just did it again. My heart did this weird wiggle thing that felt so good. ❤️ Kids are…the best. Your books truly read like a love story to kids and kids at heart.
What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
A couple of things. I am finishing up a book called The Sugar House, which is a modern re-telling of Hansel and Gretel — with a little bit of the old Mother Hulda tales added in for good measure. Also it takes place in Minneapolis with a main character who can’t seem to do anything right, and who has been expelled after he accidentally almost blew up the school — not really, but that’s how it played in the media. Anyway, it’s a story about a kid who can’t seem to escape his own narrative — people always see him as a screw-up and a “bad kid.” And when he discovers something truly terrifying in his neighborhood, he has to decide what he’s going to do about it — since people will continue to see him as a bad boy, even when he’s trying to do something good.
I’m also working on a new story that is requiring me to do research into alchemy, poisons, the Holy Roman Empire, ship building, piracy, Euclid’s Elements, Euler’s Mechanica, and a particularly devilish composition for the mandolin. Also the nature of death.
Both of those sound amazing. CAN. NOT. WAIT. to hold those books! And I’m a geek girl, so Euclid/Euler…whoa, be still my heart!
If you had a superpower, what would it be?
I already have one. I have the ability to make people feel completely amazing about themselves. This is true. I can send GIANT LOVE BEAMS inducing feelings of well-being and hopefulness and general efficaciousness to anyone I choose. I do it all the time. I’m basically Other-People’s-Self-Esteem-Man. Or Woman, I mean.
GIANT LOVE BEAMS! *soul melts You wield your power so well. We can feel it in your stories, like a megaphone right to the heart.
Here comes the lightning round. *hands you a slice of warm blackberry pie*
Wooden pencil or mechanical?
Coffee or tea?
Tea. Now, then, tomorrow, yesterday, one minute ago, one hour from now, and forever.
Sweet or salty?
Salt. Unless it’s sweet. And then later, salt.
Dog, cat, or other?
I love cats but my husband can’t stand them, as his heart is, alas, a cinder. We have dogs. I love dogs. I miss cats.
Plotter or pantser?
Pants. All the way. Mostly because pants is a funny word.
Whew! Alright, last question. Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?
Don’t be afraid to write lousy words. Don’t be afraid to write lousy pages. Don’t be afraid to write lousy stories. Sometimes we have to write the lousy stuff in order to get to the good stuff. It works. I promise. (Also you are amazing. Amazing. Every single beautiful sexy genius one of you. What you’re doing is important and wonderful. Keep being amazing.)
Swoon. Aww…thanks so much for the encouragement! We hope all our blog readers take that advice to heart.
THANK YOU so much for taking the time to chat with us, Kelly! We can’t wait to devour your next book!
For more info and links related to Kelly Barnhill’s latest release THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, please click here.
One of the great things about writing is that there’s no wrong way to do it…as long as words are getting logged somewhere. Anywhere. On a laptop, in a notebook, on thick, creamy paper, or in a recording on a cell phone to be transcribed later. But with all these options, we all have our own comfortable patterns we fall into.
Two members of The Winged Pen talk about where they write and why this works for them.
Where do you write?
I’m a home office girl. I have visions of being a regular in a hip coffee shop, lattes available for the asking when I’ve sweated through so many words that my brain needs a break. In these visions, a critique partner would be writing by my side and we’d brainstorm a plot bunny over the coffee break.
But writing in Starbucks is not for me. One word: Noise. I need quiet to write. I don’t even listen to music. The only words I want to hear are the ones in my head or on my screen. The only voice – my characters’. Anything else slows me down. I have written in coffee shops, but I save that for when I’m more focused on connecting with writer-friends and getting a little work done. Never when I’m doing the Big Revision.
I have an “office” at home, but I rarely do my best work there. Instead, I am that annoying regular at the coffee shop, taking up a table for hours while nursing a cup of coffee.
I like the noise and bustle of the coffee shop. I love to watch people and imagine their backstories, or better yet, listen to how they talk and interact with their companions. Of course, when I’m really cranking, I put my earbuds in and turn on music, which ends up as white noise as I lose myself in the story. But when I’m stuck for a word or the direction for the next scene, all of that inspiration is right there, just over the brim of my coffee mug.
I think the coffee shop calls to me for a couple of reasons: One, my day job is at home, so when I sit down in my “office” I feel guilty if I’m not working on a paid gig. But more than that, at home, there is always something else that I could be doing: dishes, laundry, cleaning up cat vomit, organizing that one closet or drawer that never seems to stay organized, sweeping the dust bunnies from under the sofa. At my local coffee shops – shout out to Rain or Shine and the Bipartisan Café! – nothing is expected of me except that I write.
Describe your typical writing spot.
I have a desk in the room over the garage. I share my “office” with my kids, so the focused work needs to be done before school gets out and that room gets noisy with video games and homework. My desk is a mess: The Emotional Thesaurus and Story Engineering are always within arm’s reach. There’s a notebook or two with my jotted “do not forgets” for next chapters or revisions, as well as sticky notes with “to do” lists. I also have a Yankee Candle that gets lit when serious writing will be done and a collection of kid art projects.
When I’m not perched on a stool at the local café, I sit in a blue chair in my living room with my beagle curled up asleep behind me. I have a bucket from IKEA that holds my notebooks, and if I lean a little to the left, I can snag a reference book off the bookshelf. I’m more minimalist at the coffee shop, where it’s just me, my laptop, and a notebook and pen.
When you get the big book deal and need to lock yourself away for a month to make the words happen (oh, please let this happen someday!), what would be your dream writing local?
On the Outer Banks of North Carolina, listening to the surf crash into the beach. Of course, that nasty sand would never get into my laptop and gum up the works. And it would be 70 degrees and partly cloudy and not 95 and scorching…I mean, since we’re dreaming.
I’m with Rebecca, only on the opposite coast! A beach house on the Oregon coast, with a view of the surf tumbling onto the sand and summer sun streaming in the picture window would, I’m certain, inspire me to new story heights.
Where do you write? Do you pick your writing spot for creativity? For productivity? What do you think would happen if you tried something new?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade and young adult stories that blend mystery and adventure. Her best story ideas come from her two crazy kids. Unlike many writers, Rebecca did not write her first story at age eight…at least not fiction. She wrote for her high school yearbook and edited it her senior year. She also wrote for her college newspaper. But her first fiction course scared the bejeezus out of her! Having overcome her fear of fiction, Rebecca loves see how much trouble she can get her characters into, and sometimes back out of. You can find her blog here. She’s also on Twitter.
RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children, mischievous beagle and long-suffering cat. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.