Tag Archives: writing life

Playing Professor

Megan Norris Jones

The oppressive heat of summer gave way just a bit over the weekend, and I felt the first hint of cooler weather. It was enough to turn my mind to the fall and all the back-to-school habits this season ingrained in me throughout the years (and years!) of my education. Unfortunately, I don’t have a professor laying out a syllabus of lectures, readings, and assignments that will have me rolling into December a better writer. Nope. I’ve just got me. But lucky for you, you’ve got me, too, and I’ve put together a syllabus that will keep me on track for the next four months, at least. Feel free to copy it and tweak it to fit your own needs and schedule.

The first component of any good class is the lecture. I’ve had a number of writing podcasts I’ve listened to over the years, but the one I’ve stuck with through it all is Writing Excuses. This season each of the hosts is taking turns leading a master class on a topic of their choosing, and the result is excellent.

Weekly Lectures:
Writing Excuses Podcast

Why is school better than independent study? Classmates! My school memories don’t center around lectures but rather the relationships I built with friends along the way, so my self-designed syllabus definitely includes peer interactions.

Group Work:
Participate in weekly WriteOwls check-in for writing accountability
Participate in monthly critique group

Books on writing never cease to provide me with inspiration and practical advice on how to improve my craft. I have a stable of favorites that I return to, but I have several on my TBR list that it’s high time I sat down in read, so they’ll act as the textbooks for my semester. I’ve structured my deadlines so that I can focus on my reading during holidays when I know I typically don’t get a lot of writing done. That way I won’t let my head get out of the game.

Texts:
Understanding Show Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It) by Janice Hardy
Pen on Fire by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

The core of a writing class is the writing, so most of my assignments focus on this aspect. During the course of the semester I intend to complete a draft of my WIP, get the first 30 pages critiqued, polish the entire manuscript, and submit it to 10 agents. I’ve broken my assignments into the components necessary to get this work done and scheduled writing time into my week, taking into account my other obligations. If I follow my schedule, I should get 5-7 dedicated writing hours per week, plus whatever other time I can scrounge. 

Assignments:
Complete current revision of WIP
Send first thirty pages out for critique
Polish first 30 pages
Polish query letter
Polish remaining pages
Submit manuscript to 10 agents (includes selecting agents)

When I first wrote down my goals for the semester, it was a longer list than what made it into the final syllabus. Putting writing time on my calendar and being realistic about what I can accomplish with my time made me realize that I just couldn’t get it all done in the time I have set aside. That doesn’t mean I can’t do it all. It just means I can’t do it all this semester. But no worries. That’s the beauty of self-education—there’s always another semester.

Goals for next semester:
Finish outline of next manuscript

The act of sitting down, writing out my goals, and then actually putting them on the calendar forced me to consider what time I’m committing to writing and make a firm plan for how to accomplish my goals. If you’re feeling adrift in your writing process or discouraged about ever actually finishing your manuscript, consider drawing up your own syllabus. It’s a process that’s brought my writing goals and realities into sharp focus, and I highly recommend the clarity that follows.

Insomniacs Anonymous 8-16-21

What’s the most satisfying ending to a story that you’ve ever read? Why did it resonate with you?

Insomniacs Anonymous 7-26-21

What’s the best opening line you’ve ever read? What made it memorable to you?

There’s a Video For That

Laura Ayo

I get some of my best writing done when I’m on vacation. There’s just something about a change of scenery and unscheduled time that sparks my creativity. Regardless of the destination, my packing list always includes my laptop and charger, a notebook, sharpened pencils and pens. This past week, as I scribbled in my notebook with sand between my toes and the sound of waves lapping the shore, I realized I’ve come to rely on one other resource I didn’t have at the sunny shore – Wi-Fi. More specifically, YouTube that I needed Wi-Fi to access.

This is the first year that I wasn’t drafting a story while vacationing. I am, for the first time, at the revision stage of writing. But it wasn’t until I was in a place where Wi-Fi was abysmal that I realized I have been watching a LOT of YouTube videos while revising my work-in-progress.

My story is a historical fiction middle grade novel set in the mid-1700s. And while reference books, diaries, databases and other resources have helped me gain insight into what life would have been like for my characters during that time period, they simply don’t offer the sensory details I can glean from watching videos. YouTube, more than any other online video sharing platform I’ve explored, has been a gold mine for culling those specifics so I can craft a more immersive experience for my readers.

How were anchors on tall ships raised in the Age of Sail? Documentaries on YouTube had the answer to that question and anything else I could possibly need to know about sailing in the 18th century.

Can you see a certain mountain from a specific vantage point where my story is set? Drone video uploaded to YouTube by someone who lives there showed me the view.

Video tutorials have informed my writing about basket weaving, blacksmithing, canoe building and countless other pre-Revolutionary War skills. I’ve listened to music from that time period and audio clips of everything from bird calls to a storm at sea to the labored breaths of someone with pneumonia. I’ve even turned to video reviews, hacks, lists and tips lending advice about how to improve my writing skills or navigate meta data in the writing software I use.

If you, like me, get stuck when you’re trying to describe the sights and sounds your characters are experiencing in certain situations or settings, consider turning to online videos to help you through those moments. Here are a few tips to keep you on track:

  • Be specific with your search terms. The narrower the search, the fewer the list of results you have to weed through to find what you’re looking for.
  • Avoid what I like to call “just one more” syndrome. If you find one video with the information you’re seeking, I promise there will be several others that do the same. Don’t be tempted to watch them all. Once you find what you need, avoid wasting hours of your precious writing time by skipping over the others in the hope that you might find something even better.
  • Pay attention to the runtime stamp. If you have two video options, preview how long each of them are and then watch the shorter one first. If you find what you need in a three-minute video, there’s no need to watch the 33-minute second video on the same topic.
  • Consider the number of views and thumbs up indications. Most videos indicate how many times it’s been viewed, as well as how many of those viewers gave the video a thumbs up to indicate it was worth watching. I’ll always take my chances with videos showing 2,000 views and 1,800 positive reviews over the ones that have been viewed 20 times with eight thumbs down reviews.
  • Stay on topic. It’s tempting to follow the “if you liked this, you might also like this” suggestions that pop up at the end of each video. While watching hours of sailing mishaps are undoubtedly entertaining (and sometimes, terrifying), I needed to remind myself that I was writing about sailing vessels that didn’t sink or run aground, so I didn’t have time to get sucked into watching off-topic videos, as tempting as they were.
  • Watch the clock. If you’re like me, dedicated writing time is hard to come by, so set a timer to stay on task. When the alarm sounds, it’s time to trade watching for writing.

Not having Wi-Fi at the beach allowed me to focus on fine-tuning character-driven scenes. I came home with notebook pages of thoughtful dialogue, character insights, well considered action sequences and … a list of topics I needed to research on YouTube once I reconnected to Wi-Fi.

Getting Back to Writing

Megan Norris Jones

Habits are excruciating to make and oh-so-easy to break—especially the habit of writing. Most of us have been through one type of upheaval or another during the past 15 months that have thrown even long-established life habits out the window. For me, the most recent disturbance to my writing routine wasn’t the result of the pandemic, but the happier and more exciting process of moving house.

It was an in-town move. We found a house we loved in a ridiculously convenient location. It even has a writing room in it—one small enough that there’s no room for anyone else to intrude with toys or paperwork because there’s just enough space for my desk and a beautiful bay window overlooking the back yard. Visions of all the books I would write in that room burst across my vision the first time I laid eyes on it. This room was one of the major selling point of the house. But before I could start writing in my lovely little writing room, I had to, you know, pack and move all my worldly goods from one house to another. And then unpack them all and figure out how to organize everything in our new space. 

The house itself is a dream, but moving—as ever—is closer to nightmare. Why do I have all this stuff? More importantly, why do my family members have all that stuff? My stuff is obviously important. Of course I need the couple hundred boxes of books we hauled over from the old house. But surely somebody else could do without something else to make this process a little faster? Anybody? No? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

And so for the past couple of months, time I would normally have devoted to writing has been devoted instead to the sorting, packing, moving, and unpacking of stuff. We are currently sleeping, eating, and generally functioning in the new house. But every single room has boxes in the corner. Or in the middle of the floor. This process will go on for some time. If you know the time limit on the excuse—don’t mind the boxes; we just moved!—please let me know, because I will be pushing very hard and possibly leaping past that limit. 

But what I can’t do is continue devoting all my time to unpacking. I am still a writer, so I still must write. I knew this when I stopped writing to pack, and so I made a plan. I work best with goals and deadlines, so I took a look at my summer and found an occasion when I knew I would be free of all other obligations for several hours in a row. Then I marked the time down on my calendar as my get-back-to-writing date. I will continue unpacking, organizing, and arranging my house for the foreseeable future, but that task will not be allowed to usurp my writing time past June 12. Because on June 12, I go back to writing.

So, how about you? I know you’ve had writing routine upheaval at some point. How did you manage it and get back to your story? If you’re still struggling with that issue, try pinpointing a date on your calendar as go time. Then tell a writing partner, friend, or family member about the goal you’ve set. Getting back to normal won’t just happen. We have to work for it.