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#WriteTip – Sam’s Process Part 2: Writing

Sam av

This is now part three of a series about how I write stories. You can find previous posts here:

This post is going to cover the main event: writing the story. It sounds like a simple action. It should be the fun part. All you have to do is sit down and put in the work. It’s not that simple, of course. Although I can type at 80 words per minute, that doesn’t mean I’m going to write a complete novel in 21 hours. Just because you can write fast doesn’t mean that you will or that you should. My best NaNoWriMo day was about 14,000 words. By that logic, I could finish NaNo in 4 days and write 50 books a year.

That’s obviously not what happens.

But I can tell you how my writing process looks, and you can draw your own conclusions about yourself.

I’m going to reference NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month in November) because I am the most productive in November. I get into a routine and I write the words. If you’re interested in NaNoWriMo, I recommend giving it a try. There’s no cost to participate. It’s just you against yourself with 50,000 words between you and your goal in 30 days. If you fail, there’s no harm done.

When I decide it’s writing time, the very first thing I do is make a strong pot of coffee. It doesn’t matter how awake I am already or what time of the day it is. I need coffee. It’s not that I need the caffeine to stay awake or anything. Caffeine speeds up my brain. I think faster, I become more articulate, and I get a little silly.

I’m dead serious about my coffee intake. I have a level I call ‘baseline caffeine.’ That’s the amount of caffeine it takes for me to be a normal human being and function properly. This is for the first two to three cups of coffee I have in a day. It makes me pleasant, awake, and focused.

Anything after that is nice, up to about 6 cups. In this area of coffee intake, not much changes. It’s just a slightly increased time during which I am pleasant and productive. I use this time to finish my workday at my actual job, and maintain general happiness until I get home.

But past that, things get a little crazy. I have miraculous abilities to recall vocabulary words and turn clever phrases. My brain starts spitting out crazy lines of poetic prose that just flies off my fingers like mad. If I am with a friend, it translates as saying the most ridiculous, outlandish stuff. It’s a fantastic time.

So between the time I start writing and the time I finish about 8 hours later, I consume another 2-4 pots. Yes, pots, not cups.

After the coffee is made, I ease into my work by reading over where I left off the last time. It reintroduces me to my own world and provides a bit of momentum. When I’m done with my first cup of coffee is when I will begin writing, and then it’s writing + coffee until I get too tired to continue.

Writing time occurs for me between 5pm-5am. I operate at my absolute best after midnight, actually. The entire house is quiet and none of my online friends are awake. There isn’t even anything good on TV at that time. There are no other distractions…just me, the coffee, and the words.

If I try to write before the quiet time of night, I get dogs in the lap, cats in the face, a husband who keeps only lightly interjecting at the most inconvenient times, and a roommate who could keep talking for hours.

Some people prefer to write in the morning, like they prefer to run in the morning. I disagree with the entire concept of mornings (and running, now that I think of it), so this doesn’t work out for me.

I like to write about relationships. I don’t mean romance, though, although I do dabble in romance and erotica (a bit…). I like a book that is character-driven, where the characters are complicated and real, make all the right mistakes and have all of the best flaws.

I like characters that make poor choices sometimes in a moment of panic. I like characters that mess up. I have main characters that aren’t necessarily lovable, but that you can’t help but admire at the same time. I get some criticism sometimes in my fan fiction for not following what I would call “fairy tale” plot lines. I’ve had perfectly decent characters cheat on their spouses or lie to a friend. I’ve had love stories that don’t work out. I’ve had villains die by freak accident rather than epic showdown (sometimes, it just happens).

The reality of the world is that most people are good people…they are decent, hardworking, loving people who take care of their families, donate to charity, and help out the helpess. But everyone has flaws, and the world is full of surprises. Everyone has done something they aren’t proud of. Some of us never talk about it, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened. Books don’t let characters hide these flaws.

I like to challenge readers. I like to give you a character who you mostly love that does a despicable thing you aren’t sure you can forgive. I like to mislead a reader into thinking someone is all good or all bad and then challenging that perception. I like to force a character to make a difficult choice with no good answer, hopefully one you would struggle with, too.

Basically, I like to show you real people you might actually know, and show you a side of them you might not have considered…it’s a side that might have been there the whole time, but now you have to decide how you feel about it. Can you forgive them?

Can you admit when you’re wrong?

Would you have done the same thing?

…Can you be so sure?

I build plots around the interactions and characters I want to work with. I start with the relationship and I think about what kinds of situations would yield this kind of drama, and I build out from that.

Trajectory and Pace

For the most part, I start writing at the beginning and just follow a linear path all the way to the end. I just move from one scene to the next. When I am thinking about a particular scene and where to go from there, I’m usually thinking about where the biggest reaction or the most impactful initiating action would occur. For instance, if you killed off a major character, you might go to the next scene where someone important to that person finds out, or you might go to that person’s friends/advisors who now have a lot of difficult things to deal with in that character’s absence. You wouldn’t go to a completely different topic. And, if you just closed up an arc (a series of events that is kind of like a mini-plot), you’d want to start an event that will continue to progress your major plot. Like, if you just resolved a character death, you’ll want to start up the aftermath…where do your characters go from there?

(I talk about character death a lot…I have my reasons)

While I typically will take a linear path through my story, there might be times I deviate from that. I might have strong inspiration for a particular scene that happens much later. This can sometimes be the case when I’m thinking of a big argument, a major revelation, or a character death. I usually get excited about writing angst and emotional pain. It’s kind of my thing. If the plot doesn’t get disturbing or upsetting at some point or another, I have no interest in it at all. If I am attempting to write, but I keep getting distracted by something that is meant to happen later, I might take a time out to write that part first just to get my mind to shut up, and then I’ll go back to where I was.

Some days I write more than others. That’s just the way it goes. The important part is that I do write something. Getting in the habit of writing makes it easier to keep writing as time goes on. If I take too long a break between writing sessions, I spend more time trying to remember where my mind was when I wrote a thing rather than thinking up new words. During NaNoWriMo, the daily goal is 1667 words (this post, for reference, is 1047 words at this point now). It really isn’t much. I set my personal daily goal at 2000 words per day, and am happy if I write between 2000-5000. I can write 2000 words in an hour, yet it still might take me all day.

Why?

Distractions, mostly. Writing is hard and it takes discipline. If I get stuck, at all, my mind wants to wander away to easier tasks. Social media is a major setback. Most of my time spent ‘writing’ is time I spend beating myself up about needing to write.

Also, a small portion of that time is spent looking at the words I’ve written, trying to figure out why I’m not completely happy with them.

The NaNoWriMo forums will tell you not to edit in November…that you can fix it when NaNo is over. From my own experience, this does not work for me. If the words don’t work now, they’ll derail my story for later. If I have a poorly written plot point, all I derive from it is poorly written plot. I have to sort it out in real time.

The grammar and exact word choice can wait.

Kind of.

But editing is the next post…we’ll get into that.

A lot of people complain about hating what they’ve written. I don’t have that problem, actually. While I’m writing words, I am usually a slave to the story, completely at the mercy of the characters and the plot. I’m in it. I’m not a writer on the outside looking in like some might feel. It feels to me like I’m right there next to them. What I write isn’t necessarily my choice…it’s merely a set of observations given a space on a page.

I like to tell new writers to imagine their story like a movie. Sit there, and watch, and write down what you see. Be descriptive. Like, pretend you’re trying to describe it to someone who can’t see the movie. You can always rewind the scene and look at it again and write down things you missed, but take notes on your movie. That’s your book.

Writer’s Block

If you get stuck, there are things you can do. I will talk about some of that during editing. Other authors have also discussed how they handle it. I’ve talked about Writer’s Block before, too, and so has Frankie. There are also links in our Helpful Links section, like this blog post.

I find quite frequently that if I have Writer’s Block that isn’t the fault of having a short attention span, the problem is that I need to make a change in the story, and perhaps scrap that particular scene in its entirety.

Do something drastic and see what happens.

The Aftermath

As soon as I detach myself from the words – after the story is written – I’ll start to doubt them. I’ll wonder if the plot sucked or if I wrote poorly. This is not the time to go back and read it. Your story is still fresh in your mind. You’ll be more critical than you need to be.

We are our own worst critics. This is true. I talk to good writers all the time that  self-deprecate and insult their own work. Actors often say they hate watching their films. Writer often hate reading their books.

I don’t, though.

I write what I write because I want to read it. One of my favorite hobbies is going back to reread my old work, after I’ve forgotten half of what I have written. It often surprises me how good it can be, although I can obviously see things I could have done better.

The thing to remember is that if you don’t tell this story, no one else ever will.

Watch this video if you are plagued by self-doubt.

If you ever start to doubt yourself, look at your main character as if he or she is a real person. You put a lot of work into that person. They are almost alive now. Can you really tell them you’ve given up on them? That their story is not worth telling? That you’re going to shut the book on them forever, and that they are doomed to be forever silent?

See, I have characters that I think about doing that to, and all I can think about is, “Heike’s going to kill me. I can’t.”

How do you know when you’re done?

It depends. Will there be a sequel or not?

If the answer is no, you need to be 100% resolved in a satisfying manner. Unless you’re evil, like I am, and you want to leave your audience with an open-ended ending or a major question to think about. I like endings that make me think. What you don’t want to do, though, is leave your book feeling unfinished. Were all of your plots resolved? Did all of the events have an ending? You don’t want to stop a book mid-war, for example, without letting everyone know who wins.

Leave it on a line that resounds, like a bell chime in the dark. Don’t leave it on something cheesy and contrived. Leave it on something that might leave someone breathless, like “Wow…” rather than something that leaves them rolling their eyes.

Someone might read this, after all!

If there will be a sequel, you need to have a lot of your story resolved, but have something that leads into the next book. Just enough to leave the audience clamoring for more without making them want to murder you for leaving them there while they have to wait.

I was going to talk about editing next…but I think we should spend more time on how to engage an audience. In other words, how to elevate The Plot into The Story. Let’s do that.


S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print).

Check out the #WriteTip category for more writing advice and tools from Frankie and Sam!

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#WriteTip: Writing Your Way

Sam av

Hey guys!

I want to introduce you to my writing process, but I first want to protect your own ego and sensibilities before we talk about the insanity that ping-pongs around in my brain.

One of my favorite things to do involving writing is to encourage others to step up and give it a try. There are oodles of people that want to write, enjoy writing, but think they have no talent. We tend to be our own worst enemies, plaguing ourselves with so much self-doubt and perceived judgment from external sources. Writing is difficult and deeply personal. It is because of this that our natural inclination is to put up as many barriers between our the spark of an idea and a finished manuscript. We’ll start by thinking our idea is stupid, throw excuses up along the way, look at the words and think the words are terrible, etc., then delete it and try to forget this ever happened.

It will end with a rejection. Either you will reject it or the publishing cogs will.

What I love about this blog is that we can be honest with each other. I am going to talk about all of the things that I love and all of the tiny fragments that contribute to my brainscape. My hope is that you’ll derive something from the mess I’ve presented that will aid you in your own journey, no matter where you’re at along that path.

So here’s the pep talk.

You’re going to have thousands of ideas, and most of them are going to start out bad. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth pursuing…you should think about them as long as they are entertaining to you.

You’re going to create even more characters than ideas. Every character should be real. Whether or not they are good or bad makes no difference. You will, along the way, figure out that some characters need to be deleted, added, gender-swapped, changed in age or ethnicity, changed relationships, etc. to make the story right.

You will have instincts that tell you things. You will have to learn when to trust your instincts and when to understand that they’re just being jerks that are getting in your way. “That character wouldn’t say that” is an example of an instinct you should trust. “This whole story sucks” would be something to ignore.

You will start and abandon more stories than you start and complete. Some ideas will never leave your brain. Some will grow to 50,000 words before you throw them out. Some might be 200,000 words and edited 400 times before you realize it just isn’t working. It’s life. This happens to people and their relationships, too, so it should feel familiar to some degree. All of the stress, fighting, attempts to ‘make it work,’ etc. will feel the same, too. Being good at life means knowing when to fight and when to quit. Writing is the same.

A lot of killer, badass plots are already in existence. You should both actively ignore them and vigorously pursue them. Don’t rewrite blockbuster masterpieces. That has been done. But there’s no shame in deriving some inspiration from them, ESPECIALLY if you’re just starting out.

You can and should write anything and everything that feels right at the time. No law exists that says you have to share it with anyone or attempt to get it published. Writing is a discipline and an art. You need practice. If you’re dying to write a smutty scene but don’t want anyone to read it, write it anyway and hide it away. If you write a scene and decide it’s terrible, scrap it and save it.

Never delete anything. As I’ve mentioned, you don’t have to share it or try to publish it, but you should save it. Some day, you’ll find it again and reread it. You’ll either think “Wow, I’m actually pretty good!” or “Wow, I was a terrible writer back then!” Either way, saved scraps are great for boosting confidence later. You’ll definitely be able to see how you’ve progressed since you wrote it.

Don’t compare yourself to anyone except for yourself. You are a collection of millions of personality fragments that color the words you write. You are both better and worse than an existing writer. You are wittier and more boring than an existing writer. You are darker and cheesier than another writer. Unless you are THE best or THE worst writer out there, you are doing just fine. Shittier novels than the words you put down have made millions of dollars and become films. Greater novels than anything you could ever write if you tried for fifty years have never been bestsellers.

No one is doing it right. And, no one is doing it wrong. Writing is this strange art form where you blurt everything and then fix it where you messed it up. Whatever you have to do in between the spark of the idea and the completion of the manuscript is the proper way to do this. If that means sitting down one day and just writing until it’s done, do that. If it means writing 150 words a day that you spend all day making perfect, fine. If you’d rather plan it out from start to finish, make character sheets for every single secondary character first, do that. If you have an idea and want to stew about it for a year before you attempt it, do that. If you want to write it a scene at a time and skip from the beginning to the end and then to the middle, the end, and the beginning again, do that. If you want to write three beginnings for the same story and continue all of them until one emerges victorious, do that. If you just want to write short stories, or poems, or 300,000 word epics…do that.

There are degree-holding masters of the written word. They are, however, a slim minority of people who write words. And yes, they are EXCELLENT writers and should not be diminished for the accomplishments that they’ve achieved. But you don’t need a degree to write. And you don’t need a master author telling you the right way to go about a story. There are grammar rules…and strong, strong suggestions…that you don’t necessarily have to follow.

As a writer, all you need is a reader, and sometimes you don’t even need that. Think of it like a network of millions of conversations between a writer and an audience. Some people are whispering in the corner while someone else is on stage giving a speech. There is value in all conversation, no matter how small. Your 2000 word short story might change someone’s life. You might be responsible for the one sentence that resonates with a person who needed exactly that at that moment in time.

Be free of all the bullshit.

When I was first starting out on my own path, attempting to write something to publish, I drove myself crazy with the ‘requirements.’ I read dozens of articles about the words and phrases and tropes to avoid. I gobbled up articles about how to be a writer. I lost my love for the craft for a long time beating myself up about my work.

And yes, I got rejected.

But you know the thing about rejections? Great writers also get rejected because the books that are accepted are the books agents know can sell. Agents are experts in the trends and the market, and they shouldn’t be diminished either.

Except, I know I don’t love to read what’s on the market. I like a niche category of dark books that shatter the mold and push the boundaries on what is acceptable. Risky books that sell to smaller audiences because they aren’t palatable to the masses.

But I’ve had all of this fan fiction published for years, and although it’s a crude art form that borrows ideas, it reminds me constantly of what’s important. While I keep working on originals, my existing stories are just there…and people are still reading them. And occasionally, I get lovely reviews that remind me of what’s important. Like this one I got two weeks ago:

I’ve been binge reading this today, and I must say this is indeed my favorite fucking chapter of any fanfic ever. Well fucking done.

There are people that like what I write. As long as there’s even one, I’m happy. I like to write and they want me to keep going.

Don’t be like me.

Don’t be like any other writer out there. Be like you because you’re the best at that. The story that you envision is not a story that anyone else can write. If you don’t tell it, no one will, and someone out there needs to hear it.

In the near future, I’ll start talking about the way I approach my stories. Pay attention and listen if you think it will be helpful, but don’t think for one second that just because I do it one way that it’s the only way I think will work. It’s the only way that works for me. 

You’re a writer. Write however you want.


S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print).

 

#WriteTip: The Mythical ‘Time to Write’

Sam av

#SamWIP on Monday, July 25

For starters, I want to apologize for completely forgetting about my #SamWIP on Monday. I think I got home at like…10 p.m.. Monday is the only day that I absolutely compose the post on the day of, to ensure I capture the full picture of a complete week. Several of these other posts I can compose and schedule ahead of time, as they refer to static incidences. Nonetheless, I do want to provide you with a full update of what I have been up to, but I think it will now have to wait until next Monday. Thank you for your patience!

#WriteTip: The Mythical ‘Time to Write’

I want to start this by being frank: ‘time to write’ simply does not exist. Stop looking for it. Stop waiting for it. Stop scheduling it and praying you are ready to write when it gets here.

I think this is the number one complaint I hear from any writer, even some of my more disciplined writing friends. You know who I don’t hear it from, though? People who regularly publish books. Veteran authors will still complain about the words eluding them, but I don’t often hear them bitch about not finding time to hone their craft. They have a stubbornness, one that separates them from people who “want to write a book someday…”

There is no time to write. Most of us are busy adults. We have friends, holidays, birthdays, kids, grandkids, weddings, bridal showers, baby showers, jobs, other hobbies, families, commute times, movies to watch, TV shows to binge watch, trips to take…Do you remember your last video game release? Your last new book release from your favorite author? When that last movie came out and you dropped everything and went? The time has to be made. It has to edge out all of the other supposedly important things in your life that are getting in the way. That extra time does not otherwise exist. There won’t ever be time for you to do that thing you have always wanted to do.

You just have to do it anyway.

There are no exceptions. Only excuses. Writers who have a story they love that simply must be written will find the time. Some days it will be pleasant. The stars will align, the sun will beam through the window and make your words look like God wrote them, the dogs and the kids will be silent and phone will never ring. Some days it will be miserable. You will stare at the page for hours and hate every single word that you write. But you have to put your butt in the chair and stare.

I once heard a story about a man who writes novels on his commute to work each morning. He only has fifteen minutes each way, but he puts down a handful of words at each trip, and eventually it adds up to a book. Parents with young children can write books. Nurses with busy schedules and long hours can write books. I can write books. You can write books.

It won’t be easy at first. This takes practice, discipline, training. Maybe start with a small exercise. Pick 10 new vocabulary words and write a sentence for each after you get home from work. Try some writing prompts. Set an alarm on your phone at the same time every day. Don’t make plans for that time. Scribble it on a post-it at work when the idea hits. Take a lunch break and free write. Swap out your news time with writing time. Get out if bed when that idea strikes (this, you will never regret). Stay up late. Get up early. Get in the habit of doing this every day. It will get easier.

And when it gets easier, your writing will improve, and it will accumulate. You’ll have a book in no time. And, if you keep at it, maybe someday it will be a good one.


S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print).

#SamWIP: Scrivener Crash

Sam av

I finally have an excuse to not write that isn’t my fault! And despite that, I managed to write something anyway!

So enjoy my epic tale of woe and technological difficulty. Thanks, as ever, for your support! You guys are the best!


S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print).

#SamWIP: Soul-Searching – Writer’s Block, Worldbuilding, Discipline

Sam av

 

In this video, I talk about how I’ve set new goals to improve my brain’s processes. I’ve been listening to a podcast called “Seated at the Writers’ Table,” which is basically a podcast that focuses on writing-related topics and usually featuring other writers. I’ve learned a bit from them about how to be productive, which I’m trying to take to heart.

S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS.

Writing versus the Wrists #writerproblems

green

I haven’t updated in a while because my wrists will not let me.

Review for Elegy for a Dead World: