Keeping My Writing Shop Organized

We writers have a lot to keep track of. Just pretending for a moment that we don’t have jobs, homes, and humans who like to see us more than once a year, we still have to keep on top of our own goals, deadlines, submissions- oh yeah, and writing. How’s a person given to flights of fancy supposed to keep up with it all?

With endless lists and calendars, that’s how! This week, I’ll give you a quick tour of how I keep myself organized- I, who am in all other aspects of my life incredibly disorganized. What follows is a list of… well, my lists. You’ve probably seen some of them over the years already in other lists about fostering story ideas, keeping track of writing goals, and making sure I don’t submit to the same story to the same agent three times. But here they all are together for the first time, sisters in arms! Huzzah!

 

Goal Tracking

Rejections Goal Checklist– Posted on a little white paper directly over my laptop on my desk, this thing is perpetually in my face. I have tiny checkboxes for all the rejections I want to garner over the year, divided out by the months of the year so I can keep track of how I’m doing for time. As I get rejections back, I check the box, write in what’s being rejected by who, and then note it in my submissions master lists (see below).

Annual Resolutions Checklist– This lives on a white board posted over my desk. I list out all my longer-term writing goals, including how many rejections I want, how many edits, how many first drafts and how far out the blog posts need to be scheduled. This is always right in front of my face when I’m at my desk, which is often.

Daily Checklist– This one is full of all the other things I do throughout my day (chores, work, errands, etc), but I also keep short term writing goals on there too. The ones currently most pertinent to my writing current are daily writing goals, daily backshop time, and agents/ short story publishers I want to submit to in the near future. This list is synced between my phone and my computer, and I see it several times every day.

 

Submissions Tracking

Short Stories Submissions Master List– This is a word doc with a table for every short story I have ever finished. It notes where I’m subbing, the editor, the date, when I can expect a response, and what that response was; I also list any new places I want to sub the story to in the future. Other tables list which stories have which rights available, and which stories have been published when and where.

Agent Submissions Master List– This is a word doc with a giant table for each story I’ve queried to agents. The table lists the agent, agency, website, MSWL, query packet contents, query date, expected response time, and finally, what that response was. As I find new agents that I think would be a good fit, I put them in the table, assembling batches of between five and ten before sending them out en masse.

 

Date Tracking

Rolling Monthly Calendar– I have a whiteboard calendar that lives on the wall above my desk. I keep track of everything on this calendar, making note of meetings, work, church activities, blood donations, you name it. A good chunk of the things on this calendar are writing related: submission deadlines, books to betas dates, when I want to send out another batch of queries, stuff like that.

Important Dates List– If I have an important date that I know about, but it’s too far out in the future to make it on the rolling calendar, I put it on the whiteboard next to the calendar (the same board with my annual goals checklist). Whenever I’m rolling my calendar forward, I always check to see if I’m getting close to any important dates.

Blog Post Schedule– I know I’ve talked about the blog posts before, but I’ll mention it again. At the head of the document is a table where I keep my posting schedule. It lists all the dates for usually three months, the title of that week’s post, and a checkbox for when it goes live. Additional notes and the drafts themselves follow this table.

 

Idea Tracking

Story Ideas Master List– I have a brain like a sieve in a sink. Ideas are constantly gushing into it, and then flowing right back out again. If I don’t write an idea down immediately, odds are good it’s going to be gone forever. So I always keep pens and paper with me for jotting things down on the go, and then as soon as I get in front of my computer, it goes up on this google doc.

Book Blurb Master List– This is the newest of my lists. I historically kept blurbs floating around in several places (and in several different forms) and I had to really hunt to figure out where they were. But I recently got them all pulled together in one place, and updated all the ones in need of a little polish. I have blurbs for everything I’ve written at least a full draft for, and have notes on which draft the story is in and an estimate of how close it is to a queryable state.

 

And there you have it! This is how I keep my backshop organized. I probably have more lists floating around that I’ve just forgotten about. Love me some lists. I’ll probably need an intervention soon. The only problem with all this organization is that I know precisely when I’ve blown a deadline and how badly. (Sorry, betas. I swear, it’s coming soon.)

Happy writing!

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Writing Flash Fiction

FlashI’m sure none of you have this problem, but I can get a little wordy sometimes. Little short stories balloon out into novelettes. I get started on standalone novels and, next thing I know, I’ve got a five book series planned out. If brevity is the soul of wit, I’m incurably dull.

But really, I have lots of things that I’m bad at. If it really bothers me, I can often train myself out of it. So I figured, why not practice writing shorter stories with flash fiction? Hahaha, yeah. I thought that.

My first several attempt simply ended up being… not so flashy. But after a few more tries, I started to get better at it. First I kept myself under one thousand words. Then 750. I bottomed out at under 500, despite trying really hard to produce a story at under 250. (The closest I got was 460, soooo… not close at all, haha.)

Skip the Exposition When writing flash fiction, you don’t have the space to build slowly up to your exciting climax. Instead, jump to just before the pudding hits the fan. (Obviously, this won’t work for the kinds of stories that need that buildup, but those aren’t the kind of stories that make good flash.)

Leave Stuff Out Not every element of the story needs to be explained. Backstory, hair color, what route the character used to get to this room- leave all of that out. Readers should be able to get enough from context to build their own world in their minds.

Every Word Counts Okay, maybe not every word. But in such extreme limitations, flash fiction writers have to be pretty choosey about their words. Drafting and editing flash means packing the maximum meaning into the least words. If you can read a sentence and drop a few words without losing any of the sentence’s impact and meaning, drop the few words.

Narrow the Scope If you try to tell too ‘big’ a story, you simply won’t have the room to do it justice. Not all stories can be compressed into flash fiction. When spit balling ideas, choose a very small story and resist the urge to deepen, widen, complicate, etc that one small story.

And do all this while still telling a full story, with a character making choices, and an arc that surprises, and all that jazz. And do it in under X number of words. Whew! Flash fiction is hard. But look, I’m getting better- this post is less than five hundred words, hahaha. All I needed was a little practice.

Happy writing, guys! See you next week!

Conference Lessons: Pitching Agents

lunch-chatHello, internet friends! I hope you’re having a lovely fall. Mine is so far suuuuuper busy. It’s like the closer we get to winter, the more frantic I get. I’m the white rabbit running around with a pocket watch shouting, “I’m late! I’m late!” Seriously, everywhere I look is DEADLINES ABOUNDING and I’m going a little crazy.

But I have managed to cross one big thing off my list: the annual AWG Fall Conference! *blows party horn* For those of you who haven’t heard my spiel yet, the Alaska Writers Guild puts on an annual conference (in conjunction with the Alaska chapters of SCBWI and RWA) which is small and a little quirky and all around delightful. It’s low key and friendly and I just love these folks.

For one of the breakout sessions, an agents was slated for a pitch session, but it was unclear whether the session was supposed to be about pitching or an opportunity for pitching. And since there were like ten of us in there, the agent posed it to us which one we would rather (although in the end there was really time for a bit of both).

What came out during the very casual Q&A was very comforting to me. Like many writers, I am an introvert. Socialization takes a lot of energy, even when I enjoy it. I get nervous around strangers, particularly around adults. Pitching terrifies me.

Don’t get me wrong. I do all the things I’m supposed to. I have a succinct elevator pitch for every book I’ve ever written. I come prepared to conferences with my pitches printed out and in hand. But Heaven help me, I can’t ever remember them. As soon as the big moment arrives, I can’t even remember what genres I write, let alone my cleverly honed pitches for specific books. Assuming I don’t lose my nerve completely, I either rattle off something completely unprepared or read what I had worked out earlier. I always figured cold pitching was just something I’d never be able to do, something I’d just have to learn to work around in my career as a writer.

But I’ve since learned that that might not be the end of the world I was led to believe it was.

Some agents expect you to be able to cold pitch on the spot in any given situation, at any given moment, like a first responder ready and waiting to save lives. (First responders: you are boss. Carry on.) But a lot of agents don’t. In fact, a lot of agents would rather you didn’t.

So what’s the best way to approach an agent? Like a human!

Be friendly. Don’t just run up out of the blue and drop a pitch in their lap. Strike up a conversation first. Chat about something besides your book for a minute. And if it feels right, maybe ask them about their manuscript wishlist and then pitch. But don’t forget that they’re a person before they’re an agent.

The agent we were talking to confessed that she actually hates unsolicited pitches, especially if they show up without warning. She told us about being pitched in lunch lines, in bathrooms, and outside her hotel room, and it was clear that just remembering them made her uncomfortable. This isn’t true for some agents. Some agents probably really prefer just getting down to business. But for a lot of them, pouncing tactics is a big turn off. They’d rather have a chat and then you can just ask if you can query later after the event is over.

Honestly, I like that course better, and not just because I can’t remember my own pitches worth beans. If I’m to interact with humans, I really prefer unscripted, inconsequential chitchat. It puts me at ease and it’s nice to know that it puts the agent at ease too. Plus, I feel like I’m much cleverer on the page than in person, so being able to send in a polished query instead of having smelly garbage pouring out of my mouth is just better for everyone.

And it seems to work! The two agents I chatted with both told me I should query them after I got home. So, one conference off the to-do list, and two submissions on.

Happy writing!

Banned Book Week

Hi! Happy banned book week, the one week in the year when my kids are allowed to read Captain Underpants! Man, books get banned for all kinds of things. And while I reserve the right as a parent to exercise some controls over what my kids ingest, I like being able to make that call myself, thank you very much. Here’s to all the fantastic literature out there who have done the crime and served the time!

Banned Pooh

Middle Grade Monday

Hello, friends! I am scrabbling like a madwoman to get all my stuff together for the AWG conference coming up this weekend, but, shock of all shocks, I’m actually being pretty productive. I am a really useful engine! Who knew?

Knowing that I would be super busy, Past Jill kindly scheduled a nice light post for this week- I’ll be highlighting my favorite MG books that’ve read over the last year. Seriously, people who don’t read children’s literature are missing out. Even if we pretend YA is adult reading, there is so much to love in kid lit! Beautiful picture books, hilarious early readers, sweet story collections- you name it.

Some of the middle grade books I’ve read were read at the school or with my own children, but a lot of them were read just for me. Here are a few of my favorites from recent history.

DespereauxThe Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo (talking-animal fantasy)- I read this book aloud with my children (complete with accents, voices, and shouting) and all of us loved it. It wasn’t perfect, but darned near close. My boys and I, we’re yearners, we’re idealists, and so we found a lot of common grounds with our big-eared hero. The Tale of Despereaux is sweet and sad and poetic, and reminded me a bit of another of my all-time favorites, The Little Prince.

The Zoo at the Edge of the World by Eric Kahn Gale (fantasy adventure)- ZooMy son got this for a birthday present and we read it as a family, but he kept trying to read ahead and I had to hide the book from him. In this book, there is a boy with a speech impediment who doesn’t let that keep him down- he saves his father’s life, talks to jaguars and pythons, and uncovers a terrible plot! A quick-reading book that we all loved.

DollBonesDoll Bones by Holly Black (supernatural horror)- This book is delightfully creepy. I enjoyed it so much I went out and bought myself a copy. It has a wonderful atmosphere, a terrifying china doll (am I the old one whose grandma collected these things and they lined the wall of the guest room staring down at you in the dark?), and three kids who are determined to get to the bottom of all this eeriness.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (fantasy)- DrankMoonIt was a swamp monster! And a witch! And killer paper cranes! There was so much to love about this book. A great fantasy read about family lost and found, learning about who (and what) you are, and the powerful changes that a good person in a bad situation can make.

PeterPeter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (fantasy adventure)- Full disclosure, I am a Peter Pan fan; a few bits are a little cringy, but that’s hard to avoid with books written over a hundred years ago. This book came at the recommendation of a missionary we met a few years ago and my kids and I were hooked. We read it pretty quickly and then my oldest gobbled up the whole series and really had to dig deep to keep it together when the librarian told him there weren’t any more for him to check out. Anyway, this is basically an origin story for the unaging little imp we all know and love. I wasn’t crazy about all of it, (although my kids certainly were) but again, when you’re dealing with a century old classic, that’s to be expected.

We’re currently working our way through Carol Hughes’ JackBlackJack Black and the Ship of Thieves, although I’m having a harder time getting into it, and I just know there are many more delightful Middle Grade books out there, waiting to be read. What are some of your favorites? Any recommendations for a weird middle-aged woman and her three young boys? Thank you kindly!

Resource Roundup: YouTube Edition

So I mentioned last week in Breaking Up with Candy Crush that part of my computerly goofing off occurred on YouTube. I am not, however, breaking up with YouTube. Candy Crush is great for distracting me from doldrums (and my children from squabbles), but really not much more than that. YouTube is actually great for a lot of things.

Beyond sheer entertainment, YouTube is a good resources for many of your writing needs. Here are the ways that I fold YouTube into my writing life. If you have more ideas, I’d love to hear them below!

Research You can look up tons of stuff on YouTube! Want to know about the most poisonous tree in earth? YouTube can tell you about that. Want to know how to replace the engine in your car? YouTube can tell you about that. Want to know about what brains do on adrenaline? YouTube can tell you about that. There are so many videos out there that could fall under this umbrella, depending on what your project is about, but a couple of my favorites generalists are SciShow and TED, or any of their affiliate channels.

Writing Tips Whole channels are devoted to breaking down what makes an excellent story, first chapter, character, etc. You can find writing tips on everything from initial inspiration on down to the specific nitty gritty of word choice, crafting believable side characters, and examples of well done settings. One of my favorite shows for writing tips right now is the On Writing series by Hello Future Me.

Editing Tips Not sure how to clean up that messy draft you’ve plopped out on your keyboard? Never fear! YouTube has videos for that! Whether it’s troubleshooting what’s wrong with your character arc, making sure your opening scene doesn’t fall prey to overused tropes, or plucking out all those troublesome adverbs, YouTube has you covered.

Submission Tips Submitting stuff, and all the snarl of yarn that entails, is hands down the scariest part of writing for me. I’ll gobble up any submission tips I can find. I needs ‘em! One of my favorites right now is the Book Doctors’ channel. Their book was great. So is their channel. (They also cover editing and marketing too. Like many of these channels, they cover a lot of stuff.)

Marketing and Promotion I don’t really do this one, but maybe you’re better at promoting yourself and your work than I am. Lots of literary professionals build up a following on YouTube sharing tips, trends, or even just slice of life segments. Authors post thoughts on the writing journey, book trailers, you name it. All of this builds up hype for their work, which hopefully equates more sales!

Inspiration Yes, you can be ‘working’ while browsing interesting videos! I don’t know how many times I’ve been goofing around YouTube and then an idea suddenly pops in my head for a new element in a story I’m working on, or even a new story altogether. That’s the fun thing about inspiration- you never know what will lead you to it!

If you don’t even know what you’re looking for, but find yourself trawling YouTube for stray thoughts, you can’t go wrong working your way through The Write Life’s click-bait-titled list, 15 of the Best YouTube Channels for Writers. Go give it a glance! (I’m gonna go check out Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lecture series first minute I find.)

All that said, do be cautious. Like all of the internet, YouTube is vast and interesting, and getting sucked down that rabbit hole is a lot easier than we like to admit to ourselves. It helps to have a system in place to keep YouTube from cutting in too much on your writing time. Some people use a timer. Some people only let themselves watch a certain number of videos per day. Personally, I only watch YouTube when my kids are up and about, which is time in which I wouldn’t be able to effectively do any writing anyway. Find what works for you and stick to your guns!

What else do you use YouTube for? Do you have any great resources you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below! Please and thank you!

(On an unrelated note, happy birthday, Mama! Thanks for keeping me alive and sane-ish all those years!)

Breaking Up with Candy Crush

candy

This image belongs to King and not me and please don’t take my home, malicious candy tyrant.

I was introduced to Candy Crush by my counselor a few years ago during an especially hard winter. I needed something to engage my brain (and my children) when I was glum and my kids were squabbling and things were generally spiraling downward in flames and screaming. You know, something that wouldn’t take too much thought but steer me off of negative, self-harm-y sorts of thoughts- that sort of thing. Simple distraction.

Hey, look at all the pretty colors!

Aaaaand I was pretty much hooked. Boy, when I needed something to snap me out of dark thoughts, what better than weird little cartoon puppet things and technicolor candies exploding in a rainbow of sugar crystals? But little by little, I found myself turning to it when I wasn’t especially down. And then when I was really feeling fine, just a little bored. And then pretty much every time I turned on the computer.

I realized recently just how much of my writing time I was carving out for Candy Crush- on average, more than half of it. *gulps*

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I’m trying to get back on track for my writing goals, and it was quickly becoming apparent that that wasn’t going to happen when I was this addicted to Candy Crush. It was time to make some changes.

Those changes came about on a cloudy Saturday morning when I could not solve this dumb puzzle to save my life and absolutely refused to just fork over the money to buy the special weaponized bonbon that would make progressing easy. I had some infinite life thing and my ever-wonderful husband kept creeping more and more quietly through the kitchen and I cursed and raged at my computer. Eventually, I realized I had been cursing and raging for an hour. I jumped up and grabbed my husband as he slunk through, shoving my computer into his hands.

“Make it go away.”

He glanced down at the weeping puppet girl and then up at me again.

I left the room.

In the days that followed, I would get on my computer, check my emails, and then start restlessly opening and closing internet tabs for several minutes. No games. What’s a girl to do? *facepalms* Oh yeah, maybe write something. Each day took a little less time for me to find my writing groove, until I could get to it without mucking about looking for something sparkly at all.

These last two weeks have been insanely productive. I’ve sent out a new batch of queries, several short stories for potential publication, a short story competition submission, and two grant applications. On top of that, I finished a read through on the draft of my mermaid book from last year and have started compiling notes for a second draft, as well as drafting two new short stories and working through (hopefully) final edits of a short story I hope to start subbing next month. (Mads and Cat, you are beta gods.)

All in two weeks! I am never this productive! Have I seriously been spending this much time doofing around on Candy Crush and YouTube?

Okay. To be fair, these last two weeks have also coincided with the start of the school year, including my youngest spending two hours a day at preschool; also, I stopped my full time job three-ish weeks ago. These things help to free up my mind quite a bit, if not always my schedule. I mean, I’ve started my three part time jobs that I do during the school year so it’s not like I’m sitting around eating bonbons all day. (Note to self: procure more bonbons, you are nearly out.) Realistically, I’m not actually spending that much more time with my computer on any given day. But still, I have more mental energy and, without the burden of compulsive goofing around every time I turn my computer on, I am crazy productive.

We’ll see how long it lasts. But I can unequivocally say that getting the game off the laptop and decluttering my writing habits have been good moves in the writing game. Now, if I need to play Candy Crush for sanity’s sake, I’ll just go do it on the desktop. There are greater inconveniences in the world.