The First Line Exercise

When I was about to start my senior year of high school, I sat down with my school counselor and went through some possible electives that I could fill out my schedule with. I was stunned and delighted to come across one titled Creative Writing. The thought of getting a grade for something I did for fun had never occurred to me. (And the thought of getting paid for it wouldn’t occur for another several years yet.)

My teacher was a sarcastic old man just another couple more semesters away from retirement, constantly demanding more of his students and openly mocking those who wouldn’t give it. He had a bird skull rattle that would shake whenever someone said something ridiculous that would help “keep the stupid away.” He shook that rattle a lot.

I adored him. He was the perfect kind of snarky, clever art connoisseur for me to worship and I regularly crucified myself to impress him. I remained firmly at the top of his class, my grade never once dipping below 110%, and spent most of my time working on extra projects in the hall or the library, well away from the rattle of the bird skull.

One of those assignments, dreamed up because of my need for a little polish on my opening lines, took me to the library with a very brief set of instructions that went something like this:

Pick three books you know nothing about. Read only the first line and choose your favorite one. Then write a short story using that line as your own first sentence.

Hm.

Now I was only given this assignment once (and over the course of the 45 minutes of class, I read far more than three first lines, and a lot of second and third and fourth lines too). But it’s stuck with me over the years. In fact, I even found and entered a writing competition with a similar premise, where a short story was written recycling the first and last lines of famous stories. So my teacher wasn’t the only one with this notion!

Writing first lines can be difficult. Sometimes it helps to see others who do it well. I think that’s what makes this exercise so fun for me—getting to boogie board off of someone else’s genius when my own is flagging.

Want to try it out for yourself? Awesome! There are a couple ways you can go about this. You could pick from books in the genres you work in (or want to work in). This works best for me when I want to work on something, but am writer blocked and looking for inspiration, rather than actual lines. Another way is to get really wild and pick first lines from genres you don’t write. It probably isn’t like anything you would normally write, so this is more a writing exercise for fun (and falls more in line with what my teacher had me doing). It works best for things you would never ever plan to publish, because, of course, we would never just steal someone’s ideas without proper permission and attribution, right? Right.

In the era of COVID, getting your hands on all these lesser known books can be tricky, since you can’t just rove through the stacks at your local library looking for stories you’ve never heard of. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it!

Do you read e-books? Wherever you get them, odds are you can read the first bit of all kinds of books without actually purchasing the full book. (And maybe you’ll like it and want to purchase it anyway. Don’t fight the feeling!) Even if you don’t regularly read e-books and you’re not sure where people get them all that newfangled stuff, just a quick Amazon search will bring up thousands of books, nearly all of which will let you sneak peek at the first pages.

Don’t even know what an “E book” or a “compooter” is? (How are you reading this again?) Get social about it—from a distance! Call up your friends and ask them to share the first line of their current read—whether that’s a traditional book, a graphic novel, or even a podcast transcript. Anything goes!

The idea is to get the creativity flowing, with a little brain juice injection from established pros. (Or even less established ones—I bet your up-and-coming writer friends would be flattered if you asked for the first line of their current project, just for funsies.) And who knows? Maybe all this literary exercising will inspire something a little deeper. You won’t know until you try. And if you do, let me know how it turns out- extra digital cookies for any short stories or killer first lines in the comments!

Until next week, happy writing!

Protecting Your Creativity

This year has been rough. In just about every way possible. It feels like every time I don’t think I can take any more, a bit more gets shoveled on top. But you know what? That’s been everyone’s year, as far as I can tell.

One of the ways that I cope is by getting medicated. (No shame!) But another is by staying creative. I’ve spent more time at daily music practice. I’ve started doing more art. And I’ve tried to make sure that I write something- anything– every single day.

It’s not always easy. Often, it can feel like just another chore, right up there with cleaning the increasingly moldy mound of dishes and washing the absolutely bonkers amounts of dirty socks that my children produce. Like exercising and cleaning the toilet, sometimes I just don’t wanna. But I gotta. Creativity begets creativity and granting myself skip days for anything less than an emergency is the quickest way for me to start skipping all the days.

(This kind of dogged relentlessness might not work for everyone, but it’s the best thing for me and my style in the long run. Maybe you do better with a break every now and then. You do you.)

But lemme tell ya, I have to be fierce when it comes to protecting my creativity. And a lot of the things I have to do for that don’t seem to have much to do with creativity at all, honestly. So here are some of the things that, in addition to creating daily, have to be done daily:

Breathe Fresh Air You know what doesn’t make me feel creative? Stale closet air. Even as it’s starting to get chilly outside, it’s still better than inside air. It wakes me up and gets me moving. And it also gives me prettier and more refreshing views than the junk piles I stack up in every corner of every room in my house.

Absorb Bright Light Whether this is real and direct sunlight (which is starting to getting pretty weak at this latitude, hello winter) or some time parked in front of my happy light, something about bright light just makes my brain more functional, and that means more creativity. The earlier I can get to this in the day, the better.

Ingest Art Reading books, admiring paintings, watching dance, listening to music—I love art. Heck, even skillful pancake art can blow my mind and leave me itching to get my hands on some food dye and a griddle. Watching other artists at their work, and better yet, sharing that excitement with my babies, inspires me to keep honing my own skills.

Observe Me Time I am not great at this one, but with all the kiddos home all day every day, making demands on my every waking minute, this one is a must, if only for my sanity. Granted, if it requires deep thought, like writing, I have to place it at the end of the day when said children are unconscious. Otherwise, to be honest, I usually count my time playing music and going on goldfish-cracker-infused nature walks and whatnot as Me Time, even if there are children crawling all over me. But I generally enjoy my kids when I’m not trying to force them to do schoolwork or chores, so I count it. Me Time is basically any time I spend not thinking about the chores that my crabby inner schoolmarm tells me I should be doing because, oh my stars and garters, child, look at those dishes.

Keep Expectations Low Ahhh, my trusty ol’ secret to happiness. But again, I’m even worse at this one than I am at observing Me Time. I am way meaner to and demanding of myself than I am of any other human. Why is that??? But even I, lofty I, have had to let standards slip around here a little bit from time to time. (Is it redundant to mention the dishes again at this point?) The point is, sometimes, something has to give. I’m not willing to give on my family, or my religion, or my art. But I’ve had to step back from my job a bit. And housekeeping. Meals, too, haven’t been up to my regular standards.

But that’s fine. Instead of burning through my mental fuel on folding napkins and making sure the Legos stay properly sorted, I am saving it for the things that matter more to me. This year has been crazy, and it’s been everything I can do to not become crazy myself. (More on that later.)

How about you fine readers? How do you keep your creative pantry stocked when the world is doing its level best to strip away all joy and beauty? What keeps you hanging in there? Let me know in the comments below. I would love to commiserate with you!

And until next week, happy writing!

Reblog: 12 Ideas for Writing Through the Pandemic

Hi friends! Another NaNo month is upon us, and so are the reblogs! This article by Natalie Proulx seems to be geared a little toward people who aren’t already writers, but I had fun doing some of them with my kiddos. (We enjoyed #10 best- writing comics!) Hopefully you’ll find some good ways to keep creative while things are still crazy. Hang in there!

12 Ideas for Writing Through the Pandemic With The New York Times

A dozen writing projects — including journals, poems, comics and more — for students to try at home.

<img src="https://static01.nyt.com/images/2020/04/25/style/oakImage-1584969107780-LN/oakImage-1584969107780-articleLarge.jpg?quality=75&auto=webp&disable=upscale&quot; alt="In Málaga, Spain, Marcos Moreno Maldonado makes drawings that weave around his words, keeping a diary that is botanical, beautiful and strange. Keeping a journal is just one of 12 writing projects we suggest for students. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/style/coronavirus-diaries-social-history.html">Related Article
In Málaga, Spain, Marcos Moreno Maldonado makes drawings that weave around his words, keeping a diary that is botanical, beautiful and strange. Keeping a journal is just one of 12 writing projects we suggest for students. Related ArticleCredit…Marcos Moreno Maldonado
Natalie Proulx

By Natalie Proulx

April 15, 2020

The coronavirus has transformed life as we know it. Schools are closed, we’re confined to our homes and the future feels very uncertain. Why write at a time like this?

For one, we are living through history. Future historians may look back on the journals, essays and art that ordinary people are creating now to tell the story of life during the coronavirus.

But writing can also be deeply therapeutic. It can be a way to express our fears, hopes and joys. It can help us make sense of the world and our place in it.

Plus, even though school buildings are shuttered, that doesn’t mean learning has stopped. Writing can help us reflect on what’s happening in our lives and form new ideas.

We want to help inspire your writing about the coronavirus while you learn from home. Below, we offer 12 projects for students, all based on pieces from The New York Times, including personal narrative essays, editorials, comic strips and podcasts. Each project features a Times text and prompts to inspire your writing, as well as related resources from The Learning Network to help you develop your craft. Some also offer opportunities to get your work published in The Times, on The Learning Network or elsewhere.

We know this list isn’t nearly complete. If you have ideas for other pandemic-related writing projects, please suggest them in the comments.

In the meantime, happy writing!

Want to keep reading? Follow the link to the full article!

Pick a Prompt, Any Prompt

Hi! How’s the year going so far? (Can you believe we’re only three weeks in??) I had an end-of-the-year editing goal that I barely made and I haven’t felt up to diving into another longform project just yet. But that’s just fine, because one of my writing goals for the year is to write some short stories too. So I sat down last week to start on a short story… and drew a complete blank.

Nothing. I had nothing! I edited a short story that I wrote years ago, just to try and get the creative juices flowing again, and still brought up a nice hefty chunk of nothing. I drafted up about a month’s worth of blog posts that I won’t need until like March, but those juices still weren’t flowing. Still. Nothing.

Hm.

So I did what I always do when I can’t come up with a good idea on my own—I started pestering other people to do the thinking for me.

Unfortunately, none of those (so far) have really resonated with me enough to get going, but at least all this fruitless head-scratching got me thinking about writing prompts. What makes a good writing prompt? Is there a single, fool-proof formula, or does it vary? If so, what would it vary by? By person? By genre? By random?

*dons deerstalker cap*

After hours of scouring the internet, reading lists, and bothering people, it seems that there is no infallible form for a good prompt (which shouldn’t be surprising because this is probably true of like any creative work whatsoever). While there are some time-honored classics, such as what-if questions, they don’t automatically snap you out of slump every time, and you can have a perfectly serviceable writing prompt that is some off-the-wall form you’ve never seen before.

Some prompts pose a question directly to the writer. Some address the narrator in the story instead. Some read like a back-of-book blurb, full of setting details and hints about the characters. Some are short and to the point, a single sentence or even fragment to get you going. Some set up an interesting scene, while others focus on an interesting character.

All good prompts leave a lot of room to run, though, allowing the writer plenty of gaps to fill. Rather than being a finite box that needs filling, a good prompt is a starting point on a journey.

So just for funsies, and maybe as a starting point for something great, here are just a few writing prompts to try out (or not). Any that have parenthesis at the end of them are someone else’s genius, not mine.

Write a story about changing light in one hundred words or less.

Open a book you’ve never read and read the first page. Using the same characters and set up, write how the scene shakes out.

CRANE TRUCK! (Thanks, nearly-three-year-old Derek!)

What if criminals were forced to undergo brain surgery to cut out their criminal inclinations?

Your clothes attack you. What do you do? (Thanks, eight-year-old Daniel!)

After years of avoiding encroaching humans, a wood elf’s home is finally chopped down and taken away. She can only grab a few items before she must wipe away her presence and flee. What does she do next?

Once upon a time, there was a canary who got captured and used in a coal mine and he’s trying to escape. (Thanks, ten-year-old Aaron!)

A runner is doing a brutal ultramarathon across a portion of the Sahara Desert. But a sandstorm kicks up and covers the course markers. A band of rival runners must work together to survive and find a way to signal for help.

You step out into the hall of your home and confront a mummy! But it’s a baby mummy, no taller than your knee. What does it do? What do you do? (Thanks, Anna!)

First line: “The first sign that something was wrong was that the ship was listing.” (Thanks, Robert!)

You find a smooth five-hundred-dollar bill on the ground and happily pick it up. You’re about to pocket it when the picture of William McKinley says, “Ow! Don’t crumple me up!” What happens next?

What if aliens came and made first contact with an elephant, thinking them the dominant species on earth? What would the elephant have to say about earth?

You set down a guitar and then an earthquake comes. The house rumbles and then a genie comes out. How will you talk? (Thanks, eight-year-old Will!)

Look at the last text you received yesterday. Write a mystery where that text is your character’s only clue about the disappearance of a wealthy socialite.

What if cordyceps fungi could infect humans? (Thanks, Robert!)

You inherit a rare bird chick from an eccentric aunt and are shocked to discover it’s a dodo. What do you do?

Writing Prompt: That gloriously awkward Cinderella moment. (Thanks, Anonymous!)

After falling into a vat of radioactive honey, you suddenly have the ability to communicate with bees.

First line: “It was the first time in twenty years that I had truly felt scared…” (Thanks, Robert!)

While digging in your garden, you discover and capture a pixie. It offers you one wish in exchange for its release. What do you wish for? How’s that go down?

I hope one of these prompts was able to spark an idea, or at least a chuckle. Here’s to hoping I get unstuck soon. Until next week, happy writing!

3 Tips to Writing When Motivation Is Gone

Guest post! Our guest this week is Annah Searle, who is releasing a book on finishing goals this November! *toots trumpets*  She is also very kind and wrote up a guest post for me because she’s better at this stuff than me so you should probably grab a copy of her book. Thanks, Annah!

AnnahWith most people prepping their houses with pumpkin scented candles and red and orange leaves, any writer knows what November is really about. It’s a month of discovery, struggle, imagination, and lots of tears. November is Nanowrimo month.

If you haven’t heard of it, Nanowrimo (Nano) is an annual writing project where each member’s goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. My first year of Nano, I was a young high schooler who had big hopes and little idea of what was ahead. I poured through the online Nano forums, reading to learn everything there was about writing. My character sheets were long, and I had the perfect plot arch.

November 1st, I hit the ground running. I wrote in class, at home, and anywhere I could. My characters were quirky and fun. The plot was moving along. As the days continued, my word counts progressively shrank. Soon, they halted altogether. What was this mess of a novel I had started? Nothing could be less coherent than these pages. All I saw were plot holes and drab characters.

Anyone who has participated in Nano knows a thing or two about motivation. Without fail, every year we hit the ground running only to sputter to a stop a few days or weeks in, exhausted. No longer are we motivated by exciting new prospects. Now, we trudge toward the finish line, begging for the pain to stop.

Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic here. But, honestly, motivation is a struggle in November. After years of projects, writing and otherwise, I’ve learned the motivation is a fickle thing. It only seems to be with me for a moment before it flits to another exciting venture, leaving me in the dust.

Because I know some of you are gearing up for the longest month of the year, in the next 600 words or so, I’ll give you three tips I use every day in writing and creation that work when I lack the motivation to write.

1. Don’t wait for your muse.

Growing up reading about writing, I find that writers over-fantasize about their muse. Yes, writing when you are in your zone is amazing, but it’s not as if a petite fairy sits on your shoulder whispering words of the soul. Writing is hard work. Inspiration can come, but it’s usually after you have already been working at it for some time.

Too many writers wait for this mythical muse before moving. Don’t wait for it! If you do, you’ll be waiting a long time. Inspiration most often strikes when you are already moving. So, take a step first. Write a sentence, then a paragraph. Keep writing until your trudging becomes a run. Only when you start running will you find inspiration waiting.

2. Break down your book.

When I struggle with motivation to write, typically it’s because I don’t know where I’m going with the plot or characters. My next step is a mystery, so I avoid writing altogether and find something else to do like the dishes or *whispers dramatically* YouTube. Nothing gets done.

Even as I write this article, I’m looking back at the outline I’ve created. Even writing a post this short, I use an outline, so I can write more efficiently. I’m not worrying about where I’m going with this article because I already know the plan. If I’m really struggling, I’ll break it down even further like this:

1. Catchy opening (maybe about Thanksgiving? Or a statistic?)

2. Transitional sentence

3. Personal story (Writing my book? My experience with Nano?)

When I break it down this small, I know exactly where I’m going. This same method works for fictional writing as well. If you hit a block, try breaking your scenes into smaller chunks. What should happen next? What characters are involved?

I personally love free-writing from character and plot development, but if I’m stuck, I outline the next scene or two in detail. Sometimes, writing just an outline of the next page is enough to get you back into the zone. Depending on how stuck I am, more or less detail will go into the outline. I might even go so far as to write their movements like this:

1. Stan walks (struts maybe?) to the table and sits down.

2. He observes the room around him.

3. Jessica enters the room.

Your characters may move like robots, but hey, you wrote something. Nano was never about making your writing sound beautiful. It’s about finishing. While you may cringe away from this outlining technique, using it will allow you to finish. Who cares if it’s a little ugly? Editing is for next month.

3. Defeat perfectionism.

Perfectionism is one of the top things that stops any goal in its tracks. Many a novel has been killed by perfectionism. With Nano’s deadline, though, expectations of perfection get quashed. The inner editor knows there’s no way to write 50,000 words and make it sound good.

In dispelling the inner editor, college worked in a similar way for me. If I had a project due the next day and I hadn’t even started on it, I would have to work as fast as possible. I had to settle for imperfect results to reach the deadline. Mistakes would be made, and while it wasn’t perfect, I got it done because of the pressure of a deadline. And, while these projects could definitely have been better, I’m still proud to have completed them.

Nano’s deadline is December 1. But, that’s a whole 30 days away. It’s easy to procrastinate when the end seems far away. To defeat procrastination and perfectionism, I suggest setting mini deadlines for yourself. Plan a task and deadline for each week. It’s easier to ignore perfectionism when you have such a big task ahead. Rather than making each word perfect, you just write to get words on the page.

Realize your book doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be perfect. It can be messy. A lot of beauty is found in messes if you know how to look.

I know perfectionism is not easy to defeat. If you work each day toward dispelling its influence, though, you’ll be well on your way to completing your novel.

You’ve got some exciting work ahead of you. By writing without waiting for your muse, breaking down your book into next steps, and defeating perfectionism, you’ll be well on your way to finishing. There will be tears, triumph, and the occasional sleepless night, but stay in it. If you put in the work, you’ll emerge December 1 with a messy and beautiful novel to call your own.

Annah Searle is a writer, dreamer, wife, and lover of life. She is the author of The Art of Finishing and The Art of Finishing Planner as well as the creator of the blog, The Art of Pure Living. She is also a notebook hoarder, bookworm, Netflix binger, and aspiring artist.

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!)

Recovery Week! (aka Pictures of Portugal)

Hello! I got back mid last week and we had a great Portuguese vacation! (The only bad thing about the entire trip was that, on our first day there, we received notification that a good friend was lost in the Chatanika River. If you’re feeling flush for it, or just want to leave a message of sympathy and support for his family, there’s a GoFundMe campaign set up for his wife and two small children. Thanks!)

We’ve only been back in town for a couple days, so I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write anything up and so, in keeping with post-vacation photographic tradition, here are some photos. (But I’ll admit it frankly- with this batch, I didn’t even try to find a writing theme to go with it. *pulls at face* I AM SO TIRED.)

  1. The “new” church at sunset (Pias)
  2. Me and some water (Foz do Arelho)
  3. Me carrying all my earthly possessions within five thousand miles (Lisbon)
  4. A big bright castle (Pena Palace, Sintra)
  5. A somewhat smaller, somewhat less bright castle (The National Palace, also Sintra)
  6. Husband breaking things and getting trapped in a bathroom (vegan restaurant in a tiny town on the way to Lagos)
  7. Dude tried to eat my foot first thing in the morning how rude (Salema)
  8. You aren’t in love until you share your first bowl of snails (Moura)
  9. Ghost cat resting in peace (Pias)
  10. Sunset on the roof (Lisbon)
  11. The graveyard of an abandoned church my relatives were probably buried in but we’re not sure because the tombs all got raided for rumored gold a couple decades ago, aka people are horrible (outside Pias)

Writing Method Experiment

20180507_093600The day before my husband and oldest son went on a caribou hunt, I bought a vacuum sealer from a second hand store. It did not work. Annoyed, I returned it, and my annoyance was compounded by the fact that I could only return it for in store credit, and that credit had to be used immediately. (This was after being told at the time of purchase that yes, of course I could return the item, and nothing more was said. I feel like something more should have been said.)

In the midst of my discontented wanderings through the store, I came across a most beautiful thing- a vintage turquoise Smith-Corona portable typewriter. Of course, it was irrevocably broken, as all things in this shop seem to be. But still, it was fun to plink away on and I’m sorry I didn’t buy it. It would have been just lovely on my book case and I could have spent many happy hours tinkering with it in the vague hope that I could resurrect it and name it Lazarus, but my husband would have caught me trying to sneak it in the house and given me that look and really, I don’t have any room on the book cases anyway. Alas. (In other news, I need more book cases. And a bigger house.)

But just touching that typewriter made me feel suddenly more creative, and I hustled home (with a bunch of new books I’m not sure where to put and some curtains I’ll never use, curse you, vacuum sealer) and knocked out another chapter in the Copper book I posted a chapter from last month (read here!).

The typewriter got me thinking. Some writing methods work better for me than others. And some that work for me might not work for as well for other writers. So I thought it might be fun to spend some time writing using several different recording methods and see if any patterns emerged. I came up with several styles of writing that I wanted to try, and went forth, hoping that a victor would emerge in each of these categories: best for brainstorming; best for drafting; best for editing. Each of the following writing methods was ranked according to these categories. Read on for my own personal results!

Method: Longhand, cursive

I know so many people who draft in longhand. (Sadly, I don’t know anybody who still uses shorthand to write anything more than short notes, and I was too lazy to learn stenography for this.) I don’t normally draft in longhand so it was fun to give it a try.

Pros: very good for inspiring creativity; excellent for working out outlines of books and individual scenes; very accessible;

Cons: difficult for later editing; in nearly all cases, must be transcribed to a digital format for sharing;

Method: Longhand, print

Everyone I know who uses longhand for writing does it exclusively in cursive. So I though, ‘Huh! What’s wrong with print?’ And once I start asking questions, I gotta find answers. All in the name of science. Sort of.

Pros: actually somewhat better WPM than cursive (Ms. Hardman lied to me); accessible;

Cons: doesn’t feel quite as inspiring as cursive; same cons as cursive;

Method: Typing, computer

This is my workhorse. A solid ninety percent, maybe more, of my writing uses this method.

Pros: very quick WPM; easy to keep files together and organized; easy to share materials with others;

Cons: computer isn’t always accessible; I am so very, very bad at technology; screens make my eyeballs sad; inspirationally meh;

Method: Typing, mechanical typewriter

Wow it took me half of forever to scrounge one up to type on. I’d never used one this old before and I was a little afraid to touch it, haha. It didn’t type very well, but honestly, the thing is like a hundred years old and I’m really impressed it worked at all.

Pros: mega super fun; creatively inspiring; that little ding at the end of the line; general coolness; that typing sound- something about the clickety-clack of a typewriter just feels all inspired and literary;

Cons: SO HARD TO FIND; keys jammed when typing too fast; had to push the keys really deep to get the typebars up to the page; machine was old and I didn’t know how to change the ribbon (let alone where to get one); difficult to edit;

Method: Typing, electronic typewriter

I actually managed to scrounge up not one, but two of these- each of them in dusty storage rooms of increasingly underfunded libraries. Go figure.

Pros: halfway between an old typewriter and a computer for coolness and inspiration; able to keep up with my typing speed;

Cons: relatively obscure- difficult to procure, and doubtless difficult to keep in repair; difficult to edit;

Method: Audio Recording

This method started out at a steep disadvantage, largely because I hate the sound of my voice. Not enough that I’d consider ever shutting up, but still. (It really didn’t help that I’ve been sick and sniffly for the entire duration of this experiment.)

Pros: can be done relatively hands free once you hit record; thoughts can be recorded quickly; very accessible if you have a phone that takes recordings; assuming recording was on a phone, sharing is very easy;

Cons: Very self-conscious of doing character voices; self-conscious of my just normal human voice; how does editing even happen like this; must be transcribed into another format for editing and sharing; while it worked well for taking notes, it was TERRIBLE for doing actual prose or, even worse, dialog;

Results

There are many, many ways to record stories out there. And while I was tempted to bust out some clay tablets or carve on some tree bark, I by no means exhausted the possibilities. These are just the methods that I thought a decent percent of people might actually regularly use. (Maybe not the typewriters these days. That was more for fun.)

But anyway, here is some data because data is delicious.

  Words/2 min WPM Accessible Editing Sharing Inspiring
Longhand, cursive 48; 54 25.5 Easy Medium Difficult ****
Longhand, print 51; 57 27 Easy Medium Difficult ***
Typing, digital 142; 150 73 Easy Easy Easy ***
Typing, electronic typewriter 82; 83; 79; 77; 77; 78.8 Difficult Medium Difficult ****
Typing, mechanical typewriter Didn’t record Slooow WHYYY Medium Difficult *****
Audio recording 373 in 4 min 93.25 Easy Difficult Easy *

So the results are in and I think we have our winners! For brainstorming, I definitely did best with longhand cursive.  For drafting, digital typing (on my laptop) was hands down the winner, as it was for editing. Typing on a computer isn’t the most inspiring way for me to write, but it is the quickest and the easiest, and it’s way easier to edit and share than its counterparts.

But that’s just me! Seriously guys, this was great fun running this experiment. You should consider doing it yourselves. Just spend a few hours working away using each method and see if any patterns emerge. You never know when you might stumble across your next big breakthrough on putting out your best work.

Until next week, happy writing!

(PS- Warning: in a couple more weeks, I’ll be skipping the country again and I’ve slated about a month of not putting up blog posts, depending on how quickly I recover, etc. But I promise I’ll bring you back some cool pictures and new sample settings. More details to come.)

Pants, Plans, and In Between

pantsLong time readers may have noticed this about me, but I like to experiment from time to time with my writing strategies. Sometimes I try a bunch of creativity inducing activities to see which ones I like best. Sometimes I try out several writing programs to see if there’s a better system out there. I know what’s working for me now, but I don’t always know what will work better.

To that end, I’ve been experimenting this last year with various degrees of plotting preparation. When I first started out this writing gig, I was pretty deep in Pants territory, writing whatever the heck I wanted as the whimsy took me. I planned absolutely nothing. In recent years, I’ve been taking an increasingly structured stance for starting out new projects. I even sometimes use wonky little character sheets that might have details about their dietary preferences in childhood and how their first pet died. Real who-cares sorts of details, but it helps me get into the characters’ lives a little more.

The last three books I’ve written, current project inclusive, I’ve taken pains to plan them to different degrees. In the first book, I did no planning whatsoever; I went into it with a very brief premise idea, and just wrote whatever little rabbit trails came to mind. For the second book, I did just a little bit less than my usual degree of preparation, falling about midway between no plan and front-to-finish omniplan. And for my current project, I planned and planned until I felt like I had everything down and if I did any more planning, I would puke.

Here are my thoughts!

The Plans-Are-For-Sissies Approach: This one was a little painful. The words seemed to come alright, and I never really lacked for inspiration, but story wandered quite a bit before I found the track I wanted to take, and this poor baby will require gobs of editing to clean up all the foreshadowing that never went anywhere, the events that came out of nowhere, the sudden and significant eye color change of the secondary main character midway through the book, et cetera ad infinitum. (Heck, I never even nailed down which title I want to use.) Not only was the story all over the place, but writing the thing out took kind of forever. I never really lacked for things to write, but not having a plan meant moving forward at a snail’s pace. It took nearly six months to write this meandering draft, while first drafts of a similar size usually take me about two or three. I like the story, and I enjoyed the totally-free-to-explore feeling of writing, but it came at a huge time cost.

The Moderate’s Approach: This one was even more painful, but for different reasons that are probably not the method’s fault at all. I planned out the story just a smidgeon past the midway point in moderate detail, leaving myself a bit of wiggle room for exactly how things would take place, and a whole lot of wiggle room for how things would wrap up. The story progressed pretty easily at first, following my nice little plan. But the closer I got to the end, the more I realized I was in deep water. As things came onto the paper, all the little gaps and giant holes became painfully apparent. When I got past the outline’s reaches, I was swimming blind but, unlike the Plans-Are-For-Sissies story, nothing was coming. I tried to force it and things just got more and more lame, until finally I quit a couple chapters before the anticlimactic final battle. Blehhhhh… But as I said, this is probably more due to the story idea’s weakness than the method’s invalidity. The Moderate’s Approach is probably closer to my regular degree of plannedness (which is totally a word, shhh) than either of the others. I think I just picked a bum story idea for the experiment. 😦

The Doomsday-Prepper Approach: I can’t totally write this experiment off as done, since I’m still working my way through the book, but I have been so far most comfortable with this one. This story- and the historical timeline, the magic system, and each character and location- was planned out in detail, start to finish, before I even created the new Scrivener file. Honestly, the planning stage is usually the most fun part of the whole process for me, and I was a little worried I would use up all the funness (also a word, sh) before I got to the drafting phase. But I’ve been working on it for about a month now and things are still fun! I will say, though, progress is being made, but the words aren’t flying onto the page the way I assume they would with the way ahead so clear from the start. But this could also be a product of my writing habits; when doing the meandering no plan book, I got into the habit of just sort of picking at it- about five hundred words a day- and that habit has so far stuck. But as I write this, I am resolving anew to pick up the pace. Ask me how I’m doing in another month!

So this little experiment is inconclusive. Turns out each story (like each pregnancy?) is different. Go figure. But still, I had fun playing around with the degree to which I plan a story, and I now have a firmer awareness of exactly what my most comfortable planning style is. Not quite a pantser, and not quite a full on planner, but a plans-oriented plantser, which is kind of what I had figured I was before. Turns out I found the spot just by wandering there all on my own over the last twenty years of writing.

How about you readers? What’s your planning style? Why do you like it that way? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!