RTW #147: What Do You Use To Write?

Hey, guys! I’m alive!

I’m slightly late on this week’s YA Highway Road Trip Wednesday, but here we are nonethless:

This Week’s Topic is: What word processing program do you use to write you manuscript, and can you share one handy trick you’ve learned in that program that has helped you while you write?

Ah, a nice easy one to get me back into the swing of blogging like a responsible blogger who doesn’t abandon her readers (sorry).

I primarily use Microsoft Word because I’m vanilla like that. One thing I like about Word is being able to enable “Readability statistics”. In Word 2010, you can find this under File/Options/Proofing. I’ll include a screenshot to show you where it is on the pop-up menu (click to see a larger version):

What  this does is bring up a dialogue box after you’ve run your document through spellcheck:

This can be helpful to a writer in that it can tell you how hard your writing is to read. The “readability” heading basically takes all the data shown above it and distills it into some numbers for you. Since fiction writers (at least of genre and mainstream fiction) prefer to avoid having too many passive sentences, the percentage for that can be useful. In essence, the more passive sentences you have in your writing, the harder the reader has to work to make sense of it.

The Flesch Reading Ease is a 100-point scale that, as the title might suggest, tells you how easy your work is to read. The Flesch-Kindcaid Grade Level tells you how many years of education a reader would need to understand your writing, at least on a sentence-by-sentence level. Actually comprehending the subject is a different matter entirely and can’t be measured by the formulaic approach outlined here. The Wikipedia page for the readability tests has more information about calculating these figures. The system isn’t perfect, but it can be a good starting point when trying to make sure your work is accessible to readers.

It should be noted that a lot of bestselling authors have rather low grade levels assigned to their work, indicating that the average reader prefers books that are easy to read. I must admit I’m not actually surprised. A lot of readers find dense text incredibly time-consuming and frustrating.

I’m sure a lot of your guys already know this stuff, and that’s awesome. Hopefully I will have helped somebody who didn’t actually know about this tool.

RTW: Where Can You Go?

YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday for this week poses this question:

When you need creative inspiration, where do you go?

For me, this isn’t a physical place. When I need inspiration I delve into the works of others, usually novels or music. While I’m a believer in not waiting for inspiration to strike before writing, sometimes having that extra spark can help invigorate your writing or make you think in ways you haven’t before.

For example, I’ve been considering the general plot of each book in a series I’m writing, of which Coldfire is the first. I struggled for a while to come up with a plot that would fit the last book and allow the tying up of various loose ends. It wasn’t until listening to Muse’s album ‘The Resistance’ that I finally had an idea. I’ve been honing it in my head ever since so it’ll be more polished when the time finally comes to write it (God knows when that’ll be). I usually prefer to come up with ideas by myself, but this time I was at a loss and needed help from external sources.

I also find that listening to music or reading books can re-energise me when I hit a writing slump. What usually occurs in this case is that I’ll step away from writing for a few days straight and eventually get bored and turn to reading. I usually end up reading books that I’ve already read in the past, since I already know which ones are more likely to help me out. After a few days of steady reading I usually get back in the saddle and start writing again. As for music, it usually helps me focus when writing and I tend to write more with its help in blocking out distractions.

Physical locations have never really done it for me, most likely due to my limited ability to travel since I don’t have my license yet and my hometown’s public transportation is practically useless. This might change in the future. I really hope my planned visit to Italy early next year might inspire some writing or, at least, give me a larger pool of experience which to draw from. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

Why I’m An Outliner… Sort Of

I’ve written on this topic before, but I wanted to get into more detail about why rather than about the style itself (as seen in this post). I’ve always been one to scoff at well-known planning methods (such as the Snowflake Method), since they generally require me to alter the way I think or to dream up some detail I usually don’t imagine until at least halfway through writing the first draft (OR DRAW THINGS I DON’T WANT TO DRAW BECAUSE I SUCK AT DRAWING). My resistance to established methods kept me hovering between being a pantser (here’s a definition) and planner for years. I was never fond of throwing caution to the wind and just writing whatever feels right, but I also didn’t like the idea of having a rigid structure.

While writing the first draft of Coldfire, I started messing around with a dot-point list of events I wanted to occur a few chapters ahead of where I currently was. It was messy and often the events were irrelevant to the main plot, but it was an outline. Sort of. I later started writing my messy outlines sooner in the writing process until, last year, I wrote the whole thing out before I started writing the novel. Since then, writing without coming up with a plan in advance makes me nervous and I often end up floundering in a tangle of scenes that dig their heels in and refuse to be written. So I guess that settles it: I’m an outliner. In a way. I still prefer a degree of fluidity in my writing, since I have an annoying habit of only discovering who the characters really are about halfway through a first draft (or, in the case of Coldfire, halfway through something like the fourth and then the fifth and then the seventh).

I’m not sure this post is even making sense, since it’s three in the morning and I should probably be asleep right now but I’m strangely hyper instead. What I’m trying to say is I now prefer to plan out the events of my novels before writing them but am too much of a FREEEEE SPIRIT to stick to a rigid outline. And that’s okay. I seem to be doing okay without such restraints.

A Better Interpretation of “Write What You Know”

In the previous post, I wrote about the problem of taking “write what you know” literally and what you can do instead.

There is another interpretation that can help writing feel more visceral and realistic. “Write what you know” is practically useless when it comes to cold hard facts, but can be a useful tool if applied to our emotional experiences. Bear with me; I’ll try to stop this from becoming too wishy-washy. Remember that feeling of disappointment when you were passed over for an award or a promotion or a raise? How about when you discovered someone you liked already had a partner? How exactly did that feel? Was it a feeling of free fall or a weight in your stomach or a tightness in your throat or a heaviness in your limbs? Physical cues for emotions can be incredibly useful in fiction.

Let’s see an example of this in action. I will give you two (probably mediocre but hopefully you get the idea) pieces of text describing the same emotion:

He felt sad.

Next one:

His legs collapsed, sending him sprawling to the floor. A half-swallowed gasp squeezed its way out of his painfully tight throat.

The first one tells us very little. The second one, within the context of a story, tells us much more about the character himself, how he physically reacts to sadness. There are also different levels of sadness, which the first example doesn’t capture. The second one, however, tells us this is an extremely potent form. The first guy could just be sad there were no apples left at the supermarket, while the second guy could have just lost a loved one. Paying attention to our reactions to emotions is the best possible interpretation of “write what you know”. Watching other people can also help, but I’d advise you not to do this in, shall we say, socially unacceptable scenarios.

Bad novels (although readers have different interpretations of what is a bad novel) are often perceived to be so because they feel false to the reader. Something is off. The author doesn’t appear to have a clear grasp on human behaviour or emotion. This can happen if the characters don’t quite react realistically to what is being thrown at them, and is often a result of the author not paying enough attention to the nuances of how mind and matter interact to create emotion. We all run into this problem at some time or another with our own writing. It can be hard to perfectly capture how a character is feeling in a given moment. I suck at it myself.

Interpreting “write what you know” as an invitation to incorporate our own emotional experiences into our writing is far more helpful than taking the advice to mean knowledge of facts which, while important, generally aren’t that difficult to find. Emotional experience, however, when incorporated into a story, can make even the most outlandish tale feel real to the reader.

The Myth of “Write What You Know”

This post is primarily for less experienced writers who feel restricted by advice such as “write what you know”. This is one of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers. On the surface, it seems like a fairly logical and innocuous suggestion, but at the same time it can be restrictive. The problem doesn’t quite lie with the advice, but in the way many writers interpret it. A writer just starting out might have some grand ideas (mine were so ridiculously grand that I’m still trying to make them work four years later), but be put off by their lack of knowledge on a particular subject.

To use me as an example, my baby project, Coldfire, is a mess of former drug addicts, bureaucracy, possibly overused weapons and various random places to which I have never been. I don’t know much of anything on these subjects. If I had taken the “write what you know” advice literally, I would have just dumped the idea a long time ago and moved onto writing about white middle-class teenage girls in Australian suburbia. Yawn.

Here’s a better idea: instead of constraining yourself to a limited spectrum of experience, research what you don’t know. Hell, if you’re a speculative fiction (supernatural/horror/science fiction/fantasy/dystopian/etc.) writer, you can make some of it up. As many writers before me have said, advice should not be restrictive. If you feel limited by a specific piece of advice, toss it and find something better to put in its place.

In the next post, I will cover another interpretation of “write what you know”.

University is Eating My Life

I’m not going to be one of those lazy people who insists they have absolutely no time to write (because that’s hardly ever true of anyone), but I’m definitely feeling the squeeze.While I’m loving university (or college for my American readers), it’s mentally exhausting at times and the assignments tend to all come at once. I’m about to start my fifth week and have already had a test in Italian, two assignments due in the same week for Academic Writing and Literature respectively, and have an oral presentation due for Classical Mythology this coming Thursday as well as a written component due the same week. I’m also, possibly unwisely, taking part in the university’s choral society and, less unwisely, the creative writers’ club.

I know I’m at risk of sounding like an ungrateful white girl who doesn’t understand her privilege in going to university in the first place, but the truth is the workload is quite heavy (although, admittedly, not as heavy as it could be) and most of my time at home involves either food, homework, sleep or being a vegetable in front of the TV and computer. I plan to rectify this, but my writing is definitely going at a slower pace than before. I have not neglected the internet entirely, but you guys may see less of me while I’m trying to get my head on straight. Mid-semester break is coming up and I fully intend to get some crap done.

For the rest of the time, however, I’m going to look into techniques to increase my productivity, since writing is not the only thing showing the strain; I’ve also started to neglect my singing practise. I need to sort myself out soon, or I will collapse in a heap. Thanks for reading this ramble, which offered very little useful information.

So, in a last-ditch attempt to make this post useful, I shall ask a question: What techniques do you use to get writing (or anything) done when your time is limited?

Who is Your Character When Nobody’s Watching?

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that a person’s public face is not the same as who they are in private. The same should hold true for characters in fiction. Merciless crime-fighters are loving parents and spouses when in the comfort of their own homes. The bubbly socialite may prefer to curl up on the couch with a glass of red and a movie when they’re not out making friends with strangers. Often the starkest contrast between the public and private spheres (to borrow the terms from last year’s History class) is when a character is alone with his or her love interest.

A usually loud and brash character may become quiet and gentle, or a closed-off character may become cuddly and affectionate. I myself am a bit of the latter, as I’ve noticed in the past few days when with my boyfriend. The growth of a relationship in my own life has led to me thinking deeper about my characters’ relationships, how pre-existing personality traits will behave when combined with complimenting or clashing traits belonging to the love interest.

Darian, the protagonist of Coldfire (a novel which is also known as my incredibly ill-tempered yet lovable baby), is generally sarcastic and composed when around other people, but due to personal problems is rarely as controlled when alone. As his relationship with his love interest (Valora) grows, I need to think about how his private self is going to manifest when with her. As it currently stands, Darian is often not himself when around her. His sharp tongue loses its edge and he regularly feels wrong-footed. Valora is also incredibly sexual and physical while Darian is more of a thinker. Will he temper her, or will she drag him kicking and screaming out of his barbed shell?

It pays to put some thought into your character’s public and private personas, as they become more rounded and fascinating for it. Superheroes are the most extreme version of a separation between the two. Superman is brave and noble when he dons the underwear and tights, but he always the bespectacled, awkward Clark Kent during his off hours. So who is your character when nobody is watching? Who are they when the only person is watching is, quite often, the most important person in his or her life?

Starting Over… Kinda

I had a realization while lying in bed last night: my novel is broken beyond what a simple edit can do and the only solution is to start over. I’m not starting over entirely–I will keep some of what I have written–but I’m going back to the drawing board. My biggest problem was conveying the information I needed to get across. Writing a combination of dystopian and fantasy means I have a lot of worldbuilding to do. I have to establish the rules of magic, the varieties of magic and the politics that influence it while also giving some clues as to why the world is screwed up, the state of society, who’s in charge and why they suck. And that’s only part of the job.

So I’m trying something new. I’m putting down all the information I know about the world of the story into a separate word document. Hopefully this will give me more direction when I start writing again and I’ll avoid the gaping plot holes I had to contend with in the original novel. It will also help me foreshadow later events in other books and I can pick and choose what information to share and what to hide.

This should give me a clearer picture of the overall storyline and prevent fridge logic. Fridge logic sucks. I would very much like my novel to make some kind of sense. I better get back to it, given the enormous task I have ahead of me.

Getting Back in the (Writing) Saddle

I’ve written on this topic before, but I’m doing it again. I have a terrible habit of losing all motivation to write every few months and end up screwing around on the internet or in whatever computer game I happen to be interested in at the time (Skyrim and the Sims 3 at the moment, a combination more addictive than chocolate). Regardless of my flighty brain, I always manage to get back to the keyboard, open that Word Doc I left festering and get the hell on with it. I have a number of strategies for getting back in the writing saddle once I’ve dramatically thrown myself off.

Open the document, close the internet

This is a strategy I mostly employed during NaNoWriMo, where I’d do a few basic things like check emails in the morning before closing the internet and refusing to reopen it until I hit my daily quota, usually of 2000 words unless I was having a bad writing day and had to be a little easier on myself. I’ll admit my discipline began to shake after the first week or so, but I did exhaust myself by hitting 50k on day seven. I had a few bad days where I wrote very little, but this system became effective again when I finally got my butt back into the chair.

Butt in chair

This is a commonly touted technique for making yourself write, and one I believe in. You can’t write if you’re nowhere near your computer or pen or finger-paints or whatever the heck you use to write. Forcing yourself to sit in that chair until you’ve written a sizeable amount will generally get it done.

Getting out of the chair

While this one does seem at odds with the previous point, sometimes we focus so hard on making ourselves write that we have the opposite effect. Taking a break to go outside, walk around in circles, read a book, whatever, will get those creative juices flowing again. Taking in new sights or new creative works, or even just having a little exercise, gives us something new to inspire us. While I’m not a huge fan of waiting for inspiration, those little sparks of brilliance certainly help the process along and can jolt us back into our writing again.

It also helps to step away from the computer if you feel tired. I had this happen while writing a query letter last night and it would have been pointless to continue soldiering on in that state. It didn’t help I was halfway to screaming in frustration with the thing.

Write something new

Sometimes we get so tied in knots about what we’re supposed to be writing that we lose sight of our goals or we become bored and thus our energy is drained. Taking some time to write something different can help remove the block inside our heads. While many writers are opponents of multitasking, I’m not. I actually started a new novel last night once I’d become too tired to write that query letter. That, and the aid of a little chocolate, got my head back in the game and I was able to return to that query letter after a while and knock out a better version with some help from Nathan Bransford’s query letter mad lib, which helped me separate the random stupidity that works its way into my queries from the stuff people actually need to know.

Get help from someone

If the reason you’re struggling with your writing is because you’re having trouble writing a particular section, sometimes looking to the advice of more experienced writers or publishing professionals can help you find a solution. If you’re writing a query, googling how to write one tends to bring up some great results, like the mad lib I mentioned above. I’d also recommend QueryShark for how to write queries. Websites such as former agent turned author Nathan Bransford’s blog, literary agent Kristin Nelson’s blog, author Maggie Stiefvater’s blog and literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog tend to be great resources.

Talk to other writers

Or lurk in writing forums, whichever works for you. I tend to lurk and occasionally say something when I have something to say on the Absolute Write forums. Listening to other writers’ problems (or successes) can give us the kick in the pants we need to get on with our own writing. However, in order for this to work we have to set envy and bitterness aside. Those evil twins tend to make us believe we are worthless or will never get anywhere.

The above techniques may not work for everyone, since our writing processes are all different, but they’re a place to start. If you have any other techniques that help you get out of a slump, let me know in the comments.

Picture Prompts

In lieu of my usual fare, I’ve found two photos in the depths of my hard drive you can use to inspire a piece of writing. Both were taken by me, and you can use them if you post your response, but please link back to this post. I’d like to read your responses to the prompts, either through the comments directly or through a link placed in a comment. Click the images to see full size.

I’ve used prompts every so often when stuck or bored, often writing within pre-existing worlds of my novels to help me get a better handle on a particular character or setting. They can be a great source of world-building, character development or unblocking.