Goal updating…keeping on track


I wrote in an earlier post about goals and deadlines, and how important they are for maintaining focus and getting things done.

I’m well on track with this, but here’s a little update on how I’m doing so far:

My deadlines:

Ilkley Literature festival open mic competition – I’ve applied for a place; if I get it, it’s on the 30th and I need a monologue or poem to perform

I’m well on the way with this – I’ve been watching a lot of Sarah Kay recently and am so impressed with her performance poetry, especially how she’s performing with being arrogant or self-absorbed or over the top. I watched an interview with her exploring how she got started in poetry and she commented that her first work was all angry and self-reproach – because that’s what the performance poetry she saw was like, and I think that’s what always put me off about it, but I think I have enough material there for a full scale post later!! In any case, I’m writing something that’s midway between story and poem, and definitely designing it around being a performance piece, which is a really interesting opportunity to play with language and sounds of phrases as well as the imagery of the words.

23rd September – have drafted a poem for the ILF in outline
26th September – redrafted poem
28th September – be putting finishing touches to poem
3rd October – plot outline for Mslexia sub

This has become a little messier than intended! I have written a poem, but I probably won’t be doing it at the ILF – I’ll post it here later, but think it’s not quite suitable and am writing something else. That something else may turn into the Mslexia submission, but I do have a further rough (very rough!) draft outline for a story that I think would be more suitable for the Mslexia deadline.

So overall – some tweaking when once written, something doesn’t quite fit the original spec as well as I thought it was going to, but I’m pretty happy with my writing at the moment, especially as this time’s always insanely hectic at school and it’s often hard to get much of anything at all written! Next up are the deadlines for the Mslexia submission and planning a ‘Spring’ outline, alongside trying to work out how to memorise a performance piece, something I’ve not done for a very long time…

Quick goal update


I wrote a post about goal setting and how important it is to writing and thought I’d follow up with a mini-post saying how I was getting on!

The goal for today was to have finished a draft of a poem for the Ilkley Literature Festival, assuming I get a place. If not, I’ll send it somewhere else. I have done it! Writing poetry is HARD WORK – demands all my language skills! I started with a prose poem/page of writing on a theme that’s been rattling round my head, and have been shaping it into a poem over the past week or so, until I have a draft I’m happy with at the moment. Tomorrow, work starts on redrafting for goal two!

Part of how I was going to achieve my goals is writing every day between 6.30 and 7.30. I’ve not quite managed that every day, but I think I’ve only missed two or three. Using that time effectively though is sometimes a different issue! Something to work on this week, I think 🙂

Have you got some writing goals to share? Need some encouragement? Let me know in the comments!

Goal setting – how to help yourself get writing


I mentioned in my earlier post that one of the ways to help yourself get motivated and write more is in goal setting, and it seems like a good moment to write about that. I’m stuck at the moment. I finished my last major project, Balancing Act, in the middle of the summer, and I wrote a short story for the Mslexia quarterly submission, but in the week or so since that’s been finished, I’ve floundered. This frustrates me, aggravates me, because I spend several hours a week in front of my laptop not knowing what to do next. Like I said in the last post, I don’t really believe in writer’s block, I think it’s an excuse. I don’t know what to do next because I haven’t planned it and I sit at my keyboard expecting some fully-fledged story to flow like magic from my fingertips which is ludicrous because it has never happened before.

GoalSettingSo – I need to set myself some new goals to get myself through the rest of the year, because three months is a good space of time for goal setting. It gives you enough time to accomplish something meaningful but isn’t so long that you drift off track.

Know where you want to get to.

I like Jim Rohn’s technique for this – make a list of fifty goals you want to accomplish. He encompasses everything: work, family, wealth, personal development and characteristics, hobbies, education. Do the same – it’s also a nice way of working out what’s important to you elsewhere. Then, note whether you want to achieve this in three months, six months, a year, three, five or ten. On my list is that I want to be making a regular living as an author. As a starting goal, that’s fine, but it’s too vague for a short term goal.

Be specific.

Smart goals (specific, measurable, achievable, rewarding, timed – although there are variations) have had a bit of a bad reputation as being ‘management speak’ simply because it’s an acronym, I think. In fact, they’re essential. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for (specific) how will you know you got there (Measurable)? If you can’t achieve something, then you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment –likewise if you’re trying to do it in too short a time space for you to be able to do it. And why wouldn’t you make your goals rewarding? They make sense to me.

So my writing goal for the next three months is to write two complete short stories, a poem and have started the next CPA novella. It’s a challenging one in terms of time, especially as this time at work is usually the most hectic, but I think it is achievable if I plan my time properly.  The poem in particular would be rewarding, as I want to get better at writing poetry because I think more than anything it makes you truly consider language.

Plan daily habits and routines

I already try to write from 6.30-7.30pm to make sure that I give some time every day to writing. I’m going to add to this to keep planning, but move that planning to the end of the previous writing session. This should mean that when I sit at my desk at 6.30, I know exactly what I’m doing so there’s no messing about, thinking, wondering, planning. It’s done for me already.

Set interim deadlines

Goals are in ink; deadlines are in pencil

This is generally a good idea – sometimes things take longer than you thought for one reason or another (and you should always try to work out what that was so that you can avoid it next time) and it makes sense to simply extend the deadline a little rather than give up and beat yourself up about a failure.

There are some writing deadlines that are set in ink in terms of competition or submission deadlines but even then, if you miss it – finish it anyway and send it somewhere else.

My deadlines:

 Break it down:

Split your goals into smaller chunks, each with their own deadline, so that you can look at one at a time rather than be intimidated by the entire project. If this was a novel I’d be planning drafts, chapters and scenes. It also means that once you’ve added them to a to-do list, you have a great opportunity to cross them off as they’re done and build your self-esteem with how much you’ve accomplished!

23rd September – have drafted a poem for the ILF in outline
26th September – redrafted poem
28th September – be putting finishing touches to poem
3rd October – plot outline for Mslexia sub
15th October – 1st draft Mslexa sub
20th October – ‘Spring’ plot outline
28th October – 2nd draft Mslexia sub
6th November – 1st draft ‘Spring’
19th November – Mslexia completed
25th November – 2nd draft ‘Spring’
27th November – post Mslexia entry
5th December – Spring completed
10th December – post Spring

Sounds ambitious, and yet manageable, because it’s in small stages that each have their own deadlines! I feel more confident and positive about it already, because I can clearly see how these things will work and how much time they each have.

I’ll keep updating the blog with how I get on, and we’ll see how closely I manage to hit these deadlines!

Five ways to beat procrastination and just get writing


writers-writeOver the past year, my written output has roughly tripled compared to last year, and it’s only August. I’ve written and released short stories, entered more competitions and – probably more importantly – really felt happy with what I was doing, that I was making progress as a writer. To me that’s more valuable than anything.

What stopped me before? It wasn’t lack of ideas or time – so below are some of the ways that I’ve been overcoming the ‘inability’ to sit down and write. I don’t think it is an inability. Lee Child said something similar recently:

“I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writing is a job. Do nurses get nurse’s block? Truck drivers? You just have to show up and do the work.”

Part of what held me back was fear (am I any good? What if I write a load of rubbish?) and lack of planning (what am I writing next? how does this story work?). I think most writers would agree that it’s not genuinely lack of time that stops them writing, nor is it the ‘inability’ to get off Facebook or out of the Youtube vortex. Browsing meaningless stuff on the internet is a symptom of the fact that you don’t know what to do or are afraid to put it onto paper. It’s not the cause of your lack of writing.

1. Schedule a time to write
I write from 6.30-7.30pm every day. Everything I do in that hour has to be do to do with writing. Currently, that involves research, editing and so on but my goal is that by the end of the year I will be using that time just to produce new writing.

You have to be able to stick to it. It’s no good setting yourself up to fail – it’ll just make you feel terrible, and you’ll have a harder time motivating yourself in future because the voice in your head will remind you how you didn’t do it last time. So if you need to, start small – get up twenty minutes earlier and write. Stay at your desk from 5-5.30pm and write (added bonus – rush hour might start to die down giving you a shorter commute!) There’s research that says it takes 66 days to form a habit – how brilliant is that? Just two months, and you’ll have a habit which means you’ll actually feel a little odd if you DON’T sit down to write at your scheduled time!!

2. Set yourself goals
I wanted to release a novella onto kindle, and to enter six writing competitions through the year. I’ve achieved the first one, and have entered four so far.

Start with the big goals, then break it down into smaller steps. Every goal needs to have a deadline to give it some more weight but again, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve it. A common thing with writers is to set a word count goal, say 1000 words a day. That’s great, but if you’re anything like me you need to have those words edited and polished as well! If your initial goal is over ambitious, you’ll either miss it when doing the editing or not edit and therefore not feel like it’s polished enough to send out. Goals also need deadlines and numbers – too vague, and you’re left not knowing how to achieve them. Write a novel is on most people’s lists – the ones who say ‘Write an 80,000 word novel by the end of the year by writing 600 words a day and editing the previous day’s 600 before I start on the new stuff’ are more likely to achieve it, because they have a plan as well as a dream.

3. Know what you’re writing next
I started planning each scene before I wrote it – there’s a lot more detail on Rachel Aaron’s site and I used her book From 2k to 10k as the model for this.

Essentially, when you sit down to write – fiction, non-fiction, whatever – there’s two different decisions to be made. The first is what happens. The second is how it’s written. Rachel’s argument is that by trying to do those at the same time, you’re making life a lot more difficult for yourself. It works on both a whole-novel and scene basis. Planning a novel, knowing what scenes happen when and who’s involved, means that you can fix any problems with pacing and action before you even start to write. Powerful stuff. Then, when I got to a scene, I would do what she recommended and write a description of it before starting. It took usually about ten minutes, and was simply as if I was describing it to someone. “A character goes across the room and opens the door, where she finds an unexpected parcel. She brings it inside and opens it (curious). Inside is a teddy bear with a letter.” By knowing when the character goes across the room and why, you can then start to focus on how to get that across to the reader using language. The two-step process made my writing of Balancing Act not only quicker and more interesting, but far less frustrating and difficult because any problems were solved at that earlier stage.

4. Timed writing
Set a timer – while it’s running you absolutely cannot do anything else, but must write continuously.

If you’re really having trouble with focusing, then do timed writing. It’s a great kick starter, and I often do it just to start a session or when I’m struggling with the ‘don’t know how to phrase it’ stage. With the insistence on writing continuously, it’s often enough to just edge you into the writing frame of mind, and when the timer goes I’m usually in full flow. If not, set another one and move on.

Start with ten minutes – every adult is capable of focusing on one task for ten minutes!! – and do nothing but write. If you’re addicted to the internet, then write on paper. You can always transfer it later during the editing process. Or – shock horror – turn off your laptop’s wireless for ten minutes and put word into full screen mode. As you get more used to single-tasking, increase the timer by increments of three or five minutes.

5. Enjoy what you’re writing.

This should be self-evident, but I think a lot of writers get caught up in expectation or trying to anticipate a market. Writers should write what they love. They’ll enjoy writing it more, and therefore they’ll write more, and what they write will be better. You can’t write for someone else. It takes time and confidence to come to that conclusion – after my MA in Creative Writing I barely wrote for over two years because my confidence in what I wanted to write was shot, but when I started writing what I genuinely was interested in rather than what someone had said I should be writing, my writing improved. I had more fun, I loved doing it, and isn’t that the point?

What other techniques or tactics do you have for increasing your productivity as a writer?


Interview with my cover designer!


Balancing Act Cover MEDIUM

This has been really exciting – for my new novella, I’ve decided to get the cover done by someone professional rather than doing it myself, as I’ve done for my previous short stories. I’ve really enjoyed the process, and had found Jane a very reliable, professional person to work with who’s done some great work for me!  Her website is http://janedixonsmith.com/ and you can see some of the previous covers she’s done.

The novella itself is currently being processed by the KDP system and will be available early this week – another post will definitely announce its arrival!

I wanted to get someone else to do the cover because design really isn’t my forte – I quite like the story covers, but they aren’t as professional looking as I would like because my taste outstrips my ability, and though I put in hours and hours of work, I think that time is better spent doing what I am good at – writing stories.

Plus, this novella is more of an experiment to see how well I can do on Kindle publishing, and I want to give it the best possible chance. It’s like sending it out into the world – would I want it in everyday jeans and a t-shirt, no makeup and three day old hair? No – I want it dressed to impress and ready to rock.

There’s an interview with Jane here which explains really clearly and interestingly the process of designing a cover:

Fenella Miller: Jane Dixon-Smith talks about cover design..

Writing: rewriting when you’re finished


I posted a few days ago that I was on the last 10% of my current story, about the Chronology Protection agents Ruaina and Jefferson.

It may actually be the last 20%…..

Re-reading is always tough, always the bit I struggle with the most. Reading something as a reader is difficult but essential when you’re aiming to get them the best reader experience that you possibly can. A nice trick I’ve been using is to read on my kindle – getting away from the laptop screen makes it that little bit easier to see it as a story, rather than your story.

Reading it through again, I’ve decided that I need to add a couple of scenes to make someone’s story come through a little more strongly, a little more rounded so that the reader really cares about what happens to them.

It’s all part of editing, keeping going and the end-goal in sight. I think it’s really important to have a positive attitude as well, to think that there’s no rush – the goal has always been to release in August – and this will, is, making the book a stronger story, as well as more valuable to readers. It would be easy to get depressed, to think I should have planned better or should have done this sooner, or that it’s ripping up and starting again, which will accomplish nothing but making you feel miserable bout lack of progress. Writing is a long process, especially when you’re writing something that’s much bigger and more complex than everything you’ve written before, which is what I’m doing now. So writing an extra scene here and there? It’s nothing. It’s a few days’ work. And the rewards will be write it, both for my satisfaction with the story and the reading experience.

So, if when you reach that home stretch, you find yourself thinking ‘oh god, I have to fix this’ – then sit back. Think: does my book need it? And if the answer is yes, then grit your teeth, get back in the chair, and write it. It’ll make your book a better story.

The last 10%


I don’t remember where I first heard that the last 10% of any project is the hardest, but I have absolutely come to believe it is the most important.

The first 90% of a project might feel difficult, but that’s the creation section. It’s when you sit down to write and edit your story, it’s when you develop an iOS game, it’s when you build a piece of furniture, it’s when you write the draft of your essay or learn how to play a piece of music. Get the 90% right and you’ll have done a decent job.

The last 10% is making those things fly. Think about playing a piece of music. For ages, depending on skill level and the complexity of the music, you’re learning how to play it. You’re practicing notes, phrases, maybe even a few whole lines, and then you start playing it all the way through competently. You don’t hit any bum notes, you’re playing at about the right tempo/pace and volume. In short, you’re playing the piece and pretty well too. It’s so easy to stop there and call that the accomplishment. Or, you could keep practicing. You vary the tone of the piece, play around with the tempo/volume and bring your own style to it. You develop muscle memory on the tricky passages so that you don’t have to think about the technicalities of it, you can focus on the artistry and how to create that magical moment of audience silence as your last note dies away, the seconds when they’re too stunned to applaud.

Everyone’s stopped before they could have – whether because we’re time-limited, bored, or happy with ‘good enough’. That’s the 90%. It’s good enough, it’s competent, it’ll get done whatever you need doing. But unless you’ve put in the last 10% it’s not likely to have that zing, or flair, or excitement that something genuinely accomplished, polished and finished will have.

Writing my novella has reached its last 10%. It was written and redrafted, so I was done, right?

No. 90% was done – it was good enough, I could have slapped it on Amazon and been done with it. But I want this to be as great in its polish as I think it is in its story, so it needs that extra 10%. It needed the beginnings and endings of chapters tightening to make them as page turning as possible, it needed the first few pages revised because they weren’t as great as what came later, it needed a scene rewriting in a different location so we could hear from another character whose voice is important. It needed proof-reading for typos and odd word clashes or repetition, and my propensity to over-use semi-colons. But for all this, the fundamentals of the story – the 90% – remains unchanged. And then there’s the formatting to provide a good reading experience, making sure the fonts and chapter heading images work well on the device, getting a cover that does it justice and makes people want to buy it, writing a blurb powerful enough that people are inspired to click on the cover and read the first pages. I need to market it, because I need to get them to that page to read the blurb and see the cover, and click on them to read the sample. It’s like the novelist’s version of the house that Jack built, and it starts with ‘hey, have you heard of this?’

So the last 10% takes a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it, because I really believe that this is the best thing that I’ve written yet.

Writing structure: the suspension bridge


Today, I’m mostly working on structuring the novella I’ve been writing for the past couple of months. Having just completed a second draft, where I was focused on narrative voice, really getting the writing right – finding the voice I want and making sure that it’s consistent, which is an issue as I sometimes struggle with stamina, I want to make the reader’s experience structurally just as good.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge

James Scott Bell introduced me to the idea of the three act structure in his book Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth: Strategies and Techniques for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level . There’s a summary of this particular idea here. He’s not the only one by any means to have discussed such an idea, but he used the metaphor of a bridge, which I found really visual and easy to get hold of. From memory, his suggestion is that writing is like a bridge with supports at pivotal moments. Those supports are what propels the reader forward – in English Literature terminology, they’re the inciting incidents or the cliffhanger. Rachel Aaron calls them the ‘tree on fire’ moments (I’m paraphrasing; she suggests that the first section of your book is when you find your characters and put them in a tree – then you set the tree on fire and see what happens!).


In terms of my story, I kind of had this in mind when I was writing but having looked at the plot/word count for each section etc., I’m surprised that the acts are pretty equal, which is fairly stunning! It feels like a well-paced story, and maybe this is part of the reason, although it wasn’t part of the original design – I didn’t write with a specific length in mind, indeed the second draft was a good 50% longer than the first.

So my task today, having divided it into sections and chapters, is to strengthen those supports, to ratchet up the tension at the end of each chapter and section and provide the reader with that ‘must turn the page’ moment. You know the one: when the choice is finish the chapter and go do something else, or finish the chapter and ‘oh, just one more…’ Because when I’ve achieved that reader experience, that’ll be very satisfying.

It’s been a while…


Some days, the writing really just *works* and it feels great, and you have what people call ‘flow’. Some days, it’s harder – you can’t find the words, everything feels like a struggle and everything you write leaves you with the feeling that this, right here, is the worst written sentence not just that you have ever written but in the history of writing. 

The best days are the ones where the writing is hard, but it works. Those are the days that feel the most worthwhile, the most productive, where you’re working well and can see how it will continue. 

There are some ways to get this going, more days than it doesn’t. Build a daily habit of writing, a specific time, a specific word count, a specific place. Make sure that you write something at that time. It might not be the novel in progress or the best poetry yet, but it should be something. If you’re not in the mood for that short story, write a blog post! Anything is worth writing, just as long as it gets your subconscious into the habit of writing at the same time every day until eventually, it becomes strange and feels peculiar when you don’t write at some point during the day. 

Today I had a gorgeous day writing with several students aged between 11 and 15. The writing they came up with was super – funny, staggeringly honest, raw, beautiful. I loved hearing what they have come up with. I write at the same time as they do but I was reluctant to share it, for exactly the same reasons they were. But when I did, they were generous and seemed to genuinely enjoy the writing. I enjoyed the entire day, as something inspiring and came back with loads of ideas. 

Planning to edit – CPA1


The Saturday before I went away – a very nice long weekend in Whitby, beautiful sunshine, lovely hotel, good food, great company – I finished the first draft of what I’ve workingly-titled ‘CPA-1′. Finishing it before the holiday meant I had a few days’ solid break from working on it, which I find useful before editing. I like first drafts but revising and reworking is often a lot harder for me, as I find it challenging to see it as a reader rather than a writer. Putting it onto my kindle as a book really helped as I was able to get away from the desk and laptop, where I write,and avoid the ‘marking’ feeling of doing it on paper. Instead, reading in the sunshine in the yard on my kindle made it feel much more like the reading experience I was after!

Before I read it, I also went back to Rachel Aaron’s book 2k to 10k which has an interesting section on what she does and how she approaches her editing to create a ‘reader’s experience’ rather than trying to look at it as a writer.    See my post here for how that changed my writing in April. May’s been a similar story, although a few more days off for various reasons, which has hit my word count! It’s taken me about six weeks to write this story so far, mostly in the daily hour window I’ve allocated to writing fiction, with a bit more time at weekends.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I found when I re-read it. There’s a lot of work still left to do but I was pretty pleased with the story so far. It’s about two Chronology Protection Agents, who are assigned to work together at the Agency which itself is charged with protecting the timeline – what that involves is one of the major conflicts the partnership has. I’ve really enjoyed writing it, and enjoyed the re-read.

The editing process

First up – a section/scene break. While I’d written it in scenes, I did want to reorganise where I thought section breaks would be, which was easy using Scrivener as it’s just drag and drop. Each of the big post-it notes below represents a section, with three or four major scenes in them so far. Then, highlighting each scene according to its purpose so I can see where the character building/major plotline/subplots take place and whose point of view they’re in – I was surprisingly reassured that at the moment it seems pretty well balanced!

The smaller post-it notes give me three major jobs for each sections, in order of importance – a to do list, essentially – and the notes around the edge are some more generalised thoughts about what needs to happen, how characters need to come across and so on.

This is a major edit – I’d probably expect this to take most of June. There were also plenty of smaller things I  noticed as I was reading, which will come in a minor edit once I think the big issues are solved. As Aaron says, it’s almost pointless line editing when you’ve got a rewrite to do, and although it was a real struggle not to go back to my laptop and start doing that, I resisted!

Planning..the edit!

Planning..the edit!

What I like about this approach is that it’s VERY visual – easy to put together, easy for me to see what I have to do and where the major issues are, and that there is a built-in to-to list around each section. I like this way of planning and thinking, rather than making a strict list. I’ll see in the next few days how workable it is; I suspect I’ll end up putting some of it onto another sheet for more details, but for now it’s a great starting point on what to do next.