How do you choose what to write?

A narrow tunnel of old stones leading to a bright light

Photo via Visualhunt.

I always find it bewildering when someone asks a novelist “How do you decide what stories to write?” or “Where do you get your ideas?” Can they really be expecting a straightforward answer, as if we run a finger across the spines of books on the library shelves of our minds, stopping to pull a tome from the shelf and declare, “Ah, yes, this will do. This is the story I’ll write about today”?

That’s not how it works.

It’s more like those fantasy stories where a teenager is inexplicably and without warning suddenly sucked from their world and thrust into another one, where they’re called The Chosen One. They have abilities and powers they don’t understand and have never experienced before, and yet are forced by strangers to shoulder an incredible amount of responsibility by saving the kingdom—or worse, the whole world.

They stumble through as best as they can, giving it their all to do what seems right (and maybe just to survive), when all at once it’s over and they’re spat back out of the new world and into their old one. They’ve felt things, seen things, experienced things no one around them could ever believe let alone understand, and yet are expected to carry on as if none of it ever happened.

Writing is a lot like that for me. An idea pops into my head out of nowhere and consumes my thoughts, spiraling forward in plot but preventing me from experiencing my actual reality. Overwhelmed, I spill it all out onto paper, trying to satisfy the foreign world’s demand for a conclusion. When the end is reached and it has no more use of me, I’m left back here on earth, with kids to pick up from school, laundry to wash, and supper to make… my hands trembling and my mind reeling all the while.

As Stephen King in his book On Writing quoted Alfred Bester saying:

“The book is the boss.”

To think we story writers are in control of the birth of a story shows how little the inquirer understands the process. We raise the story until fully grown with the skills we’ve learned in the craft, and then release it into the world. But we don’t choose this baby over that baby before giving birth; it’s just born.

 
When you write, do you find yourself swept away by your story, too? I think readers can get a taste of what I’m talking about. Book hangover, where you finish the book but now your real life feels weird and you can’t stop thinking about the story you just finished, is a real thing. It’s also the closest thing to what I experience as a storyteller. How do YOU answer the question, “Where do your ideas come from?” or “How do you choose what to write?”

Type yourself

An Enneagram chart showing the nine personality types

Photo via Sarah A. Downey

I love introspective soul searching and dreaming about possibilities. I also love getting inside another person’s head to better understand what they’re feeling or thinking, or what their motivation might be.

As you can probably guess, I love personality quizzes.

When I was a freshman in college, we were required to take the official Myers-Briggs test. I learned I was an ENFP, but just barely an E. I knew I wasn’t a full extrovert, but figured the results proved I was an ambivert. After all, I loved going out with my friends as much as I loved being alone with a book.

When I was older, I began to question being an ambivert and took the MB test again, albeit an unofficial one online. I was definitely an introvert this time (although not as extreme as my husband). The description of an INFP is definitely more accurate of me.

I think parenthood can push a person’s extrovert/introvert meter toward the introvert direction since being needed by others constantly can be draining on anyone (so, an extreme extrovert might become an average extrovert, and a slight introvert can become an extreme introvert). That certainly was the case for me.

I’d also heard about the Enneagram, but since it cost money to take the official test and I wasn’t required to do so, I never got around to it. But yesterday I came across a link to a free unofficial test, which only took me five minutes to complete. It was enough to suggest my probable type, and since there’s a wealth of information at the Enneagram Institute Web site detailing the method, I was able to read up on it and confidently determine my type.

I’m a type 4—the individualist! It describes me very well, although I don’t tend to fall into depression. But my feelings can definitely run away with me sometimes.

I’m still reading all about it (I need to determine which “wing” I am, and so on), but I’m having fun. You can read about it on the official site too, or read the shortcut version at this Medium article.

After this, my next read will be Anne Bogel’s Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything. I always enjoy my binge reading/research, so I’m looking forward to this!

 
If you’re curious, you can take the 5-minute test as well. What’s your type? Do you like learning about personality types like I do? I find these helpful when getting into the heads of my characters when writing. But mostly I do them because I find them fascinating. I can’t help but type those around me as well, to better understand them.

Treat your writing as a job

A woman walking with purpose through nature, next to the words: I will write every day. I will write every day. I will write.

Photo via Visualhunt, modified under CC License.

As much as I love babies, mine are growing up and I just registered my youngest for kindergarten—that means from this fall I’ll have more hours during the day to dedicate to my writing! I’m sad about the growing up part, but I’m excited to be able to write without “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?” interrupting me every few paragraphs.

I’ve worked freelance before, so I’m using my past experience to set myself up for success. Without a plan I’d be ending each day still in my PJs wondering where the time went. So, how can I ensure I treat my writing as a job?

Show up every day

We don’t go to work only when we feel like it, or when it’s convenient. We go to work every day because that’s our job and we’ve committed to it, even when it’s hard. The same goes with writing. Sit your butt down in your chair each day, especially on the days you don’t feel like it or your writing seems terrible. Often we’ll look back and see it wasn’t so terrible after all, or find that all the practice increased our skills over time—practice we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t written in spite of our feelings.

Set up your office

It’s harder to get focused on your writing if your set up is the same as when you’re just surfing the Web at leisure. Have a special spot that you only sit in when working, whether that’s a designated desk or just at the kitchen table. My writing is better when I sit in a chair with both feet on the floor and my computer off of my lap, than when I’m curled up on the couch with my laptop like I do in the evenings when I try to relax.

This mindset shift is really important. Other ways you can help yourself get into work mode quicker is to have a uniform and/or have a beginning ritual, in addition to a dedicated work space.

The uniform doesn’t need to be a literal one, so much as clothes that feel like work clothes. People often quote being able to work in your pajamas as a benefit to working from home, but you’ll find you’re more productive if you dress with intention.

A brief ritual before beginning your writing can help as well: Pour the tea into your mug, sharpen your pencils, take a deep breath, and then re-read notes you left yourself when quitting yesterday (or whatever ritual works for you). Now you’re focused and ready to start.

Another part of setting up your office is to have any supplies you may need close by and organized so you don’t have to waste time looking for a pen, that specific notebook with all of your plot scribbles, and so on before progressing with your work.

Make a plan

You’ll never reach your destination if you don’t know where you’re going. Decide what it is you want to accomplish. Write a novel? Sell at least one article to a magazine or online publication a month? Draft a book proposal and query X number of agents by the end of the quarter?

Figure out your goal and how long you want it to take you. Let’s say you want to have a finished and polished novel in a year. Set the final deadline, break the project down into manageable steps, and then plot backwards in time until you reach today. Now you’ve got deadlines to keep you on track throughout the year.

Also, your goals will determine your daily process. Should you be spending each day only writing, or do some days need to be dedicated to learning about the craft? Perhaps one day a week is for research and another for marketing, and the rest are for writing. Your plans will shape your schedule.

Stay accountable

It’s easy to let things slide when you don’t have a boss or coworkers depending on you. Avoid this by becoming your own boss. You’ve already set deadlines on your calendar, so make sure you keep them. For me, it helps if I have set rewards for meeting each deadline and set punishments if I don’t (I get to buy a new book if I do, I have to take one of my husband’s chores for a week if I don’t; etc.).

You could also ask someone to be your accountability partner and have them occasionally check in on your progress. But “How’s it going?” and “It’s going well,” can be ambiguous sometimes, especially if your deadlines (checkpoints that are more defined than how you feel about your productiveness today) are spread far apart.

That’s why you should track your actions, and then their results. In the book 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron, she talks about keeping a spreadsheet tracking not only her hours and the number of words produced during those hours, but also where she was when she wrote them. This helped her to realize she produced her best work in a coffeeshop rather than at home, and if she had 4-6 hours to write uninterrupted. She didn’t have the Internet to distract her, and she could get in the zone if she wrote for more than 4 hours… but her energy petered out by the seventh.

So far I’ve learned that I do my best writing mid-morning, in quiet (no other people or music), and if I have ample time to spare. I don’t know how much yet though, because I haven’t had the liberty with children underfoot. But I hope to find out this fall!

Keep office hours

If this is your job, treat it like one. That means you begin and end at specified times, you turn your phone on “do not disturb” during those hours, and you don’t do house chores. You are not at home, doing work on the side. You are at work, which happens to be in your house. Your chores can wait until you’re done with your job for the day, just like anyone else who goes to work.

If you thrive with structure, you can even set a lunch hour and “smoke” breaks (mental breaks). I plan to give myself a 40 minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks. I can check social media and the like during this time, but I also plan to use them for stretching or short walks to make up for all the sitting I do while writing.

I will also set a specified number of PTO days and sick days, to accommodate life being, well LIFE. This way I don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “Well, I already fell off the wagon so what’s one more day of skipping going to hurt?” In the long run, it hurts a lot. Keep your accountability partner (or your spreadsheet) updated with the days you take off from writing.

Whether you work five hours a week or thirty hours a week, you need to set them in stone. This isn’t just so that you’ll take your work seriously, but also so that others respect your work as a real job as well. Which leads me to…

Protect your writing time

No, you can’t pick up the dry cleaning. No, you can’t walk your neighbor’s dog midday. No, you can’t make that call, run that errand, or take responsibility for something that’s not yours because you’re conveniently home during the day.

You are not available for the convenience of others. You have a job, and you are working during those hours.

And on that note, you are not available for your own convenience either. If you’re going to set a dentist appointment during your work hours because it’s easier than working around your hours, then take PTO off for it.

You won’t take your writing seriously if you don’t respect it as your job. Others won’t respect your hours either unless they see you drawing clear boundaries.

Having said that, the great thing about working from home is that you can set your own hours. So, you can decide to work from 10am until 2pm, leaving you time to run errands or make appointments in the early morning or the afternoon. How convenient! But don’t let yourself or others take advantage of your writing time just because you’re home. Unless you’re on your lunch break or take PTO, you need to keep your work hours for work.

 
I know I still have the rest of this school year and the summer left before I can start my new schedule, but I’m getting really excited! I can’t wait until I can make this my full time job (well, while the kids are in school anyway, heh).

Did any of this advice resonate with you? I hope it helps you with your writing, even if you can only devote slivers of time to it right now. And if there’s anything I missed, please share your wisdom! I’m always eager to learn more about how to improve my writing and my writing process.

How I found minimalism

A cat sleeping on a green armchair

Photo via Visualhunt.

Back in autumn of 2015, my husband and I had to make a decision: Were we going to sign a contract to work another year at the international school in Japan that employed us, or were we going to move back to the states? We struggled over the choice (especially me, who grew up there and considers Tokyo home), but ultimately we chose to finish out the 2015-16 school year and then move to the US that summer.

When we moved to Japan in 2010, we had brought 4 suitcases and 2 carry-ons of stuff, and left 8 boxes in a relative’s basement. We didn’t own much as a young couple only three years out of college, and our hand-me-down furniture had been easy to let go of. But when it came time to move back to the US in 2016, we had grown to a family of four and a house full of stuff, as well as furniture we had purchased with our own hard-earned cash.

It was overwhelming. I didn’t know where to begin.

Being a perfectionist procrastinator, I have trouble starting something until I have all my ducks in a row. So, as I always do when overwhelmed, I ignored the giant to-do list and chose to read about the problem instead. About that time, Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was quickly gaining popularity (also known as “the KonMari method”). I purchased a copy in hopes that it would help us downsize.

She wasn’t kidding about the life changing part.

If you’ve never had to downsize, let me put it this way. Every single item you own has become several questions. Do I love it? Do I need it? Have I used it in the last six months? Is it broken? Is it repairable? Will I repair it? Will I have space for it in our new home? Will this still be useful after we move? And in our case, will it cost more to ship this back or to replace it once we get there?

Imagine asking all of those questions about every single item you own, from your couch, to your plates, to your books, to your socks. The decision fatigue is incredible, and on top of that there’s the physical exertion of sorting and removing and cleaning and packing those things. Add hesitation and doubt to that mix, compounded by the number of questions you have to ask yourself for each piece. Oh, and don’t forget about your toddlers, who “help” by rearranging your piles—or who suddenly and desperately get attached to an item they didn’t care two bits about a week ago and was in the “to get rid of” pile.

EX. HAUST. ING.

So to simplify a process that makes you want to go boneless and lay there sobbing on the floor down to one question and no doubt is, as an understatement, an incredible relief. Just one question: “Does it spark joy?” And it either does, or it doesn’t. The end.

We were quoted by movers for a full shipping container before we downsized (since it was an international move, it all had to go by boat). After the KonMari purge, we had less than a quarter (equivalent of about 50 diaper boxes), too small for them to take on. We packed and shipped them ourselves.

It felt great. I felt accomplished. Our new house was free of clutter, and only had the things we really needed in it. I loved it.

But I blinked and found us a year later, in the states, with our new home feeling a little crowded again. How could that be? Didn’t we get rid of everything? Where did this stuff come from?

About that time, someone recommended the documentary “Minimalism” on Netflix to me. I watched it and the last pieces of the puzzle Marie Kondo had started clicked into place. She had taught me how to choose what to keep and how to get rid of the rest, guilt free. Minimalism freed me from the addictive need to bring unnecessary things into my life in the first place, and to make space for the things that really mattered to me.

Another reading binge.

I read every blog on minimalism I could find. I read several books on the subject (Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye, Things was my favorite). I watched YouTube video after video about it.

“This is it,” I thought. “This is what’s been missing from my life.” I’ve always craved order, but found it too overwhelming to maintain the order I wanted. Minimalism made so much sense to me. With less stuff, I’d have less to manage, and it’d be easier to create and keep order.

My home underwent another purge and tidy. But as I learned more about minimalism, I began applying it to more than just my stuff.

I started reevaluating my priorities and my values. I learned what things make me go nuts and began drawing clear boundaries to protect myself. I started considering actions I did out of habit instead of out of necessity. I began to view people differently, and was able to listen past the noises they were making to hear the need they were really asking for. I learned to breathe and to appreciate quiet.

Most importantly, I developed an attitude of gratefulness.

It’s 2018, and I’ve changed so much since that autumn of 2015. My home is not a stereotypical minimalist home with white empty walls, minimal pieces of modern furniture, and only the belongings that fit in a backpack or a car. I have kids after all, plus a maximalist husband. But the empty box for a home isn’t even the goal.

I want to make space for what’s important in my life—literal, physical space for the objects I own, figurative space for my relationships, schedule, and goals. As a minimalist, I don’t get rid of everything. I just remove the stuff that gets in the way of the things I love or the activities I choose to participate in or the relationships I value.

I’m a cozy minimalist (a hygge minimalist?). I keep just enough to be comfortable—not too much, not too empty.

I am happy.

 
What is something that makes you happy? Has something you read shifted your perspective lately? It doesn’t have to be about minimalism. I love reading about things that expand my perspective or help me to grow as a person. I also love fairy tales and YA fiction, so there’s that too, ha. I’m a reading mood, so if you’ve got a great book to share, let me know!

NaNoWriMo prep, part three: Notes and plans

A hand writing notes on pieces of paper

Photo via Visualhunt.

You’ve committed to NaNoWriMo this year, you’ve determined your goal for November (to have fun, to reach a word count goal, to finish a story, to make friends with other writers, etc.), and you’ve begun a daily writing routine to prepare yourself. That’s a great start!

But to further increase your chances of meeting your goal successfully, it’s time to make a plan.

Planners

You are a planner if—before writing—you need to figure out not only who you’re writing about and the general premise, but also all of the secondary characters and their backstories, the history of the world, the characters your protagonists know well (even though they never show up in the story), how your protagonists would react in scenarios that aren’t even a part of the plot, and so on. And of course you know the beginning and the end of the story, because you also know all of the scenes that will happen along the way. The climax is a given.

If this sounds like you, you’re a planner. My main tip for you is to not go so far into your prep that you get tired of the story before the story is even written. It’s okay to leave some things unknown, as inevitably things will change as you write, even with the best laid plans. Also, be aware that you tend to use research to procrastinate on writing.

If this doesn’t sound like you but you wish it were, it can be! I am a convert just like you. A lot of things contributed to the change in my writing habits, but the book 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron played a big part. She focuses on how to write faster, but she teaches in detail how to plan better so that you can write faster. Faster is only possible because of the planning.

I have always been and probably always will be a slow writer. When competing in word sprints (write the most words in 15 minutes) with other writers at NaNoWriMo write ins, I am almost always last place. But learning to plan in detail before writing has enabled me to write the rough draft only once. No more writing the same story over and over, trying not to write myself into a corner this time. No more multiple chapter deletions! Because I’m prepared, I can write the whole first draft in one go.

I love editing—tweaking, polishing, making the good even better. But I loathe slaughtering large swaths of words. I hate to have wasted the effort it took to write them.

Another influence in changing my habits has been Gail Carson Levine’s blog post “Taking Notes.” She mentions her notes process in many other posts as well.

If I do have to kill an otherwise amazing sentence or paragraph, I put them in my notes so they’re removed, but not gone. If I need to remind myself to insert something earlier in the story or pay attention to something during editing (anything to be taken care of later so I don’t lose my groove now), I make note of it there. If I need a place to keep track of details I’m not as familiar with, such as the MC’s sister’s boyfriend’s name that I just made up while writing, I keep it there for reference. If I’m daydreaming and suddenly think of a new scene I want to work in or some witty dialogue I want to use later, I keep them safe there until I can get to it later. And so on.

The great thing about these notes is that they are completely flexible and can hold whatever you need it to, and also completely private. No one but me will ever see these, so I don’t have to worry about complete sentences or typos. They’re also a safe place to rant when I’m struggling with something, like a difficult scene or some negative feedback. I usually feel better after writing down my frustrations.

So, when I write, I always have three windows open: my detailed plans for reference, my notes to type in as I write or edit, and my current draft.

Pantsers

If all of that sounds like way too much prep and not enough story for you, consider chucking it all out the window and becoming a pantser—someone who writes by the seat of their pants. This is the best option for someone who wants to write during NaNo for fun and has no intention to publish the end result. The point is to see where the story goes and to just enjoy the process.

It can be great fun! Often your characters will say and do things you never expected them to say or do, and you will learn things about them and from them. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t reach the end of the story. You might, but pantsers often get entranced by new ideas before they can see old ones through. If you’re okay with that, have at it.

Some published authors use this method all the time though, not just for NaNo. They love to revise, so exploring the plot and characters through the narrative instead of on a page of notes is more interesting and fun for them. They have the patience to see the story to its end, even though they’re taking the longer, more scenic route.

They feel more creative with this method, and maybe you do, too. But when I try to pants my stories, my plot becomes predictable and I often don’t reach the end. You can use NaNo to try this method and see if it works for you. It took me several years to realize it didn’t work for me.

Plantsers

If you like the idea of pantsing (the rush! the excitement! the mystery!) but want a little more structure (prevent loopholes or writing yourself into a corner), the middle ground is for you. Planner-pantsers, or plantsers, have a general outline they follow with some notes about the important things, but figure out the spaces in between as they go.

When trying this method, make sure you have your key scenes planned. The beginning (how the adventure starts), a few hurdles (what’s at stake), the climax (when everything goes to pot), and the end (how it all gets resolved). This will guide you in the right direction when you explore as you write so that you don’t end up stuck. If you feel stumped, jump ahead to the next key scene and work backwards to clear your way. (Remember, there’s no such thing as writer’s block.)

As a NaNo plantser, you’ll want to do some basic research ahead of time, but you won’t be as thorough as a planner. Take some time to consider what you might need to know.

Is this a fantasy world? Go to the library and check out some kid books on horses, swords, medieval fashion, or what have you. Nonfiction books for kids are great because they’ve been fact checked and have reliable information, but are quick and easy to digest.

Is this a contemporary world? Use Google Maps to explore the city you plan to base it in. Use Pinterest to look up outfit ideas for your characters. Go to a place that people of similar age to your characters hang out and just listen to the way they talk (and what about).

Let all of this mull around in your brain during October. Come November, you’ll be able to write with the confidence of a planner and the freedom of a pantser. Just watch out for either extreme of this style—too much research, or writing an impossible scene out of ignorance. Plantsers have a narrow balance beam to walk.

Have fun

No matter what method of writing you prefer, don’t forget that NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to stretch you as a writer, so though there will be times that you struggle, it isn’t supposed to make you hate everything. Try different methods and see what works for you. And enjoy your story, no matter how it comes out of you.

Next week we’ll talk about what you can expect during your NaNo journey. That first week will be so exciting as you begin the race, but what about when your enthusiasm wanes? What about Thanksgiving??? I’ll have some tips for you. In the meantime, start daydreaming about your potential story, and maybe check out a few books from the library to help you plan. You can even check out the official NaNo prep page they encourage participants to look at. Also, if you’re lucky, your region might be hosting a pre-NaNo meet up (either for prep or just for fun). Be sure to check the forums to find out!

 
This article is the third in a series about NaNoWriMo.
To see the other posts, click one of the links below.

NaNoWriMo prep, part one
Part two: Getting started
Part three: Notes and plans [that’s this post]
Part four: What to expect