Monday, February 22, 2021

Systems that Help Me to be a Super Prolific Writer by Shaunta Grimes



The one question I’m asked more than any other isn’t about any technical aspect of writing. It’s not about where I get my ideas or how I got published. No, the one question I’m asked the most is ‘how do you get so much done.’


To be honest, it’s kind of embarrassing.


The answer to that question is this: I’m an extremely disorganized person who is prone to never finishing anything. (Ever.) So, over the years, I’ve developed a series of systems and hacks that help me to do the things I want to do.


And as a result, I tend to get enough done that people comment on it. A lot. 


I’ll give you an example. Since November, I’ve:


  • Written seven short stories, a novel, and half of another novel.

  • Edited a third novel.

  • Written more than 50 blog posts.

  • Taught six two-hour classes a week in October, November, January, and February.

  • Ran three two-hour workshops every week.

  • Held more than 100 half-hour one-on-one coaching calls with my students in December.

  • Managed a team of seven as we worked to keep Ninja Writers up and running.


Whew, right? Even to me that doesn’t sound like someone who struggles with disorganization or not finishing things. And, I suppose, it’s not. Anymore. But it took me a long time to get there.


I have a few tools or systems that changed my life. I’d love to share two of them with you today. Before I do though, I want to point out one more thing. My systems haven’t just set me up for doing a metric ton of work.


They’ve allowed me to figure out a way to do a ton of the exact kind of work I want to do. I get to spend all day running an amazing writing community, teaching super-talented writers, and writing my own books. Plus, I work with an incredible team.


Sometimes, it’s hard to believe this is my life.


A Tiny Goal, Pointed in One Direction


A long time ago, I realized that I wasn’t getting anything done in my pursuit to do big, big things. If I couldn’t write 2000 words or in hours-long blocks of time, I didn’t write at all. That wasn’t working for me. 


And often, when I did write, it was on one of multiple projects.


As a result, I had no consistency. And even though I was writing, because I moved around from project to project, I almost never actually finished anything. 


My solution was to make a goal so tiny that it would be harder to skip it than just do it. That goal was to write for ten minutes a day. Just ten. Period. If I wrote for ten minutes, I won. But those ten minutes had to be on the same project until that project was finished.


I developed a ridiculously simple little tool that we call FRED in Ninja Writers. (The Folder for Reaching the End of your Draft.) It’s just a calendar and a log. I get a star when I hit my little bitty goal. And I keep a record of my work. 


It’s like magic. Honestly.


You can download your own FRED for free here.


Obviously, I write for more than ten minutes a day. But my tiny goal and FRED make sure that I write something every single day. Some days I can write a lot more. Others, I can’t. That’s okay. The magic is in steady progress.


A Planning System that Works With my Brain


My planning system has evolved over time. And to be honest, it’s still shifting. 


One of the most important planning systems I put into place was keeping a single notebook, rather than just picking up any old pad of paper when I wanted to write things down. My everyday notebook is my second brain. Everything goes in there.


I also keep several planners. 


One is a day-over-two-pages book where I note all my Ninja Writers appointments and everything else that’s scheduled. 


One is a notebook that’s far more free-flowing and artistic--I keep a daily to-do list in it. Because it’s creative and fun, I love to work in it, which keeps me on task with everything else.


One is a monthly calendar I use for future planning.


And lastly, I have a small planner in my wallet that goes with me everywhere.


Here’s a video of me setting up my planners for a week.


I’m aware of how ridiculous my planning system might seem to someone who doesn’t live in my brain. But look back at that list of all the things I’ve done in the last four months. It works--for me.


As my planning system evolved, I realized things about myself. I don’t do well with digital calendars or planners. Analog works for me.


I need to write something down to remember it. I need to see my entire month in one glance, but I also need to be able to plan out each individual day. A weekly planner doesn’t work well for me.


I can switch gears between one project and another pretty easily, so time-blocking works for me. 


I’m motivated by simple rewards. That means a sticker on my calendar and an unbroken streak are enough to keep me making a little progress every day. Carrots work for me, sticks not so much.


If something makes me happy, I’ll keep coming back to use it. My more artistic daily notebook and my everyday notebook make me happy, so I use them every single day. I’ve set up Asana and Google Calendars and Trello so many times, and then never looked at them again.


Bottom line is, finding the systems that work for you and with the way your brain works is important if you’re working to improve productivity and efficiency as a writer.


Monday, February 15, 2021

The Short Of It.

The Insecure Writers Support Group publishes an anthology of short stories each year, so it occurred to me that many of our readers might like to know more about writing short stories and what some successful short story writers have to say about their approach to this literary form. 

Dark Matter


First, what are short stories?  They fall into two categories: escape, which is designed to take you away from your real life, and interpretation, which is designed to deepen and broaden your awareness of life. 


Their word count is anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 words. They can only explore a portion of the three-act structure, and this portion must transform the main character. There’s one main character, there are no subplots, and they take place in a short period of time in one or a few settings. While they don’t have the complexity or length of a novel, they are no less challenging to craft. 


Some say they’re more challenging because, in a very limited space, writers have to include a character arc, have an intriguing beginning, a compact middle, and an end that is satisfying for the reader. While editing a novel requires a lot of time and dedication, editing a short story (at least for this writer) takes proportionally the same time and dedication. 


I’ve pulled together a checklist that I like to use for my short story writing, so I thought I’d share it here. The only original part of this list is the way I’ve collected the items over the years and arranged them on the page.


Before I write, these are questions I ask.

  1. Am I writing escape or interpretation?
  2. What character will get me the results I want?
  3. What are the three major plot points that will take the story from beginning to end most effectively?
  4. What POV is best for this story?
  5. What setting will serve this story best?


After I write, these are the steps to editing that I take.

  1. Put the story on the shelf for a couple to six weeks.
  2. Print out the story.
  3. Read it aloud without stopping.
  4. Read it aloud and make notes about the character’s consistency and his/her clear want or need, why this story takes place when and where it does.
  5. Make note of clich├ęs, filler words e.g. the fact of the matter was, passive voice when there’s no reason for it, adverbs preceding “said.”
  6. Re-write.
  7. Ask for critique.
  8. Consider feedback and make changes you accept.
  9. Read aloud.
  10. Re-write.
  11. Scratch out the last two sentences and read again. Decide if the story loses any meaning or if it has become sharper.
  12. Repeat 6-10 until the story shines.


Something a professor of literature once told me about reading short stories is to read them twice, once to find out what happens and the second time to find out the process that the writer used to create the story. Here are some excerpts from interviews by short story writers that give some insights into their process.


About his approach to writing, Chris Offutt says “The secret is to start a short story near the ending.”


Joyce Thompson has written two collections of short stories and has several pieces in the noted publication, Glimmer Train. She says to pace your story you should “…concentrate on the paragraph as a building block. Craft each one as if it were a poem…the fewer words it takes to tell [stories], the more timely they are.”


When asked “How do you know if what you’re writing is going to be a novel or a short story,” she replied, “To me, a story is a shapely thing. It’s like a circle. A novel, by contrast, is a journey.


David Long is a novelist, but he also has published a collection of short stories called Blue Spruce. He says writers have choices about how to develop a piece of material. Give it a “full scene” or summarize. They can also “account for a long patch in somebody’s life in just a sentence.” His example: And things went pretty smoothly for the next three years. However, he says, “Scene is always inherently more interesting than exposition.”


As in any writing, reading good examples is one of the best ways to improve your own work. If I could only choose four short stories, these are the ones I’d read:


The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Twain

The Lottery, Jackson

A Case for Kop, Boll

A Rose for Emily, Faulkner






Monday, February 8, 2021

The Contest Experience

 

By Stephanie Espinoza Villamor

Her story won top honors in the 2020 IWSG Anthology Contest. Dark Matter: Artificial comes out May 4.

 

I’m incredibly grateful to the IWSG, and to all the esteemed judges, for publishing my short story “Artificial” in the upcoming IWSG anthology. Being chosen as the winning author was such a thrill, especially among such amazing competition. Entering writing contests is not easy. There’s a difficult balance in adhering to a specific genre/theme, hitting the correct word count, telling a complete story in that space, and putting yourself out there to be judged by writing experts! This was my first year participating in the IWSG contest, but I’ve submitted work to local anthologies in the past and have been inspired to try more contests in the future. Whether you end up published or not, the journey itself helps hone your craft in a variety of ways!

 

First, of course, writing contests let you practice writing in general. Sometimes all you need is a good prompt to get the creative juices flowing. But they also help with discipline—you have to be able to meet deadlines and word counts. If you tend to write more on the wordy side (like me) this limit can help you flex those editing skills. If your stories are too short, the word count may trigger a search for places to add description that will make the world come alive to your readers.

 

Contests also offer an opportunity to find the best fit for your work. Most contests don’t just come to you. You have to seek them out and filter through them, like with the list on the IWSG Contests page. This search process is great practice for when you need to investigate which magazines, websites, agents, publishers, etc. accept the type of stories you write.

 

My best advice to consider when you’re entering a writing contest is to get feedback on your story from other authors. My writing group friends also offer encouragement and support to help me actually finish a story by deadline! I’ve been a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators since 2017, and while this year’s anthology audience isn’t for the children’s audience, a couple of friends from my critique group were willing to read my entry and send comments. I’d also formed my own writing support group with coworkers back in 2016, and we continue to meet virtually during the pandemic through Facebook. One of these friends told me, “I just know you will be published. You may even win first prize.” While I never would have believed it, having someone with that kind of unwavering confidence in you can get you through all the rejection, writer’s block, and self-doubt that we insecure writers face.

 


So, what can you expect once you enter a contest? There’s definitely a lot of waiting. I did my best to work on other writing projects to distract myself while waiting to hear back about the IWSG contest winners. Then I had to wait to share the news that my story was selected for the anthology since publishers often have a specific announcement day. The big reveal is always fun, though. I created a post on my Facebook author page to share with the awesome cover design.

 

Being part of the IWSG anthology involves a lot of marketing, especially on social media. I’ve had some marketing duties as a librarian, but this was the first time I’m really marketing myself. I updated my old author website, created the Facebook page, and started logging in to Twitter more. You don’t have to be on every social media platform, but pick a couple that you’re most comfortable with and post regularly to those. Your headshot is also an important marketing tool that will end up on websites, blogs, and social media—and getting a good one was challenging during the pandemic. My mom ended up taking my headshot outside her house with a portrait lens I bought to photograph my one-year-old. I think it came out great since I don’t look too much like the tired parent of a one-year-old.

 

Even without the pandemic, there’s always going to be challenges when it comes to the writing process and contest process. I went through several rounds of edits with the publisher to get my manuscript as polished as possible, and often spent hours at night thinking about whether to keep, remove, or change individual words. But that’s a good challenge that I know ultimately made my writing better. Overall, being a part of the IWSG anthology has been so fantastic and fun! Everyone I’ve met through this experience has been especially friendly and also well organized, keeping us moving forward as we get closer to our release date. Even though I’m doing a lot of new things, I never feel overwhelmed or alone.

 

I highly encourage members to participate in the next anthology contest, and keep up the good writing!

 


Bio:
Stephanie Espinoza Villamor is a librarian writer mom who lives with her husband and young son just outside Las Vegas. As a child she wrote her own books on dot matrix printer paper, and later started publishing in school magazines and newspapers. Ultimately, she earned a master's degree in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University, and now works as a college eLearning Librarian. She writes stories inspired by her supportive family and Hispanic heritage, especially for middle grade and young adult readers.