#TipTuesday: Time Management

This week’s tip is about something I myself need to work on: Time Management.

If you have any hobbies and a full time job, it can be a bit hard to balance all those things and writing. 8 hours of work, plus the “lunch hour” that’s tacked on, and then an hour in traffic both ways eats a good portion of any day. It leaves precious few hours for yourself, and so you have to choose how to spend those hours wisely. Here are a few tips on how use those hours in a way that balance social life and side projects with your writing.

Schedule writing days. Set aside days during the week that you will dedicate to writing. It doesn’t have to be the whole evening, but it should consist of more than one hour, in order to give you time to ramp up and get some stuff done. Having a goal for this time can also help increase productivity.

Have a dedicated social day. Mine is typically Saturday, but if you’re more religious minded, make it the holy day, since most days of worship involve spending a number of hours with other people. Since you are already with them, you can just continue spending the day visiting. This helps maintain your social life by doing something every week, but keeps it from overwhelming you.

Schedule hobby days. Just like scheduling writing days, schedule a day where you can work on your other projects. Again, this doesn’t have to be a whole evening, but enough time to actually get something done, with a goal in mind for the evening.

Keep a notebook and/or voice recorder handy. One way to keep writing, even when you don’t have much time for it, is to scribble things down in those moments you do have to yourself, even if it’s just a few minutes. These also come in handy when you have a sudden burst of inspiration and need to jot down or record an idea.

Write on your lunch hour, or simply daydream about the story. Any time you have to yourself can be used as an opportunity to write. Daydreaming about the story can be useful to work through problem areas, but make sure you have something to write down to final result, or you may forget later.

In the end, the important thing is to make time for writing, as well as your other hobbies. Look at your life, and find all those little moments that you can fill in, or simply organize your life to make space.

If even with all of this, you can’t find time to write, you may need to think about what your priorities are. It’s not a crime if writing isn’t one of them, there are more important things in life. However, if you want writing to be a priority, then you may need to cut something else out.

#TipTuesday: Constructive Criticism

“Your harshest critic is always going to be yourself. Don’t ignore that critic but don’t give it more attention than it deserves.”

– Michael Ian Black

One of the greatest skills any writer can have is being their own constructive critic. This is a skill acquired over a long period of time, however, as it’s hard to separate the constructive criticism from simple doubts. It can be even worse when coming from someone else, since outside voices often have more legitimacy than our own worries, or legitimize our inner  misgivings.

As such, today’s #TipTuesday will cover how to give good constructive criticism (to both yourself and others), and how to weed out what criticism needs to be ignored.

Good Constructive Criticism

The word constructive means “helping to develop or improve something” (Merriam-Webster). As such, constructive criticism is only useful if it helps improve the story or writer’s ability. To accomplish this, criticism needs to have the following qualities.

  • Brief and succinct, with a clear start and a finish; not endless. People can get confused if you carry on too long and become disoriented. If this happens, the criticism loses all value.
  • Relevant and to the point. If the criticism has nothing to do with the topic of discussion, then it simply becomes a distraction. It can pull people off-topic and then the matter that needed the criticism may never be examined again. Non-relevant criticism is also often received poorly or ignored, as the recipient is uninterested in criticism in that area.
  • Clear, specific and precise, not vague. Vague criticism helps no one. At best, it typically will frustrate the author and make them depressed since they don’t know what to work on. At worst the criticism is considered pure meanness or ignorance and discredits the critic.
  • Well-researched, not based on hear-say or speculative thought. Speculative thought only leads the author off into rabbit holes that ultimately fix nothing and wastes time.
  • Sincere and positively intended, not malicious. This should go without saying, but has been said anyways.
  • Articulate, persuasive and actionable, so that the recipient can both understand the criticism and be motivated to act on the message. “Actionable” often includes suggested solutions, or clues to finding solutions.

(Above items taken and edited from Wikipedia’s article on Criticism)

Constructive Criticism Template

The above rules can be hard to implement sometimes, however, and so having a good pattern to use when first working on being constructive with criticism helps. I recently read an article on Jane Friedman’s website about writing groups and giving good constructive criticism. In the article, Jane Friedman references Ed Catmull’s “Good Notes” principle:

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

What is Wrong

What is Missing

What Isn’t Clear

What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

These questions are a good baseline to use when trying to generate constructive criticism. If you are struggling to fill to answer a question, however, then don’t. While constructive criticism is helpful, it is only helpful when needed. If you have a hard time finding something to criticize, then the piece may not need it.

Bad Constructive Criticism

Even if your criticism meets the above criteria, it can still be considered detrimental if it falls into some of the following pitfalls.

  • Criticizes the writer, and not the work. No one needs or wants a personal attack, even if you truly think the problem is the person themselves. Instead, focus on the behavior that is causing the problem than the person. This will be generally better received.
  • Phrased poorly. If criticism is phrased in a way that it can be taken as a personal attack or simple insult to the work, it will be ignored. A good rule of thumb to avoid this is to try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Happens to be inappropriate. Certain social circumstances may make the criticism inappropriate, such as in front of a large group when the author is trying to sell their book. Instead, in the example situation, it might be more appropriate to give the criticism in private away from the audience.

Criticism to Ignore

Any criticism that doesn’t help often becomes detrimental. It can waste time and effort, or just give fuel to inner demons. If the criticism doesn’t help you identify and work on a problem, then it is usually safe to ignore it and move on with your writing. If you work consistently at your craft, and continue to strive to be better (and are open to good constructive criticism) then you will most likely overcome whatever problem the bad criticism was focusing on.

If the criticism really bugs you, then try to pin down exactly what the critic means. If you feel like you hit a dead end, however, don’t be afraid to ignore it even if that critic is yourself.

#TipTuesday: Pacing

“Pacing is not the sort of thing you can plan out beforehand, but you’re always aware of it as you write, because you need to make constant decisions.”

Jean Hanff Korelitz

One of the most important aspects of writing to me is pacing. However, I feel like it’s one of those topics that doesn’t get covered enough. As such, some people may not be familiar with the term.

Pacing, in regards to writing, is how quickly events occur to the reader. While changing how quickly things occur to the character can alter the pace, that’s only because the reader is seeing things through the eyes of the character. If things are happening to characters off-screen the pace isn’t affect nearly as much.

The pacing is challenging to balance because if you move too slow, a reader will most likely get bored, but going too quickly can lead to overwhelming the reader, who can’t process everything thing that has happened, or becomes emotionally drained from all the ups and downs with no rest.

A prime example of a pace that is too fast, for me at least, is Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. I’m typically a binge reader, but after three of Jim Butcher’s fast-pace magical detective novels, I was too tired to continue with the series. Don’t get me wrong, they have a wonderful plot and are a top seller for a reason, but they wear me out.

On the other hand, people may complain that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has too slow of a pace. The events in the book happen so leisurely since the reader has to sift through a lot of conversations, setup, and just plain words. This causes most readers to drop the book before making it past a few chapters because they are utterly bored. (I happen to not be one of them as I love Pride and Prejudice.)

Pacing isn’t just about keeping the reader’s interest, however. Pacing is also about setting a mood. In my short story Beneath the Moonlight, I purposely start the pace slow in order to create a deeper feeling of foreboding and sadness. Then when one of the other characters jumps, I speed the pace up in order to create a feeling of panic (admittedly it’s a subtle increase, since I’m still trying to maintain the sober tragedy of the piece).

How to Change the Pace

Changing the pace can be done in a number of ways.

  1. Words. More words or bigger words that take longer to read can slow the pace, as the reader takes more time to take in the event. Conversely, less words or shorter words can speed the pace up.
  2. Timeline. You can simply have events occur in rapid succession inside the timeline of the story, or space events out. Giving the character downtime will give the reader downtime too in order to recuperate.
  3. Dialogue. Typically, dialogue will slow the pace down, but if you do it right it can also speed up the pace by rapidly changing the character focus.

There are a bunch of different other ways to manipulate pace, but these are my basic go-to’s.

#TipTuesday: Writer’s Block

Hilary Mantel once said, “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.” (The Guardian, 25 February 2010)

No offense to Hilary, but I have never worked through my writer’s block by walking away from it. I do think that if you get frustrated, taking a break to destress can be a good tool since anger can cloud your thoughts. However, in the end, you have to go back to your work. As H. Jackson Brown Jr.  once said, “Don’t waste time waiting for inspiration. Begin, and inspiration will find you.”

As such, here are some tips on how to work through writer’s block.

  • Ask questions. If you’re having trouble with figuring out where to go next ask yourself questions about the problem. What is the villian’s goal? What does the hero know? What does the audience know? What does the audience need to see at this point? What is the backstory of the cyborg trying to kill the main character, other than just a bad guy thrown at the main character? Do we really want to kill him now that he has a backstory? Just keep asking, and eventually, you’ll ask the right one.
  • Close your eyes, and see through your character’s eyes. Don’t just think of the character as a piece of the story, but as a real person. What decision would they make at this point? Or take a step back even further and think “what would logically happen at this point between all characters?” Use your characters as fuel to drive your story.
  • Play with side ideas. Don’t just focus on what is happening at this point of the story. Think of everything else going on and how you can work that into the part you’re having trouble with. Looking at the story from a different angle can help open up new avenues.
  • Talk to someone. A nice trick in computer science when working on a problem is to explain it to someone else without showing any code. This is for two reasons. (1) For the obvious reason, advice, but also (2) because in the act of telling someone what the problem is, you will often see some detail that can help work through it before you can even finish explaining what you needed help with.

And the most important trick to conquering writer’s block is to never give up. Walk away for a short while if you need to, but always come back.