9 Universal Tips for Describing Your Characters

silhouettes(Image credit: Leadershipcriteria Clipart)

Character descriptions are one area where there’s no agreement on a single best approach.  Everyone has different desires and expectations.  Some writers paint vivid, exacting pictures of each character, down to eye and hair color.  Some readers love this, and have trouble “seeing” the characters in their minds without those details.  My approach, as a writer and reader, is the opposite.  I prefer to describe only what’s vital to understanding the characters and plot.  When I read, I form my own picture of the characters based on what they say and do, no matter what the narrator says.  I’ll even think, That’s not what he looks like! when I hit a detail contradictory to my self-crafted image.

However you handle character description, accept now that someone won’t like it.  They’ll ask why you didn’t provide the main character’s exact age or blood type, or say they glossed over your descriptions because they ran on too long.

Are there any approaches to character description we can all agree on?  I’ll take a stab at offering some below:

1. Don’t ever use the mirror/reflection cliché.  No bad wrong.

Having a point-of-view character study her/himself in a mirror or reflection screams, STOP HERE AND TOSS ME ATOP MOUNT REJECT.  It’s tough, but you’ll be rewarded for being more creative than that.

Does your narration jump between multiple POV characters?  If so, you can wait to describe this character until someone else is in control and interacting with her/him.

What if you only have one POV character, like in 1st person?  Personally, I don’t worry about describing 1st person characters right away.  At the beginning, I’m more concerned about getting you into her/his head and understanding how s/he thinks and operates.  I’ll slip details in gradually, where it makes sense to do so.  If s/he’s getting ready for a task, I’ll describe the equipment and gear s/he’s grabbing and putting on.  If they have unkempt hair, maybe s/he smooths it back to read something.  If s/he’s especially self-conscious or vain about some aspect of her/his appearance, that can also be leveraged to provide descriptive detail.  If s/he doesn’t give a crap what s/he looks like, and never mentions it, that’s telling too!

2. Length constraints translate into description constraints.

In a short story, or any place where you face a word count constraint, you have to decide whether lengthy descriptions really serve your plot.  I’ve yet to write a short story where anything hinged on a character’s appearance, so I tend to limit physical descriptions to a short, carefully chosen list of adjectives/verbs.

3. Genre also matters.

In romance or erotica, you’re probably free to go on and on, if it’s sexy enough; I have no idea.  Sci-fi and fantasy need a lot of room to describe non-humans and non-Earth environments.  Stories that take place on present-day Earth with regular humans have relatively less to establish, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to be creative.

4. Reserve your best and longest descriptions for the most important characters.

However much detail you prefer, be more generous with main characters and less generous with side-types (aka NPCs, for the nerds reading this).  This doesn’t mean you can’t have colorful side characters, but color is easy to establish with a few adjectives/verbs.

5. Take the POV character into account, and provide the description s/he would provide. 

Step into her/his head and try to see the other character through those eyes.  Don’t just write up a dossier- tell us how the other character makes the POV character feel, how s/he reacts to what s/he observes.  Remember that we all see the same people in different ways.  A warrior at a tavern might think the resident serving wench is cute and wonderful to talk to, while his cleric companion finds the same wench grating and manipulative.

zombies_nightofthelivingdeadNo love for clerics until these show up.  *sigh*

Descriptive metaphors are also lovely for implying things about the character- for example, “He darted in with the speed of a viper” is not a phrase I’d use for a sweet, compassionate character- but don’t put fancy expressions in a POV character’s head/mouth if they don’t belong there.

6. There’s no need to dump out description all at once.

A big paragraph of descriptive detail will be slow-paced.  Fine if that’s what you’re going for, but most of the time, you’re better served spacing out details so as not to hold up the story.  For instance, your POV character might notice a short man behind a store counter.  Then, as they strike up a conversation, s/he notices the store owner’s rancid breath.

In a fast-paced scene, tons of detail slams the brakes on your narrative.  To keep things fast, describe only what’s necessary to understanding the action, then elaborate more when the excitement’s over.

7. Provide more than physical appearance.

There are so many other things you can tell us about: voice, quirks, mannerisms, body language, etc.  Compare “She had blond hair” to “She twirled a lock of blond hair around her index finger, winding it tight as a spring.”  Now the reader potentially sees someone who’s thoughtful, flirtatious, a ditz- or perhaps pretending to be one of the three.  The words and actions you give her, and how the POV character interprets them, will help the reader decide for her/himself.

You can even do character description entirely with verbs, and no physical details whatsoever.  Readers will form different mental pictures of someone who flinches, wilts, and murmurs versus someone who barges in, towers, and yells.

Draw special attention to things that are outside the norm in your setting, or that are especially important to understanding that character.

8. Don’t TELL what you can easily SHOW.

My own preference maybe, but I get annoyed at scenes where Character A and Character B talk about as-yet-unmet Character C, only to info-dump about C.  “He’s the most badass renegade ever!  He’s so elusive!  Yes, but we need his help!”

Is that really necessary?  I’d rather see C (hah) being an elusive renegade through his deeds.

…you know, if we see him.  ‘Cause he’s elusive, and stuff.

elusiverobertdenbyKindly watch this amazing MST3K episode after you’re done here so I’m not wallowing alone in the comprehension of a torturous reference.

9. Place more emphasis on details that have plot implications.

If the plot never hinges on the fact that the main character has blue eyes, it’s fair to leave out eye color.  If, however, blue-eyed people are considered demigods in this world, it becomes staggeringly important.

Again, this is open to debate.  Go with what works for you, and what your readers expect, but hopefully the tips above lead you to more inventive, memorable character descriptions.

Do you agree or disagree with anything above?  Have your own can’t-miss tips for describing characters?  Feel free to comment and let me know!

Writing Good Intros: Don’t!

starwarscrawlThe most exposition any film ever needs- but this film was so well crafted that even if this crawl had been left out, you could’ve easily followed the plot.

Think of your favorite movie.  Play out the opening scene in your head.  You can see it now: there’s the protagonist, crossing the room to sit down on a chair in the center of the set.  She/He faces you, then spends the next forty minutes explaining who s/he is, what her/his world is like, who the other major characters are, what their lives have been like, and where they all currently stand.  Once that’s done,  s/he jumps up again.  “Great, now you’re up to speed.  Let the story begin!”

Wait a minute.  What the hell movie ever starts like this?  Screenwriters never do this- so why do novelists instinctively gravitate toward info-dumps in Chapter One?

Introductions are brutal pains in the ass.  Regardless of genre, fiction writers have to forge a balance between “Basil Exposition” (Austin Powers) and “Well, I guess the plot is none of our business” (Mystery Science Theater 3000).  It’s even worse for those who write in settings other than present-day Earth.  We fear throwing out too much technobabble too fast.  “Why don’t you reconst your flavo-fibes?!” (again, MST3K)

Many of us overcompensate.  Unlike a screenwriter, a book-writer has all the time and paper in the world- or so we imagine.  We must take time to explain the universe a little before throwing story at them.

It doesn’t work.  Every time I’ve tried this approach, it failed to impress the poor beta readers I foisted it upon.  Those names, locations, and past events mean nothing when presented as information disconnected from any actual story.  My beta readers had no context by which to start caring about it, so they didn’t.  It came off as a pile of self-indulgent crap I was making them slog through.  Many readers would flip several pages into my manuscript, to the point where characters appeared and were doing stuff, and would tell me, “Start here.”

In other words: having trouble writing an intro?  No problem!  Don’t write an intro.

darkandstormyNo.  Not unless you’re Madeline L’Engle.

A reader’s time is precious.  He’s got zillions of books to choose from, and here he’s selected yours.  Reward him with something that immediately reads like a story, not a lecture he’ll be quizzed on later.

Where should you start?  The conventional advice is “as close to the end as possible.”  I say that you should also introduce your main character(s) as quickly as possible, especially in a sci-fi/fantasy setting.  The audience needs someone who’ll help them navigate and understand this strange new world.  Going back to Star Wars: why didn’t the movie start with the Rebels stealing the plans?  That could’ve been a great action sequence, but it also would’ve pushed back the introduction to Luke Skywalker.  If we don’t meet him until an hour into the thing, can we really call him our hero?  This approach probably would’ve made Leia our main character- and once the switch to Tattooine occurred, we would’ve thought, Hey, where’d my space movie go?  Who the hell is this whiny jerk?

Once you have a good starting point, skip the exposition and launch right in, as if this were Chapter Five rather than Chapter One.  Let each sentence construct the universe in real-time.  If you have a lot of world-building to do, ease us in; don’t throw out too many unfamiliar terms at once.  Teach us about the characters through their words and actions, but don’t succumb to the temptation of having characters speak exposition to each other (“You know, Bob, now that I’m a level twelve conjurer, my home town of Tridiot is really proud of me!  Have you noticed how brown my eyes are?  I just adore cake.”).

A little mystery is good, valuable even.  If you don’t explain anything, that’s frustrating, but little questions-  Why’s he so angry?  Why’s this computer so important?  -are like burs that attach your story to your reader’s mind, motivating him to keep reading for answers.

Is this advice universal?  Nope.  Are there beloved classics that start with acres of backstory?  Absolutely, but most of them come from the pre-Internet days.  When deciding how to approach your intro, consider who your reader is.  Is he pulling your heavy leather-bound tome off his library shelf and curling up by the fire for a few hours of reading before bed?  Is he buying your ebook and skimming it in the fleeting moments life affords him?  Write however you like, but keep in mind what might compel your reader to stick with you or turn away.

Do you agree with my approach, disagree, or have further advice that could save writers’ hair from being violently ripped out at the roots?  Please feel free to share in the comments!

The Terror of Being Read

scaryread(Photo credit: David Niblack, Imagebase.net. Half-assed creepy filtering by me!)

My stomach knots up. My chest constricts. I’m stuck in a permanent cringe of humiliation, and can’t bear to be in the same room. I  seek distraction from a book or video game, but the horrid, I-could-just-die anxiety doesn’t go away until it’s over.

Am I on deck to give a big speech? Standing trial? No. My spouse is reading part of my manuscript for critique.

It’s ridiculous. The whole point of writing stories is for other people to read the shit you wrote. I’m 100% on board with this concept, until five minutes before someone performs the reading part. Then you have to pry the sample from my white knuckles.

There’s something intimate about fiction. Plot progression and characters take over your brain. In solitude, you refine and question and re-refine every detail until you can’t stand it anymore. You hope you have a winner on your hands, but part of you always fears that maybe, you’re just a no-talent fraud who’s wasted disgusting amounts of time. I’m not the delicate flower who needs everyone to kiss my butt and tell me how great the story is. I want constructive criticism. It’s just that the process of obtaining it feels like someone’s dragged out my lingerie drawer to go rifling through in public.

Granted, I’m a shy and introverted person.  I’ve also grappled with a weird assortment of anxiety issues my entire life. Is this another manifestation of those issues? Is it something that will ever go away?

What about The Daily WTF? you might ask. You’re published there once a month.

It’s not the same. First off, it’s not my story, one I’ve been developing for years. I’m relating a story submitted by a fan. The narrative structure and embellishment I add doesn’t change that. Second, my editor tweaks submissions to his liking before publishing, so I’m used to looking at the final product and seeing some words that aren’t mine. Finally, I know to be wary of audience reaction.  There are thousands who read the site and love it, and thank goodness for them, but you’d never know they existed if you went by the site’s comment section.  Happily, the fans who are active on the Google+ feed are a pleasure to interact with.

One thing’s for certain: sharing my fiction isn’t something I’ve done a lot of yet. It lies outside of my comfort zone, but that’s where all self-improvement comes from.  I hope repeated practice will make it less excruciating someday.

Do you feel this sort of anxiety when sharing your work?  Have any coping mechanisms?  Please comment and let me know!

Dear Inner Editor: Shut Up And Let Me Write!

Ellis_Editing(Now witness the full spectrum of Ellis’ Editing Pens of DOOM!)

I don’t know where my 24×7, hyper-critical inner editor came from, but I have some theories. I’m super self-critical with everything I do, for one.  For another, I like spelling and grammar.  Although I chose an academic path rife with proofs, derivatives, and computer programs, I always scored higher on verbal aptitude tests than math or science ones. Also, I grew up in a house where one parent wasn’t a native English speaker. To this day, I help my mom with unfamiliar words and phrases, and do line editing for her articles. Finally, I work in a field where clear and accurate written communication means the difference between happy users, and spending all night on the phone fixing a broken server because someone screwed up the preferences in their INI file.

My inner red pen has long ago lost its cap, and hovers constantly over my brain. There’s little occasion for me not to think carefully about every word, command, or instruction I type-

-except for that magical time when I need to stop analyzing, and start slamming out a first draft.

I never realized until recently how badly editing-in-place has crippled my progress with fiction writing. For years, I’ve been the type who needed hours to generate and massage a few new paragraphs. I thought that was just “how I work.” No- that’s not how first drafts should work for anybody. Think of a sculptor starting with a block of marble.  Does he sit down and immediately chisel out Venus de Milo?  Nope- he hacks out a rough outline, then narrows in more and more, refining and polishing one section at a time. So it is with writing.

I’m more aware of my bad habits, and better about ignoring the desire to fine-tune the first words I put down on paper. I start with stream-of-consciousness drafting, writing whatever comes to me. If that stream dries up and I find myself getting stuck, I throw down whatever ugly words I can, brace them in brackets and/or highlight them, and keep going.  When I return to edit, I’ll know this spot needs extra attention.

pick_word_later Screw you, that’s a word.

Pausing to deliberate every word destroys your productivity.  When you’re not making progress on a story, you’re more likely to get frustrated and give up on it.

Don’t get me wrong: you should be picky about the right words coming out of the right heads and mouths, but your first draft isn’t the time to figure this out.  You may think you know your characters and plot, but they can change on you over the course of drafting. When you go back and read from the beginning, you’ll probably find yourself saying, “WTF? He wouldn’t do/say that!”

Now, what if you had heavily polished every scene before moving on to the next?  Out of a desire not to squander the time invested, you risk clinging to dialogue that doesn’t fit your characters, and scenes that should be dragged out back and shot.  (I have never done this- ahem.)

Your first draft is your own private journal full of notes to self about how you ultimately want the story to go.  There’s no reason it can’t be silly or funny. Use whatever words are in your head that fit the general sentiment you want to refine later- even if that word is “shit,” and even if your character/narrator would never say “shit.”  Come to think of it, “shit” shows up a lot in my drafts.

scheisseThere’s really no other word that sums it all up so perfectly.

Only when your notes are done, and you know where the story ultimately leads, can you go back and ensure every scene, line, and character serves that purpose.

Do you have any tips for loosening up and silencing the inner editor who demands immediate perfection? Drop a comment and let’s discuss!

The Manuscript That Didn’t Kill Me

EllisMorningCover_rev043-CROPPED(Artwork by über-talented Chris Howard)

…but it was a near thing!

I’ve been talking nebulously about this novel I’ve been working on for years, but guess what?  I finally have a completed first draft.  It’s a thing!  You can read it straight through (sort of)!  It’s really rough in some places, but won’t be for long!

Time to introduce it to the world.  The book is called Blood’s Force, and will be the first of a series of books I’m calling Sword and Starship, because I’m all about bludgeoning you in the face with the concept.

It started as an innocent doodle I threw down at work in 2005 or so, about a knight and her squire who traversed the galaxy in a junker of a spaceship, looking for quests.  A few years later, I dusted it off to see if I could make a proper story out of it- and it exploded. The characters and plot have changed drastically. Four or five times, I had 75-90% of a first draft done, only to come up with a better idea and have to scrap everything.  I spent idiotic amounts of time editing before I was finished, only to lose several polished scenes.  At many points, I considered giving up. Something didn’t let me.

In the end, only the core conceit remains unchanged: a knight traveling by spaceship, seeking quests.  Here’s a more mature blurb:

Dame Jessamine is a knight errant with a spaceship for a steed, one of the few educated in the scientific and technological “magic” of the ancient past.  Her latest quest pits her against a strange phenomenon that threatens to cripple a prominent trade guild.  In a galaxy where superstition is law, she must protect two innocents and uncover the truth that will prevent the destruction of an entire planet.

My intention is to self-publish, but not until it’s as shiny as I can make it.  I’m super-excited to be working with Chris Howard and RJ Blain on cover art and developmental editing, respectively.  Above is a crop from the rough cover Chris has put together, which thrills me to no end.  This is actually happening.

For the next few months, I have two big tasks:

(1) Edit the hell out of the manuscript to my own best ability. RJ, I’m the type of person who hires a maid, then runs around frantically cleaning the night before s/he comes over.

(2) Put together a short story to introduce the universe and principal characters.  It’ll be a standalone prelude to events in Blood’s Force.  I’ll make it available for free in hopes that it attracts people to the series.

My timeline looks like this, but is subject to change:

February 2014 – Self-edit Blood’s Force, outline and draft the intro short story.

March/April 2014 – Slated to work with Chris on cover art (he’s gotten an early start, though).

June 2014 – Leave my full-time job. (Super-secret quit date, don’t tell anyone!)  I’ll be able to devote a lot more time to editing and writing.  If I finish my editing before September, I’ll start drafting the next Sword and Starship book.

[?] 2014 – Finish and distribute the short story.  I want to do it ahead of the book, but not so ahead that people lose interest during the intervening wait.

September 2014 – Developmental editing with RJ.

January 2015 – Done with editing?  No idea if this is a good estimate, but it’s what I’ll aim for.

[Sometime early 2015] – Compile and soft-release Blood’s Force for free to mailing list subscribers, and/or anyone interested in leaving an honest review on Amazon.

[Sometime early 2015++] – Hard release.  I’ll immediately start outlining/drafting the next Sword and Starship book, if I haven’t already.

I’ll post occasional updates here, and lessons learned, as this my first self-publishing experience. If you have advice or encouragement, by all means shout out in the comments.  However, I won’t be turning this blog into a wall-to-wall book countdown.  If you’d like more granular updates, and would like to be part of the soft release of Blood’s Force, sign up for my mailing list!

4 Tricks to Improve Writing Productivity

coffee(Photo credit: David Niblack, Imagebase.net)

In my last post, I described ways I’ve freed up time for myself to write. Great- I should be churning out novels by the hundred!

Well, no.  Two years later, I finished a handful of short stories, and kept treading water on my novel manuscript.

Something still wasn’t clicking. Then, I joined a writer’s group for a few months, looking for feedback on said manuscript. While attending those meetings, I finished and brought in a new chapter almost every week. Then I stopped going… and one chapter a week became one a month, if that.

There’s something about applying a little pressure to yourself that’s very helpful.  At my full-time job, when I need to get something done, I get it done- even if I have almost no time to do it, even if I don’t feel like it. Why not apply the same discipline toward something I really care about?

Finding time to write is important, but just the beginning. Let’s break down ways to transform opportunity into words on paper.

1. Establish the Habit

I love getting into “the zone” and melting several hours in creativity binges, but getting there always requires me to push past feelings of fatigue, reluctance, and procrastination. I had a long day at work and my brain’s fried. I want to watch this kitten video. Oh wait, there’s this article… oh no, I didn’t study my Spanish for the day!

I mentioned creating a ritual before- a consistent thing you do to signal to your brain, “Put that other crap aside. We’re writing now whether you like it or not, you stubborn son of a bitch.” It should contain a positive element, something you’d miss if you wussed out and didn’t sit down to write. You’re training your brain to respond to this stimulus with writing, and also rewarding yourself for your discipline and dedication.

My ritual: I make a single cup of coffee- something I love and need on weeknights to prevent myself from passing out on the couch- sit down in my writing place, throw on music (I like soundtracks and instrumentals, anything without lyrics) and sometimes light a candle. Then, assuming I’m drafting, I open Scrivener and read a few prior paragraphs to remind myself where I left off. I make myself enter at least a few new sentences, no matter how constipated my brain feels.  If I can’t form sentences, I put down fragments- something I can go back and turn into real sentences later.

vomit_draftActual chunks of word-vomit from my manuscript. Consistent tensing and even full character names are out the window here- I’m just getting thoughts down.

It’s like pushing a boulder down a hill. That momentum will usually carry me into my zone.

2. Eliminate Distractions

If you’re pulled out of your zone, it takes a long time to get back there (I can attest to this as a writer and programmer). Do whatever you can to reduce the chance of something disrupting you.

Some ideas: write in a room with a door you can close (and keep out cats who gnaw on cables to get your attention- ahem). Let your family know you won’t be available during that time. Leave phones, TV, and computers outside if possible.  If you can’t write on anything but your computer (me), but are easily distracted by IMs and tempted to Google this or that (also me), try a few things: first, close out all applications except your word processor and music player. Second, kill any notifications or sounds that might pop up. Third, maximize your word processor window so you can’t see stuff behind it. If it has a “full screen” or “composition mode,” that’s even better.

3. Set Goals and Deadlines. Yes, Seriously

Nooo!  What’s the deal with this?  Creativity doesn’t work on a schedule!

Doesn’t it? I’m not about to diss the revelatory brainstorms we’re all struck with at random points in the day (for me it’s right before falling asleep), and I won’t deny there are days I feel more inspired than others.  However, plenty of good creative work happens as a result of pressure, or a preferred solution falling out.  Coming up with workarounds is a perfect creative exercise, and sometimes those workarounds are better than the original solution.

One example is the famous “duel” scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was originally supposed to be an elaborate melee, Indy’s whip versus the thug’s sword.  As it turned out, Harrison Ford was ill during filming, and couldn’t make it happen.  He asked Steven Spielberg if he could just shoot the guy instead. Fin.  (Read up on the stuff Ford has changed and ad-libbed in various films- he’s really good at enhancing his roles.)

When you treat writing as a nebulous activity that gets done when it gets done, you risk falling victim to Parkinson’s Law, meaning your work in progress might never get done.  Deadlines are a way to create urgency, measure progress, and feel good about how far you’ve come.  You might not always meet them, but striving for them is better than not challenging yourself at all. As mentioned before, I somehow managed to polish a chapter a week around my full-time schedule when I really wanted the feedback.

Daily/weekly/monthly goals feed into this as well. They can be for whatever is most important to you. Here are mine for example (I keep track of them in a spreadsheet for maximum geekiness):

5,000 new words/week between the following:

  • 1 or 2 chapters first-drafted in my manuscript
  • 1 week turnaround time for The Daily WTF from submission to first draft
  • 1 blog post (about 1,000 words)

goal_trackingJanuary 2014 breakdown so far.

Don’t worry about other people’s output capacity, just strive to improve your own over time.  So far, I’ve been exceeding my goal by a few hundred words every week, even with a day or two each week completely off. I might try increasing this to 6,000 next month as a challenge.

Should your goals be SMART? Up to you. I think stretch goals and are-you-f#@king-kidding-me goals can be rewarding too, if used properly.

4. Work Smarter, Not Harder (Barf)

My biggest weakness with writing is that my inner editor is never satisfied.  I’ll go back and tweak things endlessly before I’ve even got a full finished draft.  I’ve spent hours making scenes PAINFULLY AWESOME… only to have to cut them later.

When writing your first draft, stick to putting words on paper. Resist the urge to go back until that part’s done, and you’ve got a good idea what scenes are staying, what scenes are going, and what needs extra work.  Otherwise, you risk churning over the same crap for years.

If you’re like me, questions pop into your head all the time while writing.  “Did he already provide this info?  Was she carrying this item in a prior scene?  Can people actually drown in quicksand?” (The answer is no.)  Instead of stopping to look up this information, I insert TODO comments into my document to remind me to check during a non-writing time.  If it means I can’t work any further on this scene, so be it- I go to a different scene.  Knowing my tendency to get sucked into mesmerizing hours-long info grabs, I don’t let myself start.

And that’s another point: especially while first-drafting, you don’t have to write from A to Z.  Skip around to whatever excites you most.  The scenes you don’t want to write?  Hold off on those and give them some thought.  After all, if you don’t want to write them, no one will want to read them.  Figure out how you can make those more interesting to yourself and your readers.

Good luck!

Applying disciplined effort toward goals sounds an awful lot like work- but, this is work we define for ourselves.  We’re in it for us, our readers, and everyone who believes in us.  Seeing tangible results faster may be the motivation you need to keep from abandoning a work in progress during one of those “dark times.” More on that later…

In the meantime, feel free to comment and share any other tricks you may have!

8 Tricks for Finding Time to Write

hourglass For most of the time I’ve dabbled in writing, I truly was dabbling. It was a hobby I ran with when I had time and inclination, and let slide when I didn’t. Things got done when they got done, if they got done at all (I have a huge folder of things that petered out in 80 pages or fewer).

And that was OK, for a while. Then I decided I wanted to get more serious- buckle down and actually finish the novel I started in 2009. I’d be done in 2012, for sure! Then 2012 slipped by, as did 2013.

Making that commitment didn’t make me any more productive than before. It frustrated me. How was it that I could always power through my work assignments, even the boring stuff, but couldn’t make progress on things that truly meant something to me?

The problem was that I’d changed my attitude, but not my behavior. I was terrified to make writing anything at all like work. Work was an obligation. Writing was my glamorous secret identity where I could relax and play. If writing gained even the slightest stink of work, I’d start to hate it- then what would be left?

Was it really all or nothing, though? Could it be possible to import my work ethic, but not all the other stuff I disliked (meetings, test plans, dragging my butt out of bed at unholy hours)?

I decided to give it a go. The first step was freeing up time to write. Never mind that I’m a zombie most weeknights- I’d worry about that later. I’ve been experimenting with different tricks to houseclean my schedule, and I hope you find them useful as well:

1. Journal your time for a week or more

Record what you do for every hour of the day. As with all budgeting activities, it’s a truly eye-opening experience.  How many hours are devoted to sleep, work, commuting, chores, TV, goofing off on social media, or playing The Walking Dead (and then curling up in a corner to sob)?  Once you have hard data, you can start on analysis.

wordcountchartCongratulations- you’re a manager!

2. Decide what your priorities are

Soul-searching time.  Decide what activities are important to you (ex. work, exercise, cooking) and what aren’t.  Now, where does writing rank among those?  For me, it’s pretty high, so stuff that isn’t as important as writing is getting reduced or eliminated.  I’m not giving up Google+ or sobbing because holy shit they killed off another character, but I split my weeknights so some are devoted to decomposing on the couch, and others are devoted to writing.

Also, are there any tasks you hate doing? Do they sap a lot of your time, mood, and energy? This may be a great time to figure out how not to do them, or do them better. I’ve successfully negotiated work-from-home arrangements because I really dislike commuting, for instance.

Everyone’s priorities and schedules are different. You may have a grueling schedule and can’t do much about it right now. In that case, you may need to acknowledge that writing isn’t a priority for you- right now.  It’s OK- where you are currently is never permanent.  You can always take steps to re-prioritize in the future.

Once you’re down to the essentials, you can look at ways to save time on the stuff that can’t be eliminated.

3. Delegate tasks you don’t have to do yourself

My spouse and I split chores.  We use Amazon Subscribe & Save to have some items shipped on a recurring schedule, saving us trips to the store.  Others go so far as to hire personal assistants from India to handle their bill-paying, blog-writing, and other stuff. That’s a little extreme for my tastes, but the option exists and works well for some people.

4. Consolidate tasks you have to do yourself

Most of us can’t ask to work fewer hours in a day, but we can reduce the amount of time errands and chores take out of our schedules. Tim Ferriss broke down the concept of “batching” tasks in his book The 4-Hour Work Week. Bundle up related items to do just once or a few times each week.

For instance, save up all your bills/invoices from the week and spend 30 minutes on one night of the week reviewing and paying them. Go grocery shopping no more than once a week. Wait to do kitchen-related chores when you’re in the kitchen anyway.  (Waiting for the microwave to beep is a great time to put away dishes.) Other ideas: make meals ahead of time to be frozen/consumed through the week, or run multiple outside errands in one trip.

5. Relax standards where possible

Let things be “good enough” rather than “perfect.” For example, I’m toning myself down from super-anal to just mostly-anal when it comes to keeping the house clean.  Certain chores are still weekly affairs (ex. laundry), but others are now just for when company’s coming over, or I can’t stand it anymore (ex. dusting).

6. If you can’t overcome temptation, get rid of temptations

Cancel cable TV and put away gaming consoles. Write in a notebook, if you find yourself hitting your web browser every five minutes. Drastic perhaps, but you can’t waste a whole evening farting around on the Internet if you’ve put away your computer and unplugged your router.

7. Make writing appointments, and keep them

Once you have room on your calendar, decide when it is you like to write and make recurring appointments at those times.  Don’t let anything short of a true emergency disrupt them. When appointment time comes, create a little ritual to get your brain used to the idea that this is writing time. I like to sit down with coffee, start up music, and occasionally light a candle as well.

hd-wallpapers-valentine-s-day-candle-light-dinner-1196x837-wallpaperOoh baby, you’ll be dropping 3,000 words like THAT

It’s not guaranteed that I’ll throw down gleaming pages of awesomeness every time.  That’s not the point. The important thing is not letting myself wimp out. Even on days I don’t feel up to it, I’m surprised what happens once I sit myself down and grind out a few sentences.

8. “Ninja” writing into your day

If nothing else works, you could try sneaking writing into your normal day.  Jot down notes during your commute, if you’re not driving or biking.  Slip away to write during your lunch break.  At slow points through the day, write in a notebook or application like Evernote, Simplenote, or Google Docs- that way, you can access it from other computers without having to save and email files around.  Throw on headphones and look busy.  If you’re super ballsy, you could even schedule a meeting just for yourself on the calendar so coworkers don’t bother you.  (You could.  No actual endorsement of this suggestion implied, OK pointy-haired bosses of the world?)

Personally, I don’t get good fiction done this way, but it works well for blog posts and articles. Slow time at DAYJOB might also be a good time to do light research for anything you may be writing- unless Internet traffic is heavily monitored. If you’re not an IT nerd already, make some friends in your IT department and ask them about how/if Internet activity is watched. We don’t bite.

Good luck!

With more time to write- even if it’s only an extra 15 minutes a week- you open up an opportunity you didn’t have before. Taking maximum advantage of that opportunity is what I’ll be breaking down next. What are your favorite time-creating tips?  Feel free to comment and let me know!

Everyone’s A Storyteller

Chances are good that if you’re here, you tell stories all the time. If you don’t think you do, you might think differently in a moment.

Stories are, hands-down, the best way to communicate information in a way that’s engaging and relevant.  Whether you’re trying to make friends at the bar or land that huge account, science proves the benefit of being a good storyteller.

Wired for the Narrative

Before we could print and bind books, the human race gathered around campfires to relate how we killed that lion, or how an unexpected turn in our daily walk led to a new patch of berries. Hearing about someone else’s actions and descriptions lights up our brain in a way that naked facts can’t (more info here if you’re interested).  A full narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. When we recognize the beginning of a narrative, our brains jump on board. If the storyteller advances the narrative in a competent, coherent fashion, we’ll stick with him/her to the end.

I wrote two introductory posts for this blog. One is a brief hello and what I intend for the future of this blog. The other is a story about how I came to be here, and the transition I’ll be making toward more serious writing. Which one’s more compelling? In the first one, Ellis is yet another hopeful would-be author/blogger who wants to do the author/blogger thing- whatever. In the second, Ellis is presenting her unique history and baring large, bloody chunks of her heart (eww- she should probably put those back).

Stories humanize the storyteller.  He/She becomes interesting and relatable, rather than a spewer of words I should probably pay attention to, but… ugh, if this is all in the PowerPoint, I’m just gonna read that.

See the Hidden Stories

Salesmen, marketers, propagandists, and politicians already know how well humans respond to stories. They spin profound tales to influence your behavior, oftentimes without it being explicit. Many of the most infamous ads ever made tell stories- about the noble savage who mourns the destruction of America’s landscape; about an innocent girl vaporized in nuclear holocaust, because her parents voted for Barry Goldwater. Think of the puppy who grows up before our eyes, strong and happy, on the right dog food; or the family Christmas that isn’t complete until a gift-wrapped luxury automobile rolls down the snow-covered driveway.  (The story ends before the years of crushing car payments begin.)

It isn’t all cynical, though. Consider customer testimonials and product reviews. Someone tries something, has a positive or negative experience, and relates his/her story. Sure, it’s nice to get a description of features from a manufacturer, but we feel much better about buying or passing when informed with the experience of others.

It’s Your Turn

What about you, storyteller?  How can/have you put stories to work in your own life? Blog posts, presentations, lectures- they’re all more effective when information is presented as a narrative. Real-life examples are doubly good for showing how  concepts shake out in the wild.  But hey, if you can’t provide the real deal, fiction sells too. Here’s how far too many Computer Science lectures start:

“Today we’re going to talk about queues, a very important data type.”

You can already feel yourself slumping in your chair. Out comes your smartphone for some serious Angry Birding.

How could we make this better? Wake up those eager young minds with a story.

“Our friend Bob just got hired at one of ConMusicCo’s brick and mortar stores.  He’s working in the IT department, but had to spend a few days on the storeroom floor for orientation.  The one thing that stuck with him was all the grumbling customers standing in huge checkout lines.  The store has five cashier lanes and room to add more, but management’s reluctant to do so, claiming customer wait times aren’t a problem…”

You’re just dying to know how Bob comes to the rescue with his amazing programming powers, aren’t you? OK, so it’s not “Who shot JR” levels of suspense, but it beats the heck out of learning about queues in a vacuum.  It’s even more engaging if the lecturer involves the students in telling the story.  They can work together to help Bob build a software program to model customer wait times with and without additional checkout lanes.  By the end, management gets a clue, the story has a happy ending, and the students have an idea of the queue datatype’s advantages and limitations.

The Point

Storytelling isn’t just for word-jockeys with their heads in the clouds (like me). We all respond to stories, we all tell them. People who are really good at it deserve respect.  Applied in the right ways and times, their powers can comfort, inspire generations, or change the course of history. If you’re only an occasional dabbler, get better at recognizing and telling stories.  It could make a huge difference to your career, wallet, and life in general.

Feel free to comment and introduce yourself. What kind of stories do you tell?

Hello World 2.0 – At the Edge, Staring Up

(Picture I took at the top of Mt. Evans, Colorado – June 2012)

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ellis. Sort of.  “Ellis” wasn’t her real name, but let’s overlook that for now.  Ellis was encouraged to do well in school so she could get a degree and a high-paying job, so she tore through 7th to 12th grade earning As in every class.  This was good, because it earned her a full ride to a nice university.  This was bad, because amid all that memorizing and studying, Ellis never figured out what kind of adult she wanted to be.

The elders in her life nudged her toward Computer Science, a field that was sure to be in huge demand.  It took a whole semester to figure out what the hell she was doing, but after that, she liked programming.  It just wasn’t something that excited her.  She never lost herself in loops and case statements for hours on end, the way she lost herself in stories or sketches.  Her programs behaved properly, but weren’t elegant.  Her brain shut down in protest any time she even peeked at advanced problems in algorithms.

Four years later, Ellis earned a Computer Science degree… and the knowledge that she didn’t want to be a full-time developer.

An office job seemed the only way to go, though- something to do for eight hours, then off to peace and freedom and a big paycheck.  It seemed even better than school, because there’d be no homework or studying.  The ample nights and weekends would be Ellis’ “real life” full of fun stuff, like the hobbies she hadn’t fully abandoned in college- story-writing, drawing, etc.

That theory worked, for a little while. Ellis progressed through a string of jobs, occasionally switching up locations as well. Most of the time, the next new job came from a positive recommendation, for which Ellis was always grateful. Truthfully, though, she accepted each position more for the fact that it was there and paid more money than for the prospect of something fulfilling and enriching. Her real life happened on nights and weekends, right? If she actually enjoyed herself at work, that was just a happy accident.

As the years flew by, Ellis’ resume filled up with things she understood but wasn’t passionate about. She also came to realize her theory was bullshit. More American employers were expecting 40 hours in the office and 24×7 attachment outside of it. She had to be on-call during off hours, and could get in trouble if she didn’t answer her phone. Plans to go out, vacation, even sleep became less a given and more an allowance to be yanked away at the company’s discretion. After a frustrating day, and the long hikes through the elements that formed her commute, she faced her evenings with the vigor of a frozen snail. Weekends vanished with increasing speed, and a dwindling sense of recovery from Friday to Monday.

Most of Ellis’ hobbies atrophied or became occasional pursuits- except for writing. For whatever reason, she refused to let that one go. It was her escape, a secret identity of sorts. Whenever possible, she loaded up on coffee and ground out prose. After a few years, she summoned the courage to find a writer’s group to trade feedback. She started writing for an IT humor site, and editing for a Purchasing blog. She even managed to sell her first hard sci-fi short story to a national magazine, in one try.

While it occasionally felt good to finish projects at work, these literary successes were more exciting. The only problem was, they had to remain secondary pursuits.

Did they, though?  Why?

Oh, lots of reasons.  I have a secure job and make a good living. Other people would kill to be where I am now. I have a chronic condition that requires medication- I need good health insurance. There are already a zillion writers. It has to stay a hobby, or I’ll start to hate it.  Besides, I’d never support myself that way. I’ll lose everything and be broke. Suck it up!

For a while, this was enough to scare her back into line.  Over time, though, it felt more and more like excuse-making designed to make her feel good about sitting back and coasting, not having to make any hard decisions.

What if I “suck it up” and stay put? It seemed reasonable she’d end up like the older people at work, who’d been coasting for twenty or thirty years. She had trouble relating to those people. On some level, they scared her. They had no identity outside of meetings, emails, more meetings, and make-work projects.  They put in unpaid hours without complaint- even during vacation, even when there was no emergency.  Despite unlimited sick days at their disposal, they soldiered into the office hacking and sniffling.  Having nothing else to be proud about, they were proud of their suffering. They said skin-crawling things like, “If I retired, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

Programmers are warned all the time about leaving variables undefined.  Ten years after graduating college, Ellis finally understood the danger of leaving herself undefined.  If she didn’t seize control of who she was, someone else would- again.

To her great fortune, she has some money saved up, and a supportive spouse and family behind her. She’s not jumping right now, but preparing for it- urging herself to focus on the beauty of the view and not the terror of the fall.

Hello world!

I don’t know where this adventure might take us. I do know we need to start stepping.  Writing won’t be secondary or tertiary in my life anymore.  However, there’s a time to bury my head in drafts, and there’s a time to open up and offer my experience to a huge community of folks on the same journey.

Some background: I’m an IT nerd who writes documentation and interfaces with customers via email on a regular basis. I’ve also been scribbling stories in notebooks and on laptops for more than half my life. I have experience with a broad spectrum of writing- from professional to silly, technical to fantastical. I can help you write killer documentation and killer fiction.  I’ve helped people ace job interviews, get their work published, and write blog posts that get them noticed.

I don’t just want to hand down tips from on high, though- teaching and learning should always be collaborative.  I want everyone to chime in, whether they agree or respectfully disagree (let’s keep flamewars to a minimum, shall we?).  My intention is to start with weekly posts discussing writing/publishing advice that’s helped me, along with advice that hasn’t helped, and hear from you on the same.  Similarly, we could talk about things we’re really good at (ex. imagery), things we’re not so good at (ex. fight scenes), and help each other out on those.  Finally, I might solicit you to share passages or works in progress if you want commentary from me and/or others.  If I’m feeling really brave, I might give you some of my WIPs to check out. These intentions may mutate drastically over time- we’ll see!

There’s very little I’m not open to discussing, but I will say right now that I have no experience with Romance or Adult material.  Some of the advice offered here may be general enough to still be of help to you, but please don’t expect any targeted discussions on those genres for now (maybe someday we’ll have regular blog visitors who can help with those).  My own fiction tends toward Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Humor, Mystery, Noir, and Western.  My non-fiction skills are in IT-related items like product documentation and instructions, as well as resumes and cover letters.

If you have a request for a future blog post topic, say so in the comments or email me!