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A Few Thoughts on Responsibility and Intent in Approaching History in Historical YA

Last week I wrote a review, essay, analysis, whatever you’d like to call it about a historical YA that played loose and fast with history, with disastrous, antisemitic and problematic results. And I don’t think that’s particularly uncommon, unfortunately, in historical fiction or books that use history as a base for exploring something else, like historical fantasy does. History is political. Who writes history is political. Who is uplifted in history is political. And ignoring that does everyone a disservice.

My first historical fantasy comes out on September 1st, and so I acknowledge that I’m pretty new to this. I’m not an expert. And I almost definitely get some things wrong. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and today I wanted to share a few things I use to ensure that I don’t trample on the lives and memories of people who actually lived these histories. My historical fantasy is heavy on the history, light on the fantasy (for the most part). Especially because I am adding magic–and thus altering the historical record–I try to be keenly aware of where I’m stepping. Because the magic isn’t there to be glitter, something shiny to catch a reader’s eye. The magic is there to make history sing louder. I am using it like an amplifier. So I don’t want to amplify the wrong things.

  • I over-research. I know that research is a black hole. I know that it can be a procrastination attempt. I know that it can stop you from writing your book, and I know that it can muddy the waters of your book. But I don’t actually think you can research too much for historical fiction, or fantasy heavily based in history. First, it’s a rare case where you can read everything related to your subject. Most of the time, you could research for years and still never reach the bottom of the bucket. There are always side-quests. I know, for instance, a lot about feminine hygiene product availability in East Germany. None of that made it into the book, but it made me a better historical fiction writer to know it. I have three books on one subject for The Balloonmakers #2. It’s part of a plot, but the details aren’t super necessary for the plot. I could have read one, or the Wikipedia article, for what I need in terms of where, who, and when. But researching this allowed me to add a secondary character who peeled back a layer in history, who added more gray to a story that could have been too easily black and white. Even if it doesn’t end up in your book, what you learn and what you research influences your writing and your approach in subconscious ways. This is valuable.

 

  • I try not to undermine reality. In The Girl with the Red Balloon, Ellie’s grandfather escapes via a red balloon. This isn’t a spoiler, she tells you this story in the first chapter. It’s why she grabs the red balloon that ends up pulling her back in time. He escapes a death camp that very few people escaped. But people did escape it, so I felt comfortable using it as a setting. One of those people was an unnamed 18-year old boy. Had no one escaped this–had it been more like one of the mass graves where people were shot and buried, regardless of how dead they were–then I wouldn’t have been comfortable using it because to do so felt like suggesting that the people who hadn’t survived could have survived. It would have undermined horrific tragedy to give a survivor to something that had no survivors. I’m researching a new book now, and there’s an unnamed person who asked a simple question in front of a lot of people who were a powder keg waiting for a spark. No one’s ever identified him. That type of information jumps out at me, because that I can use as a historical fiction and fantasy author. Instead of inventing a scene, I’m using a scene in real life. In the author’s note, I’ll acknowledge that he was real, and has never been identified (and is likely dead, solely based on years and life expectancy)
  • I account for real life events. If there was a real resistance effort that happened, and I’m not setting one of my characters in it, then I do not pretend it didn’t exist. I always strive to recognize it either on the page in the story, or in an author’s note.
  • I will always use an author’s note. Especially because I play with fantasy in my books that are largely historical fiction, an author’s note is crucial. An author’s note tells the reader what is real–historical record–and what is fiction, because historical fiction is both history and fiction. It is real and not-real at the same time. And to ignore that is a deep disservice to readers, and, in my opinion, a dereliction of duty, to be quite honest. I will tell you in the author’s note if I moved a timeline, what was real, what was based in reality but I changed, and what I invented. Does this ruin some of the magic? Maybe. For some readers. But for countless other readers, it helps them sort reality out, and it makes the historical aspects carry their weight, as they should.
  • I use sensitivity readers. Or you can call them topical consultants. The same way that I’ll check the physics with a nuclear scientist for Book 2 (hint!) and I checked the German, French, Hebrew and Yiddish with people who know those languages, I use sensitivity readers for all sorts of aspects of my books: race, gender, sexuality, country of origin, career, etc. And in doing so, it’s like getting a primary resource to read, to correct me where I misstep, and to help me add layers and depth and realism to a book that contains magic.
  • Whenever I think of a plot twist, or of a cool thing that could happen, I ask myself if it hurts someone who lived what I’m writing. No plot twist, no plot point, no witty piece of dialogue, no cool special effect with magic is worth harming someone who wasn’t fictional and actually lived this historical event.
  • I accept that I won’t get everything right, but I don’t let that stop me from trying to get it right. Don’t throw up your hands and say “It’s impossible to make everyone happy so I’m just going to write a book where Hitler wins, Mengele turns Jews into monsters, and there are nice Nazis.” Because there are so many levels in which you step on people who actually lived those events that you aren’t even trying. Try. Give it a good faith effort. Do your research. Talk to people. And when you screw up, own it. And do better next time. Knowing you won’t get it 100% doesn’t mean you don’t do the work to get it as close to 100% as you can.

 

I keep learning with every book, and adjusting my rules and the guidelines I set down for myself. So no, I’m not an expert, but I hope this is helpful to others who are exploring this genre. I’d like to see more historical fantasy out there, or even just historical fiction! But I want to see it done right, and that means acknowledging the high burden of responsibility and a lot of hard work. Don’t shy away, but don’t ignore it.

Plotting a YA Novel – Beat Sheet Download

HI!

Today I did a presentation at C.F. Patton Middle School (*waves at all the students* You all were such fantastic sports as I ran through a slightly disorganized presentation this morning!). For the presentation, I put together a quick beat sheet that I use for plotting my books. I obviously flesh out beyond this (you’ve seen my revision posts!) but I don’t start unless I have these signs along my road map.

I wanted to make that resource available to the students who came to my presentation this morning — I am very sorry that we spoiled book 6 of Harry Potter — and I figured I’d post it as a PDF for anyone to use as they wish.

PDF: PLOTTING A YA NOVEL

Again, this is just my system. Other writers will have other systems and you’re more than welcome to adjust this to be your system.

Best writing advice I ever got was from Malinda Lo. She told me “learn to slog through.”

But the second best writing advice I’ve ever gotten was embrace your process. If you’re finishing books, then your process works. You’ll tweak it along the way. Once upon a time, I pantsed! 😉

As always, if you have questions, let me know!

Revision is My Favorite: Revision Tools

It’s intermission for Revision is My Favorite–I’m still doing my passes from a few days ago and that’ll probably continue through the next two weeks–so I wanted to talk about the tools I use for revision.

Analog methods: I’ve already shown you my notecards and post-it notes. And I track my word count, draft progress, notes, changes, etc in my bullet journal and WIP bible. That’s all I do by hand. I don’t typically print copies and go through by hand at this stage–I’ll probably do that closer to line edits with my editor.

Software/Digital Tools:

Scrivener

So I’ve been using Scrivener for this book.

I want to love Scrivener. I really do. And I know there are writers who are fanatical about Scrivener. I’m not. Please don’t tweet me or leave me comments about how I should be. 🙂 I see the benefits! I totally get that it works for some writers. It doesn’t work for me most of the time.

But the drafting process for The Girl with the Red Balloon was tedious because I wrote Kai and Ellie in separate documents, copy-pasted into a master document, and wrote Benno’s chapters as an entirely separate document that I chopped up and dropped into the master document at the very end. It’s been three years and I can still remember that it wasn’t the smoothest process.

I tried that this time, but found it really difficult to draft this book that way, especially since 70% of this book is two timelines in two places. So instead, I moved the draft into Scrivener and made folders by topic/time period in the book and dumped all my chapters in there by topic/time/location first.

To avoid spoilers, I’m going to give you examples using Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If I did this with HP1, I would do a folder for Harry Before The Letter; Harry After the Letter; Harry at Hogwarts Before the Troll; Harry at Hogwarts After the Troll; Harry at Hogwarts Going after Snape/Quirrell; Harry at Hogwarts after the Philosopher’s Stone.

From there, I made three folders: Act I, II and III. I started to move those chapters from their topical folders into a rough timeline of what I thought should happen. Then I reverse outlined, and moved chapters around again to make sense.

I don’t draft in Scrivener. I write in Word and copy-paste into Scrivener. I only do my initial plot/structural revisions in Scrivener, and then I export back to Word and do all of my revision passes in Word.

Word isn’t perfect. Trust me. I know. But it works better for the way I think in terms of revisions and draft, and I use Scrivener largely for the click and drag options.

I don’t think I’d use Scrivener at all for a linear or single POV book (like the middle grade I’m drafting right now). But for dual POVs or non-linear books, I can really see the benefits of working in Scrivener for all or part of the process.

Aeon Timeline 2

I just discovered this tool via Francesca Zappia [link to Chessie’s site] and holy moly am I in love. This might be why I keep using Scrivener, even with my linear manuscripts. Especially since it syncs with Scrivener and I was able to click and drag things from the imported Scrivener binder onto the timeline.

Aeon lets you set dates, times, relationships and durations for events in your book. This might not sound like a big deal and for some writers, it probably isn’t. That’s fine! For me, this was crucial. It means if this one event has to occur 2 days after this other event, I can link them. When I move event A, event B automatically moves with it. And everything linked to those events fluctuates accordingly. It means I can ensure that I’m having my characters do or not do things on Shabbat (my characters in this book are Jewish) because Aeon knows what day of the week August 23rd, 1943 was or whatever date it is.

For each event, I can attach characters (and because I’ve added characters to the database for the book, it’ll tell me their exact age each step of the way–I won’t forget a birthday!), location, tension (!!! I haven’t played with this yet but I’m SO excited to do so). There’s a whole view mode where I can sort and filter by characters, or by tags–meaning, I can tag scenes by character relationship and track those to make sure that’s even and progressing the way I want it in the book. Or I can tag scenes with [SPOILER] to make sure I set up the hints and information or red herring properly along the way. Or find all the balloons in the book if I tag scenes with balloons.

There’s also a way to look at arcs in the book, but I haven’t played with that much yet.

It only took me about 20 minutes to learn (I googled a few things to get it to play nicely with Scrivener but other than that, it was deeply intuitive) compared to the hours it took to learn Scrivener’s basics (and I’m positive I don’t use all of Scrivener’s bells and whistles).

And right away, as soon as I clicked and dragged events, I found a massive time-jump in my book’s first act that I hadn’t “felt” just reading through and was able to reorganize to eliminate it, as not to lose the tension or create a “wait, what” moment in my reader.

It’s true love, me and Aeon Timeline, and I am 100% definitely using this for all future books.

The one downfall is the $50 price point might be beyond some people’s reach (it definitely would have been for me a year ago.) However, if you have $50 to spend or are willing to spend it now and write it off on taxes later (business expense! Keep your receipts!), I think this piece of software is well worth the money. It gives you a lot of bang for your buck.

Also, fantasy writers, you can set up your own calendar for your world in Aeon.

You’re welcome.

Now go pre-order Chessie’s fantastic upcoming contemporary ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS which has a bazillion stars, all very well earned, as a thank you for leading the rest of us into the light.

8Tracks

I know writers who think of playlists for their books like a religion. I made playlists for Second Position and Finding Center and The Girl with the Red Balloon, but I didn’t listen to them while I worked. They just were a fun side project/procrastination method.

I frequently work to just one song on loop to put me in a zone, preferably in a language I don’t understand so I can’t sing along or think about the lyrics. I’m particularly partial to Russian pop music from Dima Bilan and French-Senegalese rap artist MC Solaar.

But I’ve been using 8Tracks for years, and it’s one of my favorite places on the internet. I can find playlists made by other people (less time!) and go by mood for that day, all without buying more music. And I’ve discovered a TON of new, great music through this service too.

So if I want something moody for writing my two angsty boys in The Balloonmakers #2, for instance, I might type in “The Maine” (band) as one of the artists, and then do “writing” and “sad” and click on one of those playlists. You can only listen to a playlist once in 8 hours, but honestly, there are so many playlists that that’s fine.

I love 8Tracks and if you like listening to music while you work, you should definitely check it out. You can also find PLENTY of writing tagged playlists, fantasy tagged playlists, fandom tagged playlists, and music w/o lyrics for those who can’t hear lyrics while you’re writing.

Self Control

I’ve talked about this app before, but I’m going to talk about it again. I would get nothing done if I couldn’t block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from my computer for large blocks of time. This free app for Mac (alternatives: Freedom, which works on both Mac and PC) saves my butt and helps me be productive. I need Self Control because I have no self control.

 

I hope one of these tools works for you! What do you use for revision?

Revision is My Favorite: Step Two

REVISION PASSES.

It’s time for the second post in my Revision Is My Favorite blog series! The last time we talked, I was like “Oh sure, here’s my reverse outlining process and it’ll only take me a week to do this!” And here we are. Three weeks later. Sometimes books are hard, y’all.

So it took me three weeks, with multiple days off for brain juice, life, and marching for science, but I rewrote Act I essentially and revised Acts II and III. I thought that Act III was going to take me forever, but I finished it in a day, because all I was doing was making sure that plot/those holes were plugged according to my reverse outline. And that happened.

Here’s the mostly-before and the after-shot on Scrivener’s corkboard (I’ll talk about Scrivener in my next post.)

I took this a few days into my revisions: Yellow is new to this draft, blue is revised from Draft 1 to 2, green was “to be written” and red was “needs to be revised.”

 

Look! MAGIC. Still have two scenes to write but I’m not sure if they still make sense, so I’m proceeding without writing them.

The next step in my revision process is making a list of all my revision passes. I can’t give you my passes for this book, because that would be SUPER SPOILERS for everything happening in the book, but I can give you examples!

What’s a revision pass?

It breaks the book/revision process into manageable pieces. If I think about everything I have to do in the next two weeks to make this book readable, I will become a puddle on the floor and melt into my own tears. And then the book will never get fixed. And if it never gets fixed, I miss my deadlines, I don’t get paid, my agent is sad, my editor is confused, and you all are like “What’s Katherine doing? Oh. Crying. Huh. That seems unproductive.”

And you would be right.

So I try not to think about fixing the ENTIRE BOOK ALL AT ONCE very often.

What I do is create a to-do list.

  1. Character A’s voice
  2. Character B’s voice
  3. Character B and Character D’s relationship
  4. Character A and Character M’s relationship
  5. Character A and Character B’s relationship
  6. Setting
  7. Magic system??
  8. That sneaky thing I’m trying to do with the plot
  9. Dialogue
  10. That other sneaky thing I’m trying to do with the plot
  11. Layers on the metaphor and moral struggles
  12. Structural check
  13. Character voice check
  14. Voice/Nitpicky things

I almost always start with character voice and end with authorial voice. That’s my choice. Partially because I think I’m still developing an authorial voice, and partially because it’s the easiest thing to lose in revisions (for me). I want to make sure that I don’t lose what makes the book jump off the page by tinkering with the mechanics of the book.

The other reason I start with voice is this: begin as you mean to go on. By beginning with an emphasis on character voice, I’m committing to character-first, and ultimately, I’m a character writer. Plots exist because they do cool things to characters, not because plots themselves are fun to write.

So. I make a list of all the things I need to fix in the book. If you decide to try this, your list might be different. Your list might be:

  1. Fix plot
  2. Change setting from Minnesota to New Mexico
  3. Change character A from hetero to queer af
  4. Delete Character B’s mom from the book
  5. Change from HS theater program to HS lit mag

Or something like that.

Your list is your list.

Write it out in the order that you want to accomplish those changes. That’ll make it easier and it’ll help you hold yourself accountable.

Once I have my list, I start going through it, one complete pass through the book at a time. I’m currently on Character A’s voice. Sometimes it’ll be easy—a chapter is already voicey and she doesn’t need adjustment–and sometimes it’ll be hard. Last night, on my first pass through for her voice, I ended up rewriting the back half of the first chapter. Brand new stuff. After I had already written a new first chapter for my plot-structural fixing pass from reverse outlining.

Like I said. Writing is hard.

But, I ended last night with a chapter I’m really proud of. I’m sure it’ll keep changing, but I feel confident enough to move onto the next chapter. So onward with the revision passes.

My deadline’s creeping up on me, so I’m going to need to be very efficient with these passes, but without combining them because combining a pass for me is like multitasking: I’ll get it done, but it won’t be pretty and neither task will be truly complete.

Slow but steady wins the race/meets the deadline/finishes the book/gets to nap in June.

The Books that Make the Girl

I was thinking today about the books that Ellie Baum, one of the three main characters in The Girl with the Red Balloon, would like these days. In my head, Ellie’s a contemporary loving girl. In my head, she’s a hopeless romantic, drawn to stories with HEAs, ones that don’t keep her up at night thinking about the end of the world, and probably has trouble suspending her disbelief in fantasy stories (see also: chapter 4 of The Girl with the Red Balloon, lol).

Ellie Baum's Favorite Books-.png

So I imagine before Ellie went to Berlin, the books on her bedside stand–neatly organized, no dog-eared pages please, use a bookmark-were the following:

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins — I bet this is a well-worn favorite of Ellie’s. I bet it’s the book she picks up and reads after she’s had a hard day.

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli — Ellie probably loved Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda so I’m pretty sure she was first in line to read the follow-up with anxiety-ridden Jewish girl Molly. Ellie probably could have related a lot to this book.

Open Road Summer by Emery Lord — Ellie probably thought to herself that she’d never date a guy like Matt. Whoops. No one tell her what’s coming 😉 I feel like she and Amanda, her BFF from home, probably read this one together and fangirled out hardcore.

Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo — so Ellie’s not a dancer but I feel like she’d really be attracted to Harper, who thinks she knows where she’s going in life, and be reassured by Harper’s need to know what’s coming next.

Frannie and Tru by Karen Hattrup — I think Ellie’s intensely curious about life, and she probably follows characters who are equally curious. She’s also a follower, and she’s felt guilty about that, until she learns to stand on her own feet. She and Frannie have a lot more in common than she thinks.

Happy reading!

It Would Have Been Enough

Last night, I sat at a seder with old friends and new friends: my rabbi, his wife, their son; a family from the congregation including their two daughters, one of whom has been in my creative writing sessions this school year; an opera singer and her husband, she a Sephardic Jew and he a self-described Lutheran boy from Kansas City; and another congregant member. We used cards (The Kitchen Haggadah Game) to go through the seder–it was a little disorganized, but the type of chaos that could work–and throughout it, there were questions posed, including a few that have stuck with me.

What is spiritual slavery?

What is the promised land to me? Does it exist? Is it a physical place or a spiritual place? Is it something I can work to achieve or is it out of our control?

Were the Israelites emotionally ready to leave Egypt? How does emotional readiness change the story? Does emotional readiness matter? Who controls emotional readiness?

The story of Passover, which is the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and toward Canaan, the land that would become Israel, became an accidental frame story in parts of Benno’s storyline in The Girl with the Red Balloon and I’ve spent the three years since I wrote that part wrestling with Pesach in new ways. Previously I’d come to Pesach as a free person, thinking about freedom and liberty and justice from the point of, what can I do now for people who are not free? Which is a really important piece of the puzzle.

But I hadn’t thought of what it would have been like to celebrate Passover as a not-free person. As someone in slavery. As someone in prison. As someone who was captured or held against their will. As someone in a concentration camp. As someone in a place where they couldn’t freely practice their religion.

As our card game would have said, #privilege.

I pushed at some of these questions in TGWTRB. Benno’s reaction to Dayenu and his feelings about Israel touch on the Promised Land idea. How Benno leaves the camp, and who he leaves behind and his feelings about that touch on the idea of emotional readiness, and who steers that. And there’s a character in Benno’s storyline who is either Moses or Elijah, and each time I read it, I change my mind about which they are. And of course, there are literal exoduses in this book. There’s resistance in this book. All types of it. And the women in this book are the hearts of it, just as the women of the Exodus story are the hearts of it.

But I’ve been thinking about how I would tell that story now, writing it in 2017 instead of 2014. Under the political circumstances in which we live. I think it’d be much more overtly political. I think I’d probably expand Benno’s story to be an equal storyline in the book. I think I’d have thought more heavily on these themes, sank into them a little more.

I was worried in 2014 when I wrote Benno’s storyline that it was too Jewish. That non-Jewish readers wouldn’t want to read something this Jewish. And to be honest, I’m still worried about that. I think the book’s highly accessible for non-Jewish readers, but I think there’s a very Jewish angle to it and lens through which to read it. I think I would have been less afraid of that lens if I was writing it now. Less afraid, because I am more defiant now than I was three years ago. The world’s made me so.

I want room for those stories. The ones that are coming up right now about what it’s like to be afraid to practice faith but finding strength through stories and tradition. I want those stories, the ones where resistance through faith is a way of creating space, of finding a way out of spiritual slavery, of creating emotional readiness, of finding a promised land.

I want those stories: the Jewish ones, the Muslim ones, the Hindu ones, the Native American ones, the First Nations ones.

We need stories of those faiths, by people of those faiths, more than ever.

I drafted this post before White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments today from the White House Press Room where he denied Hitler gassing his own people, and in his subsequent clarifications and retractions, insinuated that Hitler hadn’t gassed innocent people. This language is that of Holocaust denial, and I’m horrified, though not shocked, at this language from this White House. That this was done while the White House continues to use the tragedy of Syrian victims of a chemical weapons attack as a smoke screen to avoid political pressure on Russia is even more abhorrent. I urge readers to call their representatives and ask for diplomatic action on Syria, and to publicly condemn Sean Spicer’s lies about Hitler. My desire for more stories of faith by persecuted faiths in the West, like Judaism and Islam, is stronger than ever. 

 

 

Deep Work by Cal Newport and Its Uses for Fiction Writers

Last night I finished Deep Work by Cal Newport (link opens to Goodreads in a new window).

For the most part, I found it useful, interesting, and applicable to my own life, especially as a writer though I’ll be bringing some of the practices to my dayjob too. I’ve outlined all of those below, and if you have any questions, let me know!

But before we begin, in full disclosure, Newport has weaknesses that piled up on each other until they drove me screaming to screenshots on Instagram and whiny status updates on Goodreads. I know others commented on those posts that they’d put down the book for the same reason so I’m going to share those first, but with the additional note that I do still think this book is worth reading, despite these irritating moments.

So before we go on, know that Newport mentions one woman other than his wife in this entire book. Almost all of his ‘deep work’ examples, historically and currently, are men. Apparently women don’t do deep work? Or Newport knows no women.

I think the last is more likely because you’ll find that Newport also has a different approach to friendships and relationships than many of my friends do, and than I do. He shuns digital communications and repeatedly talks about how your friends on the internet can’t be that good friends because you only talk to them on the internet. I found this frustratingly out-of-pace with the real world. I can ignore his “I’m too enlightened for Twitter” attitude, which I’ll call Franzenlite, but his dismissal of online-based relationships was irritating to me.

There’s also a level of classism that happens here, and I wish there’d been at least one chapter that addressed balancing multiple jobs–because his advice that you stop work at 5:30 doesn’t work for those of us who dayjob, and then go home and do a different job, like authoring.

So! Know all of that going in. Again, I think the book is useful beyond that, but it was impossible to overlook the weaknesses and it’d be rude not to mention them.

Let’s talk about the parts of the book that I think are applicable to fiction writers (including women and nonbinary folk, because we can do deep work too, Dr. Newport).

Busyness versus Productivity

You know I love talking about productivity. I love productivity tips, I love bullet journaling as it relates to productivity, I love thinking about ways to be more efficient with my time. And yet, for all my productivity, I frequently feel like I’m spinning my wheels. Getting nowhere and expending a lot of energy. Newport calls this “busyness as proxy for productivity.” Or, essentially, we don’t know how to show productivity externally (how many of our jobs are measured, be it sales at a dayjob or word count), so we do lots of little, shallow tasks that are highly visible and yet don’t really push us, or our work, forward.

Newport says:

Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it. Deep Work

This was an important reminder that even on the days where I fill out author interviews and reply to email and fight with my website code and write postcards for promotion, that’s busyness. It’s important, and I have to do because I can’t afford to pay someone else to do it, but it’s taking valuable time away from the real work. The deep work of writing and thinking and building stories.

Later in the book, Newport talks about chunking up your time. I don’t do that for reasons I explained in a previous post on productivity because it triggers my OCD in ways that are literally counterproductive. But on a theoretical, less practical and applicable level, I’ve started to take those shallow work/busy tasks and chunk them up.

I’m still trying to train myself away answering emails right away–that’s another OCD thing (I stopped halfway through this sentence to delete an email from my inbox so there’d still be no unread emails)–but I am trying to do things like promotion work, website work, newsletter work, blog work all at once in a single chunk instead of whenever I want to procrastinate. Then it feels productive, but it allows me the bigger chunks of time (which I need, and Newport says are supported by science) to do my deep work on stories.

Take Away: Check in with yourself: am I being busy, because being busy looks awesome on social media or to my boss, or am I getting productive work done? Is there a way I can put my busy shallow work together in chunks so it interrupts my deep work less often?

 

Be Driven by Depth, Not Shallowness

Newport talks about the fact that neurologically, we’re less happy when our day is structured around shallow work. I know that’s true for me. It’s nice to clear my inbox, but if all I did that day is approve things that came into my inbox, then I don’t feel like I got anything done at the end of the day, even if a lot of things are checked off my checklist.

Regardless of the work, Newport argues that neurochemistry and psychology tell us “to build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.”

Is this possible in all jobs? No. I’ve been a waitress. There was no deep work for me to enjoy there to find deep satisfaction in my job. The job was what it was. I loved being a nanny, but I don’t know that there’s deep work to be found there, nor do I think you can really structure things the way Newport suggests, because babies don’t always stick to your schedule.

But it is possible when looking at life as an author. Building your life as an author (or writer, whichever term you’re more comfortable with) should be built around the telling and writing of stories. Your deep work is your writing. Nothing else. Structure your work, and your writing time around that, rather than your shallow work (like marketing, answering emails, promotion, checking your Goodreads reviews–I see you, get off of there–etc) around your deep work.

I realized while reading this book that I tend to view my days with book ends. My 9-5 job and my required 8-9 hours of sleep each day are mentally blocked out with book ends. My work exists between those two times. And once I started looking at my days like that, that’s when I was able to see where and when I had to do deep work, and chunking out my time for shallow work in other places.

Take Away: Look at your days and how you structure them. Are you structuring your writing time around writing, or around other ‘author duties’ like promotion, Twitter, marketing, blog updates, etc? How would you like that time to be structured?

 

Willpower is Finite. I know. That’s not the best news you’ve had this week.

It turns out that willpower is a finite resource and we spend all day fighting the desire to work shallowly because a) it’s easier and b) our brains have become addicted to it in the last fifteen years or so.

I know. It’s really not the best news. I like to think I can conjure willpower up from anywhere but that’s also not possible, it turns out. Who knew? At least I have a new answer to that question, “What would your superpower be?” “Bottomless willpower.” I mean! IMAGINE WHAT YOU COULD DO.

I know this fact feels true to me because I used to have a great memory. And for lots of reasons, my memory has grown crappy. And my attention is poor. But I know that just like Newport says in this part of the book, it’s hard for me to sit still and be bored these days. Especially with my phone in reach and with service. I want to flip through it. It’ll take me two tries to write a text message because halfway through it, I find myself checking Instagram, and my email account, and Neko Atsume because what if Tubbs was there, eating all the food, right then?

In Newport’s words,

…the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. Deep Work

This is really really true. As soon as I get stuck, I want to check Facebook. Or Twitter. When I’m bored, or waiting in line, or switching tasks, I pick up my phone to check it. It’s a problem, and one that I’m definitely going to be more conscious of. Seeing the research and the science was super helpful to me.

I’m still working on the phone, but I have figured out ways to fight this while writing on my computer.

As I’ve mentioned about a million times on this blog before, I use an app called SelfControl to block social media while I write. (I use Forest on my phone!) I used to block in 30 minute to 1 hour blocks. Now I block it for 5-8 hour blocks. Last Friday when I was hitting my deadline, I blocked it for 12 hours. And now, at night, I block it for more than the hours I’ll work to resist the temptation to open Twitter after I’m done work and futz around on there instead of sleeping. So if I sit down to work at 7pm, I turn on my blocker for 6 or 7 hours, instead of the three I would previously do.

I used to turn on my blocker, and almost immediately open a browser and try to open Facebook or Twitter without even thinking about it. It was that engrained in my mind and habits. But now, I turn on my blocker and I almost never type facebook or Twitter into my URL bar. It took about a year of consciously using SelfControl every single time I sat down to write, but now a year into it, I turn on SelfControl and I write. Every time.

In Newport’s words,

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. Deep Work

In plain speak, using tools, like Freedom or SelfControl or Forest to block your usual productivity drains (Facebook, Twitter, NY Times, Instagram, Pinterest, etc) allows you to preserve your finite willpower reserves because the blocker does the work for you.

Here’s another Newport quote, one I’ll probably put on my inspiration bulletin board over my desk: “Distraction remains a destroyer of depth.”

Find tools to help you find focus and fight distraction without depleting your willpower. You’ll need that for the rest of life and surviving this presidency.

Take Away: Evaluate your time and identify your time-sucks. Find a tool to help you fight the time sucks. If your time sucks are your children, do not fight them. That’s frowned upon. But talk to your spouse about dedicated work time where they take over parenting so you can get work done, or about trying to find childcare a few hours a week to maximize your focus.

 

Be Disciplined

Newport talks about 4 disciplines:

  1. “Focus on the Wildly Important.” As in, make a top of mind or priority list, and make sure that you’re not putting 50% of your effort into an interview and only 10% of your effort into your book. Newport, like every other productivity person, suggests writing down your important goals. I make yearly and monthly lists in my bullet journal that I find are helpful. Some people find it helpful not only to write down the goals, but to list specific tasks to accomplish those goals.
  2. “Act on Lead Measures” This is where Newport started to get a little too business wonky for me. He’s talking about measuring success, and I’m wary of this with writers because so so  much of our industry is out of our hands. But he talks about lag measures versus lead measures. Lag measures are the results of lead measures. As in, lag measures might be the number of books that you write this year (I urge you not to say sell because again, publishing). Lead measures would be metrics of success that lead to writing X many books this year, such as 4-5 hours of dedicated writing time every day, or X word count a week, or however you measure it. Newport urges our attention to be on Lead measures, which I do approve of.
  3. “Keep a Compelling Scoreboard.” I track word count on a graph in my bullet journal now. I used to do Victoria Schwab’s method of star stickers and a calendar which really caught on, at least amongst the writers I follow. The star calendar is much more of what Newport’s talking about here because it’s right in front of your face, it holds you accountable, and it tracks lead measures, not lag measures.
  4. “Create a Cadence of Accountability.” Meaning, check in with yourself and find out if what you’re doing is working. Are there stars on your star calendar? Are there words on your graph? Did you make progress? If so, great. Rinse and repeat. If not, what can you change about your deep work schedule to create more success and deep work?

Take Away: Set goals, figure out how to measure your progress toward those goals, hold yourself accountable, create a review system to check in with yourself. How you do that will vary person to person, but those components are critical.

 

In Conclusion

This book was interesting, helpful, and had concrete takeaways that I’ll be applying to both my jobs. I also was glad to see that habits I’d already made out of instinct were reinforced by Newport and his science. While I had mentioned a handful of frustrating patterns throughout the book, and they did leave me irritated rather than excited at the end of the book, I do think Deep Work is a valuable resource for those interested in this type of thing.

I hope this was helpful to people!

Let me know if you have any questions!

 

Revision Is My Favorite: Step One

I hate first drafts.

love revising.

First drafts are like where you dump the puzzle on the table and it’s 1500 pieces and you’re having regrets, and how much do you really want to put the pieces together to see a picture of a mountain and a lake anyway?

Revision is where the picture starts to look less like 1500 pieces piled up on the table, some facing down, some facing up, none of them looking like the picture on the front of the box, and more like …well, the picture on the front of the box.

And much like putting together a 1500 piece puzzle, I approach revision very methodically.

So as I revise The Balloonmakers #2, I’ll blog about each step. This is the first one.

I finished the first draft on Friday, March 31st. And this is the first time I’ve opened it since then. I’d ideally like to give it several weeks, but I don’t have that time because deadlines. So I let it sit for five days, and opened it up today.

Good news: It’s still a full first draft.
Bad news: it’s about as messy as I remember it being at 11pm on Friday when I finished it.

The first draft is 60,130 words. It has a different plot each act, and that’s not intentional. That’s because I kept changing my plot. This happened despite an outline, a synopsis, and an approved proposal. Because writing works like that.

So I knew there’d be gaping holes, and massive things to fix when I sat down to reverse outline it.

Reverse outlining, which I talked about before on this blog, is where you write down what actually exists on the page, versus what should exist (or you think it does in your head). I used my Scrivener dashboard to see what scenes actually existed. I don’t normally like Scrivener, but for this WIP, it works really well because my MCs are separated by an ocean for 90% of the book and I can move their plot pieces around to fit.

So even though I knew I was changing the first four chapters of this book completely, I wrote them down. 

I wrote out all of Ilse’s scenes on notecards (scene main event as a header, and then 3-4 pulse points in the scene), and then did all of Wolf’s. By doing it that way, instead of chronologically, I free up my brain to think about the story differently than the way the first draft flows, to move the pieces around later without feeling like I broke anything.

Once I had both sets of cards, I laid it out as it existed.

That’s what the middle row of photographs in this grid are. The plot, as it existed. Green for Ilse, yellow for Wolf.

Once I did that, I took out the scenes I knew didn’t work anymore with my new plot. It turned out that the new plot/final plot works just fine, other than the first four or five chapters. So then I added in the new cards for scenes I haven’t written yet. I did these in blue and pink so that I knew when I looked at my outline that these were yet unwritten.

I flipped these over to the blank sides so you could see everything without me blurring it. This is what it looked like then, after I added pink and blue, and put everything in the order I currently think it needs to go.

Then I added post-its to the cards that needed to be changed a little bit, but not enough to get a new card. Timeline changes, character introduction changes, etc. 

Then I added red balloons wherever I knew there were red balloons appear in the book. This is important as there are more balloons in this book, and Wolf and Ilse use them to communicate. 

Then I make sure that my three acts are roughly balanced. Each act here has about 14 cards now. In terms of tension and pacing, that feels OK right now. Not perfect, but OK. I’m probably going to change some of this going forward, but right now, this is the ‘outline’ I’m using to revise the book.

This is my first step. So now I’ll go revise the book, probably over the course of a week, to match this outline. Then I’ll repeat this, using but or therefore on post-it notes to connect beats, or to find gaps in my plot. After I finish those revisions, it’ll be ready for my beta readers.

To get back to the metaphor at the beginning, I dumped the puzzle out in March. And today I found all the straight-edged pieces. I’m working on the frame of the puzzle this week.

I’ll blog again at the next step, when we talk about lessons learned from revising draft 1, what the second reverse outline looks like, and how I know it’s ready for betas!

As always, if you have questions, ask away! Comments are moderated, so it may take time for the comment to show up with my answer 🙂

 

Intersections of Creativity and Productivity: Bullet Journaling

I’ve written about productivity before on this blog and all three links in this sentence will open up new tabs to past posts. As someone with attention and focus issues, I’m always looking for ways to stay organized and on task. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you probably noticed that I’ve been bulletjournaling since May. I’ve been meaning to do a post on that, but then I had a lot of thoughts, and so many feelings, so here we are.

This is going to be a four-part productivity and creativity series of posts. I’ll post once a day over four business days. Don’t look for a particular strategy there: I’m away at a book festival this weekend and I want to be around to talk about these things with you all. It’s purely selfish. I typed that “shellfish” at first. Do you see what I mean about attention and focus issues?

The first post was about productivity loops, how to watch for them, and how to get out of them without denying yourself the truest pleasure of diving into productivity blackholes (while reading about productivity…this blog series *might* be exactly what I’m warning against). The second post was about routines, and how I set a routine as a writer with a demanding full-time dayjob and mental health issues. The third post shared some other resources for whom these posts aren’t working. And the fourth post is about bullet journaling and how I use it as a Person and as a Writer.

Because we all know Writers aren’t People. We are Cylons, sitting amongst you, eavesdropping and stealing bits of your life and dialogue. Now you know.

Just kidding.

Welcome to Part Four, the final part in this blog series.

The internet is full of blogs and posts dedicated to bullet journaling and how it works for various people. I started it (thanks to Megan Erickson and Brighton Walsh and a few other romance writers) last May, after a lifetime of trying planners and failing out of them within a few weeks, if not days. But I also felt in desperate need of something to keep me on track, to keep my brain more organized, and for something that appealed to the kinesthetic learner in me. Bullet journaling seemed like it would be worth the try.

This post is long, but I hope it’s worth it.

What is bullet journaling?

Bullet journaling is essentially a self-designed planner, an analog method of to-do list/rapid logging that helps you externalize events and tasks in a format that is easy to follow, track, and record.

The thing about bullet journaling is it’s more like guidelines. There are no hard and fast rules. Don’t let anyone tell you there are. It took me several months to figure out what I liked and didn’t like about the original system and I jettisoned what didn’t work for me, and added what did work for me. I still always play with layout and formats each month, but that’s because I like that process, not because I’m still experimenting.

The original bullet journal system calls for a key, an index, a future log, a monthly overview, and then weekly or daily logs using the key. For more information about these and the original system, please visit the site of the bullet journal inventor/founder.

I do not use the key, the index, or the future log. Right now. I think my April bujo might bring back the future log solely because travel and expenses are now getting a little complicated.

But that’s the beauty of the bullet journal system: you use what works for you, and you allow that flux to happen. Last month I used dailies. For the first two weeks. Then I stopped. So this month I didn’t use dailies. But I’m missing them in some ways so I’m going to play with a layout for those.

I Googled, And Now I’m Overwhelmed

Welcome. I know. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed because a lot of people have more time and artistic ability than you or I do. Instagram and Pinterest are full of elaborate layouts and pages, templates and spreads with fancy lettering and coloring, doodles and lines. I love looking at those. I find it inspiring and soothing to see beautiful planner pages.

At the same time, that’s not for me. I don’t have the time, quite frankly, and I don’t have the artistic ability. I do like making my planner a little bit artistic so I’ll usually write nicer than I do in other places, sometimes I add washi tape (decorative tape), and sometimes I doodle. And other times, I don’t. Sometimes, it just is what it is.

A sample of a doodle from last summer. I always have a doodle section of the journal to let me have outlets like this.
Washi tape!

I need my bujo to be functional above everything else. I need it to keep track of meetings, tasks, deadlines, books I’ve read, etc. But I don’t need it to be pretty. So as much as I love other people’s gorgeous bujos, I’ve let go of that desire for myself. If a beautiful bujo is for you, that’s AWESOME. If you’re a minimalist, great. If you’re somewhere in between, awesome.

A sample of a page where it was pretty simple, but let me have some fun.

A bullet journal is for you. Unless you’re monetizing a blog about it, it’s for you. What you do with it, how you decorate it, what you write in it, how you use it…that’s you. You do not have to do anything for any other person. It doesn’t have to live up to any standards set by people on the internet. I promise.

What Do You Do?

Good question! Here are pictures of my bullet journal (with my thumb covering the tab on my journal that has my dayjob named, sorry!). You’ll see I make mistakes and I cross them out and I’ve let that exist. Past!Me would have hated the imperfection on the page but letting imperfections exist where other people can see them is something I’m working on. 

Here are all of my past journals. Especially now that I’m using them for my dayjob, I go through about one a month. Other people can use one of these for several months or a whole year. How you use it is up to you.
Here’s my current journal. I switched to tabs so I could easily find everything. I’m moving the MBB tab into an MBB dedicated journal for travel, expenses, marketing, blog posts, etc related to my The Balloonmakers series. The covered tab is my dayjob’s half of the journal.
Here’s what my month layout looks like. I only write big events and deadlines on this part. And paydays. With stickers. Because stickers.
Here are my goals for the month and my deadlines for the month! That goes opposite the month layout page.
So this is the weekly layout that works best for me. I work on a Monday to Sunday week (it’s helped enormously in terms of how I think about my time, strangely enough) and I lump tasks and events together. It’s not pretty, but it’s very functional for me.
And here’s the page opposite my weekly layout. Goals, quote of the week (smeared on the name), and general to do list.

I’ve started using weekly goals and general to-do lists for things I want to accomplish but aren’t driven by a certain day. It’s allowed me more flexibility but also kept me focused on things other than day by day events and tasks. Bigger picture stuff.

Here’s a sample from my old daily pages, with the tasks crossed out. Also feature: washi tape
I love quotes so under the doodle tab of my bujo, I usually am writing quotes or doodling poorly. I like to have a dedicated brain dump space for that.
Here’s a doodle from last summer.

I use Tombow pens for the color “highlights” you see and I do all of my lines and formats using a Sharpie fine line marker. Most of the writing is using my Pilot MR Retro Pop Collection Fountain pen. I use Leuchtturm1917 journals with the dot grid, A5/Medium size, because I prefer a hardcover journal. They aren’t cheap though, and though most bulletjournalers use a dot grid of some sort, there’s no requirement you have to. Remember, guidelines, not rules. Any notebook works if it makes you want to use it. Any pen works if you like using it. Any layout works if it works for you (though I really did trial-and-error for first few months trying different layouts I saw online and settling on this one.)

How Do You Use It For Writing?

This is still trial and error, to be quite honest. I always write down the project I should be working on on my writing days (most days are writing days these days). That’s what MBB2 is on the photos above. MBB2 = magicballoonbook #2 = The Balloonmakers #2, the book with a secret title. I always write down the weekly word count goal on weekly goals. I do weekly word count goals instead of daily goals (though I have a mental daily word count goal) because of that flexibility/motivation issue I talked about at the beginning of this series. I don’t want to get trapped and paralyzed because one day I fell 100 words short of a daily goal.

In the fall, I was writing down what I loved about what I wrote each week and what I was excited to write, and I think I’ll bring that back in April. I’m not sure what that layout looks like yet, but that particular exercise was really good for my motivation and reminding myself that not everything I wrote was crap.

I also set up a separate notebook for books. This isn’t exactly a bullet journal. It’s more of a book bible or something like that. For each book I want to write over the next year/two years/okay that’s ambitious three years, I made up a front template with pitch/word count goal/deadlines and then trackers for the drafts. Think of it like an analog Scrivener.

That’s a lot of books to write
But this has been super helpful. MBB2 is my current project, and Bea is my next project.
I didn’t write the pitch for MBB2 because it’s under contract/that secretish (I talk about it a lot though…) but this is roughly what the template looks like. The test tube progress bars at the bottom are roughly how many drafts it takes me to go from first full draft to publication. Your progress bars may differ!
Most recently, I added a graph to track my word count progress day by day to a deadline. You’ll see I a) stopped, and restarted this draft from the beginning b) messed up a line (this is driving me crazy but I’m trying to let it go) and c) have many, many words to go in the next 18 days. But it has been a helpful visualization and it’s something I’ll keep for the next WIP.
Each tab of the book bujo/book bible also has room for notes. I write historical fantasy so I do lots of research. I keep track of my timelines here.
I’m also reading a book about the OSS for this book, so I’m taking notes with page numbers here. Also in the book bujo.

I hope this was helpful to people and that you found some ideas to incorporate into your own journaling and planning routine. Or maybe you’re starting a book bujo, or a bullet journal for your everyday life. Or maybe this isn’t something for you! All options are okay. My bullet journal has made me both more productive and more creative. I hope you have a similar outlet in your life.

Questions? Comments? Leave them here or @ me on Twitter and I’ll do my best to answer them!

 

Intersections of Creativity and Productivity: YMMV

I’ve written about productivity before on this blog and all three links in this sentence will open up new tabs to past posts. As someone with attention and focus issues, I’m always looking for ways to stay organized and on task. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you probably noticed that I’ve been bulletjournaling since May. I’ve been meaning to do a post on that, but then I had a lot of thoughts, and so many feelings, so here we are.

This is going to be a four-part productivity and creativity series of posts. I’ll post once a day over four business days. Don’t look for a particular strategy there: I’m away at a book festival this weekend and I want to be around to talk about these things with you all. It’s purely selfish. I typed that “shellfish” at first. Do you see what I mean about attention and focus issues?

The first post was about productivity loops, how to watch for them, and how to get out of them without denying yourself the truest pleasure of diving into productivity blackholes (while reading about productivity…this blog series *might* be exactly what I’m warning against). The second post was about routines, and how I set a routine as a writer with a demanding full-time dayjob and mental health issues. The third post will be sharing some other resources for whom these posts aren’t working. And the fourth post (Monday) will be about bullet journaling and how I use it as a Person and as a Writer.

Because we all know Writers aren’t People. We are Cylons, sitting amongst you, eavesdropping and stealing bits of your life and dialogue. Now you know.

Just kidding.

Welcome to Part Three.

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

Some people do not like applying productivity ideas and methods to their creative output. That’s totally fair. I get it. For me, productivity thought processing and methods aren’t the enemy of creativity, though maybe that’ll change at some point. Right now, they help me. But they might not help everyone.

Some people don’t need productivity methods for their creative output to be high. That’s awesome. I’m jealous, but don’t worry, I’ll get over it.

Some people will probably tell me that I’m the absolute meanest person ever in the history of the world for suggesting that there are other ways to create writing routines and productivity routines other than doing the same thing every single day in the same order. If doing things the same way every day is A) possible for you and b) helpful for you (notice the ‘and’ is not an ‘or’), then awesome. I am also jealous of you. I may or may not get over it 😉

I suspect if I was a full-time writer with better mental health, then these blog posts would look very different. More or less procrastination? Not sure. More structure to my day? Probably, if only because my dayjob probably provides more mental stability and structure than I currently graps. But that full-time writer with great mental health is not my reality, and these posts reflect my current one. I hope it was helpful to some of you who might be in the same boat as I am.

That being said, I wanted to share links to different processes, including some bullet journal links, even if they didn’t work for me. Because maybe they’ll work for you. And because sharing is caring. And I am procrastinating.

7 Rules for Maximizing Your Creative Output

Pomodoro Technique

A Procrastination Hack That’s Like the Pomodoro But Different Numbers

Time Trackers in a Bullet Journal (One; Two)

Setting Process Goals

This post is on blog writing but I think there are some good takeaways here for productivity/writing.

Getting Things Done (I’ll mention this again on Monday’s post)

A Life of Productivity (separated by subject, this whole site has productivity posts)

Building a Smarter To-Do List

Here are some books I’ve read (or, am reading) about creativity/writing/productivity that I recommend.

Deep Work by Cal Newport – just started this one and really liking it, plus it’s adding books to my TBR
Fire Up Your Writing Brain by Susan Reynolds
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Take Your Pants Off! by Libbie Hawker (book on outlining…in case the title scares you)
2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron
Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull