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Time Management for Writers

July 3rd, 2013

WPF SymbolPhaseFinalColorWriting is all about anticipation. A writer spends months writing a book that might see publication in a year, might garner good reviews sometime after that, and eventually – over the course of a decade – might contribute to a body of work that will define a career. It is, as fantasy author Jim C. Hines has said, “a marathon, and very much about long-term persistence.”Time Management2poke

And therein lies the central dilemma for writers in the 21st century, for in an age of social media, why spend months writing a book that might get noticed in a year when you can take a  few seconds to write Facebook posts that generate likes, pokes, shares, and comments within minutes?

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to ponder this question in a presentation for Seton Hill’s In Your Write Mind workshops, part of a retreat that runs concurrently with the University’s summer residency in Writing Popular Fiction.

During our time together, the attendees and I considered how easy it is to waste time while writing. Such wasn’t the case in the days of typewriters and postmen who only rang twice. Back then, a writer could close the door, roll a sheet of blank paper into the platen, and work without interruption. Today it’s a different story, one that the people at StayFocusd – a time-management app for writers – sum up this way:

StayFocusd_300x300You sit down at the computer, and you swear you’ll be productive.  Next thing you know, it’s twelve hours later. You’ve checked your email, updated your Facebook status, browsed the trending topics on Twitter, read your RSS feeds, looked up your favorite band on Wikipedia, vanity googled yourself, cyber-stalked your ex, looked at all your high-school crushes’ Facebook photos, watered your plants on Farmville, and lost a week’s pay playing online poker.

What you haven’t done is WORK.

Sound familiar?

Of course, you might not need an app to channel your writing behavior. It’s all about being honest about how you are spending your writing time.

Along the way, we discussed the importance of minimizing interruptions, taking short breaks, and setting firm quitting times. I usually allow time at the end of a session for a Q&A discussion, but the presentation’s 50-minute window left little room for that. Instead, I encouraged the attendees to submit questions and comments for consideration on this blog, and so – at the risk of creating one more digital diversion in your writing day – here are a few of the questions and comments I received.

Do you have any advice for English teachers who write? How can you find time for your own work when your life seems to revolve around assessing the work of others?

I think that the same time-management guidelines that make for a productive writing session can also aid those of us who juggle full-time teaching with professional writing. Give yourself two-to-three hours at the end of the day to read and grade papers at your desk. Set a firm quitting time, and leave when you hit it. Don’t take work home. If you aren’t able to finish the day’s work, go in early the next day and wrap it up then. By doing this, you should be able to reserve a solid 90 minutes for writing in your home office. And let’s not forget that teachers generally have as many as 180 non-teaching days during the course of the year, which is time that can be devoted to full-time writing. Teaching and writing are both demanding professions, but with a little planning they can work together quite well.

I recommend treating yourself if you hit your writing goal for the day. Allow yourself to do or eat something you enjoy. Reward yourself for getting the writing done first.

Excellent advice. In this way, potential distractions become incentives for getting the job done first.

I recommend using the program Write or Die.

Thanks for the suggestions. Here’s a link for those who are interested: Write or Die.

As an aside, I must admit that I have always had a problem with the phrase “write or die,” which implies that writing is somehow unpleasant. I think “write and live” makes for a much better dictum. Don’t you?

I’ve gotten really good at writing X-number of words and completing goals. Editing, however, is another matter. I can’t figure a way to quantify editing in a way that’s as satisfying.

Ah, yes. Editing! That’s a topic that I addressed at length in my Sunday presentation for the WPF program. We’ll cover it in my next blog post. Provided, of course, I can find the time.

Until then, keep focused, keep writing . . . and (if time permits) rock on!

The Shape of Things Come

July 2nd, 2013

Arthur RadebaughWearable tech, near-planet colonization, computer-assisted telepathy – the future looks amazing, so why aren’t more people writing about it?

In a literary scene dominated by backward-looking steampunk and pessimistic dystopia, isn’t it time for some forward-looking, problem-solving science fiction.

Last Thursday, during the summer residency at Seton Hill University’s graduate program in Writing Popular Fiction, 32 MFA candidates and I worked together to extrapolate workable futures and brainstorm plots that might give their next SF project an edge in the current marketplace.

The Time MachinesOne of the first things we considered was advice that John W. Campbell gave to his writers in 1939. Here’s how writer Mike Ashley summarizes that advice in The Time Machines, his three volume study of the history of the sf magazines:

Campbell […] wanted the stories to read just as though they were contemporary stories in a future magazine.  New scientific concepts to us would be everyday things to people of the future and wouldn’t require lengthy descriptions. The writer had to find a way to introduce new inventions and yet make them well-known objects.

We talked about how to do this through incluing, which sf writer Jo Walton has described as the process of “scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture.” We also talked about infodumps which can work if done right. Honest. Read Neal Stephenson if you don’t believe me.

RalphAs an exercise we deconstructed and revised a page from Hugo Gernsback’s proto-sf novel Ralph 124C41+, attempting to update the opening scene for 21st Century readers. That was fun.

Along the way, I attempted to make a case for writing real speculative fiction in this backward-looking age, when even Disney’s once visionary Tomorrowland has gone disappointingly retro.

Toward the end of the session, I allowed time for  each writer to submit questions and comments on notecards. As is usually the case, time kept us from addressing all of them.

Here, then, are the two we didn’t get to, along with my responses. Please feel free to post follow-up comments. It’s always good hearing from you.

Where can a writer learn about the latest technological innovations?

For starters, you might try LiveScience, Physorg, Scientific American, and Wired. For your iPod, consider subscribing to the podcasts at Science Friday, Studio 360 (which covers more than science-related stories), and On Science. There are tons of others. These are simply the ones that I usually try to make time for.

Any comments on nanotechnology? William Gibson has said that “he can’t wrap his mind around the concept,” which I why he hasn’t written about it.

You can check out an excellent list of nanotech stories from LiveScience here. Also, the Physorg website has a tab devoted to nano news. Some amazing stuff there.

As far as the challenge of wrapping one’s mind around the topic, I think it all comes down to exploring one aspect of the technology rather than its myriad implications. Check out M. Shayne Bell’s “Anomalous Structures of My Dreams,” which originally appeared in F&SF. Audible has included the story in The Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, January-February 2003. Highly recommended.

I think that’s it for this installment, although there’s always a chance that one of the notecards got lost in transit. If that’s the case, or if there’s a question you had meant to submit but didn’t, please post it below. Likewise, if you were not in the session and you have a question or comment about something posted here, please feel free to join the discussion.

WPF SymbolPhaseFinalColorFor my next post, I’d like to take a look at some questions posed during a Time Management for Writers presentation that I did for Seton Hill’s In Your Write Mind workshops (which ran concurrent with SHU’s summer residency). Beyond that, I hope to offer a summation of my WPF presentation on Revision and possibly some comments on the IYWM Book Signing and a TV interview that Will Horner and I did with Heidi Rubi Miller and Matt Dowling (of GoingLIVE TV). More on those soon.

Until then, keep writing, look toward the future . . . and rock on!

Monster Wrangled!

June 23rd, 2012

Mission accomplished . . . but of course I had expert help from the fourteen talented writers who attended the presentation.

Together, we considered how to effectively present strange creatures in genre fiction. With a nod to Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige, the discussion explored how some of the most effective monster scenes in science fiction, fantasy, and horror basically employ three elements:

1. the sense of anticipation
2. the appearance of something terrible or wondrous (sometimes both)
3. a dramatic payoff (what Priest’s novel refers to as the prestige).

That last step is important. It’s not enough to have the creature appear and chew the scenery. Instead, the most successful monster scenes present something new and unexpected, as do the vampire scenes in Bob Leman’s excellent (albeit relatively obscure) “The Pilgrimage of Clifford M,” which served as one of our examples during the discussion.

We also deconstructed Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven” (in which the monsters never actually appear) and Bob Leman’s “Window” (in which they do). The discussion seemed to go well, and in the end I sense that I learned as much as my students. A great way to spend a Thursday afternoon at Seton Hill!

The next day, with the monsters successfully wrangled, I visited the alumni writers retreat, aka “In Your Write Mind” (which runs concurrently with the university’s graduate writing program) for a survey on Genre Conventions. As I often do at such events, I began by providing each attendee with a 3×5 index card for submitting questions and comments. In this case, I also asked for recommendations of conventions not covered in my presentation.

Here are a few of the comments and recommendations that I received:

“Don’t forget about Killercon! This year it’s September 20-23 in Las Vegas [featuring] Bill Nolan, Kelley Armstrong, Jack Ketchum, Don D’Aurua, and Brian Keene.”

Yes! Thanks for the reminder. I’ve heard good things about Killercom.

SCBWI – Summer & Winter Cons.”

This one’s new to me, but it looks like a must for people interested in children’s books.

Love is Murder (held in Chicago around Valentine’s Day). Cost is approximately $200 – $250. The focus is on mystery/thriller but also includes paranormal, suspense, pulp, near-future thrillers, master classes, and manuscript critiques.”

I must check this one out!

And here are a few of the questions submitted (along with some quick answers):

“How far away is too far [to go to attend a con]?”

With air travel and ticket pricing being what it is these days, distance isn’t really much of an impediment. Indeed, I found that some of my longer trips have actually been far more affordable than the close ones. The ticket prices for my last three trips from Pennsylvania to the west coast (San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Jose) were better than half the price of my upcoming trip to Toronto for World Fantasy. I also find that I can get a lot of work done on planes and in airports, so the time in transit isn’t really lost. In all, I think it comes down to the event itself and not how far away it is. If it looks worthwhile, go for it.

“Is the western genre being absorbed into science fiction? Can science fiction and horror be blended as well?”

I don’t really see sf taking over the western. True, both deal with new frontiers, but – with the exception of western steampunk (The Wild Wild West, for example) – I don’t really see one taking over the other.

The dividing lines between horror and sf tend to be quite permeable, as can be seen in works such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven,” and Bob Leman’s “Window” – all stories that we considered in Monster Wrangling (see above).  For this reason, if you are interested in horror, you might consider checking out WorldCon, where the programming usually contains a few horror-related discussions.

“Many writers are introverts – how do you break out at cons?”

The people you want to meet and work with are almost certainly introverts as well. They probably spend most of their time reading books and sitting in front of their computers. They’re attending the con to meet people like themselves . . . and you are one of them.  I find that keeping that in mind helps. Perhaps it will work for you as well.

Right now, I need to get away from this computer and attend a book signing sponsored by the alumni at SHU. Hope to see some of you there!

As always, feel free to post comments, corrections, or questions below. Don’t be an introvert. I’d love to hear from you.

Book Miles

July 10th, 2011
Book Signing at Seton Hill University

Signing for Many Genres, One Craft at Seton Hill University.

So here’s a question: how important are live events in the marketing of books? I trust everyone reading this blog is a book reader and buyer, and many of you are writers as well. So what do you think? Do the wonders of Social Media make is possible for a writer to rely on virtual touring? Or is it still necessary to do in-person events?

I’ve just returned home from a string of appearances, starting with a couple of book-launch event for Many Genres, One Craft — one event at the Stoker Weekend in New York, the other part of the In Your Write Mind Writers Retreat at Seton Hill University. The events were successful, providing opportunity to sign books, meet with readers, and network (often long into the night) with fellow writers. Those are important things, but ones that need to be balanced with travel expenses and time away from writing.

With First Writes at Borders, Wilmington, DE

Following the NY and SHU events, I had a week at home to work on two books (editing one for a fall release, drafting another for an early-winter deadline) before heading east again for events at a Borders in Delaware and Garden State Horror Writers in New Jersey. Now, back from those, I am once again endeavoring to make more progress on the forthcoming books while simultaneously getting ready for events at Confluence, GenCon, and Context.

Wordsworth wrote of “the bliss of solitude,” and I wonder how many writers (who are by nature an introspective lot) begin their careers with the intention of plying their trade in peaceful isolation only to find that the writing life does not exist apart from the world at large.

To me, the biggest challenge is shifting gears. This morning, when I should be devoting time to the characters in my next next book, I find myself wishing I were still enjoying to company of the people I met during my swing through the east.

Consider all of this the challenge facing the 21st century scop, for whereas the storytellers of an earlier time plied their fiction in public, the modern writer needs to balance both worlds – the world of public performance and that of solitary creation.

Or am I overthinking this?

I’ll look forward to reading your comments. For now . . . back to the books.