How to Write When You Don’t Wanna

The biggest danger to a writer’s productivity isn’t writer’s block.

It’s an attitude of “I don’t wanna.”

Sometimes writers (especially nonprofessional ones like me) just don’t feel like writing. Our muse is missing. Inspiration is absent. Our brains sneeze at the thought of the effort involved in stamping words on screen or paper. And besides, there are dishes to wash and TV shows to watch! So many things other than writing that we should be or want to be doing.

But the reality is, if we don’t sit down and write regularly, we won’t get any better at our craft. And all those poetic, wise, funny, powerful, wonderful words bobbing around our heads will have no outlet.

First as an English major in college and now as a graduate trying to keep my writing alive, I’m always on the lookout for ways to help myself get some writing done. Here are the five strategies that have helped me the most over the last few months. Hopefully you’ll find them useful, too!

1) Think about your writing goalsgoal

When you’re feeling unmotivated, the best thing you can do is to get yourself excited about your writing again—remind yourself why you love writing and what you hope to accomplish by devoting so much of your time and energy to the written word.

What do you want to write? Why do you want to write it? With whom do you want to share it?

I have two main goals in my writing. First, I want to get better at writing fiction. I want my stories to be deep, interesting, and well thought out, striking a balance between pretty wordplay and clean, clear action and dialogue.

Second, I want to get more of my writing published. Unless it’s a diary entry or something, pieces of writing—especially stories—are meant to be shared. That’s why this blog exists. That’s also why I want to publish more of my work. I want to write stories built on a framework of truth that will be entertaining and thought-provoking to people of many different perspectives and life experiences.

If that sounds vague… well, that’s because it is. I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to do any of this yet. Getting things published isn’t exactly easy. Neither is inserting my worldview into my work without bashing people over the head with a morality hammer.

But if I don’t keep on writing, even when I don’t wanna, I will never find out what does and doesn’t work, what gets me closer to success. If I want to experience the excitement of finally achieving my goals, I need to sit my butt down and write!

2) Read things similar to the things you want to writeread-similar

This is a great way to get inspiration, to see how other writers tackle challenges similar to the ones you face in your chosen genre.

I enjoy writing speculative fiction. Therefore, I read a lot of speculative fiction.

I’m currently reading a short story anthology called The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois. Some stories I’ve liked, others were “meh,” and some I didn’t finish. But they’ve all been useful in showing me how a successful (i.e. published) sci-fi story is constructed, from sci-fi concept or setting, to plot arcs, to character development.

Just reading through this book is getting my creative juices flowing and ideas are starting to develop in my head. I have one or two good ideas for short sci-fi/fantasy story settings. Now all I have to do is invent some characters and plots to play out inside them.

3) Start smallstart-small

If you don’t wanna write because the task of crafting an entire article or novel seems too daunting, break it into manageable chunks. Start by writing just one page—or even just a single paragraph. Whether you write a hundred words or a thousand words each day, you still get some writing done. You still have more words than you did before.

Granted, breaking up your writing sessions this way is not the fastest way to create a story, but it still helps you get the job done. And you can always increase your daily word count later, when the muse returns.

4) Use a writing promptdictionary-prompt

If starting small still seems daunting and the words just aren’t flowing, try a writing prompt. Google knows where to find them.

I used two prompts—one from the internet and one I made up myself—to help me write the flash fiction I posted last week.

Prompt 1 (from the web): Grab a dictionary, open it to a random page, and put your finger down on a random word. That word will be the title (or part of the title) of your fiction piece.

Prompt 2 (my own prompt): You must include in your story at least half of the words from the last game of Scrabble you played. You can get creative with how you use the words. For example, if one of the mandatory words is “sail,” you can include it as part of a compound word like “sailboat.” (For those interested, the list of Scrabble words I used is at the bottom of this post.)

For my flash fiction piece, my dictionary prompt word was “earthbound,” which immediately made me think of planet Earth and outer space (probably because of all the sci-fi stories I’ve been reading lately). From there, I zeroed in on the word “cousin” from my Scrabble list, and suddenly, I had a character: a woman whose beloved cousin died on the moon and has to be transported back to Earth for burial. From there, writing the flash was just a matter of filling in details, trying to include as many Scrabble words as possible. Using this prompt was challenging, fun, and productive all at the same time!

5) Give yourself a deadlinedeadline

Unfortunately, in college, I got conditioned to write only when I had a deadline coming up. After I graduated, this made it hard to keep writing. I suddenly had no due dates, no external motivation or pressure to make sure I got my stories done on time—because there was no longer any such thing as “on time.”

So, I’ve had to cook up some homemade deadlines.

This blog is the main way I’ve been keeping myself on task lately. One of my New Years resolutions is to write a post every week throughout 2017. Weekly deadline: Sunday, midnight. So far, it’s been going well and I haven’t missed a week (of course, this is only my third post of the year). Let’s hope the streak continues!

Last November, I also participated in NaNoWriMo and gave myself a one-month deadline to write a novel (or at least half of one). I didn’t make it all the way to NaNo’s 50k word-count goal, but I still got a lot of writing done—far, far more than I would have without that Nov. 30th deadline.

Ultimately, the strength and weakness of self-set deadlines is that they’re flexible. You can pick a deadline that works for you based on your availability to write and adjust it as needed when life gets busier or slower. You just have to be careful you don’t get too flexible—because then you’ll just keep pushing your deadline back and back until you become a full-time procrastinator.

And anyone who watched Spongebob as a kid will know what kind of havoc procrastination can wreak on your writing!


Scrabble Prompt

Note: When I wrote down these words, I simplified the verbs to their present tense and listed any plural nouns as singular.

  1. bug
  2. cousin
  3. dive
  4. dope
  5. driven
  6. duh
  7. fang
  8. fixer
  9. fret
  10. hail
  11. holt
  12. hut
  13. jeer
  14. jet
  15. ka
  16. label
  17. lace
  18. lin
  19. many
  20. move
  21. mow
  22. na
  23. nor
  24. oi
  25. page
  26. qat
  27. rail
  28. sob
  29. take
  30. tiny
  31. too
  32. twig
  33. war
  34. zin
Posted in Writing | 2 Comments

Flash Fiction: Earthbound

Instead of a typical blog post, I decided to write some flash fiction this week. Hooray! It’s been a while since I flexed my fiction muscles, so spending an afternoon on this piece was great practice for me, even if it’s only about a thousand words long.

I’d be interested to hear any comments you might have about this flash—whether positive or constructive—as I might try to publish it later. (I’ll have to research some flash fiction publications first.)

Now, without further ado, my mini story…


earthbound-flash-fic

Earthbound

The bodies in the back of the shuttle couldn’t see Earth rising to meet them, a bluish orb half buried in the dark loam of space. But Jan could. She stared at the planet on her view screen, afraid to blink. Her hands moved across the controls making adjustments, firing jets, nudging the shuttle into a gradual dive.

She should let the autopilot do this. The spontaneous dance of neurons and synapses in her head could never match the precision of computer calculations. Having a pilot aboard was just a precaution, anyway—a failsafe in case the computer took an unscheduled vacation.

But Jan didn’t care about that. The steering column gave her something to hold on to, something for her fingers to fret with. Distraction. Keep the shuttle on course. Look at the clouds, the oceans, the continents so many thousands of miles away.

Don’t think about the bodies in the back.

Don’t think about the label on the third and final bag. The label with her cousin’s name on it. Erica Warner. Cause of death: asphyxiation. At the bottom of an airless crater, a rover lying on its back like a dead bug beside her.

No. Don’t think about that.

Remember the pill bugs she and Erica used to kick back and forth with their pink-painted fingernails on Grandma’s back patio, a mini soccer game with a living ball. Remember going on a double date to the observatory, their bored boyfriends slumped on a bench while she and Erica jockeyed with other stargazers for precious telescope time. Remember the fixer-upper house, little more than a hut, that she and Erica lived in and worked on all through grad school, letting their academic frustrations flow out through a hammer, a paintbrush, a rake.

Selling the house to help finance their research projects until the next grant came in.

Getting twin phone calls from NASA, congratulating them both on their acceptance to the moon base program.

Holding a homesick Erica as she cried through her first night on the moon, a newlywed dealing with her first lengthy separation from her husband.

The memories glinted in Jan’s mind like stars. She stared at them wide-eyed, their light lancing through her mind, her heart, like cosmic rays. It hurt. But it was better than thinking about the alternative. The shuttle’s cargo. The sleepers that couldn’t be put to rest properly on the moon with no family to lay them down, no oxygen to help their bodies turn back to dust.

Family! Think about family.

Dad called her and Erica the Space Sisters.

Gemini.

Scientists with twin souls.

Curiosity and creativity.

Pioneers on the lunar frontier.

To the moon or bust.

Two Space Sisters made it there.

But only one was coming back.

Jan’s lungs shuddered in her chest as she swallowed a sob. She didn’t want her tears floating around the cockpit, bubbles of saltwater waiting to short out the controls.

Be strong. Think about the bottle of zin waiting for her in the cupboard in her apartment on Earth. The moon base was dry in more ways than one. The stakes were too high to risk a buzz, a mistake. A terminal accident.

The driver of the rover had dope in his system.

The base chief’s search of his bunkroom turned up a drug capsule and a vaporizer disguised as a pipette. The driver probably thought he was smuggling in a treat, a tiny reward for a hardworking scientist.

Now he was lying in bag number one, his two colleagues strapped down beside him.

One miscalculation. And over the rim of the crater they went.

Jan jabbed the autopilot button. The system beeped, confirming the computer’s grip on the controls. She unbuckled her harness, pushed herself into the air, scrambled over the back of her seat to the door. She didn’t open it. Just gripped the rail next to it as tightly as she could. She couldn’t trust herself to pilot the shuttle until she calmed down.

Breathe.

Breathe…

Earth was bigger now.

The hazy curve of the planet filled the bottom of the view screen. Weather systems swirled on the surface, patches of brown and green peeking through here and there. Somewhere on those patches lived nine billion people. How many would die and be buried by the time she landed an hour or so from now?

Jan didn’t know. And she didn’t care, except in the most abstract sense. She didn’t know those billions. She couldn’t do anything for them or their families.

But she could still do something for Erica. One last thing.

Jan took another deep breath, steady this time. Felt her scientist’s focus engage, laser straight. She had a task to complete.

She slipped back into her seat, buckled herself in. She disengaged the autopilot. Sent a comm to mission control letting them know she was beginning her final approach.

Jan wasn’t going to let her cousin’s last journey end in disaster, like the rover expedition had.

Erica’s final expedition would be this one. The one taken in a shuttle. The one Jan would guide safely, gently down to Earth.

Posted in Flash Fiction | 4 Comments

New Year, New Goals

The sky is cold and gray. Snow sitting on roofs, freezing rain turning roads into icy rivers I dare not drive. I’m sitting at my desk in a fuzzy onesie, typing slowly, trying to figure out a way to make a blog post about New Years resolutions interesting.

It doesn’t help that my brain is still on holiday time. I took a couple weeks off from writing so I could focus on sledding with my cousins, wrapping gifts in sparkly tissue paper, and eating too many Cap’n Crunch cookies to count. Holidays and vacation days are fun, but they don’t exactly put me in a mood to write. All I want to do is lounge around and let my language skills languish.

So I guess that’s my first goal for 2017—write more.

I plan to write at least one blog post per week and post them on the weekends (I count Sunday as the last day of the week even though my fancy new 2017 Dollar-Tree-chic nature calendar says otherwise). I’m also going to keep working on fiction projects. I drafted part of a steampunk fantasy novel during NaNoWriMo 2016, but I have to rearrange some of the story’s gears before I can get it steaming again.

Aside from writing, my three most important goals this year are much broader. So broad, in fact, that they were too wide for my mind and spilled out onto my whiteboard:

2017-goals

(Please disregard the cruddy quality of my phone photo. And the Sigma Tau Delta car sticker I still haven’t put on my car.)

Less media, more books

Excessive Facebook scrolling and YouTube binging. Those are the top two ways I used to waste my time back in the dark ages known as 2016. This year will be different. I’m going to fritter away my free time reading books.

Reading is good for me as a writer. By spending several hours with a novel, I get to see what a good story looks like when clothed in printed words. Alternatively, even reading a badly written book can be constructive. Better to learn from another writer’s mistakes than to commit those literary sins myself.

Reading is also good for me as a human being. Stories can introduce us to new ideas, philosophies, and worldviews, make us think thoughts we never would have thought to think before. A well-written story (memoir, article, etc.) can help us step into another person’s skin and become more empathetic toward people who differ from us in circumstances and personalities, but share our common core of God-created, infinitely valuable humanity.

That, I think, is a much better way to spend my time than watching a YouTube video about the Top 10 Annoyingly Catchy Songs.

Less indoors, more nature

I can’t really start working on this goal yet, unless I want to get drenched and frozen. But as soon as it warms up a bit, I need to get outside! The Pacific Northwest is beautiful. Mountain trails, sandy beaches, winding rivers, and mossy forests are all waiting within a few hours’ drive for me to explore. I have no excuse not to get out there and enjoy the earth.

Seeing the beauty of nature reminds me of God’s power and wonderful creativity. I sometimes feel much more in sync with him surrounded by trees, fresh woodsy air filling my lungs, than I do sitting in church. Which brings me to…

Less world, more God

This goal flows naturally out of the others. Like I said, the wilderness can be a great place to connect with God and get away from the world. There is no wifi in the woods. And that is a very good thing.

Social media like Facebook and YouTube are havens for “the world”—a catchall term for anything unsavory or unhelpful that Christians like me probably shouldn’t be looking at or listening to. Not everything on social media is bad and I still plan to check my favorite sites occasionally. However, the more I go on these sites, the more garbage I tend to encounter.

For example, the day after the presidential election, I logged onto Facebook and got an eyeful of hate, fear, and doom’n’gloom that trickled down into my heart and started to stain it gray. But I couldn’t look away. It was like watching a train wreck, as we say at my house. It was ugly, it was nasty, but I kept right on reading.

I want to avoid letting myself get sucked into such a vortex of negativity again. I want to be healthy in every way—emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually. If reducing my exposure to the world’s darkness by cutting back on social media will give me more time to take care of myself and get to know my God better, then I’ll gladly do it. I won’t hide from world events. I will find ways to stay informed about what’s going on in my country and elsewhere. But I won’t throw myself into the darkness anymore.

It’s time to pursue the Light.

That’s what I’ll be doing in 2017. Or at least trying my best to.

I hope everyone joins me.


Thanks for visiting the Written Woods!

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Merry Knit-mas

merry-knit-masInstead of doing battle with the grouchy hordes at the mall, I decided to knit all my Christmas presents this year. No need to prowl the stores hunting for a specific item on a person’s hit list wish list. Just a quick trip to Walmart for yarn and an even quicker order on Amazon for some circular needles and I was ready.

That was three weeks ago. Now I’m riding high on a wave of knitting mania and I want to KNIT. ALL. THE PROJECTS.

There are so many cool things to knit. Between the internet and the books I checked out from the library, I’ve found patterns for hats, socks, scarves, headbands, boot toppers, crochet flowers, dragon-rider hoods, cute little acorn ornaments…. Okay, I better stop before your eyes go belly-up in boredom.

Picking the best projects to try would be difficult if it weren’t for my somewhat limited knitting skills. Since I’m a moderate beginner, about two-thirds of the projects are well beyond my reach—though YouTube has been extremely helpful in teaching me certain techniques required for projects that are only slightly out of reach. I’ve learned a ton about knitting in the past few weeks. And that only makes me want to knit more, get better at it.

Luckily, I still have several gifts left to knit.

Picking patterns to try has been super fun—and very Christmassy. Nothing puts you in the holiday spirit like sitting next to your glowing Christmas tree, wrapped in a blanket while snow falls outside, a cup of tea beside you, a half-knit hat in your hands, It’s a Wonderful Life playing in the background.

Not only has knitting saved me from the holiday shopping horrors and turned me into a Christmas couch potato, but it’s also helping me get back in touch with my creative side—a side of me I’ve neglected since finishing my final college art class last spring. (Dishonor on me, dishonor on my cow.)

The simple act of creating something—of imitating the great Creator in some small way—is quite satisfying. I love to watch a knitting piece grow stitch by stitch, row by row, yarn ball shrinking like a snowball in front of a chestnut-scented open fire. Seeing the piece slowly take shape gives me an almost Advent-like sense of anticipation (though obviously, Jesus beats yarn any day). What will the piece look like when it’s done, when I bind off and weave in the loose ends? Looking at the pattern’s example picture gives me an idea, but I won’t know for sure how the piece feels and fits until it’s done.

The finished piece is a surprise almost as much for me as it will be for its recipient.

That’s the ultimate reason I’ve been enjoying my current knitting craze so much. I like making personalized gifts for my loved ones. I want to give my mom, my dad, my sisters something special, something I put effort into instead of just plucked from a random store shelf. Although Christmas shopping can be fun (if you avoid the hordes), I’d much rather give my family something meaningful: my time.

My time. My love. Knitted into the very fabric of the wooly thingamabob each Adix will find under the tree on Christmas morning.

So I’m not just giving my family some gifts this Christmas.

I’m giving them a tiny piece of myself.


Thanks for visiting the Written Woods!

Posted in Arts & Crafts, This and That | 1 Comment

Breaking for Books

A couple months ago, I wrote about several “turn-off” elements that made me bail on the books in which they appeared. Now it’s time to talk about the opposite: the features that made me break for some of my favorite books this year.

Although a few of the following five “turn-on” elements may or may not apply to a particular story, writers like me would do well to keep them in mind while we wordsmith.

1) Humor

dolphinBook I break for: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (audiobook read by Stephen Fry)

In this book, a timid man named Arthur Dent goes on a wacky romp through the galaxy after Earth is demolished by giant space bulldozers in order to make room for a space freeway.

I generally don’t laugh out loud when reading, but I did chuckle inwardly at this book’s unrelenting humor. The book is full of absurd situations, from the fact that mice have been experimenting on us all these years (because they’re aliens, naturally) to the fact that some aliens torture their prisoners by reading their terrible poetry aloud. And then there’s the manically depressed robot, the two-headed President of the Galaxy, the sentient bowl of petunias, the colossal planet-manufacturing facility…. The list goes on.

All these elements are entertaining on their own. But when woven together into a book, the combined weight of their wackiness makes for a refreshingly original, satirical sci-fi story.

There are several reasons why humor can be valuable to writers. First, humor is a great way to entertain, to delight, to keep the reader engaged in the story. Second, when the humor focuses on the absurd, it can be a way to keep the reader guessing throughout the book, delivering one crazy surprise after another. Finally, absurd humor can help us see life from a new perspective, pointing out some of the weird, pointless stuff we all do, but never really think about.

At the end of the day, The Hitchhiker’s Guide was a pleasure to listen to because it was not only funny, but also thought-provoking.

2) Movie counterpartbook-vs-movie

Book I break for: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Movie version: The Book Thief (2013) directed by Brian Percival

In Nazi Germany, a young girl named Liesel learns to read and discovers the power of words when she steals a book from a Nazi book-burning.

Obviously, not all books have a movie counterpart. But when they do, I like to read the book first, then watch the movie and compare the two.

I loved Zusak’s Book Thief (probably because it’s a book about books). It’s narrated by Death—and Death has quite a way with words. The book is full of striking word pictures and imagery that gave the writing a fresh, literary quality. Plus, Zusak’s characters and settings are richly detailed. All in all, a great story.

The movie was good, too. I enjoyed seeing the director’s take on what the characters and places look like (very different from what I pictured in my head while reading). And I think the film successfully captured the heart of the book’s message about the power of words and the importance of human decency in wartime.

That being said, a lot of detail was lost between book and movie. In particular, I missed Zusak’s highly detailed characterization and the narrative’s overall “way with words.”

I understand that many details have to be cut in order to prevent the movie from being nine hours long. And sometimes scenes have to be added, cut, or moved around in order to make for better movie pacing.

So, I’m not one of those people who throw a temper tantrum if the movie diverges from the book. I usually end up liking both versions of the story, albeit for different reasons. Comparing the two, I get to learn more about the creative process, the kinds of choices authors and directors make, and the differences (and similarities) between two very popular mediums of storytelling—print vs. visual.

3) Intriguing conceptinteresting

Book I break for: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

In this alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars, enormous dragons are used as weapons of war. Our English sea captain hero and the dragon he stole from a French ship must learn to work as a team in order to help repel the French threat back across the Channel.

Even though this book was rather boring in parts, I stuck with it because the concept of using dragons almost like a modern Air Force was so interesting. The dragons are big enough to carry a dozen people, plus a large assortment of cargo, supplies, and armaments. Dragons fly in formation like jet fighters, gunners shooting from their backs and dropping bombs. Enemy dragons also tussle with each other in the more “traditional” way, teeth and claws biting and slashing. Napoleon even uses dragons as troop transports to haul his men over the Channel.

These uses of dragons felt different than most other uses I see. In older stories, dragons are gold-hoarding monsters that the hero must slay. In newer stories, like Eragon and the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, dragons are relatively small beasts that can carry 1-2 riders and behave quite tamely once they’re trained.

In short, Novik uses her dragons as weapons of (somewhat) modern warfare, whereas most other fantasy stories use dragons as villains or glorified flying horses. Lucky for Novik, I found her concept to be interesting enough that I was willing to put up with some slowness in the plot.*

4) Flipping tropes/archetypes/genre expectationssubversion-flip-on-head

Books I break for: The Princeless comics by Jeremy Whitley

A helpless princess trapped in a dragon-guarded tower. Pirate ships with all-male crews, not a woman in sight (unless she’s a “wench”). Nonexistent female dwarves (seriously, how do Tolkien-style dwarves reproduce?). A family business that’s automatically passed on to the oldest son. An old white guy for a king. Actually, nothing but white people everywhere.

These are a few of the fantasy “tropes” (overused plot devices and character types) that the Princeless comics flip on their heads.

Sure, these comics are light reading. But I still enjoyed the fact that they focused on young female protagonists of various races and body types doing cool things like chasing and catching a thief, making and wearing practical armor (not bikini-like at all, for once!), and recruiting an all-female pirate crew to go out and get revenge on some other pirates (long story—read the comics).

As a female fan of speculative fiction, I always enjoy spec fic stories that aren’t afraid to let girls and women do the daring-do.

5) Likable characterslikable

Book I break for: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

In this 2012 New York Times bestseller, Bernadette, a quirky former architect living in Seattle (and hating every minute of it), goes missing and it’s up to her equally quirky husband and daughter to find her.

I usually read spec fic for fun, but I decided to branch out into realistic fiction with this book—and I’m glad I did! Bernadette is eccentric in endearing ways. She always wears sunglasses when she picks up her daughter from school, even in the Seattle grayness. Her ongoing feud with her annoying, proselytizing neighbor is relatable and her retaliatory actions are hilarious. In short, Bernadette is a downright fun character to read.

Bernadette’s daughter is likable for another reason. Even though her mom is extremely odd, she loves her anyway and will (literally) go to the ends/bottom of the earth to find her when she goes missing.

Having likable characters is the key to the entire fiction-writing business. If no one likes your characters, no one will finish your book. Simple as that.

At least one character in the book has to be at least a little bit likable—at least in some way. Otherwise, readers will bail out faster than Larry and Junior Asparagus from the out-of-control sled in “The Toy that Saved Christmas” (sorry, obscure Veggie Tales reference). Even in stories that feature a villain or an anti-hero as the protagonist, there has to be some level of “like” or relatability to keep readers reading.**

Obviously, the more readers like the characters in a story, the more invested they will be in the book’s outcome—and the more they will enjoy the story.

And if the point of a story is to delight you as well as to make you think, then likable characters are an absolute “must.”


Well, I should probably wrap this post up. I could go on and on about the elements that make a story good, that turn me on to a book or movie. But that would take hours—and I have books to read and hats to knit!

If you’re in the commenting mood, what books do you break for and why? What turn-ons have you encountered in your reading lately?

Thanks for visiting the Written Woods!


*A slow/boring plot is definitely something writers want to avoid. Aside from creating unlikable characters, it’s the worst blunder a novelist can make!

**As long as a character is likable enough, that character can literally get away with murder without turning the reader off! Just look at Loki from the MCU.

Posted in Books, Writing | Leave a comment

I’m a Bad Writer

bad-writerWhen it comes to stringing words together to make coherent, grammatically correct sentences, I’m good. When it comes to arranging sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into stories or essays, I’m decent. But when it comes to the self-discipline all good writers need, I’m bad.

Take my recent National Novel Writing Month failure for example.

In case you don’t know, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to write a 50,000 word novel over the course of November. To succeed, participants need to write an average of 1,667 words every day. A daunting challenge, yet one that I was completely prepared to accept this year. I had a great story idea that I’d actually started working on already. I had plenty of time to write. I had a kitchen stocked with tea and chocolate two dozen feet from my writing desk. I had everything going for me.

Except my own self-discipline—or lack thereof.

On November 30, the last day of NaNoWriMo, my total word count stalled out at a measly 28,184 words. Observe the graphic.

nano-stats-2016

What the heck happened on Day 20?

My novel flat-lined. Beep… beep… beep… beeeeeeeeeeeeeee………

And I let it happen!

I’m a terrible doctor writer!

I knew Thanksgiving festivities were coming up and I was behind on my daily word-count goal anyway, so I essentially just gave up. At least I passed the halfway mark of 25,000 words, I told myself. At least I wrote that much.

So, despite my overall failure, I guess my NaNoWriMo experience was helpful in one way. I’m much closer to having a complete rough draft than I was in October—and that’s nothing to sneeze at (pardon my cliché). And a 28k increase in word-count is particularly impressive considering my general slowness at writing anything other than college assignments with built-in deadlines. Case in point: it took me 16 months to write the first three chapters of my novel.

But none of that changes the fact that I didn’t have enough self-discipline to see the NaNoWriMo challenge through to a win.

Writers don’t get better if they don’t write.

And writers won’t write if they don’t designate time to sit down and make themselves write, even if they don’t feel like it.

I know this. I really do. Seriously, I do. But I chose to forget it during November.

If I want to be a real writer—if I want to improve, if I want to actually finish a novel before I croak—I need to meet my own deadlines. And the only way to do that (in the words of a very practical writing professor from my undergrad days) is to sit down, “butt in chair,” and write.

Thus, I give you this whiny blog post.


Thanks for visiting the Written Woods!

Posted in Writing | 5 Comments

Bailing on Books

Well, summer reading season is officially over. (Hello, rain clouds.) And if I didn’t fully acknowledge it before, I definitely know it now:

I’m a picky reader.

Maybe I shouldn’t be. I’d probably learn a lot if I were to revisit all the books I ever failed to get through. Besides the particular topics and themes those books explore, I could also delve deeper into the craft of writing itself. It’s always good to learn more about the elements that make for a really good (or bad) story.

But. There are literally thousands of books vying for my attention at the library (my favorite book hunting grounds).

Why would I spend my limited reading time on stories that cause me to bail out within the first few chapters when there are so many “better” (well, more to my taste) books waiting in line to enchant me?

Over the summer, I bailed on several books. Each one contained one or more major “turn-off” elements that I think are worth exploring.

As a reader, I believe it’s important to figure out why a particular story element bothers me in order to better understand and define my personal preferences and beliefs. And as a writer, sometimes it’s helpful to keep in mind what not to do when working on a story. After all, pitfalls are much easier to avoid if we know about them ahead of time.

Here are the five major turn-offs I encountered during my summer reading. The first three are content related and therefore more subjective; the last two are story crafting issues that all writers should pay attention to.

1) Drunken teen parties

drunk-kermitBook I bailed on: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro.

This book features the teenage descendants of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson working to solve a murder case on their prep school campus. Intriguing concept.

Unfortunately, I never made it past the second chapter because basically the first thing anyone talks about in the book is the mischief that goes on during the frequent alcohol-doused parties that happen in a basement on campus.

Whether taking place in a book or a movie, these kinds of parties never seem to lead to anything good. Characters who attend can pretty much expect to get drunk, hungover, horribly embarrassed, emotionally crushed, or even sexually assaulted. It seems like there are so many better ways to have a good time. Hence, I tend to dislike characters who choose to regularly attend and discuss (in lurid detail) what happens at such parties.

If you dislike a book’s characters, it’s hard to make it all the way through the story.

2) Unnecessary swearing

cursing-monkeyBook I bailed on: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

This book is about two suicidal teens who save each other from jumping off the school bell tower and then begin a romantic relationship with each other. I wanted to try this book because I don’t read enough contemporary/realistic fiction.

It’s too bad the narration turned out to be full of swear words.

The male protagonist is a death-obsessed bad-boy, so his copious use of certain four-letter words sort of makes sense. After all, swearing can be used to good effect as a characterization device, sometimes.

However, I think less is more when it comes to @#!$%.

Just because a character has a salty vocabulary, doesn’t mean every other sentence he speaks has to contain a bleep-worthy word. Wouldn’t Niven’s bad-boy protagonist be all the more badass (pardon my language) if he didn’t even need swear words to express his badassery?

Plus, if swearing is kept to a minimum in a book, those few remaining “bad words” will carry all the more emotional weight when a character finally can’t take the pressure anymore and verbally loses control.

So, if a story’s swearing isn’t sparing, this reader is gonna be bailing. (Ugh. So corny.)

3) Unnecessary sex talk

privateBook I bailed on: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Again, the main offender is the bad-boy main character and his… uh, intimate pursuits.

Again, as with swearing, some talk about sexual topics and portrayal of sexual scenes can be necessary, depending on characterization and plot.

But once again, I felt like these elements were overdone in the opening pages of Niven’s book. In the first few chapters, various teenage girls discuss the bad-boy’s sexual prowess in obvious (though thankfully not graphic) terms. Call me a prude, but I find this off-putting.

For many reasons that I won’t go into right now, I don’t think it’s wise for teenagers to be sexually active. So when the characters in a YA novel start bragging about their “encounters,” or praising the aggressive “style” (ew!) of the bad-boy—for no apparent reason other than to emphasize that he’s a bad-boy—I take that book straight back to the library.

4) Longwinded description

focusBook I did NOT bail on, but did tune out at some points: The Lord of the Rings audiobooks by J.R.R. Tolkien (read by Rob Inglis)

As any self-respecting geek knows, the LOTR trilogy is about the hobbit Frodo Baggins and how he teams up with some friends (and enemies) to destroy the evil One Ring. (It’s also about how everybody is in love with Aragorn.)

Even though I love the trilogy, I tended to zone out during the massive chunks of description and longwinded songs/poems interspersed throughout the story. I could take only so much description of exactly how the sky looked on that particular morning and precisely what kind of plants were growing in every single location Frodo and Co. passed through before I got the urge to turn off that super-dense audiobook and turn on some mindless pop tunes.

So, here’s the tip for writers like me. According to current writing “rules,” all description and extra stuff (songs, poems, side stories, etc.) should focus directly on furthering plot or enhancing characterization.

Otherwise, you’ll risk making your audiobook listener bail as soon as the narrator starts singing.

5) Lack of reader-character connection

crowd-of-lego-peopleBook I bailed on: Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham

This is a high fantasy book filled with typical high fantasy stuff like revenge-seeking warriors, barbarian hordes, and a powerful kingdom that’s in jeopardy because of said barbarian hordes.

The first several chapters each focus on a different character. Just when I was starting to think one character was the protagonist, the next chapter would introduce and follow someone else. Because there were so many characters, I felt like I couldn’t connect as well with them as I normally do. My emotional and mental energy was spread too thin—spread between too many people for me to really latch onto anyone and start rooting for them.

A large cast of characters isn’t automatically a bad thing (I mean, it seems to work for George R. R. Martin). And I likely would have connected more with Durham’s characters as the book went on.

Unfortunately, Durham lost me before I could get to that point. He simply introduced too many characters too fast.

So, for writers working on stories with multiple main characters, I think it’s wise to spend a bit more time developing each person before bringing in the next. Otherwise, readers may be tempted to bail just to escape the rapid-fire onslaught of protagonists, villains, and foils.

No one likes a firing squad. Especially when the bullets are characters fired from an author’s pen.


Well. I think this is the pickiest post I’ve ever written.

Thanks for reading my ruminations (or rants).

Question: Did you encounter any turn-offs during your summer reading? If so, what were they?


[All photos from Pixabay, used under Creative Commons CC0]

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