Thursday, March 31, 2011

Blog As Writing Tool; or Making My LiveJournal Earn Its Keep

Anybody besides me out there still using LiveJournal? Blogger's cool and all, and Facebook and Twitter have their uses, but I still love LJ. Because it lets me do things none of these other tools can do.

Confession time again: I've been using my LJ to keep track of my story ideas for a couple of years now.

It started one day when I was at work, and a really cool story idea popped into my head. It was in the B.N. days (Before Netbook), so I couldn't just whip out my netbook (which does come with me to work most days) and add it to my existing ideas file. (Everyone has an ideas file, right? Someplace to keep notes about all of the cool ideas you haven't had a chance to write into stories yet? If you don't, you should start one.)

Now, I had choices. I could have e-mailed it to myself, or saved it in a Word document and put it on my data stick, or even just written it down on a sticky note. But all of those things required that I follow up later and take the idea from wherever I've left it and put it into my ideas file.

Instead, I jotted a quick sticky-note to myself, and then on my lunch hour, I went out to my LiveJournal and posted it as a private entry. So I can see it, but nobody else.

This also has the advantage that I can add a tag ("Story Ideas") so that I can later sort by that tag in order to see all of my ideas. And it means that as long as I'm in range of a computer, or have a few data hits left on my phone for the month, I can save my story ideas before they wander off.

Private entries are good for other things as well. I've written entire story chunks as blog entries, as well as story outlines, when I couldn't get to my netbook for some reason. Handy stuff.

Another LJ feature that I've used a couple of times in the past is polls. It's fairly easy to create an LJ poll and use it to poll your friends list to get input for a story. In the past, prior to NaNoWriMo, I've put up polls of story ideas and asked which should be my NaNo project for that year. And for those who missed it, there was the whole saga of "Naming Nicholas Fletcher," where one of my characters expressed dissatisfaction with the name I'd given him. I used LJ to garner suggestions, and then ran a poll to see what the final name should be.

Nicholas still shows up once in a while to kvetch about how I'm writing him. And the dialogues we've had have been an excellent way for me to get to know his character better. So that makes another handy way to use LJ as a writing tool.

Finally, I also participate in an on-line critique group where all of our work is done via LJ. LJ works really well for this sort of thing; you can create a community, and then post entries that are only visible to the community. That keeps our work private, and allows us to avoid the whole question of whether or not first publishing rights have been violated. And then, we leave our critiques for each piece in the comments.

So I guess, aside from word processing programs, LJ is my favorite writing tool.

Do other folks have favorite software/utilities/applications that weren't designed as writing tools, but that you find handy anyway?

(p.s. This entry? Written ahead of time and stored on LJ until it came time to post it here...)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Airships and Boilers and Gears, Oh My; or Getting My Steampunk On

Beloved Husband and I are spending the weekend at a steampunk convention. It has been a good convention, if a bit less busy than most of the conventions we attend. But it has been very inspiring to see all of the energy and creativity people are putting into this. Nearly all of the attendees are in at least some attempt at a costume, and some of the costumes are incredible.

There have been some good panels, too, ranging from one on Weird West Tales to one on Bartitsu (an obscure but wicked-cool Victorian martial art).

I love coming to conventions like this, because after a while, when I've been toiling away on whatever writing project is at the forefront of my mind, I reach a point where I simply need some outside stimulation. I may not come up with any new story ideas directly, but I might find a new way of looking at the work I've done, or the characters I've created.

So while I haven't had any earth-shattering epiphanies this weekend, or had any conversations about my writing with anyone, I do feel as though my creative batteries are being recharged. I have some thoughts about changes I should make to the first Winterbourne story, and (after seeing the bartitsu demo) I want to re-vamp a fight scene from the second book, and write some notes about one for the as-yet-unwritten third volume of the series. I feel energized and ready to go on my current round of editing for Book 1.

Not to mention that I've been enjoying the almost-endless parade of gentlemen in top hats and well-cut tail coats and yummy waistcoats!

Where do other people go to recharge their batteries? Do you get more benefit out of an activity related to your writing, or something totally unrelated, like a spa day?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dealing With Distractions; or, Of Course I Can Write With A Video Of Goats Singing 'The Blue Danube Waltz' Playing In The Background!

Sometimes, it's just hard to focus on writing.

Whether we like it or not, Real Life™ can raise its ugly head when we least expect it. And at least for those of us for whom writing is not our sole means of income, it's okay to set aside the writing for a time while we deal with the curves life throws us. The story will be there waiting for us when we come back to it. We might even find that we've discovered new insights into plot or character problems in the meantime.

But sometimes it isn't the big, life-shattering crises that keep us from channeling our best energies into our work. Sometimes it's the guy two tables over in the coffee shop, with the obnoxious ring-tone and the near-constant, over-loud cell phone conversations. Sometimes it's the television playing in the background while the dishwasher's running and the kids are either about to kill each other, or they just did. Or maybe it's just too quiet you can hear the faucet in the downstairs bathroom going drip ... drip ... drip ...

I'm trying to learn to work through these kinds of distractions, but it isn't easy. It doesn't help that some days, I have the attention span of a gnat to begin with. Nor, sad to say, does it help that I share my office with my Beloved Husband. I love him dearly. Really, I do. But it's really hard to stay focused on a story amidst intermittent snorts of laughter as he pages through the day's LOL_Cats. Or watches the occasional goat video*. The fact that, when I'm trying to visualize a scene, I will either stare off into space (in hopes that the scene is written there), or close my eyes (because someone might have posted the key to my scene on the insides of my eyelids) only contributes to the problem. Because if I'm staring off into space, I'm obviously not writing. Right?

There are ways of dealing with distractions, of course.

  • While my headphones are not the noise-canceling kind, with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" soundtrack blasting through them, I'm not certain it makes a lot of difference.
  • At times in the past, I've designated a certain hat to be my "writing hat," a portable "do not disturb" sign that says, "Please don't bother me just now."
  • It's also nice that our sleep cycles are not quite in synch. Bedtime for him is usually around 10:00 pm, while I'm more of a night-owl and usually can't get to sleep anytime before midnight. Those two hours? They're mine! {insert evil mad scientist laugh here}
  • If I find that I keep stopping to check e-mail, Live Journal, Facebook, or Twitter, I'll either shut my browser, or give myself limits: Can't check Facebook until I finish this chapter, can't open e-mail until I've met my word count for the day.
  • And sometimes...well, sometimes, I just let the distractions happen. As Beloved Husband points out, "You need some breaks. You can't just work straight through." (Though he also claims that he only distracts me "a little bit," a statistic that has yet to be proven!)

These methods aren't always successful, of course. But they're the best I've come up with so far.

What are other people's strategies for dealing with distractions?

* What? You thought I was kidding about the goats? I wasn't. I swear. There I was, trying to write, when Beloved Husband discovered this:

I couldn't make that up if I tried!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In The Home Stretch; or Are We There Yet?

(I know, I know. This is actually last Thursday's posting, running a little late again. I'll try to do tomorrow's on time...)

So here I am, closing in on the end of my current Work In Progress, the second volume of the now four-volume Winterbourne trilogy. (I know. Shut up.) And, as usually happens at this point in a story, I just really really want to be done with it. I love these characters, love spending time with them, love making their lives ever-so-interesting. But even loving them as I do, there comes a time when I just want their story out of my head and down on paper (or at least in electronic bits), and to say that it is finished.

I want to spend a little time with some of my other stories and characters, and spend some time editing (because Inner Editor has been more-or-less on a leash since November, and she's getting REALLY cranky). So part of me is tempted to just get it done any old way, so I can set it aside for a while and use my few brain cells for other things for a few weeks.

But of course, the other part of me wants to get it right. I know it can (and will) be edited later, but I have to at least capture the essence of each scene, even if the details change. There are seeds I need to plant for later development, and I have to make sure I at least get them in there, even if I want to bury them a little deeper before the story sees the light of day. And one of the few remaining scenes I have to write is a confrontation between Celia Winterbourne and her father. There are reasons why the two sides are mutually incompatible, and no compromise can be reached. My challenge is to present it so that neither side appears to be totally unreasonable or overly emotional. Nor can either side appear to give in. (Yes, that "appear to" is very important.) At least not until the very final scene of the story.

So in some respects, I feel as though I still have a long way to go, while in others, I can almost reach out and touch the end of the long dark tunnel of this story. It makes me feel like a little kid in the back seat of my parents' station wagon again, asking every five minutes, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?!"

And Mom keeps answering, "Five more minutes."

I just wish I could tell, at this point, whether it'll be worth the trip. Because, yes, I have also reached the point where I'm certain the entire story sucks and no one would ever want to read it. It happens. I'm aware that it happens. That doesn't keep it from happening.

What sorts of challenges do other people face in completing a story? Are endings easy or hard? Are we there yet?

(Anyone care to take a guess as to what the final word count for this story will be? Hint: > 150,000 words and < 200,000. Yes, really.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

You're Out Of Order; or Writing The Ending First

I have another confession to make. (I seem to make them fairly frequently on this blog.)

I've already written the last scene of my current Work In Progress. Even though I have not yet finished all of the scenes that lead up to it. And in fact, I've just pasted two scenes into the story that I wrote a month ago, but hadn't added in because the story hadn't progressed that far yet.

This -- writing out of order -- is something I rarely do, and for a couple of reasons.

First, I usually find that when I know how a story is going to end, it's difficult to generate spontaneity in earlier sections. If I know I'm writing a character out at the end of Chapter 29, and I write her demise before I write everything else leading up to her demise, I'm likely to treat her differently than I would have otherwise. Perhaps I'll have her pull back from a relationship where she really should have moved ahead; or perhaps I'll make her take a foolish risk that she would never have taken in a million years.

And the second reason is that there is a risk that once you get to the section you wrote ahead of time, it just won't fit into the story anymore. Your characters may have grown in unexpected ways, or you might have found a way to fit the key parts of the scene into the story in another, better way. Though that also happened to me recently: Two of my characters had had a fight with each other, and I had a long, drawn-out, wordy reconciliation scene planned out for them, but at the end of the previous scene, it was just right for the two of them to say, "I'm sorry," and move on.

Of course, one school of thought says that you should outline the story you want to tell, and then just work on whatever section strikes your fancy on a given day. Unless you're a more thorough outliner than I am, though, this could be frustrating, as it might prove difficult to keep your characters consistent and to keep them moving along their arcs as they should. I did try this method once, back in my early writing days. It's probably worth noting that the story never did get finished, mostly because I never seemed to get around to writing "the boring bits": the scenes that filled in the background and provided transitions and held the story together. One might argue that if the missing parts really were that boring, perhaps they did not belong in the story at all; but it's just as likely that what they really needed was someone to write them who was better at incorporating necessary information into the story without getting all info-dumpy.

So if writing out of order is so problematic, why did I do it this time? Mostly, I'll confess, because I was otherwise stalled on one of the two main tracks of the story, and I hoped that if I pushed ahead on the other one, it would break things free on the first one. (And it did!)

But another reason was because there were certain character moments and certain turns of phrase that I wanted to make certain to capture while they were still in my mind. All too often, I think about a scene ahead of time, and work out just how the dialogue will go, until it's just perfect...only to have it completely disappear out of my head when it comes time to actually sit down and write that scene.

And the final reason, in this case, was the weather. I can see you wondering: What does the weather have to do with it? Well, we had some painfully cold weather here in January and early February (high temperatures that never got above 0 degrees F), and two of the scenes I wrote were set during cold weather. So I wanted to write them while my toes still ached from having been outside in that kind of weather. I wanted to capture the feeling of frigid air in my lungs while it was still fresh in my mind. I know that if I had waited until now to write those scenes (we've been having highs in the 50s and 60s F), it would have been more difficult to distill the essence of that kind of cold down to a few paragraphs.

So do other people always begin at the beginning of the story and write straight through to the end, or do you skip around, depending on how you feel on a given day?