Iterating the Writing Process

I’ve been reading Gabriela Pereira’s wonderful book DIY MFA in which she outlines a do-it-yourself alternative to a traditional MFA program. I’ve chosen not to continue with my education with an MFA program. One reason is because of the cost, but I’ve greatly enjoyed pursuing continued education on my own through reading lots of books and would rather not go through the rigidity of another university program. DIY MFA has been a great alternative with being just a $20 book (which I got half off).

What I love most about this book is that Pereira approaches the DIY MFA like it is a startup business. She uses many terms and concepts throughout the book that relate to a startup business, and focuses on iteration. Iteration, in relation to writing, is when you take your process and test and improve it over time in order to become a more productive and better writer. The key is to take a step back and look at how your process works, and then make small adjustments accordingly.

A while back I wrote about how I had been struggling to stay motivated and had come up with a sticker reward system that was working well. And it did work well for a while, but then it stopped working for me.

Then, when I started reading DIY MFA and learned about iteration, I realized how I needed to step back and look at my writing process and make small changes to figure out what would work for me. I’ve since gone through three other versions of my sticker system, each of them being a different way for me to lay out my work week. I’ve used iteration to find the right total number of work hours and the right balance of writing and marketing and craft and reading hours, and I think I’ve finally landed on a system that works for me. And if I find that it’s still not working, I’ll use the process Pereira outlines in order to keep honing in on the best method for me.

I love the DIY MFA mindset because it’s all about finding what works for you as an individual. I highly recommend this book to every writer. It is full of advice on everything from writing with focus to reading with purpose to building a community, which are the main principles of an actual MFA. This book has been a great alternative to going back to school for me, and I can’t wait to finish reading it.

DIY MFA my copy

Finding Motivation

Being self-employed is hard.

Getting to work from home and write is what I’ve always wanted to do, so of course I’m incredibly grateful. But a lot of days it’s difficult to get to work. It’s hard to sit down at the computer every day and write when I don’t often get to see visible results from the work I do.

I was called to do this, I know that. The only career that ever spoke to me was being a writer. I know that this is what God intended for my life. But then I’m alone at home during the day, and it’s really quiet with just me and my dog, and I have so much trouble focusing. The publishing world is so hard and most days seems impossible to break into. It’s hard to imagine myself getting a literary agent and get a book deal trough traditional publishing, like I’ve always dreamed.

Last week I read The Bestselling Author Mindset Formula by Jennifer Blanchard. Blanchard talked about how if you’re ever going to make it, you need to believe it. You need to have a bestselling author mindset. You need to tell yourself, “I will be a bestselling author,” because once you believe that, you’ll finally be willing to take the steps needed to get there.

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So after so many years of self-doubt, I’m choosing to believe it. I will be a bestselling author. I will one day get a traditional publishing deal and I’ll be able to walk into a bookstore and see my name on the shelves. My books will one day bear “New York Times bestselling author.” It will happen if I believe it. It will happen if I trust that this is what God has called me to do and I follow him to get there.

To help me stay motivated, I’ve made a reward system for myself. One sticker if I write so many words and one if I work so many hours each day, and I earn prizes if I fill out a sheet. I always thought it was a little silly when my professor said she used a sticker system, but I’m six days in already and I’ve noticed a huge difference.

Give a sticker or some other reward system a try if you’ve been struggling to find motivation to work. And try believing in yourself. Say to yourself that you’ll be a bestselling author. If you believe it, then you’re already on your way.

My Fitness Journey

On July 1st last year, my husband and I had to go get a health screening done for his insurance. I was pretty nervous for the appointment. I’m terrified of doctors and needles. But I think subconsciously I was just terrified what the results would show. And they ended up confirming what I was already pretty sure about.

I was overweight. No, not dangerously overweight. I wasn’t obese, but my body mass index was up there. And seeing what that number was confirmed what I already knew—I didn’t like my body.

I haven’t been too vocal about my weight loss journey because I haven’t wanted people to get the wrong idea. Let me say this: every body is beautiful. You are beautiful, just the way you are. No matter what size clothes you wear or what the number on the scale says, you are beautiful. I was beautiful, even at that weight. But I wasn’t happy with myself. I knew I could do better.

And so my husband and I set out together on a fitness journey, and we’re never turning back.

Our journey started with one very simple thing—we downloaded the app “My Fitness Pal” by Under Armour. This app has literally changed our lives. We use the free version of the app, which allows you to track every thing you eat. You can scan food packages, enter the portions you eat, and set your calorie goals. This app makes it so simple to lose weight, because it lets you plan out your food for the day so that you only eat what you need in order to have a calorie deficit. Five hundred less calories a day equals 3500 for the week, or one pound lost.

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My Fitness Pal

Now of course it takes a lot of strength and commitment to follow this meal plan. There have been days when I still eat emotionally and go way over my calorie goal, and days when I eat out and (though many restaurant menus are available in the app) I haven’t kept track at all. It’s also been really hard for us to learn to make better choices with what food we’re eating. The first things to go were sodas and sweets. But once you get into the routine, and when you mess up sometimes and see how bad your body feels after eating food that’s not good for it, it becomes pretty easy to stick to it.

The other simple thing we did on our fitness journey was to join Planet Fitness. This gym was the simple choice because of the cost. It’s only $10 a month, and it is so worth it. My husband works out more than I do because I am restricted from asthma and bad knees, but I still go a couple times a week to do a walk on the treadmill. I really love Planet Fitness because of the attitude and atmosphere they promote. They want to provide a positive, comfortable, and judgment-free environment in which people can develop an active lifestyle, and that is exactly the kind of gym my husband and I needed.

It’s been about 8 months since we began our fitness journey, and the results speak for themselves. Both of us have lost just under 40 pounds, getting back to healthier body mass indexes, and we’ve learned to control our portions and eat a lot healthier. We didn’t like something and we chose to change it. We’re happier now and we’re not turning back.

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Me holding the weight I’ve lost (36 lbs!)

 

Getting healthier has also affected my writing life because I feel better and have more energy. It is so important to be active when you have a job that requires you to sit at a computer for hours.

There are so many ways to go on a fitness journey and try to lose weight. I just wanted to share what has worked for me. Counting calories and doing what I was physically able to to work out were small, simple changes, but they’ve made all the difference.

Falling in Love with Audiobooks

Back in high school, I hated (almost) everything we were assigned to read. To me, they were all boring books that were written a hundred years ago that had nothing to do with my life. Though I was retaught some of them in college and actually like them now, like The Great Gatsby, I sadly still have little patience for anything written before my lifetime. However, I discovered in high school something that made reading all of those books bearable—audiobooks.

I would get the texts on CD from the library and listen as I drove to and from school. It was so easy to fly through the day’s reading assignment by doing this, and it made the books even kind of interesting. It was nice to have a story be read aloud to me, like a parent tucking you into bed.

I then went to college and, being an English major, lost all time to read what I actually wanted to read. My days were filled with the dozens of assigned texts I had to read for my classes. And being forced to read all of these books made me lose my love for reading.

When I graduated I rediscovered my love after realizing how much time I now had to read. It’s been almost two years since I’ve graduated, and I’ve read 102 novels. But I think that the number will be much higher for the coming years, as I have also rediscovered my love of audiobooks.

It started with a book that I found difficult to read in print but that I loved the concept of—Need, by Joelle Charbonneau. I enjoyed reading The Testing trilogy by Charbonneau, so when I saw her new book was about the dangers of social media, I had to pick it up. I gave up after about fifty pages though, as I felt it wasn’t smooth on the page. But then a few months later I found the audiobook version at my library, and I gave it another try. And I am so glad I did.

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Just like those books in high school, listening to the audiobook made the story so much more interesting and easy to get through. And this story was so worth it, because it ended up being an incredible book about how social media can make teenagers do things they would not do without the anonymity of the Internet and make them complete seemingly random and secretly dangerous tasks with the promise of a material reward.

After falling in love with audiobooks again, I discovered an app that my library lets you use for free—called Hoopla—that has tons of audiobooks on it. And the best part is that you can listen to them at varying speeds. I like to listen at 1.5x normal speed, so I can get through books quickly. And I love that it is on my Kindle and phone, so that I can listen as I get ready in the morning instead of having to use a CD player or just listen in the car.

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Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy on Hoopla’s App

So I encourage you, if you have trouble getting into books or even finding the time to read, try audiobooks. It is really interesting to have a novel read aloud to you, and doing so makes it so much easier to fit reading into your day.

The Little Things that Inspire Me

I love my desk. My husband and I never used our kitchen table as an actual table, so, since we live in a small apartment and I didn’t yet have my own space for my writing, I claimed the table as my own. And now that I’ve gotten used to my big table, I don’t think I could ever go back to a normal, small desk.

Having my big table gives me plenty of space to spread out with my computer and notebooks, but what I love most is that I have lots of room for little trinkets and things that inspire me. I thought I’d share some of the little things that inspire me and explain how they help my writing process.

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Writing Textbooks: I have a lot of writing textbooks and references on my desk. Some are from college, some I’ve read after school, and others I haven’t gotten to yet. I have everything from a book about outlining to a baby name book. I don’t read from these every day, but just having them there in front of me reminds me of the helpful information they contain and inspires me to do better.

GenZ Publishing Swag: I love my publisher. If you haven’t check them out yet, you definitely should. They’re looking for young, new, and innovative writers. It is so hard to break into publishing, but GenZ is giving new writers a chance to share their stories with the world. So of course I have to have my GenZ bookmarks and business cards on my desk so I can remember how awesome they are every day.

Faith Reminders: My two wooden block signs are probably the most important things on my desk. One says “You are Loved,” which is something I need to remember every day. Writing is a very solitary thing, and often leaves you feeling alone. But God is with me, and I am loved. The other sign asks, “Did you think to pray?” Writing is also a very hard thing to do. Along with feeling alone, writing can also make you frustrated and make you doubt yourself. I keep this sign here so that whenever I get frustrated I can stop and remember to pray about it. And I always feel better when I do this.

Jacob: A few of the things on my desk are from or remind me of my husband, Jacob. He’s the most important person in my life, so I need reminders of him on my desk. I have a picture frame that he gave me for my birthday a few years ago, a stack of encouraging sticky notes that he’s left me, and a little jar of M&Ms from our wedding that have our names on them.

Les Misérables Lyrics Book: Of course I need something on my desk that reminds me of my favorite story ever, so I have a lyric book to the musical Les Misérables. This story inspires me so much and has had an influence on everything I’ve written, and so I have to have the lyrics close to me when I write.

Buttons: I have three buttons on my desk. One says “A Whopper of a Writer,” which I got back in middle school when I won a writing contest, and the other two are Wright State University buttons that I got when I won their 2014 writing contest and placed in their 2015 contest. I like having these reminders of times I’ve succeeded as a writer.

3D Printer Items

My husband is an engineer and works with a 3D printer. He gave me these little test pieces that he didn’t need. Two are butterflies and one is a rook, and all three have intricate designs. I know there’s a story in them, and so I keep them on my desk so I can one day find their story.

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Somewhere Only We Know Cover: I have a framed picture of my book cover on my desk. I love to look at it and remember how blessed I am to have published this story.

I love everything about my desk. It is so important to surround yourself with little things that inspire you. I keep things that remind me of my books, my husband, my faith, and my sources of inspiration. What do you keep around you that inspires you?

 

Plotter or Pantser?

Writers tend to fall into one of two categories. The first, “plotters,” are those who plan out everything for their stories ahead of time. They outline, write backstories, and try to figure out the details of the whole story before they write a word. The second category, “pantsers,” are those who write “by the seat of their pants.” They don’t plan anything ahead of time; rather, they discover the story as they write it.

The way the writing community talks about it, you’re supposed to fit into either of these categories. But I always seem to find myself somewhere in the middle. I’ve found that everyone seems to be different in how they go about planning or not planning their book, and I’ve also found that I seem to change up my strategy with each thing I write.

When I first started writing, I was a complete pantser. I spent about three years writing my first book, from my senior year of high school to my sophomore year of college. As I wrote the book, I knew how I wanted it to end, and, scene by scene, I very slowly worked my way through it. Since I wrote the whole thing before taking a single fiction class, it is not a very good book. The book is not completely terrible though, and the people who read it told me they really liked my characters, but it can definitely be a lot better. I do have ideas on how to completely revamp it, though, and plan to tackle it again one day.

After I started taking fiction classes I began working on a second book, and it was then that I discovered my method of being a piece by piece plotter. This method worked for both this second novel and Somewhere Only We Know. With both of these books, I wrote a little bit to get going in the book, and then I would stop and plot out the next few scenes. I would go write those, and then would stop again and plot out a few more scenes. This method is a combination of being both a plotter and a pantser because I was only plotting a little bit at a time. I wasn’t thinking too much about the overarching story, just writing it by the seat of my pants. It’s like E. L. Doctorow’s quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

When I started my new work in progress (WIP), I wrote a little bit of it, just like how I began my second and third books, but then I felt really stuck. My WIP is a dystopian story, and so a lot of world-building is involved. I knew who my characters were and what the primary conflict was, but a lot of the details were fuzzy to me. I decided to read K.M. Weiland’s books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel and their corresponding workbooks. Weiland does an amazing job explaining story structure and how she goes about outlining, and I highly recommend them. I wrote pages and pages of notes for my WIP. I didn’t go quite as in depth as Weiland, but I did much more pre-plotting than I usually do.

Weiland books.jpg

However, instead of feeling ready to get writing after I wrote an outline, I simply felt overwhelmed by all of those pages and pages of notes. I attended a retreat in the fall, and the author who read the beginning of my WIP really enjoyed it. So I felt reassured that I was on the right track with the book, but I still wasn’t sure how to keep going.

I did write a little more in the book after the retreat, but I’ve been mostly stalled on this WIP. So last week, since it was on sale, I decided to download software that so many writers swear by—Scrivener. I’m still just getting my feet wet in it, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to organize my outlining notes in Scrivener in a way that works better for me and then will be able to really get going on my WIP.

I love the concept for this story and can’t wait to share it with you. I just am still figuring out if plotting or pantsing, or a combination, is going to work best for me. It will take trial and error for everyone, and for every story you write, to find what works best for you.

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Behind the Scenes of Somewhere Only We Know: Setting

The setting of a story is so much more than just where the story takes place. If done well, setting can help create the mood and tone of the story and can even act as a character itself. Setting is not just the physical space in which the story takes place, but the time period and culture. And as Cheryl St.John explained in Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict, when characters react to their setting, we can learn about both it and the characters themselves in how the interpret what they see.

As I lean towards science fiction and dystopian stories, I’ve always had a particular interest in setting as world building is so important in those stories. I love it when a book can take me to a different place and make it feel real.

Somewhere Only We Know is a contemporary young adult novel, so there were no different worlds or societies to explore. It was just a simple small town, and, though I didn’t say where in the book, I always imagined it to be in northwest Ohio as I lived there for many years. A lot of readers are familiar with this kind of simple small town. However, setting is just as important in this book as it is in any science fiction tale.

There are only three main settings in Somewhere Only We Know: Frankie and Susan’s house, Frankie’s school, and the clearing in the forest. Each of these settings are extremely important in creating the tone of the story.

Frankie and Susan’s house is a simple two-story with an attic. The downstairs is plain, with the living room to the right of the front door and the eating area and kitchen to the left. The garage connects through the kitchen. The stairs are in the middle, which leads to the two bedrooms upstairs—Frankie and Susan’s on the right and their father’s on the left—with a bathroom in the hallway and stairs leading to the attic. The attic has a wood floor and low ceilings, and it is the only part of the house that is impeccably organized, thanks to their deceased mother. Frankie and Susan’s room is particularly messy and disorganized, which reflects the disorder in their lives.

All of the scenes including violence take place in the house, which makes it the most depressing of the three settings. Frankie does not think of it as a safe place, and so she doesn’t feel a lot of attachment towards the house. The exception of this is the attic, as that was her mother’s space. Her mother kept the attic perfectly organized and had a rocking chair up there where she would read from her Bible and look at old pictures. Frankie can feel a connection to her mother in this space, so she goes there often and several important scenes take place there.

The school is also the site of a few important scenes. Frankie gets to sit next to her best friend Lindsey in Mrs. Miller’s homeroom and language arts class, so a lot of their interaction takes place there. The fact that it is their language arts class is important because both girls feel a deep connection towards books. The other important room in the school is the office, where Frankie has multiple interactions with Principal Berry and the counselor, Mr. Lukeman. Frankie doesn’t like the office very much. She thinks the secretary doesn’t like her and the chairs in the waiting room and the offices make Frankie uncomfortable. But at the end of the book the school becomes a place of comfort and something very important takes place there.

The clearing in the forest is by far the most important setting in the book. The clearing is peaceful and beautiful. Yet its inspiration came not from nature, but from a classroom. When I was a freshman in college, I took an introductory women’s studies class to fulfill a general education requirement, and my life was forever changed. In the acknowledgements of Somewhere Only We Know I thank the teacher of this course and every student in it for creating something very special and powerful. In that classroom we shared our stories. We overcame everything that kept us in silence, and were able to share stories of violence we had encountered. Even the teacher had a story to tell about violence in her life. And with that sharing came power. We found healing by sharing what happened to us. We put a name on it and learned that it wasn’t our fault. This is the kind of environment I tried to create in the clearing for Frankie and the other girls.

I tend to feel a greater connection to God in nature, like Frankie, which is why I chose to make this magical place a clearing in the forest. The song “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane also influenced the story and gave me my title, so that is why I chose the beautiful tree to be in the middle of it. I love that the clearing becomes a safe place for Frankie and the girls to try to share their stories, and I hope that victims of abuse reading my book are able to find a place like this of their own. Because of its power, the clearing acts as a character of its own in the story, and it draws all of the girls together.

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When writing a story, setting can often seem like it’s just in the background since it is the background of the story. But when you consciously think about the setting of a story and what it can do for your story, you can make it have a significant impact.