For the last few years, I have been working toward a shift in focus on this blog and in my life in general. I’ve wanted to spend more time writing, but from 2014-2016, I was working on my dissertation and that provided almost more writing than I could handle! Needless to say, I didn’t do a whole lot of work on other projects, save for a scribble or two here and there, to jot down ideas or get started. Lately, though, I have been putting much more structured focus on writing and trying to get into a writer’s mentality. This has meant that my reading output (or input?) has dropped, leaving me with less to say and do here on the blog. My reading hasn’t stopped altogether—that would be insane—but the types of reading I’m choosing has changed, and the pace at which I’m reading has slowed. This is also partly due to my profession as a college English educator who is constantly grading essays. You do 50-100 of those a week and, well, you don’t want to read much afterward!
So, I’ve been trying to decide what to do with the blog in order to keep up a regular presence and also make it “make sense” with my shift in reader/writer focus. I debated with the idea of shutting it down altogether, but this blog has been with me for nearly a decade. I love it and it doesn’t feel right, at the moment, to close up shop. It might continue to evolve into something else as I spend more and more time writing, but isn’t that okay, too? At this time, I’ve decided to keep posting short reviews of books when I want (I’ve got a couple more on deck, in fact: Stephen King’s The Outsider and Bella Forrest’s The Breaker), but I will also include some WIP and general writing progress updates, perhaps once per week. I’m completing a miniature self-guided “MFA” program for writers, and one of the suggestions made in the program is ACCOUNTABILITY. This means setting a writing goal and then holding yourself accountable for what you did or did not do.
I had always heard that you should never talk about your writing, you should just write, so I was a little surprised to hear about this strategy; but, like anything else, I do think it makes sense that you are much more likely to do the work if you’re not doing it entirely in secret, where there are no expectations or repercussions for laziness, slacking, and skipping. This also means my mentality and online presence have shifted/are shifting from primarily reader-centered to writer-centered.
There are a number of other suggestions from the program that I plan to follow, and I want to outline them briefly, here, as a baseline for myself (and if there are any other writers out there who read this and want to connect, great!) and to help me set up some kind of template that I can use for weekly WIP updates. The general content areas are: Write with Focus; Read with Purpose; Build Your Community.
Write with Focus
As far as I can tell, there are three very important elements to writing with focus.
The first is to write. All the time. Every day, and in whatever fashion. It might mean journaling, it might mean writing craft exercises (like responding to prompts), and it might mean working on a specific WIP project, whether outlining, character mapping, or actual manuscript work. I’ve made some progress on this daily writing component, including jotting down a lot of notes for my upcoming WIP (still in invention stage, but I’m getting there), journaling regularly, and working on craft elements with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Soon, I will also start work on the actual WIP, which I will need to schedule into my days, and that brings me to the next part.
The second is to control your environment and set the mood for success. This is something I teach my writing students; they must pay attention to their environments, what works and what doesn’t, and make conscious decisions about where and when they are doing their work, and what else needs to happen in that atmosphere (music or other background noise? Lighting? Snacks? Etc.). The MFA guide suggests trying to set an environment and work with it for a while, and then slowly make one adjustment at a time until everything feels “right.” It may last forever, it may need to be adjusted again at some point but controlling the environment so that your mind knows that when it is “x” time and “y” environment is set, that means it is writing time. I have made almost no progress with this component! For weeks, I’ve been setting my alarm to get up early so that I can spend two hours of my morning writing, before any of the other pressures/responsibilities of the day start to move in. And for weeks, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night and turning the alarm off. I’m not sure if morning writing is for me (in fact, I’m positive that I write best at night), but given the nature of my daily life, I feel like I have to find a way to make this work because, otherwise, my own writing just won’t happen. I’ll get caught up in everything else that I need to do, including my profession. I do at least have some ideas in mind about what my writing situation will look like. I have a private room. I have a desk set up with my row of writing-related texts facing front and center. I have my notes and ideas books nearby, and a candle to light to trigger the “mood.” I think I’m mostof the way there. What’s keeping me from starting? At first, I figured it was laziness or the fact that I have severe insomnia. Since I get very little sleep, it’s extremely difficult to get up earlier than absolutely necessary; but there’s the kicker: I have to recognize that getting up to write is necessary, just like every other necessary part of my day. I have not made that turn yet.
The third component to writing with focus is understanding the process. Even as a professional writer and writing instructor, I fall prey to the idea that if I can’t get it “right” right away, then I must be doing something wrong. I KNOW this is utter nonsense. I spend hours every week reassuring my own students that they are not failures for trying and that, in fact, the only failure is in not doing anything at all. So, to write with focus, I need to remind myself that a first draft is just that – a dump. A place to get everything out. Then the fixes come in, and I can and should take those fixes one at a time, focusing on one particular element and then another and then another, rather than doing a line-edit approach to the entire thing. This MFA program is giving me clear ideas of how to strategize the revision process so that it makes sense and so that, ultimately, I revise the most critical elements first, leaving each subsequent phase a little less demanding. These are some tips I would not have realized had I not began this focused study.
Read with Purpose
The next suggestion from this MFA program is to “read with purpose,” and again there are a few components to this instruction.
Read Your Genre
The first element is to “Read Your Genre.” This is another instruction I found contradictory at first. Essentially, what they mean is that you should read a lot of the genre you plan to write in, be it young adult fiction, science fiction, personal essay, memoir, etc. I had always been under the impression, though, that you wanted to avoid reading your own genre while writing in it because you might be subconsciously influenced by your reading, which could lead to borrowing or copying. I’m still concerned with that, quite frankly, so I think I’ve come up with a way to read within the genre but avoid the possibility for influence. First, most of my pleasure reading during the actual writing of a WIP will be from outside the WIP’s genre. At the moment, for example, I’m working in contemporary fiction of a particular theme, so I’m reading mostly non-fiction (history, philosophy). This keeps my reader-personality satisfied and my brain actively engaged, but limits the potential for me to be influenced by other stories, characters, etc. I might still end up working in some elements of my reading into the WIP, but it would be in a completely different way, such as incorporating a type of philosophical statement or lesson which I would still need to build into the story world or into the character’s development. I’m finding this kind of an interesting, even fun, activity. The other way I’m going about this is to read within the genre when I am outside of the WIP-writing phase. So, during pre-writing or when I’ve put away the first draft and am letting it sit, or when I am working on revisions and edits. Once my own complete work is out, there’s not much chance that I’ll go back and rework entire scenes or characters simply because I’m reading something awesome in another book. This will keep me engaged with my genre (what works? What doesn’t? What’s cliché? What’s novel?) while in the process of writing inside that genre. A final suggestion the MFA program makes, and which I plan to also adopt, is to read in the genre but of other forms. So, for example, if I’m writing a contemporary novel, I can spend my reading time on short stories. This would still let me read for plot, character, story arc, etc., but in much smaller chunks. In this way, I would also be able to see the full development of a story in a single sitting and take it apart for how and why it is working, or not. In many ways, this is beneficial over novel-reading, which takes much longer and cannot be seen in “snapshot” form.
Read the Craft
Another component of reading with focus is to read other writers on the craft. There are a few reasons for this, some of which include the following: continuously engaging in intellectual conversation with other writers through my reading/responses; getting ideas about what has and has not worked for other writers, and trying it all out; learning how to deal with setbacks, apparent failures, distractions, challenges, etc. by seeing what other writers have to say on these subjects; and treating myself as one among these writers who I admire, getting to know them not just as writers but as people who also had/have lives that needed to be lived, responsibilities that had to be kept, etc. This is one part of the process that I have already begun, and it is probably my favorite part (no surprise as a reader who likes to write, I love reading what other writers have to say about writing?). At the moment, for example, I’m reading the MFA craft book as well as Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. I give myself an hour every night with one or the other of these books, including journaling my reactions to them and incorporating notes for my own WIP based on what I’ve read in the craft texts. I have a number of these “on deck,” of various types (from The Emotional Craft of Fiction to Book in a Month to Light the Dark), as I think it is important to look at writing from a variety of angles, whether that be pacing, character, memoir, creativity, inspiration, language, or whatever else.
Read Like a Writer
The final element suggested for how to read with purpose is to read like a writer. The MFA guide shares some helpful tips on how to engage with texts, including writing book reviews (yes!), doing short critical analyses of small portions of the texts, responding to entire genres after reading many texts within them, or responding to a favorite author’s corpus after reading much of it. All of these strategies are interesting and helpful in different ways, and I plan to try them at varying points. Some, like responding to a genre or to an author’s corpus, will be much longer projects taking quite a bit of time, but they certainly seem like valuable pursuits to me. I write book reviews regularly, of course, so that will remain a staple. And I spent 9 years of college and graduate school writing critical analysis papers on literature, so while I’m not exactly “eager” to return to the student role, I do understand and respect the benefits of doing this and, who knows, I may come up with some interesting essays that can move beyond my own little journal.
Build Your Community
The third and final element of “living like a writer” is to build a community that will fulfill the needs of Critique, Accountability, Support, and Advice or Apprenticeship. I don’t really know where to begin with this part, yet. I’m not sure if I would work best with an online community of writers or a local, in-person group. I don’t know who to ask or how to work with them. I’m essentially nowhere with this component, unfortunately, but I know that as I get further into my work, I’m going to need this. So, if you’re a writer reading this right now and you, too, are looking for a writing community, perhaps we can become that for each other.
Taking all of this into consideration, the next step is to come up with a way to hold myself accountable and to track (and applaud or reassess) my accomplishments from week-to-week. I have a “Goal Sheet” which is provided by the DIY MFA book, and that I think will serve my purposes pretty well. Ultimately, I hope to write 6 days a week (is that too much? Too little? I have no idea.) Each day will carry a goal of 2-hours writing and/or 4-pages (is this too much? Too little? I have no idea!). The way I plan to respond to each writing session is as follows:
- Input Variable:
- How It Felt:
Most of those should be pretty self-explanatory, but a note on “Input Variable.” This is something I mentioned above, regarding “controlling your environment.” This is something that might change after a few weeks’ of trying it. For example, writing at home versus writing somewhere public. Writing in the morning versus writing at night. Writing with music versus without, etc. It is important to set the environment intentionally and then, every so often, make a change if the current environment is not working (but make just one change at a time, and try it for at least 2-3 weeks before changing again).
My plan now is to post once per week with the above WIP Goal Sheet. At the moment, I’m thinking of referring to it as simply “Writing Reflection.” I might also keep a spreadsheet of this information on my computer for easy access and filtering/sorting. The public accountability aspect is apparently important, though, so as I set goals and make progress, accounting for that process, for the misses, for the lulls and the over-achieving days, will be part of the “Weekly Writing Reflection.”
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