Getting Personal

Getting Personal

Writing a Personal Essay
Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels

Artists – be they writers, sculptors, painters, glassblowers, etc. – all claim a particular niche. Ask them for their specialty, or their genre, and you’ll get a hefty description. For instance, when someone asks what I write, I follow two paths: I can describe the work I do as a freelancer, OR I can go into what I pen for my speculative fiction. Rarely will you find someone with artistic leanings who will supply you with a quick-and-dirty, monosyllabic reply. (It’s a side effect of all of that imagination, in case you wondered) However, if you ask those same people what they’re looking for out of their work (once you distill down more creative wording), it boils down to a flavor of:

Recognition.

You want someone to see a piece that left your hands and comment, “That’s so-and-so’s work.” Maybe your story won’t bring funds or fame, but knowing that a person out there knew you wrote it? Nothing beats that feeling. You managed to stand out from the sea of other writers. Someone identified your unique voice and tone. And that’s what every artist is trying to do, at the heart. They’re developing a way of viewing and translating the world. Then they’re hoping someone out there will see it, appreciate it, and pick them out as different.

As writers, we have almost endless opportunities to gain that recognition – if you’re willing to look for it. And one of the avenues people overlook is the personal essay. I can’t figure out why, either. Personal essays lend appeal to ANYONE. They combine fictional storytelling to a non-fiction situation. And (with rare exceptions) you only have around 1500 words to complete the tale. It’s an exercise in concise, captivating narratives. Not to mention that you need to dive immediately into the action (1500 words – or less – doesn’t give you room to warm things up). And the best personal essays include dialogue. It has EVERYTHING any detailed story needs – with a bonus of a chance to relate something from your life.

Talk about a two for one!

You have the opportunity to place your tone, your voice, and your style on paper while relating a part of yourself for the world to share. The personal essay is one of the best writing forms available. It doesn’t matter WHAT you write, it exercises that part of your brain to the fullest. And finding markets? Not a problem:

If you have a story, you can find a market willing to listen. Especially if you take the time with your essay. You’re a writer. You KNOW how to put sentences together. And you know how to capture the attention of a reader from those first moments. If you can eliminate glaring grammatical and spelling errors, you’re already going to stand out from plenty of other people that submit to these markets. Editors WANT people that can pass those first hurdles of competent writing. If you’re already successful as a freelancer? You have what it takes.

As for the topic? No one else has lived your life. That makes your experiences, your stories unique. Add in a touch of imagination (only a touch, though – personal essays AREN’T fiction), and you’ve got something people want to share in and engage with. Suddenly, people want to learn more about you. They start looking for your name and finding other things you’ve written. All because you wrote an essay about fishing with your father on Puget Sound, or finding a salamander in your garden, or watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, or photographing a soap bubble in subzero temperatures.

Seriously – anything with a fresh perspective that speaks to the human condition is free game!

Look through back issues of the market you’re interested in and read other essays. (Side note: if you aren’t already doing this with your markets, you should start) Then flip through your scrap books, your photo albums, your journals. What material do you have to work with? Meditate and think back over moments that stick in your head. And start jotting down ideas. People have made entire careers out of writing personal essays. Others have found themselves receiving new clients because of a single, well-written essay.

Opportunities exist EVERYWHERE. And if you’re not exploring all of them? You’re missing out. I admit, I thought personal essays sounded silly. And then I started playing around with the format. (For the record, it isn’t as easy as you might assume!) Now I have several I’ve cleaned up and started circulating. The first article I published with Offbeat Bride? That came out of a personal essay on dealing with planning the wedding in the middle of the first COVID-19 lockdown! And when I’m feeling frustrated with my other writing? I start a new one (Evernote is nice enough to keep a record of my ideas for me). It stretches a different part of my writing brain.

You can’t abandon a potential writing tool from your arsenal. Personal essays flex creative muscles. Not in the same way as your typical stories or freelance work, true. But you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the results. Put yourself out there. Take your writing to the next level of vulnerability. What do you have to lose?

The Writer’s Best Friend

The Writer’s Best Friend

Stack of Notebooks
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Mid-May means that the school year is starting to wind down. Colleges are celebrating graduations and sending their students out into the workforce. (Or, you know, handing them back into the hands of their parents) Other schools are gearing up for major testing. At least, that’s what happened when I was in school. Now that standardized testing rules, I have no idea what actually goes on. And since my kids don’t attend educational programming (something that’s for the best, because NO ONE wants to see Tonks’s evil mind guided into further intelligence), you’d guess I don’t have much interest in such doings. But you’d be wrong. The end of the school year means one very important thing:

It’s almost time for back-to-school sales!

Yes, I know, it drives the school-age population nuts that they barely set foot in summer vacation before stores start cranking out supplies and clothing to send them back. But I LIVE for those sales. There’s nothing more exciting for a writer than aisles and aisles of pens, pencils, and NOTEBOOKS – all put on sale. It’s literary Christmas! And in Virginia, if you can sit on your hands and restrain yourself, the beginning of August brings Tax-Free weekend. So you can stock up on all of those supplies without needing to pay pesky sales tax. Plus, they don’t make you prove you have a child. ANYONE can go into their store of choice and walk out with a giant stack of notebooks and twenty packs of pens. The cashiers don’t even bat an eye! (Well, they might – it depends)

I admit, I’m the first person to recommend turning to handy programs to help you organize your thoughts when you’re writing. As publishers function in the computer age with the rest of us, odds are pretty high that you’re working in a word processing program on a laptop or desktop. So it makes sense that you’d turn to a form of technology for your notes. And that’s fine. I do the same. But I also have notebooks – TONS of notebooks. And they perform the same organization function.

Because sometimes? You need to set pen to paper.

Call me old-fashioned (don’t call me old), but there’s something inspiring about watching ink flow from beneath your hand. It sparks something in the brain. When everything else is locked up in your mind, sitting down and scribbling out a dozen scenes that go nowhere feels more accomplished than hitting “Delete” over and over again. You can actually SEE what you attempted to do. When you “Undo” something on the computer, all you get for your trouble is a blank screen (and the vague knowledge that you made an attempt at a scene 42 times). Even if I end up with crumpled paper balls on the floor around me and one sentence for my trouble, I have physical proof that I made an effort. It’s more satisfying for me to struggle through writing in a notebook than it is to fight with writer’s block on a computer screen.

But I have notebooks for other reasons, too. One of my oldest is where I have story ideas. Some of them have early starts as novels in my terabyte drive. Others? I’m still letting them ruminate in my mind. But I don’t want to throw out that notebook simply because I have Evernote now. Why would I? The notebook isn’t “broken,” for all that it’s “ancient” technology. It’s covered in multi-colored ink, with tabs dividing the type of work, and Post-Its with potential character names. There’s HISTORY in that notebook. When I flip through it, I remember what was going on in my life each time I sat down and scribbled those notes. Some came from dreams, others phrases in other books, and one or two from something I saw when I was sitting on the train. I can’t transfer those impressions into a computer; it would lose something – the depth of the pen in the paper, the slant of the writing that shows my emotions.

I have notebooks that track the posts I make here, ensuring I don’t repeat myself (at least, not too often). And there’s another for Silentio Sonante. When I write up my white board schedules for work, I take the time to come up with post ideas for both blogs, too. Then I divide the topics up between the notebooks. And while it might be easier to run a “Find” on a program, I like getting to flip through pages and see what I’ve done in the past year. Again, it’s a history thing. I can touch pages and count “steps.” Dragging a mouse down a screen? It doesn’t provide the same feeling.

And, yeah, there’s more.

I have non-writing notebooks, too. One keeps track of all of my weird medical crap. Because trying to remember which doctor needs what report at my appointments? My brain can come up with new worlds and story ideas without a problem. But asking it do that is impossible. So I have a notebook where I write everything down, complete with times (since my atypical migraines do seriously odd shit at times). Then I can take it with me and skim what’s important. The animals have THEIR medical notebook, too. (When you have three cats, trying to remember who threw up a hairball when is impossible)

Don’t get me wrong: technology is great. But (so far as I know), you learn to write for a reason. And a writer NEEDS to remember to connect with that part of their craft. What are you going to do if you’re ever in a situation without a computer or phone? (Don’t laugh – it might happen) Are you going to just REMEMBER your brilliant line? You know that isn’t going to happen. Wouldn’t it be a better idea if you get in the habit of keeping a notebook with you – just in case? (Why, yes, I have a tiny notebook in my purse – it has kittens on it) Even artists don’t stick to one strict medium when they work. Why should we?

So this summer, when you hear about those sales, consider dropping by for a peek. Touch those pages and remember what it felt like to set a pencil or pen to them. Then go look at the pens. (You know you have a favorite) Pick up at least one of each and go home. Write something – ANYTHING. Odds are pretty high you’re going to find yourself going back for more. Because it’s addicting. But it also helps with the writing process. (Besides, you can always type whatever you write with little trouble)

Double Vision

Double Vision

Two computer screen set-up

When you like habit and routine, it gets difficult to admit you MIGHT need some change. Add in that you already went through a whirlwind of change in the past nine months, and your mind wants to put on the brakes. After all, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But when you’re doing twice as much work to accomplish a task, that’s a kind of broken logic. It disrupts your productivity, stresses you, and prompts unnecessary errors.

Time to bite the bullet.

Utilizing double computer screens is a freelance writer’s (actually, ANY writer’s) best friend. You half your work load, ease that knot in your shoulder (literally), and find yourself typing away MUCH happier. Why? Because you can see your notes and research material on one screen while you work at the other! It’s pure genius! And unbelievably simple. Yet I fought the temptation for nine freaking months. (Maybe you’re denying yourself this handy writing tool even now)

I’ve watched people use double screens in other fields before, and I shook my head. What was the point? You can always set up two windows on a single screen. And if you don’t want to squint, you can upgrade to a larger monitor without too much trouble. Why turn yourself into a human ping pong? It seemed a ridiculous notion – not to mention a complete waste of time and money. I rolled my eyes at my husband with his double screen set-up. It seemed absurd (and his computer desk comes out smaller than mine!).

Then my freelance work started to pile up.

Even when I split the screen with windows, I struggled. I could only keep one active at a time. (Maybe there’s a work-around for that, but I’m not the most tech-savvy person in the world) So I found myself constantly flipping between one and the other. Then I needed to pull up different tabs here and there. Half the time, the computer got confused on where to put the new tab, and I’d panic over lost work. (It wasn’t lost, thankfully, but when you think hours of work just vanished, you have a mini stroke) I doubled my work time flipping from program to program. And the tension up my dominant arm? Yeah, talk about a pain in the literal neck!

It took some convincing – I won’t lie. I needed a reminder that, as a freelancer, a new computer monitor falls under a business expense (one of the pros of freelancing). And I needed a reminder that better productivity falls into my wheelhouse. But I finally caved in. The double monitor settled in on my work station, and I divided up the icons on my desktop. Everything work-related went on one side, and the rest stayed on the primary monitor. I stumbled a bit, initially, figuring out how to move things from one screen to another (and learning where that critical “dividing line” exists for the mouse), but I’m a quick study. And, to be honest, this wasn’t the most complicated thing in the world.

Holy increased productivity-olee!

Having one screen where I could keep my notes while I worked made everything SO simple! I could write on the first screen and glance at the second. No more flipping around in the windows. No more fighting with tabs and worrying about where my current work disappeared to. And fewer mistakes, too. Everything moves more fluidly. I use the mouse less, so my arm, shoulder, and neck ache a thousand times less (always a bonus), and the battery drains at a lower rate. I kick myself for not moving to a double screen set-up sooner!

I don’t have monster-sized monitors, either. They’re both 21-inch screens. But I’m not a gamer or programmer. I’m a writer. I don’t need a mammoth computer screen – for either purpose. I need a large enough space to read my research material and whatever I’m writing. And while the second monitor currently lacks the polished stand of the first (what can I say, Ikea doesn’t make them anymore), some creative searching through the house yielded enough books to keep the pair level.

Double screens have cut down the time I spend on my writing projects. They’re a HUGE life-saver. I pull up my notes, and I’m ready to go. The fumbling and frustration are gone. If you’re not working with two monitors already, consider the upgrade. You won’t regret it. You’ll take the strain off your body (seriously, you’re eyes alone will thank you), the stress off your brain, AND the workload off your peripherals. Well, maybe not the keyboard – that still ends up working about the same.

It’s definitely a change, but it’s worth it. And if I can grudgingly admit that this big change was a good thing, you KNOW it’s true.

Matter Over Mind

Matter Over Mind

Trust your gut instincts
Image by athree23 from Pixabay

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Sound familiar? People like to throw that bucket of ice water around whenever you get your hopes up over something. And your response is often defensive. They don’t understand or appreciate how amazing the chance you’ve stumbled upon may be. They’re jealous of your opportunities. They’ll see when you’re looking down on them from the pillar of success.

Except the saying’s dead right.

Whether we’re talking about speculative fiction or a freelancing job, you need to keep an important tool in your arsenal to prevent yourself from falling for those obvious pitfalls. And it’s one everyone has (but we often forget to dust off and take down from the shelf): gut instinct. The lurch inside that tells you something feels off – which your brain and heart cheerfully overwhelm with rationalization and hope.

Now, I’m not saying you have to abandon all hope, but that twist in your stomach deserves more credit than we tend to give it. Most of the time, it grabs our attention for a reason. It’s a buried instinct that tells us something feels off and needs a more critical eye. It we’re just willing to stop, set the heart aside for half a second, and employ THOUGHT (not rationalization), we might unravel the truth. Your gut can save you A LOT of grief down the road, but you have to USE it.

BEFORE you make the mistake.

Hope springs eternal, though, and the bugger gets in the way of that gut instinct.

There’s a market out there you’re haunting. It’s not currently accepting submissions, and the notice says they’re working on a Kickstarter – dated five years ago. Your gut assures you that market is dead and gone, but your heart tells you to keep checking, just in case.

Just in case what? Come on. If things were still functional, there’d be an update. Publications DO go under. Move on and find another.

You find another market, but even their submission guidelines tell you they have no response time. You’ll never know when/if they’ll get around to your story. Your heart wants you to try, on the off chance your work might find a home. Your instinct screams it’s a waste.

Again, there are so many markets out there WITH response times and ways to follow-up on submissions. Do you want to roll the dice with someone that isn’t willing to do that for a writer?

You take a contract with someone who tells you they won’t pay you for 45 days. You’re so excited you have a freelancing job that you rationalize the finances. After all, you’ll get paid…eventually. Your gut instinct tells you this is suspicious.

Even the largest magazines pay ON publication. If they have your work and it’s displayed, you have the right to receive payment. Sitting around for over a month, waiting for a check is nonsense.

LISTEN TO YOUR GUT!

Because, honestly, that twist is right 99% of the time. It’s trying to protect you. Sure, evolution developed the gut instinct to preserve our health, but it works in your writing career, too. Maybe it doesn’t speak the way your heart and brain do, but you know the sensation. When that jerk behind the navel happens, take your hands off the keyboard and ask yourself, “What feels off?” It’s a tool that gets more accurate the more frequently you use it, believe it or not. It starts to save you from embarrassing gaffes. And you find yourself succeeding more and more.

That gut instinct? It works both ways. You get a funny swoop when something feels right. You’ll stumble on a writing contest that speaks to one of your stories perfectly. A new market will open up that suits your work perfectly. Or you’ll land a new contract with the perfect client. And you’ll feel a butterfly that lines up with your heart and mind.

Don’t discount what you’re body tries to tell you. It wants the best for you. I mean, it IS attached to you.

Outside Opinion

Outside Opinion

Okay, so 2020 wasn’t the best example to use for this post. I’m trying to be more optimistic for 2021 (yeah, I know – it’s a big departure for me). Or I’ll save time and point out that writers are no longer trapped by the need to print everything out and submit things by mail like we did back in the stone age. Therefore, the adage, “where there’s a will, there’s a way” applies, and this post will still work.

Moving on.

If you’ve never attended a writers workshop – whether a standalone or as part of a con – you’re missing out. These little affairs are gold mines for writers. And that applies to writers of any type. If you look, you’ll find a workshop for ANYTHING. And COVID-19 or not, most of those workshops persevered this year, through Zoom or other mediums.

Most writing workshops follow the same format:

  1. You submit a manuscript you want critiqued.
  2. Everyone in the workshop reads the piece and writes up their critique.
  3. You spend the workshop going through everyone’s work, one at a time.
  4. When it’s your turn, you take copious notes (while keeping your trap shut).

Easy, right?

I’ve attended a couple of speculative fiction workshops, and the information I received each time improved my writing. I also found myself with new ideas. Not from the other people’s writing, but fleshed out of notes they were giving to each other. For instance, I’ve killed every prologue I’ve ever written. It’s where I first learned to massacre my adverbs. And the first workshop I attended started me down the path to writing more science fiction – simply because the overwhelming amount of fantasy presented made me realize there was an opening.

You’re in an environment with people who want to help improve your writing. Some have publication credits, others don’t. Some have attended other workshops, some are there for the first time. Everyone has a different background. At my last workshop, I was able to correct a medical fact for someone – something they had no knowledge of but that was commonplace for me. Little things like that matter, and everyone’s grateful for the insight.

Are writing workshops perfect?

Of course not. Humans are humans, after all. You’ll encounter people who are focused on themselves. I had several people who’s feedback consisted of, “I don’t read this genre.”

Gee, thanks.

I mean, I wasn’t a fan of everything I read, either, but I did my due diligence and provided concise feedback on everyone’s work. I felt it was owed as a responsibility.

I also had one guy who went on a long tangent that made no sense and had nothing to do with my novel excerpt. (Pretty sure he just wanted to hear himself talk)

It’s hit-or-miss. However, there were plenty of people who DID care and provided me with information I could use. And that was the majority. I also got to read some amazing writing. Writing I want to see in print. And I told those people as much. Getting to connect with writers is another perk of such workshops. You never know where networking might lead.

Putting your work in someone else’s hands is always nerve-wracking. You don’t know what they’re going to say. (Think about it – how much do your hands shake when you submit something?) But if you have an opportunity to make it BETTER, isn’t that worth it?

In my book, it is.

So whether it ends up being virtual again this year or not, I’ll be hitting Dragon Con’s Writers Workshop in 2021 – my second visit. And this year, I’ll have more confidence under my belt than I did before. Because I know that, even if my piece gets ripped apart, it’ll emerge better at the other end.

Take a look at the workshops for your chosen writing genre. Swallow that knot of fear. And pick out a piece to submit. You won’t regret it.

Writing Police

Writing Police

Screenshots of Grammarly

Pop Quiz time! Hands up everyone that has never made a single spelling or grammar mistake in their writing. Everyone with their hand up – go to the closest chalkboard or pad of paper and write 100 times: “I must not tell lies.”

No one writes perfectly – EVER.

It’s a simple fact of life. You misuse words, use the wrong word, overuse adverbs, slip into passive voice too frequently, get fixated on one word through a single paragraph, and go into comma overdrive. And while you review your work, it’s still your work. Since you know what’s supposed to be there, you overlook mistakes and miss things. It’s why writers use beta readers to catch those errors.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting the mistakes. We’re HUMAN. If you think your favorite author types out perfection, boy are you in for a surprise. Editors exist for a reason (and, no, it’s not simply to reject you). And even they miss things. It takes an effort of sheer will for me not to grab a red pen and start marking up some of the books I read. (Don’t laugh – I’m not the only person who gets that way)

However, there’s a line.

If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t hand in work that resembles The Eye of Argon. (Anyone who’s ever attended a Con knows that novella) Which means you need someone or something checking behind you. It also means having enough brains and maturity to admit you USE some kind of checker in the first place. You’ll gain more respect for the honesty.

Anything I write – be it work or fiction – gets a minimum of four reads from start to finish. (Yes, blog posts are an exception. You get these straight off the cuff) And, yeah, I catch things each time. Sometimes it’s just rearranging words or eliminating a sentence I don’t like. Other times it’s a mortifying realization that my brain checked out on me.

Fiction sits for weeks between readings, letting the story mellow and settle in my brain. Which was why when I went back to “Everapple” I realized my brilliant idea to leave the main character unnamed at writing made a confusing mess at the first re-reading. I had to scrap that “genius” and give her a name to untangle the confusion. Had I plunged into my editing immediatley, I wouldn’t have caught the problem.

I don’t have that same chance with work. I still catch problems, though. I also use Grammarly (and, yes, I sprang for the Premium version). You have the advantage of deciding the tone of your work, the level of your audience, and several other parameters. It’s a deeper check than the standard spelling and grammar review you get with your standard word processor. And it watches over your shoulder in EVERYTHING:

  • Word processors
  • Online (you can upload documents there, too)
  • Email
  • Even here in blogs

It won’t solve ALL of the problems for you, but it coaches you through most of them. Which is nice, since it builds your writing in a better direction. My initial articles leaned heavily on passive sentences. Since I turned to Grammarly, they rarely make an appearance. I naturally made the switch. It’s a subtle writing guide in addition to a checker.

However, Grammarly doesn’t get to touch my articles until AFTER I’ve completed the first two reviews. I trust myself over the AI, and for good reason. Grammarly is computer-smart. It does see things and pick up on errors I miss. It also goes off-the-rail crazy and tries to fix style choices and quirks that make my writing voice unique. It is, after all, a program. And if I were writing…okay, I’m actually not sure what I’d need to write to make it completely happy.

We get into arguments sometimes, which devolve into my screaming at the computer screen (always therapeutic). And it’s HORRIFIC when I try to use it with my fiction. Teaching Grammarly to tolerate pathos, alien dialects, and fantasical turns of phrase is an effort in futility. But it flags the things I’m worried about (to-be verbs, adverbs, etc.). It lets me tighten my prose between bouts of shaking my head.

Whether you adopt Grammarly or another tool, check your writing. And tell your clients you use the programs. They appreciate the extra effort you use to police your writing. It isn’t an admission of failure, it’s a mark of professionalism. And it saves them some time. They’ll still edit your work, but it won’t take them hours of sorting through your bad day.

And happy editors are GOOD things.

Running Log

Running Log

Screenshot of my Excel Tracker

If you decide you’re only ever going to write one thing in your life, maybe you won’t need this post. Just kidding – you still will. Plus, who wants to only write one thing? That’s just plain madness. Writers are infected individuals – consumed with a never-ending need to to create. And once our creations are complete and polished, we have to send them out into the world.

Which is where things get complicated.

Now, I spoke about my passionate love of white boards already. Frankly, I don’t know how I’d live without them. But they have their limitations. While a quick glance over my shoulder tells me where my short stories are right now (and how long they’ve been there), the board can’t tell me everywhere they’ve BEEN. Markets today have strict policies regarding submissions, and woe-betide the writer that fails to follow the guidelines. One of the biggest is that, unless they specifically request a rewrite from you, they don’t want to see anything twice.

While I have a great memory, it isn’t perfect. There’s no way for me to remember where every story has been. I mean, there are currently nine stories listed on my board, with more being written all the time. Recall where each one’s been?

Madness!

Asking my white board to do that is just as insane. (I’m not sure they make white boards that big). I also have personal essays, magazine articles, and novels to keep track of. While there’s some appeal to living in a house made of white boards, I don’t think my fiance’s is going to go for it. (Nor does he want to deal with the meltdown that would ensue if something got erased)

This is where Excel became my best friend. It took me all of five seconds to create a tracking spreadsheet. With one glance, I can see what genre a story is (newsflash: not every market takes every genre), the length, where it’s been, how long the response time was (helpful in case I’m considering holding out for a certain market), and my reference numbers. I never end up accidentally repeating a submission, I don’t accidentally send a simultaneous submission (some markets allow this, but most don’t), and I can see which markets have sent personal rejections over form letters. I log tons of valuable information for myself. All from a few minutes of my time.

And it takes no time to update!

Screen shot of the Market tab of my Excel tracking spreadsheet

Best of all, I keep a running list of markets. I know who accepts what, word limits, editor names (hint: never send a cover letter to “Editor” – use their name), and which markets are currently on hiatus.

Yes, setting up the Market tab took a lot longer. It’s worth it, though. I know when reading periods are. I know what restrictions are in place for various markets (i.e., must be clean, must contain a required science element, must have an animal, etc.). When I’m ready to submit one of my stories, instead of having to run through my bookmarks, hunting for a suitable match, I just consult the tab. (And, yes, I have the payment information right at my fingertips)

Wait – am I discussing organization again?

Of course I am! Organization is a writer’s best friend! You can definitely try to do everything by the seat of your pants. I wish you luck. When I first started, I just had file folders. And I wasted time combing through them, trying to figure out where a story had already been. I had to constantly read guidelines and search for markets. (Granted, this was also back when you sent submissions via snail mail) It SUCKED! I had to learn the hard way to be smart and make my life easier.

There are apps and programs available that do this for you, and you can definitely take advantage of them. Personally, I like Excel. I already own it, so it doesn’t cost me anything, and I can set it up however I want. As long as you find a system that works for you and keeps things on track, that’s what matters. You’ll be happy, I promise.

More to the point, the markets you’re submitting to will be happy.

The Modern Note Card

The Modern Note Card

Screen captures from Evernote

For those of us who lived through school without Google, there’s nothing quite like savoring the joy of shuffling our thoughts together via color-coded note cards. We were trained to think that way when researching, and a lot of us carried that training through to our writing (assuming you’re not an organic writer like myself). Character traits, plot points, scenes, quotes you dreamed up and didn’t want to forget: plunk them on a note card and then shuffle them into the appropriate order.

Nothing wrong if you’re still doing that!

However, if you have your own demon with a penchant for stealing note cards, I have an advancement for you: Evernote (available via the Apple Store and Google Play – and, no, I don’t receive any kickback from this). Evernote is the equivalent of those note cards, gathered into nifty notebooks, with the added bonus of being available to you 24/7. You can utilize the app on your computer (desktop or laptop) and your phone, so when you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, you can grab your phone and type/write it out without needing to find a light source (or, as I’ve done, attempt to decipher what you wrote in the dark). The image above is a screen capture from my story idea notebook, the handwritten scribble from one such late-night idea. Best of all, with one account, you can link both devices, and they’ll sync with each other.

Sometimes, technology gets it right!

On the research side of things, Evernote has a great “clip” feature which allows you to save website clippings – complete with the original page, in case you need to refer back to entire page at some point. This works beautifully for me when I’m doing research. Since each “Note” functions as a standard document, you can also format it any way you want (hello, color-coding?). I use it to keep my work documents organized by contract and then assignment, noting deadlines at the top, as well as any particular notes the client has requested.

Evernote has a selection of built-in templates you can access, including several geared toward writers. I’m not a personal fan of them, but you can create and save your own. For one of my regular contracts, I’ve done just that since the same notes apply each time. If you’re one of those writers that DOES prefer to plan, the templates are a great option.

Best of all, you can set up your own tags for each Note, making it easy to keep track of your work. So if you set up a Notebook for your novel, you can then generate Notes for everything you need within, from character profiles, to background profiles, to plot points, down to world-building details, and then use your tags to link everything together. You can also rearrange your Notes into whatever order you need, as many times as you want – the equivalent to shuffling those note cards around on your wall.

Evernote is really user-friendly, and while there are paid versions available, I’ve been able to function with the basic free edition quite happily. It gives me the organization I need for work, while also giving me somewhere I can scribble writing ideas down – without a risk of losing them (not to mention being able to decipher them).

A writer held responsible for their work is a writer that gets work done!

Color-Coding, Erasable, Visible – Oh, My!

Color-Coding, Erasable, Visible – Oh, My!

The two white boards I use for my writing life.

Behold – the greatest invention in the entire world! Yes, lasers and jellybeans, I mean the humble whiteboard. This little piece of erasable genius is pure perfection. If it weren’t for the fact that white is insanely boring and only meant for institutions, I could quite happily exist in a house made completely of whiteboards. (Side note: I promise my writing room is actually painted one color – just so happens the morning sun shines on one wall and not the other, so it looks like two in those pictures)

I use whiteboards for both sides of my writing: the work part and the fun part. I am an organization FIEND, and they’re one of the tools I use to:

  • Stay on track with my goals
  • Make sure I know where projects are
  • Leave notes for myself (I have a great memory, but no one’s perfect)
  • Plan out blog entries

No matter what kind of writing you’re doing, if you don’t have a visual representation of your goals somewhere you can see it daily, it’s harder to meet that goal. When it’s in your face every day, you find yourself with a greater drive to be able to mark the box – and the satisfaction of getting to do so is IMMENSE. Even if the box is minor – i.e., writing up to two Goodreads reviews or writing 1000 words a day. When you put an X or a check through that box, a sense of achievement/fulfillment comes over you.

Unless you only have one short story or novel that you are submitting – and if that’s the case, shame on you! – you need to know where your work is currently sitting and for how long. Things still get lost in this digital age, and editors/first readers aren’t infallible (they’ll be the first to admit that). While I do have an Excel file that has detailed records for every short story and novel (more about that in another post), being able to quickly glance at a whiteboard without having to pull up the computer is easier. It tells me where each story is currently at and how long it’s been there. It also tells me whether or not I’ve updated my Excel file.

I’d love to say I’m one of those people that never forgets anything – and if you’ve screwed me over or made me mad, I remember every word (not kidding). However, if I’m trying to remember where my can’t-possibly-forget-it hiding place is or didn’t-need-to-write-it-down item for the grocery list…yeah, no dice. Especially if it’s work-related, and especially because SOMEONE likes to steal my pen, the whiteboard becomes the catch-all for notes. (Thankfully, Tonks hasn’t figured out how to get to the whiteboard marker)

I do plan out my monthly blog entries – at least my weekly posts. I take time into crafting them, figuring out images and such; on my other blog, I take time researching quotes I want to use. This means setting out my schedule in advance so my brain has time to digest my topics.

Whiteboards let me do all of this, and then I erase what I don’t need and start again. Nifty, right?

And because I’m one of THOSE people, everything is color-coded. How else am I supposed to tell different tasks apart? How else am I supposed to tell different genres apart? It all makes my little organizational heart go pitter-pat.

I used to make do without the whiteboards, and things were more difficult. I had to turn the computer on (this was before my SSD – torture!), or I had to flip through a physical calendar to find things (I always had multi-color pens, so that wasn’t so bad), and trying to keep track of Post-It notes or scraps of paper – even without a tiny demon – never seemed to work well.

Now, everything is within a couple of steps, it’s easy to see, it’s easy to use, and I can add or subtract without a fuss.

It’s so easy, I added an additional whiteboard to help with the wedding planning…much to my fiance’s chagrin…um, “delight.”