Thursday, December 29, 2011

How to Set Writing Goals for the New Year (That You'll Actually Accomplish)

If you're anything like me, you've spent the past few days thinking/worrying about the coming year. Maybe you made some New Year's Resolutions (speaking of which, if you've ever managed to keep any, I'm impressed). Or perhaps you looked back over the past year and thought of all the changes--great and small--that have occurred in your life.

The new year is an excellent time to re-commit to your writing. Perhaps you've become listless at the thought of your most recent project. Well, here's a ready-made opportunity to revitalize this aspect of your life! You could commit to writing every day or at set times each week or month.

No matter what you decide, however, there's one very important aspect that you must not ignore: if you make a promise to yourself to write, you must write. There's no getting around this important fact. If you let yourself down now, not only will you get no writing done, but you'll also fail yourself. If you break this promise and resolution, how are you to trust yourself in the future? You compromise your very self-respect.

Of course, if you decide on an unattainable goal, then you are setting yourself up for failure. Your goal should be "SMART"--that is, specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

To make your goal specific, think small. A specific goal would be something like, "I want to write 500 words on my current story _____ every Wednesday and Saturday." A broad goal would be, "I want to write more in 2012." Do you see how making the goal specific could help you achieve it more easily?

To make your goal measurable, think in terms of landmarks--hours spent writing or word count. "I want to write 500 words" is measurable, because you can measure the quantity "500 words." Same with "I want to write for thirty minutes." You either write for that amount of time or you don't.

Next, your goal should be attainable. This is pretty self-explanatory--for example, "becoming a rocket scientist" if you flunked science is not very attainable, whereas "writing thirty minutes once a week" is attainable if you've been writing fifteen minutes each week. That doesn't mean your goals should be difficult--by definition, a goal is something that's a little ways outside of your reach, so that you have to strive to attain it. Just make sure it's possible to attain.

The next category, realistic, is actually one of the hardest to measure. On the one hand, if you set your goal too low, then you won't really be motivated to achieve it. However, if it's way too high, then there's no way you can attain it. So, for this one, it's really up to you. How much energy can you commit to this goal? How much time do you have on your hands? Are you both willing and able to achieve the goal?

Finally, you should make your goal timely. This just means to set a time frame for your goal. "I want to write 500 words someday" is a lot less motivating than "I want to write 500 words within the next 7 days." When you have a deadline, you will begin to strategize exactly how you want to accomplish it within the time frame you set.

So, again, remember--make your writing goals this new year "SMART" goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. And when you've decided on them, why don't you tell me what goals you set? Enjoy setting and achieving your goals!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Have you finished decorating the tree? Baked Christmas cookies (and eaten them too, I hope)? Visited your relatives? Wrapped presents? Cooked Christmas dinner (or will soon)?

Even more than that, perhaps you've spared a few moments to write a poem or the next chapter in your novel. You may have made time to read that book that you borrowed from the library three times...the one that you never quite got around to finishing. Maybe you researched a pesky place name that you never were certain you got right in chapter five.

I hope, no matter how you've spent your holiday season thus far, that you've been able to do something truly heartwarming. It may be just sitting still beside your now-decorated tree and absorbing the magical atmosphere. For me, I made Christmas ornaments for my older relatives by painting and decorating wooden snowflakes. It could be as simple as watching "Charlie Brown's Christmas" once again. For each one of us, there is something special that will warm our hearts--that will make us, however briefly, just a little bit happier. I pray that you will find this joy over this Christmas.

Now, with Christmas only two days away, it's time once again to be reminded of what we are celebrating. After all, we all know that holidays are about more than simply presents and packages and trees and lights and vacation and leisure, as delightful as all of these things may seem. Sometimes a gentle story in a child's voice is the best reminder of what we truly celebrate:

May God bless you abundantly, and may you may be a blessing to others during this season. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why Humor Will Make or Break Your Story

You may think that humor is an unnecessary nuisance when writing your story. You want your stories to be serious, full of deep life lessons and morals which people can apply to their lives. You may, indeed, believe that books would be more enjoyable without humor. In fact, you might wonder why I'm writing a post about humor at all.

On the other hand, you might be a compulsive comedian. Your writing may be littered with thousands of second-rate riddles and characters who seem to crack a joke at every opportunity. You believe that humor will engage your readers and make them enjoy their experience in your world. What could be wrong with that?

As it turns out, both of these views are a little...extreme. If you write without any humor at all, what's to stop the story from being dry and stuffy? And if you use too much humor, your reader will wonder whether even you think of your writing seriously.

In my view, at least a sprinkle of humor is absolutely necessary in every story. Yes, you heard right--every story.

"But," you might say, "I want to be like the great authors! Tolkien never used humor!"

Oh really? Then how do you explain Merry and Pippin, archetypal jokesters who had me laughing from the first few pages? If you're not convinced, here's a little except to tantalize your funny bone:
Aragorn: "Gentlemen, we do not stop till nightfall." Pippin: "What about breakfast?" Aragorn: "You've already had it." Pippin: "We've had one, yes. What about second breakfast?" Merry: "I don't think he knows about second breakfast, Pip." Pippin: "What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn't he?" Merry: "I wouldn't count on it. ” 
Examples of humor abound across all reams of fantastic literature--Fred and George, the beloved Weasley twins from the Harry Potter series; even Mr. and Mrs. Beaver from C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The recent Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan is chock full of humorous references to modern life. If you think a fantasy book doesn't have humor in it, then look closer--I'd bet that, more likely than not, it does.

Now, none of that is to advocate for a book that's completely fun and games. As writers, we strive to give our readers a powerful emotional experience, one that will make them laugh and cry, shout with joy and scream with fear.

What is the mark of a truly great book? That it can plumb the depths and soar to the heights of human emotions. That's the kind of book that, when readers put it down at last, they'll sigh and say, "Now that was a good read." That's the kind of book that we're trying to write, and that's the kind of book that a touch of humor can help us create.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Holidays in Fantasy

Twinkling fairy-lights, a crackling fire, the whisper of snowflakes falling from the sky…this season feels like stepping into fairyland. There’s a wintery chill in the air and a mug of hot cocoa in my hand. It’s the time to dream, to imagine, to relax, to write, and to curl up with a good book.

But before you go snuggle up with that book, there are a few things to ponder during this season in particular.

First, let’s begin with Christ. During the holiday—or Holy Day—of Christmas, we want to remember the reason for celebration: the birth of Christ, the One who gives us passion to write. John 1 tells us a beautiful story of Christ’s coming.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
How truly wonderful it is to step back and reflect on Christ, our savior and the true “reason for the season.”

There’s another aspect of the holidays, too, that fantasy writers can use to extend the depth of our stories. We often compose a storyworld complete with languages and cultures. But what about holidays? Every culture on earth has days when it stops to rest and celebrate—and every fantasy culture should have holidays, too.
Here’s a few things to think about when creating holidays for your fantasy cultures:
  • What values does this holiday celebrate? In Japan, the codomo-no-hi festival (children’s day) honors the growth of boys from children into powerful young men who are strong enough to swim upstream in the currents of life. Our own Thanksgiving Day in the Unites States helps us to think back over our life and be thankful for the blessings God’s given us. What values in your culture might you develop into a holiday?
  • History: Often, celebrations are tied to important events in the history of the nation. Countries all over the world celebrate some form of Independence Day. Other important historical events—battles, establishment of cities, and more—can all prompt holidays. What events in your fantasy nations could spark a day of celebration?

So now, with all that said, have a glorious, happy, writing-filled holiday!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christian Authors' Takes on Fantasy

After a short break with the post, "In the Aftermath of NaNoWriMo," we're back with the series on Faith and Fantasy. Today's post is a collection of quotes from famous Christian authors regarding writing, Christianity, and fantasy.

First, let's begin with J.R.R. Tolkien, widely regarded as the father of modern fantasy. He had this to say about fantasy/"myth":
“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer, however shakily, towards the true harbour.”
Francis Schaeffer, a Christian theologist and apologist, had this to say of the imagination required to write fantasy. 
“The Christian is the really free man – he is free to have imagination. This too is our heritage. The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
The prolific historical fantasy author Stephen R. Lawhead says the following of stories: 
“Perhaps it is how we are made: perhaps words of truth reach us best through the heart, and stories and songs are the language of the heart.”

Finally, let me conclude with a powerful word and warning on "creating" fantasy from C.S. Lewis.
"'Creation' as applied to human authorship seems to me to be an entirely misleading term. We rearrange elements He has provided. There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us. Try to imagine a new primary colour, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits and parts of existing animals stuck together. Nothing happens. And that surely is why our works never mean to others quite what we intended: because we are recombining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings."

Any thoughts on these quotes? What is the difference between "sub-creating" and "creating"? Have you seen the distinction in your own writing?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

In the Aftermath of NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo, an abbreviation of national novel writing month, is a fast-paced challenge that attracts thousands of aspiring novelists each year. All through November--national novel writing month--writers across the globe scribble and type madly, trying to reach the ever-distant goal of 50,000 words by the end of the month.

This year was my first time to participate in the--to put it politely--insanity. I loved it. However, I had no clue how to go about the process. Now, having learned (painfully) from my mistakes, I am better prepared to answer the question, "How on earth do you write a novel in a month? (And have a life?)"

The answer, believe it or not, is rather simple. Two steps: first, have a plan; second, write consistently every day.

As it happens, those two steps are keys for any writing. I know that writing is a controversial art; each writer passionately defends his or her favored methods and means of writing. However, for most writers, following these two steps can ease the transition from NaNoWriMo to normal life plus writing, and from normal life into normal life plus writing.

First, plan the plot of your story. Plan hard and plan well. Plan a brilliant, surprising, and paradigm-shifting story. Easier said than done, right? Well, think of it this way: would you rather try to insert random bits of intelligent plot while writing off the top of your head? (That, by the way, was my attempt this year. Not recommended.)

What, then? By planning out at least a rough outline of your story--especially as regards plot, climax, and characters--you can write more easily. Think of it this way: as you write, would you rather have your attention divided between planning the story and writing the story, or would it be simpler to plan separately (beforehand) and write afterward?

Okay, glad you're with me there. (If not, tell me why, please!) Now that we've decided to plan, though, how to go about the task? Rough outlines? Bubble chart? The Dreaded Formal Outline of Doom?

Every writer has his or her own special secret tricks for planning. Personally, I've found Randy Ingermannson's Snowflake Method to be quite helpful. However, other people like to free write and still others use post-its and tissues for notes. The methods are only as wide as your imagination! Do some research, practice, and figure out your favorite methods.

Next is the second step in the process: writing consistently. Here, I must be quite severe. No matter your preferred writing style, you will never write a novel if you never write. It's as simple as that.

During November, my goal was to write 1,500 words a day (more than I'd ever written consistently in my life, to be perfectly honest). That really pushed my limits. I needed to find very creative methods to write--such as, for example, waking up early on Thanksgiving day to write for an hour before going over to relatives' to celebrate.

I would encourage you to set your goal so that it's a little bit out of your reach. By straining and working hard to reach that goal, you push yourself and develop writing muscles. Set a promise to yourself--a few paragraphs, a page. Then follow through. You will always have some extra time each day. So be proactive. Grab that time by the ears and write!

If you think, "But I could never write that much every single day!", then challenge yourself to do it for a week. Be extremely severe with yourself. Find the time to write somewhere--it is possible. Then reward yourself when you accomplish your goal. Once you've proven to yourself that it's possible to write, even in your busy life, then you have no excuse.

So go! Plan! Write!