Author Archives: Frank Morin

About Frank Morin

Frank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he's often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on his sci-fi time travel Facetaker novels, his popular YA fantasy novel, Set in Stone, or other upcoming book releases, check his website: www.frankmorin.org

Goals – Part 2: Setting Measurable Goals, and Plans to Reach Them

This is the second of three blogs related to setting goals. Clancy kicked off the series with her excellent post Road Maps Help You Get There.

I will be building on what she started, talking specifically about how to set more effective goals. We’re starting a new year, and as usual, this is a time for renewal, a time for fresh starts. It is very common to set goals in personal and professional lives. Why is it that so many of these new year’s resolutions remain unfulfilled at the end of the year?

First, they aren’t written down.

“People with clear, written goals, accomplish far more in a shorter period of time than people without them could ever imagine.”

This quote, from an unknown source, drives to the heart of this post. Life is busy and unless we focus our energy, we will fail to best utilize the limited time we have for writing.

A goal not written down is a daydream, whereas a written goal is a dream with a deadline. If you like the idea of being a writer but aren’t interested in actually finishing anything, then don’t bother reading on. Otherwise, roll up your sleeves and get your pencil ready.

Second, they aren’t meaningful.

Writing a goal isn’t enough. If it’s ambiguous or you don’t really understand your goal, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

For example, a writer may decide to set the goal, “I’m going to write a book this year.”

Wonderful, but not very effective.

I’ve set this very goal in the past, and I’ve proven to myself that I need to be far more specific.

What kind of book? How long? Is it a 10 page children’s picture book or a 150,000 word epic fantasy novel?

If you say you’re going to write a 100,000 word novel (pick your genre), then you have a starting point for setting a meaningful goal. There are a few other things you need to understand first.

How are you going to approach writing this book?

Are you a free-writer who will sit down at the computer and just start typing in hopes of triggering the Muse to start whispering in your ear? That’s fine. Just recognize that the early effort, and maybe the entire early draft, is just an exploration, a search for your novel. Once you find it, you’ll probably need to throw away most of what you’ve done to that point because only then are you ready to actually start writing the real story. Actually completing a viable first draft of a 100,000 word novel this way may require 250,000 words or more.

If you are more of a story planner, have you discovered your story yet? If not, you will need to allow for perhaps months of work before beginning the actual draft of the story. You need to explore concept, theme, characters, setting, and plot. You need to develop conflicts and figure out your ending and weave in sub plots through the outline. You may write 50,000 words or more in your outlining process before you’re ready to begin a viable draft.

Whichever way you approach the work, writing a 100,000 word novel in a year is far more than just banging out 100,000 words into a text file.

Once you understand what you wish to accomplish, you are ready to set a goal.

Third. They aren’t measurable.

Isn’t the goal of writing a 100,000 word novel measurable?

The answer: partially

If you reach the end of the year with a 100,000 word completed draft of your novel in hand then you can say you reached that goal. However, how do you know in June that you’re on track to make it? Have you set any measurements to help you plan the effort each month?

Break the goal down into smaller blocks that will serve as sub-goals you can work each month, week, or even day. If you can do this, you’ll know at any given time if you are on track or how far behind you’ve fallen.

Another benefit of breaking goals down into smaller blocks is the goal suddenly feels far more achievable. Sitting at the computer, staring at blank page number one, and knowing you’ve got 100,000 words still to go can be extremely daunting and discouraging. It’s not so bad to think, “I’ve only got to write 1000 words today.” You can do that, no problem.

Take these three components of successful goals and apply them to any goals you wish to set. You’ll find they immediately help you define, clarify, and organize your goals.

For example, last year I set the goal to write two complete novels. I didn’t quite make it. Part of the reason was that I did not follow this process as closely as I knew I should. I did complete two drafts of one novel, make significant edits in a previously completed novel, write a new novella, and complete about 70% of the planning process of another full novel. I am pleased with all the work I did complete, but I could have done better.

This year I am approaching the setting of goals more carefully. I am still finalizing the plan, but right now it looks like this:

Goal 1: Complete edits to The Sentinel’s Call, my 150,000 word epic fantasy novel.

The detailed monthly plan is not complete, but at a high level, I need to:

  • Re-read the novel and identify needed edits to improve book pacing.
  • Compare planned edits with feedback from my agent, and finalize plan
  • Make the edits.

I expect to complete this effort by April or May.

Goal 2: Write the sequel to The Sentinel’s Call. This will be a 125,000 word epic fantasy novel.

Plan will include:

  • Complete high level outline (Current state: 70% complete at 3,500 words).
  • Tie plot to planned edits to The Sentinel’s Call.
  • Complete detailed outline of up to 30,000 words.
  • Write first draft in 3 months.
  • Gather feedback from beta readers, plan second draft, and write it prior to the end of the year.

As you can see, I still have work to do, but I’m getting close. As I finalize the goals, measurements, and the plan to achieve them, you can see how the resulting tasks will easily become sub-goals and milestones I can use to benchmark progress and keep myself on track. I’ll plan to schedule at least a couple of burst-writing sessions in the months with the heaviest chapter writing to increase productivity.

If I can identify clearly and realistically what I’ll need to do every month to reach these goals, then I just need to work the plan.

We’ll see how well I do.

What are your plans for next year?

 

Burst Writing

This is not a new term, but the concept is new to me this year. In a nutshell, it means writing as much as possible in a concentrated burst, like a sprinter in the 100-yard dash. You can cover a lot of ground this way really fast. It’s a lot like the November NaNo challenge, only even more intense.

It’s extremely productive, so why don’t I do it all the time? Two reasons:

First, it requires setting aside a block of time in which to burst-write. This is challenging in our hectic lives and limited vacation time.

Second, we need to be prepared. You can’t sit down at your computer at the beginning of a burst sprint and ask yourself, “Now what should I write about?” It would be like trying to sprint through a bamboo forest. You won’t get very far.

A successful burst sprint is the culmination of a great deal of prep work. Just like an Olympic sprint, which may only take a few seconds, can only be successful after months of preparation by the sprinters.

I have historically written more like a long-distance runner: slow and steady. Depending on my work schedule, I might get to write once a week for a couple of hours, or not at all. I’ve pushed myself to write daily, and for a few months this year I managed to do it.

I tried burst-writing this year for the first time. I set aside a week in March and physically removed myself from all of the normal day-to-day distractions and just write. For the first time, I’d developed a detailed outline of the story I wanted to write. I had already written the first few chapters, soI felt like I had the character voices down pretty well, and I had a plan in place.

In one week, I wrote 52,000 words. See my full blog post about the event here

Major success. I completed about half of my novel. I am currently working on the second draft of that same novel. The burst was the culmination of several months of worldbuilding, brainstorming, planning, and outlining.

Lessons learned from the writing burst:

  1. Plan well. I did have a pretty good outline, but I hadn’t addressed a few key concepts in the book, and I’ve had to go back in the second draft and revise.
  2. Don’t need an entire week. Out of that week, I was most productive over a four-day period, averaging over 10,000 words per day. It was hard to set aside an entire week, but it would be a lot easier to take a weekend and hide away somewhere for two or three days. I could reasonably expect to complete at least 25,000 words in that timeframe. That’s pretty good. Outside of a burst-sprint, it can take weeks or even months to write that much, depending on my schedule.
  3. Don’t edit while writing. To crank out that many words, you have to trust the plan and let your fingers fly. Just write and keep pushing through the story. This is where a weak outline will kill you because if you hit a snag or don’t know what happens next, you’ll totally lose your momentum.

One of the greatest benefits of burst-writing is seeing solid progress in a short period of time. It’s exciting. Sometimes the slow, plodding pace I’m forced into can be a little discouraging. I start wondering if I’m ever going to finish. Burst sprints help re-vitalize my enthusiasm and keeps me focused on the project.

I am gearing up for another burst-writing session, probably 3 or 4 days in length. I was hoping to do it in November as part of the NaNo challenge, but the timing didn’t work out. I’m still editing this story, and my outline of the next novel is only about 70% complete. I’m hoping for a small burst sprint in December, with a longer one in January.

Until then, I look for one day a week where I can mini-burst: at least 3 hours of dedicated, focused time. Sometimes all I get is an hour, but longer periods are so much more productive because I can get in “the zone’ and stay there, cranking out the words.

For me, a two-hour minimum block of time is most productive. What have other people found works best for them? Have you tried burst-writing? Has it worked for you?

Understanding your own Writer’s Block

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about lately, and is similar to the recent post from Kylie on Unleashing the Muse

Although the topics are similar, I’m taking a slightly different approach so hopefully it won’t seem like overkill.

I recently watched the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” with Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Very funny. Emma Thompson is a novelist who kills her heroes, and somehow Will Ferrell becomes her next character and can hear her voice as she types and prepares to kill him. Fascinating concept, moreso for the fact that Emma Thompson can’t quite figure out the right way to kill off Will Ferrell. She gives a brilliant portrayal of a less-than-stable author suffering from writer’s block. She goes to some amazing extremes in her attempt to get the right idea.

The following clip shows just how far she’ll go: to an emergency room to view injured and dying patients to get real-life inspiration.

Stranger Than Fiction clip – Writers Block

As the clip so wonderfully portrays, some writers struggle mightily with writer’s block.

Do you?

What do you do about it?

I don’t suffer from writer’s block very often. I spend lots of time in the early stages of story creation planning, considering different ideas, and fleshing out exactly what I want to achieve with the scenes, the characters. Once that basic framework is nailed down, the actual writing of the story is pretty straight-forward. The big exception is if a new, unexpected idea hits me while I’m writing a scene.

So am I just lucky? Inspired? Or do I not push the envelope far enough?

I believe that many times writer’s block is a symptom of one of these deeper problems:

  • Lack of clarity of a story’s mission or concept
  • Lack of understanding of the correct plot framework the story needs to build upon
  • Incomplete worldbuilding
  • Weak or inconsistent conflict
  • Trying to force a story down a direction that just doesn’t work, which the author may understand at an instinctive level, but lacks enough mastery of the craft to consciously identify the shortcoming and therefore begin the process of correction.

When have you run into writer’s block? Is it at a particular phase in a story every time, or does it happen at random intervals? How do you find ways around it?

As mentioned in Kylie’s previous post, one approach that often helps is the BIC_HOK (Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard) approach: force yourself to work, to type, to drive yourself into “the zone’. This actually works for me. Sometimes playing the right music as I try to get into “the zone’ helps a lot.

Another way to help explore options is playing the “What If?” game. Back up to the last part that worked in the story before you hit the snag that’s holding you up and start asking “What if?”. Search for the most surprising, craziest possible twists you could add. Or look at the scene and consider if anything similar has ever been done before, and then ask “What If?” you took the opposite track?

The worst thing you can do is just give up and say “I’ll write tomorrow. Maybe I’ll feel like it then.” ;or blame it on a Muse that just isn’t talking today.

 

Pacing and Scene Selection

Today I want to talk about story pacing.

I’m currently reading one of those books that’s really gotten into my head and I’ve been thinking about why. The book is Princeps Fury, book 5 of the Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera epic fantasy series. I’m really enjoying the book and the series, although I need to finish it soon so I can get it out of my head and focus on my own writing.

Two things in particular have jumped out at me while reading this book. First, it is a big fat epic fantasy, and yet it is paced more like a military thriller: fast, unrelenting, with constant twists and escalations. Second, every scene drives the plot forward, escalating the conflict or twisting the plot. There’s no downtime, no reprieves.

For me it works, even though it’s hard to maintain such a pace for such a long book. For my wife, it doesn’t. She prefers stories where there are breaks in the tension, where the action comes more in cycles than in one long, continuous sprint toward the end. She needs the periodic emotional rest or she finds a story overwhelming.

Different readers have different preferences. As authors we need to discover what pacing our story requires. Then we need to deliver it. Some readers will like it. Some won’t. But if the story isn’t paced properly, no one will.

In a thriller or a fast-action story a hard-hitting, constantly escalating pace is required or there’s not enough emotional tension for the author to achieve the sought after experience for the readers. On the other hand, some stories have different objectives. Some epic fantasies explore the milieu (the environment, culture, history, and customs of the worlds they’ve created). That’s fine too. Many readers love this type of story as long as it doesn’t get too bogged down by all the side-tracks.

The pacing needs to be appropriate or the story dies. A common mistake that can derail the correct pacing is including the wrong scenes. Imagine a story like the movie “Die Hard” where, in the middle of the action, the hero John McLane decides to take a hot bath and drink some tea.

Wouldn’t work.

That example’s a bit extreme, but new authors often fall into the trap of including scenes just because they’re the next sequential step in the character’s journey, even if they’re just filler material between the scenes that really matter. Experienced authors have learned to recognize those filler scenes that do nothing in and of themselves to drive the plot forward in any meaningful way. They learn to cut those scenes and move on to the next important action.

For authors who do a lot of exploratory writing to “find’ the story, this can be a greater challenge because the very nature of that exploratory writing will result in scenes that are useful to the author but not to the finished work. In subsequent drafts as the author is paring the story down to its core plot line, those scenes must be removed or they will drag a story down and ruin it.

I’ve learned this the hard way. In the early drafts of one novel I wrote I included several entire chapters that, although interesting and well written, did next to nothing to drive the plot forward. It was hard to recognize that they had to go because in a slightly different story they would have been perfectly appropriate.

Just not in the story they happened to be in.

I had to learn to ask the question: “If I remove this entire scene, will the reader even notice?” The answer was “No”. I cut the scenes and no one blinked an eye.

On the other hand, in the same novel, I got a little carried away with trimming the fat and cut an entire POV and all of its related scenes. Beta readers didn’t know what was missing but they sensed that something was lacking in the story. I put the scenes back and readers confirmed it filled the gap.

It can be a tricky process, but it is vital. We as authors need to make sure we understand what emotional journey our readers will be taking as they follow our characters through the torturous adventures we throw them into. Extraneous scenes need to go. Scenes that do not deliver the correct tension, pacing, or emotional beat have to go or have to be corrected.

What techniques have you developed for identifying scenes to chop?