QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Writing Productivity Tip: Multitasking is Death to Creative Writing

Saying it bluntly, our brains never multitask. They hop between tasks, and with each hop, they do each task worse. Nearly every validated study on the subject confirms this.
I am also a single parent with a full time job pursuing a writing career. As a general rule, I don’t give a damn about validated studies. I may do a slightly worse job on each task as I make dinner, quiz my daughter on her spelling words, switch the laundry, and assemble the next day’s lunches, but if I didn’t multitask she’d be hungry and naked while flunking a spelling test the next day.  
Love it or hate it, creative writing is a unique beast when it comes to multitasking. It’s no accident that praise for good writing centers on “depth” and criticism will often be couched in terms of “shallowness.” Only so much depth can be achieved when your brain is only focused on a project for moments at a time. That ten second email response costs far more than ten seconds. Cognitively, you went from the center of your fictional town to the bus station and bought a ticket to the next town. Even if you change your mind and hop off the bus ten seconds after it crosses the town line, you’re still miles from where you started. You may be writing again ten seconds later, but you’re back to where you started in terms of immersing yourself in that world. If you buy another bus ticket five minutes later, that immersion is unlikely to ever occur.
You are probably already aware of the complications of multitasking in creative writing. Multitasking impacts the creative process more severely than analytic processes. Writing fiction also involves an element of multitasking in itself. There is the event in your mind, then as seen through the POV character, and maybe some questions you have about the way you can convey what another character knows or feels without breaking POV. Add considerations that may change your outline or the direction the story is going, and you’re doing it even more.  It’s doable, because at least all of these tasks are focused on the same output, but make no mistake, you’re already multitasking. The last thing you want to do is leave writing altogether to do something else – even if only for ten seconds.
To begin with, I work when I’m alone (or at least the only one awake), with the phone off and email shut down. Even when intrusions occur – the dog needing out or in, a thirsty child, whatever – they tend not to pull me as far out of the world as I go if I choose to break from it to answer a research question or scan email.
JMC – Just Maintain Concentration is my  primary concern, to the point it’s a mantra. My goal has little to do with avoiding “multitasks” and everything to do with striving to remain as deeply in the story as I can.
In other words, my personal goal is to hold the story as tightly as I can with both hands. I focus less on the nature of the outside distraction or task vying for my attention and more on the end goal – total investment in the story itself.

Code for “getting distracted by shiny objects,” multitasking is an exit ramp on the writing highway, even when the tasks aren’t technically multitasking. Answering a spelling or research question on the internet is directly related to the output (task) at hand. But the bottom line is: if I can’t stay in the world I’m building, I can hardly ask my reader to.

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

My Favorite New Feature

Only one more week until QueryTracker 5. One of my favorite features of the new version, and one I hope you all like as much as I do, is the Query Timeline.

The Query Timeline shows all the queries sent to a selected agent in a convenient and easy to read timeline graph.

This allows you to see a visual representation of the agent's replies. With this information you can determine where your query lies in the agent's queue, if the agent responds in order, or if your query was skipped.

It's going to take a lot of the guess work out of the waiting game, and hopefully allow a few querying authors to get a good nights sleep -- now and then.


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Another 5x5x5 Winner!

Laurisa () is this week's winner of the 5x5x5 give-a-way. Congratulations Laurisa!

She has won a $100 gift card to either Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or ITunes. Her choice.

There are still 3 weeks and $300 to go, so get your entries in now.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Writer Productivity Tip: Have Measurable Goals

My children love corny jokes, so I frequently hear elephant jokes. Things like, "How do you get an elephant in the fridge?" / "You open the door and put in the elephant."

My children will also ask, "How do you eat an elephant?" and then tell me, "One bite at a time."

I've talked before about the value of incremental effort for writers. If it takes a hundred thousand words to make a book, or a hundred hours to make an edit, or a hundred books read to make a good writer, then you're going to have to get used to taking small steps toward your overall goals. The important thing is to guide your steps in the right direction. And keep taking them.

Michael talked about having a routine to boost writing productivity, but I'd like to take that a bit further into mapping out your goals such that you have specific, reachable goals you can hit on a daily basis, a weekly basis, a monthly basis. 

Back in 2013, I met my agent for lunch and griped that I'd been stalled at 35,000 words on my novel for far too long. I forget what I said, but I effectively gave myself a kick in the pants. Lent had just started, so I turned it into Personal Novel-Writing Lent. A thousand words a day, no excuses. I feel my writing is a God-given vocation, and therefore for me it fit nicely into the category of "spiritual discipline."

I got a notebook and my fountain pen, and they accompanied me everywhere. I had to estimate what that thousand words was since I was hand-writing it, but 40 days of Lent should net me 40,000 words (with the occasional day off for taking a sick child to the ER.) That would put me in striking range of the ending. 

Nice and measurable. (I screwed up the measurements and ended up with more than 1k per day, but that's fine.) Sustainable.

After that, the next goal was to have the entire hand-written portion of the book entered into the computer in two weeks. Definable.

Then a nice round goal of one month to do my first- and second-pass edits. Get it off to beta readers. Incorporate their suggestions. (That part was tricky because it wasn't solely dependent on me, and you can't rope other people into your goals.) And then have it to my agent by June. Then get it on submission by September.

I outlined every step and knew what it would take to achieve it, and having that goal every day kept me on target. You can't eat an elephant in one bite; similarly, a book-length manuscript is huge. You can't just spit it out. 

The incremental effort link talks about taking 34,000 stitches to knit a pair of socks, but one of the ways you stay on track with socks is having a pattern, and having an idea of how much time you can commit to knitting. Or the inverse: if you know it takes 20 hours to knit socks, then you know how much time you have to give the project if it's September 23rd versus if it's December 23rd. (Er…just trust me you don't want to be doing that.) 

Books don't have spiecific patterns, but the same way you can say, "I need to reach the heel turn today," you can also say "I need to reach 45,000 words by the end of today," or "I need to get the first draft of my query letter written by 9pm" and eventually "I need to decide by Thursday which of these agent offers to accept."

Having a goal you can hit means you will be more motivated to try. Higher motivation boosts productivity. Good luck!
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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing Productivity Tip: The Mini-Outline

This is a continuation on our series on tips to make the writing process and your writing career more organized, less stressful, and more effective.

The mini-outline is a thing of beauty for those of you that are plotter pantser hybrids like me. My personal mini-outline came about because the thought of writing out the arc of each chapter hurt me. But then again, so did having to rewrite my entire book. I had to find a way to define and structure the heart of my story while keeping it fun enough that I didn’t give my outline the middle finger half way through. Mine goes like this:

Characters  I always start by writing a paragraph about each primary (and sometimes secondary) character’s backstory and quirks such as, “Roberta is obsessed with grape soda and wears two pairs of underwear on road trips.” It’s also a great place for me to put a reference picture. Plus, it’s easy to give to an agent or editor as part of a proposal.

Setting – Just a quick paragraph (or more if it’s SFF) to work out the rules of the environment. The best case scenario is if I can make my setting into a character itself that my MC has to wrassle with at some point.

Themes – This is my absolute favorite. Identifying thematic layers can create more plot complexity. Also, defining the characters and situations that work within each theme generates all sorts of ideas for dialogue and conflict.

Tormenting My Main Character – To begin with, I identify my MC’s primary objective in my plot. My acting teacher always said that overarching objectives should be simple – find love, right a wrong, protect family.   

Then, I have to figure out how to systematically threaten my MC’s objective in every way I can think of. I make a numbered list of the crappiest mental, physical, and situational obstacles I can throw at her to keep her from getting what she wants. Finally, I put them in order of escalating conflict.

It feels kinda evil while I’m doing it, but it saves me from a saggy middle and from going easy on my MC when I shouldn’t. Knowing the subplots and transitions from one obstacle to another is something I like to discover as I go. I’m not a fan of squeezing every bit of mystery out of a story. But, I’m not interested in doing structural surgery on my story cause it lacks momentum, either.

In total my mini-outline is really only a couple of pages. It tackles the fun stuff, so my pantser-self enjoys writing it, yet it has enough substance to keep my plotter-self confidently on track. It’s a huge time saver.

Now, I’d like to believe that I made up this particular mini-outline, but I’m sure others have done it before me. However, I’m perfectly happy to live with the self-delusion that I’m a snowflake.

Don’t forget that our QueryTracker's 5x5x5 give-a-way has begun. FIVE winners in FIVE weeks will receive a $100 prize. Bam!

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Writing Productivity Tip: Defeat the Goliath

I remember the first time I used a real microscope. It was part of an old high school kit, with prepared slides with a three-lens magnification range, and had probably belonged to my uncle. It reminded me of horn-rimmed glasses and lettermen jackets and Richie Cunningham’s DeSoto, all sorts of ancient things that didn’t fit into the then-modern 80s.

But, man, did that thing blow my mind. It even came with a box of blank slides and cover slips so you could prepare your own specimens. If something was small enough to fit under that glass, it went under. I would examine each specimen and marvel at all its tiny parts, pretending to be a scientist, feeling like a giant.

The microscope wasn’t just a nifty gadget—it was an important learning tool. Not because it foreshadowed the microbiology classes I’d take in college (mmm, I can still remember the smell of the culture room. Yummy. *makes retching sound*) but because it taught me a subtle but important aspect of management: everything, no matter how big, is made up of tiny parts, and sometimes tiny parts are easier to manage than one great big part.

That concept is the basis for the way I manage big tasks in every aspect of my life, from my day job to my duties as a domestic deity. There is always something that needs doing, and I will be the first to admit that I might push off the big stuff in favor of smaller things. Facing a big, complex task (like Clean the Basement) is like facing a giant on the field of battle.

It reminds me of the ancient story of David and Goliath—a boy faced a giant on the field of battle, armed with only a slingshot and a handful of stones. One stone at a time, David brought that giant down.

Trouble is...goliaths are scary and I’m no David.

Facing Off Against a Giant

My writing life is no different. Books are big things. Completing a Novel is a goliath task when you step back and take it in as a whole. It’s nothing short of a formidable opponent.

But when you zoom in on the process and look at all the separate steps that go into it—writing, editing, revising, and so on—you can see the building blocks comprising that process.

Individual building blocks are manageable things. You can’t lift a brick house, but you can pick it up one loose brick at a time.

And that’s how David defeated Goliath, right? One stone at a time.

When I was writing my first novel, I only had one task: Write the Story. I wasn’t editing a separate book, or promoting an earlier release, or expanding a platform. My first novel was a hobby book and, spared the then-unknown distractions of marketing and promotion, I simply reveled in the experience of creating a world of characters and plots and intrigue and things with sharp teeth that hide in the shadows.

All I did was Write the Story. It was one task, and a very manageable one.

Now, my writing process isn’t so simple. Writing my current book has been a completely different experience. My main task is to Complete the New Novel. But that’s not the only thing on my to-do list.

I have a backlist that needs constant promoting. Halfway through writing the second draft I got a little distracted and produced two ebooks (and a print book. Whoops.) I ran blog tours and promotions and sales and messed around in Photoshop to design book covers and Facebook banners and even revamped my newsletter template.

When I look back at all that, I think: what a schedule! Each task on that list is a goliath in itself, with the top of the list being Complete the Novel.

Why didn’t I run away from it all? Because I did it one stone at a time. (Thankfully, those tiny stones pile up really fast.)

Defeat your Goliath

If you’ve never tried to deconstruct a goliath task before, I suggest you start with a list of projects you want to accomplish, then break each one down in outline form.

1) The Big Project (such as Complete the Novel)
     a through z to the nth power) All the steps that go into completing it.

My current WIP outline looks something like:


1) The Heartbeat Thief manuscript
     a) Complete first draft
     b) Edit first draft
          1) Write chapter summary and look for plot holes
          2) Examine timeline for continuity
          3) Historical reference fact check
               a) Clothing/language
               b) Vehicles/tech
               c) Events
     c)  Enter revisions
     d). Edit second draft
          1) Spell check, typo scan
          2) Grammar check
          3) Format checks (em dashes, italics)
     e) Enter revisions
     f) Read through
     g) Make tiny revisions as necessary
     h) Send to first Beta readers
     i) enter revisions if warranted
     j) Repeat a-i and send to next beta reader

And that’s just the manuscript part. Number two is the cover, number three is formatting, number four is marketing plan, and so on.

Everything on that list is just a tiny part of what goes into the goliath sitting at the top of the list. THE PROJECT: Complete the Novel.

The Victor Emerges

I will complete that novel. I will get it done, line by line, part by part, one bullet point at a time. Breaking my big projects down like this keeps a project manageable, and keeps me moving forward. I complete a small task, I cross it off, and I’m ready to move on.

It also lets me celebrate little victories at the time. Each time I check a line off, I accomplish something. I’m a firm believer in encouragement and praise and having a cupcake for a job well done. I think most people are, too, but my philosophy of task deconstruction means lots of cupcakes along the way instead of a ten pound cake at the very end.

A goliath cake doesn’t get eaten all in one sitting, but a dozen cupcakes can be eaten, one by one, spread out over time. That's what makes the victory attainable—and so very sweet.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

First 5x5x5 Winner

Sarah M. () is the first winner in our 5x5x5 give-a-way. Congratulations Sarah!

She has won a $100 gift card to either Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or ITunes. Her choice.

There are still 4 weeks and $400 to go, so get your entries in now.

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