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Writing Craft

Craft Editorials Resources Savvy Snark & Sass

Work Smarter, Not Lazier

Why the easy solution to writing problems is a bigger problem in itself.

Worksheets are the root of a vicious cycle.

I’ll freely admit, I have used worksheets, workbooks, and many templates over the years. And, just as I have come to loathe them in my teaching, I am starting to loathe them in writing as well.

Worksheets are making me lazy. They are also making me a less creative person. And the the weird part is, I cannot figure out why.

In teaching, the reason I hate worksheets is that they don’t make the students think. They are just fill in the blank boxes that regurgitate content from the book. They don’t require you to rework the material or think about it in a new way. Perhaps this is why I am starting to hate worksheets for writing. While, unlike their academic counterparts, they do make you think about what is being written, the responses tend to be vague, unthoughtful, and in general, nothing you didn’t already know or have figured out prior. I do not find myself inspired when using worksheets, let alone discovering new, inventive ways of engaging with my material.

But, I still cannot figure out why?

The usual suspects for these types of “workstuffs” (or in other words, the outside resources we use when organizing our stories) tend to be character questionnaires, setting templates, and plot outlines. They are always lengthy… I’ve seen character question sheets titled “100 Questions for Complex Characters.” Why the hell do you need to answer that many questions about your character? Knowing their favorite ice cream has no bearing on how they make their decisions, which does have bearing on the story, as a strong character’s decisions are what drive the plot.

This brings us to our first problem with workstuffs.

“Writing well in a vacuum is impossible. You cannot write a strong story in a dark closet all by yourself, which is the problem with workstuffs. It’s busy work that you do by yourself, with only you to evaluate the results.”

As I often do when I have my own writing dilemma, I threw the question out to my writing slack, where I keep my ever so handy treasury of writers. It’s like having a bunch of experienced writers on retainer… or as I like to think of them, having their souls trapped in my laptop for eternity in order to do my bidding. Yes. Yes….

 

So, having thrown out the question: “Do you find worksheets and workbooks helpful, and if not, why?” this was the analysis of the responses I collected:

Workstuffs, through some amazing, dark sorcery, manage to be incredibly long and yet lack substance. As Christine Brennecke, author of Seven Shards: the Colors of Wine, said in our conversation about why workstuffs suck, she summed it up best by saying, “Too many words. Not enough good words.” Somehow, they say a bunch of crap, yet say nothing at all while providing no assistance to really solving your problem.

Which brings me to the point made by Elayna Mae Darcy, author of They Are the Last and producer of the podcast SpeakBeasty, “They basic AF!”. Yet, they accomplish this while still being incredibly complicated to figure out. Often times, they serve as clickbait to get you to a writer’s website, where they do the majority of the hawking of their wares. “Throw up a 99 Questions to Ask Your Character worksheet on a website, and suddenly there is an unspoken agreement between writers,” as Elayna calls it: ‘If I help you, you’ll buy my shit.’

The unfortunate problem with that agreement is you’re getting the short end of the stick. Chances are that the content wasn’t even original. It was probably just some regurgitated crap they saw on another website once. Seriously, compare and contrast these resources next time you are tempted to use one. It is surprising how often material gets re-purposed. Author and Editor Elan Samuel, of The Warbler book review blog and Story Perfect Editing fame, pointed out the big flaw in this system: “They’re usually a very basic concept, something every writing tip/instructor/resource delivers, with the intent of driving more traffic to the site.”

“Fundamentally I just find the entire concept of ‘worksheets’ useless if you’re not directly involved in a course/class where your work is going to be actually evaluated by another human being. Just putting up these random ‘exercises’ for people to use with no supervision or guidance is always useless, in my opinion.” – Liam Dynes

Many of the workstuffs you find on the internet, especially on author websites, are the most basic format and the most basic methods. Another valid argument Elayna Mae Darcy makes against workstuffs is that despite being a visual method of organizing your thoughts, they fail at stimulating the user visually. “They don’t visually engage me, like at all,” says Darcy. “I LOVE worksheets and forms to print, but I can legitimately never find ones that are interesting looking enough to keep my attention past the title.” This became a general consensus among the other writers, and even I could relate to this one. I don’t know how many times over the years I have revamped pre-made worksheets in my History and Special Education English classes. Sometimes I cut them up and reorganize them, cutting out pieces I don’t want, adding pieces I do, taping them all back together into a new form. Other times, I just take ideas from them or a section of reading, and make my own handout from scratch. In many cases when I do this, it isn’t because I don’t think the worksheet is visually stimulating in an aesthetic sense, but rather, it confuses the student just by looking at it. It does not generate a logical train of thought when working. Good design, in both form and function, solves this problem.

On that note, this was also a downfall of workstuffs in the opinion of Liam Dynes, author of Rockets. Workstuffs are meant to be universal, which tends to make them generic. As a result, they often focus too much on the mechanical, rather than rooting out the real source of a writing problem. As Elan Samuel said, “The exercises are often vapid and don’t dig into the problems of writing beyond the mechanical.”

Content-wise, they are all form and no function, which is completely the opposite problem of what we see with their design.

As a teacher though, I find the absolute worst issue I have with writing worksheets is the second point Liam made about how to evaluate what you actually put into the worksheet.

“Fundamentally I just find the entire concept of ‘worksheets’ useless if you’re not directly involved in a course/class where your work is going to be actually evaluated by another human being. Just putting up these random ‘exercises’ for people to use with no supervision or guidance is always useless, in my opinion.” – Liam Dynes

While workstuffs are inherently filled with surface flaws, even if those flaws were remedied, this would still be a major issue. Without someone to review the work you have done on the worksheet/workbook/workstuff, how is a writer to gain any actual insight into the problem they were trying to fix?

“Throw up a ’99 Questions to Ask Your Character’ worksheet on a website, and suddenly there is an unspoken agreement between writers…  ‘If I help you, you’ll buy my shit.’” – Elayna Mae Darcy, They Are the Last

Perhaps, the one bright side of worksheets is that they do help you to see the flaws in your story. If you can’t fill in the blanks, then yes, ultimately there is a problem. But once that is discovered, workstuffs seem to be the worst way you can fix that problem. This is why it is incredibly vital, not helpful, but vital to find a writer’s group. Writing well in a vacuum is impossible. You cannot write a strong story in a dark closet all by yourself, which is the problem with workstuffs. It’s busy work that you do by yourself, with only you to evaluate the results.

Luckily, we live in the age of the internet. Finding a writing group has never been easier… *cough* if you live in a big city *cough*. But, even those who do not have luck with finding local groups, can still interact and exchange writing with real people in writing forums, online communities, and other writing spaces, like NaNoWriMo.

Over here at IndiePen Ink, we hope to begin cultivating a rich, inclusive and supportive environment. One of our future ambitions is to have a forum and several targeted writing communities. If you would like to help us start growing our community, reach out to us on twitter @indiepenink or email me: sass@indiepenink.com.

If you are really tripped up by a writing dilemma, no matter how specific to your story, visit our Savvy, Snark, and Sass page. They’re like RPG healers, specifically trained to heal your writing ailments. Leave a message for them describing your specific writing issue, and any possible solutions you have tried that did not work, and the girls will give you three different possible solutions based on their writing experience. They are currently taking submissions that will be used in a future show, hosted by Indiepen Ink, Savvy, Snark, and Sass (…Save Your Ass).

Coming Soon to an Internet near you!

 

Write on, young savior,

 

Editorials Pep Talks Sass Writing Styles

If I Tell You That You Suck, Can You Get Over It?

A Letter from Sass:

At some point in the epic history of fiction writing, writers developed a strange obsession with perfection. The why and how have been lost to history. Perhaps that burned up in the Great Library of Alexandria? Yet, despite not understanding why they have this obsessive compulsion, writers of all levels fall into this trap daily.

I’m not singular in suffering from writer’s block. Every writer I know, regardless of their ability, preferred genre, and levels of experience and success, admits that they sometimes hit a point where they just can’t write. The problem is, as the dry spell continues, they simply don’t move on by planting the garden; learning a new recipe; finally cleaning out the closet. They wallow. They let their brain start to warp their confidence in their abilities. Suddenly, they are a no talent hack, and always have been.

This mindset is toxic. It is also counterproductive, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that takes root in the mind of a writer and prevents them from moving forward, even when inspired.

“At some point in the epic history of fiction writing, writers developed a strange obsession with perfection.”

Let’s get personal for a minute. Currently, I have a Google Doc with 30+ plot points, in chronological order, that I have already planned for in my story, Intrepid. I am not want for ideas — I am want for prose. The idea is fleshed out, and I know exactly what I need to write. I just can’t write it. For weeks, I went through the motions of my usual routine: I sat down to write with my trusty Ink Joy gel pen in a funky color, a thick DIY legal pad made out of my favorite lined paper glued together with cardboard backing, and a full pot of steaming tea, and I put on a Epic Instrumental Music video from YouTube from one of my many subscriptions.

In times past, I would have cranked out 1000-3000 words for whichever scene I had decided I was ready to write. Recently, I have been lucky to settle on a mere hundred words I didn’t want to crumple up and throw across the room.

The worst part is that I had absolutely no reason to be blocked. The depression that tends to hit me two to three times a year was not lingering around, and my anxiety is under control currently. My job, while stressful, is manageable now that I have developed a rhythm. Marriage, immediate family life, and finances are all strong right now. My friends are all doing reasonably well… so what the fuck is my problem? Why can’t I write?

Well, that is because I suck. I’m a great writer, but I am a fucking awful drafter. It feels impossible to just sit down and free write without analyzing my own word choice or flow.

Why did my character do that? Why would I write that? Where did that idea come from? Why can’t I think of a better word!?

“It has taken me a really really loooooong time to accept that sucking is not only okay, but necessary.”

Why? Because, the first draft sucks. The pre-write sucks. The first time words hit paper, they are an unruly mess. And, it has taken me a really really loooooong time to accept that sucking is not only okay, but necessary. At the risk of inspiring a chorus of that’s what she saids, let me repeat that again: Sucking is necessary.

On the days I mindblowingly, ultra suck, I try to keep these quotes in the back of my mind…

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. There’s simply writer’s embarrassment.” –  Andrew W. Marlowe

and

“Do something. You can always correct something, but you can never correct nothing.” – Dale C. Bronner

They’re brilliant. The kind of brilliance that you only register once you read it or someone says it too you. It’s the kind of brilliance that makes you feel like a moron for not realizing the simplistic solution it delivers. It is exactly what every writer needs to be reminded of when they sit down to write. In fact, I think these two quotes should be visible to a writer in every writing space.

So, that being said, I have made graphics of condensed forms of these quotes that writers can print and hang in their writing spaces…

The first step in conquering writer’s block is realizing that the block comes not from a lack of creativity, but a lack of confidence. Not being able to write well is a phobia that is so stifling that it makes writing impossible at all.

In later articles, we will be exploring the reasons people suffer from writer’s block, and offering creative solutions to overcoming your fear, rather than stimulating your creativity. Until then, I leave you with this: If I tell you that you really do suck, can you get over it already? We all suck. Get in line kid — the queue starts with me.

Write on, young savior,

Editorials News Pep Talks Writing Styles

There’s a Good Chance This Is Completely Worthless

A message of caution, from Sass:

As a teacher, I often struggle with the fact that my students take every word I speak as gospel. While the thought of having a horde of minions waiting to be beckoned, preaching whatever I tell them would be wonderfully effective if/when I choose to take over the world, as an educator, it is extremely counter-productive to teaching students the most important, non-subject related skill they need to acquire in school: problem solving. Now, this would be an easy point for me to launch into a scathing critique of our public education system, and how through lacking high standards and pushing testing we have totally lost our ability to teach our students the skills they really need, but I won’t. It’s really, reaaaaally hard not to, but it’s not the point of this blog post.

I use this example only to make the point that as products of this system, we are not always taught how to read information selectively.

As with any information, even that delivered by teachers (who are often, but not always, experts in their field) it should still be analyzed. Writers, like any person working in a craft, should always be willing to learn and improve techniques to develop as writers. Teachers do this through professional development. I attend meetings and conferences multiple times a year that are meant to introduce or to strengthen my knowledge of teaching methodology. But, all teachers are different—we each have a teaching style, based on many variables such as experience, school culture, resources, and student needs. Writers also have a style that is distinct to their particular experience, genre, voice, and process. I have left sessions completely enthused and ready to utilize a brand new method to transform my classroom. I have also walked out of sessions laughing my ass off at some “consultant”, with no prior educational experience, who just got paid thousands of dollars to tell me how to do a job they have never done themselves. Or, even if they have, came out of a perfect, suburban school where all the students have stable homes, speak English, have safe, updated buildings, and are given more resources than they know what to do with. Learning how to be a better teacher is no different than learning how to be a better writer- the advice you take is completely subjective to your needs and experience.

Which is why it is extremely important to keep this thought in mind: Any advice, resource, or lesson given to you by another writer needs to be analyzed for its usefulness to your specific needs.

While the core concepts for writing—character development, setting, and plotting—are universal in writing, the methodologies used in practice are completely dependent upon what and how you write. If you want to be the next Rowling, don’t go to Patterson for advice. If you want to be the next Flynn, don’t go to Sparks. I don’t have anything against any of these writers, but they each have fundamental differences in their genres, writing styles, and process.

That being said, I am also not suggesting that a mystery writer cannot help a science fiction writer write better. What I am saying is before you take every piece of writing advice, really sit down, analyze it, try it out, and see if it even applies. Or, if it can be adapted. Does it even work?

At the end of the day, there might not be a single thing on this website that helps one person become a better writer, yet another person could credit it as the secret to their success. Neither person is wrong. In special education, we use the term Specific Learning Disability to cover a wide range of learning struggles. Two different students can be labeled SLD in reading, but one can have issue with transposing letters while the other has issues in reading comprehension. But, both are considered not to be able to read. Trying to strengthen a student’s reading fluency may help the dyslexic student, but won’t do anything to help the one who doesn’t understand or retain what they are reading. This same idea can be said for two writers struggling with the same problem. If two writers are both struggling to develop static characters into dynamic characters, no one approach will be universal to help both, especially if the stories are different genres or viewpoints.

All the information we post on IPI is intended to be helpful but not all of it will be. Or all of it will be. Or none of it will be. The point is, this is not gospel. This is a collection; an anthology if you will, of what we consider the best advice we have collected from around our writing circles, the internet, and our dangerously high stacked towers of writing books. There is bound to be a better method out there for something we post in IPI, and we encourage writers to seek out information. Never stop seeking knowledge.

As the illustrious, sardonic, and outrageous Oscar Wilde once said, “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”

So, when you do find something better, please share it with us. Help us add to the Research-a-Torium or update a post or offer a suggestion on a tutorial. This isn’t just our site, it’s our site—yours, mine, and ours. If advice exists, and it helped, we want to have it collected, organized, and ready to be absorbed. Help us help you and help us help others. But, remember, only take what you need to help yourself.

Write on, young savior,

 

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