Dawn Montgomery

Leveling Up: A Writer’s Journey

In #amwriting, Challenges, Goals on December 10, 2015 at 10:21 am

levelUpChallengeWelcome to Leveling Up: A Writer’s Journey. I’m a gamer. My first and greatest love will always be Role-Playing Games (on paper, through consoles, computers, tablets, reading, etc.). I am a quest killer, a grinder from way back. I will play a game until there are no new storylines, weapons, or new crafting recipes left. I will level my hero/heroine until the last boss is a breeze, and I will do it with a smile on my face, a joy in my heart, and never once regret the time I’ve spent in those alternate worlds. While it may be occasionally tedious, I never really feel bored. There’s always something else to do. Another character to level, another story to experience.

That got me to thinking as I was toiling away at my new MMORPG addiction, Aion (the characters have wings and can fly!), why don’t I apply that same level of dedication to my writing? I really enjoy the stories I create and the worlds I dive into, but I get hung up on the tedious aspects of it. It still needs to be done, much like the seemingly never ending farming I recently completed for my crafting levels. I still need butt in chair time (or notebook and pen time…or standing and writing time, etc.). That’s when I realized my gaming paralleled my writing. I love them both, but I’ve treated them differently for too long. I’ve decided 2016 is going to be a grinder year.

I have to build a solid habit again so that I can tackle the big bosses (novels) with ease. So how do I do that?

In efficient RPG grinding you have three main components: Quality, Focus, and Planning.


QUALITY

Let’s tackle QUALITY first. Quality represents several things in an RPG: Gear (equipment and weapons), magic, crafting, and items. There’s no point in running around a level 40 encampment with level 3 weapons and armor unless you’re insane or going after an obscure bloody savage achievement. You’re going to spend a lot of time dying, getting slowed down, or worse…stuck in a rut and hating the game.

So why do we do that with our writing? Take the time to write quality work. Yes, speed (timeliness) is important, especially when you are under a tight deadline, but what good does it do you to be fast when you end up having to revise your book multiple times?

If that’s the way you write, no worries! I used to be that way too. I used to love the revision layering process. One pass for character arcs, one for romance arcs, one for setting and mood, another for grammar, etc. Unfortunately a solid crack to the head five years ago realigned the way my brain works.

Revision is a part of your brain that deals with logic and creative processes (not at the same time, mind you, that’s impossible). The logical part of my brain is the side that rewired itself in my head (and not very well) so the less amount of time I spend in logic and analysis, the better. Otherwise…migraines and seizure-like symptoms. Wish I was joking. You should see me on days when I have to balance the budget.

Now, don’t go being weird and feel sorry for me. Just listen. This bump to the head opened up a world of creativity (and silenced that bitch of an inner editor…or in my case…emotionally abusive self-hater) greater than I had ever imagined possible. I’ll take the explosion of color, pure joy in the art of storytelling, and intensity as full compensation for the logic side having its short circuits now and then. 😀

That linear speed-demon hare I once was has been replaced by a steady and unyielding tortoise. This is something I’ve fought for five years. And now, at the end of 2015, I’m laying the old me to rest. It’s okay that I’m not the same person I once was. I plan and layer from the beginning. My stories come out tighter in the first draft so I spend less time fighting the mini-boss battles against the editing and revision monsters. I still revise, of course. That’s a boss battle you can’t skip and expect to be respected (think incentive/purchased level boosts to newbie players in your favorite game…can’t really respect that, can you?).

So how do I tackle quality? I give myself permission to go slower, to focus on the story as I write it and take the time to get it close to right the first time. This is the part of the grind that will help stave off burn out. I’ll spend less time forcing myself to race against an imagined clock or stifling the joy I find in storytelling.

And you want to know something weird? Forcing myself to write a novella of 25k quickly resulted in a draft being done faster (by three days), but it took me, on average, longer than four days to recover.

Do the math. Rushing through the levels won’t give my book or me enough experience to make the Revision and Editing boss battles easy to breeze through. And that, ladies and gents, is the goal of quality. 😀


FOCUS

FOCUS is the next beastie we’re going to tackle. It has two parts: grinding time and quests.

Grinding time: If you don’t take the time to level properly, the mini-boss (editing/revision) and big boss (novels and ongoing series) levels are going to be tough. If I’m building up my tailoring in an RPG, I will focus on gathering the materials needed, grinding the necessary amount of time it takes to get it done. So too, will I grind my writing. In 2015, the Pomodoro technique of writing for 25 minutes and breaking for 5 was extremely effective.

I will continue that, ensuring that I put in the necessary grind time for my books. Sometimes writing isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s like a neverending quest in bore-ville. That’s okay. It can’t always be unicorns and rainbows or there would never be a true sense of accomplishment at overcoming obstacles. You need those bragging rights, you know. Something that comes too easily is too easily taken for granted. Trust me. I know. Piecing myself back together these past five years has been a difficult process.

Quests: In an RPG, you can go all over the map into different continents, quest-lines, arenas, and boss levels. If your game is kind enough to supply you with a quest log (a place for your quests to sit in queue, where you can read them at any given moment), then you’ll soon realize that you have a limit to the number of quests in your log. If you’re all over the place, you have to shuffle quest-lines, reorganize your packs (why did I take fifteen gathering quests at once? Who has that much room in their packs???), and remember where you left off while hoping you keep the storyline straight.

If you’re playing a more traditional RPG like Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, or Legend of Zelda, you don’t have the luxury of quest logs (with the exception of the Bomber’s Notebook in Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask).  Are you really going to remember a quest line from the desert oasis after you spend fifteen days grinding through the ice reaches of Fromoon? At the same time, it’s hard to keep a storyline straight if I’m jumping from one story arc to another. That logical part of my brain, remember, has issues already. Switching gears mid-writing session isn’t going to help.

AND DEFINITELY no more writing first person POV stories at the same time I’m writing third person. I made that mistake in 2015 by writing VOODOO CARNIVAL (First Person Point of View) at the same time I wrote WINTER GUARDIAN (Third Person POV). The amount of time I spent accidentally slipping into third or first when I wasn’t supposed to really dragged my pacing down and made the revision monster a nightmare to tackle.

I will set up my writing time appropriately. Weekdays for my primary book. Weekends for my freewrite book. I’ve spoken about this in the past I think. I have to have a book going at all times that explores something I want to try, some new genre or series experiment. A fun project that I reward myself with on the weekends. Stay focused, receive rewards.

But I won’t be able to do that without planning.


PLANNING

PLANNING in an RPG is a unique prospect. It takes a bit of research, some focus, and a willingness to stick to it until the job is done. For me, PLANNING is the difference between three months on a novel and three years on a novel. That’s a lot of false starts, a lot of unnecessary grinding in low-level areas as I try to get my story on track. Planning consists of two stages: scheduling and plotting <insert panster groaning here> I promise I don’t mean an outline from hell with every plot point written out and a novel notebook that’s a binder thick (though you could totally do that if that’s your thing. It’s not mine. I tried.). I mean…well…read on to see what I mean.

Scheduling: Time is a factor in any job. Deadlines are a definitive part of a writer’s life, but outside a publisher-driven deadline, what else is there? Personal deadlines. How do you determine those?

I need to recognize the amount of time it takes for me to develop my book, characters, and plot. Accept the amount of time it takes me to write a page, scene, chapter, and complete story. Factor in the amount of down time I’ll need before I begin editing and how long it will take me to complete them once I start. That’s a lot to take in, right? Why do all that, and how does it compare to Leveling Up in an RPG?

In most RPGs you have leveling regions (also known as zones). These zones contain bad guys, quests, gear, ingredients for crafting, and items that coincide with the same level (hopefully) as your adventurer. If I’m level forty, for instance, in a level forty-two to fifty zone, I’m not going to jump ahead to the mini boss battle of revision without ensuring I’m properly geared and leveled. To be honest, the game itself won’t let you do that. You have to follow the storyline to get there. Usually.

To get to revision, I have to schedule grinding time. I have to follow storylines, delve into the crafting part of the adventure, and use my previous focus to keep myself on track. I can do multiple things in one zone, so I should do that all at once to avoid having to back track later (and waste time, further bogging down the adventure).

At the same time, I don’t want to spend an unnecessary amount of time playing in a low-level zone where my gear, power, and story are too high for grinding to be useful. I compare this to rewriting the first chapter over. And over. And over. Don’t rewrite the first chapter until you’ve reached the end, or in my case, Chapter Five. I have no idea why, but that’s my magic “rewrite the beginning” chapter number.

Plotting: I don’t mean plotting as a detailed outline five pages long per chapter. I mean plotting a course, a roadmap and a way forward in the darkness of your book. Plotting in RPGs is interesting. There are some who direct you along a path, even in an open-ended world, preventing you from gaining access to realms outside your current levels while others are completely open-ended, and you’ll find out the moment you’re ripped apart by a pack of wolven that you may have stumbled into the wrong area.

Plotting and writing. Plotting gets such a bad wrap. I can hear the screams of denial now, but I want you to remember something very important. You don’t walk out of your house in sneakers with just the clothes on your back, spare change in your pockets, and a half-charged phone with the expectation of hiking to Alaska or backpacking across Europe or even running a marathon without training.

You don’t have to have every detail of your trip planned out, but you do need a way to focus (there’s that word again!) your energy. How do you do that?

Jot down a few notes before you start your daily writing session. A roadmap with a general idea of how you’re going to get there. Why is this so important? Writing yourself into a corner is a dark and dreadful place most writers hate falling into. They want, more than anything, to have a smoothly flowing manuscript that listens to your muse and falls into line while pleasantly surprising you along the way.

With a moment of clarity, just before you begin writing, you may be able to avoid most total scene rewrites. As you set out to drive for the day (or the writing session, or scene), jot down a few ideas about how to get what you want out of it. It could be something as vague as “Erica’s panic gets the best of her” or as detailed as you wish.

So for 2016’s level up challenge, here are my vows:

  1. I vow to give myself permission to go slower, to focus on the story as I write it and take the time to get it close to right the first time.
  2. I vow to set up my writing time appropriately. Weekdays for my primary book. Weekends for my freewrite book using pomodoros to track my writing time. No more writing first person and third person POV stories at the same time, however.
  3. I vow to set a daily roadmap on my writing path by thinking about the scenes I’ll be writing, building enthusiasm, while enjoying the fulfillment of the journey using those roadmap goals in one session.
  4. I vow to save rewrites until the story ends. No more Chapter Five triggers to rewrite Chapters One through Four.

My goal: Reach Level 1 by the end of January. Level 1 will mean a completed novella, a completed short story, and a partially completed novel. If I can make level 1, there’s hope for me yet. Let’s see if I can make it happen 😀

Keep Writing!

Dawn Montgomery

 

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