Friday, December 31, 2010

How To Achieve Any Goal

Alas, the end of the year has arrived. As I write this there are exactly 9 hours and 50 minutes left in 2010. Each new year brings many changes and, as many of you know, this is particularly true in my case. Tomorrow I will be loading my bags in the truck and returning to college, where my writing and blogging time will be lost somewhere in the rush of essays, homework, parties, sleeping, pranking, and other crucial (but time consuming) activities. As a result, this blog will be going on hiatus until August 2011.

So it's on the eve of this great change that I sit here, consuming way too many holiday goodies and writing my blog season finale. With the biggest goal-setting day of the year only hours away, I thought I'd share the most powerful tool I have in my author's toolbox. Don't be fooled though! This bad boy is not just for writers. I've put it to work and seen success in nearly every aspect of my life. So whether your New Year's resolution is to write a novel or build a garage, I present (*cheesy dramatic music*) "Michelle Kleih's Secret Weapon for Goal Success."*

Please complete the following steps to engage the secret weapon:

1. Set Your Goal

Yes, this one seems rather obvious, but it's a little deeper (and a lot more important) than you may realize. The trick is to be specific. Many people set resolutions like "Write More" or "Lose Weight." I find that I'm most motivated by goals that focus more on the day-to-day part of the goal, rather than the end result. For example, instead of the two goals listed above, I would write something like "Write 1,000 words a day" or "Exercise for 30 minutes daily." Both of these will get me the goals I mentioned above, but it's much easier to visualize how exactly I'm going to accomplish that.

Now, write it down. Seriously... yes, you, WRITE IT DOWN. It doesn't have to be in calligraphy and framed on the wall, the paper napkin right next to you will work fine (that is, if it's clean... you are going to want to hang on to it for a while O.o). Then, once you've got it written, think hard about your goal. Is that REALLY something you want to do? Are you willing and able to sit down at your computer and type 1,000 words or climb on the treadmill for 30 minutes every time the sun rises? If not, tinker with the goal until you find something that you're sure you can accomplish, then write that goal down. There should be no doubts in your mind about whether you can do this or not. Not that you shouldn't stretch yourself, just make sure that it's a plausible stretch.

2. Set Your Schedule
Now figure out your schedule. Writing this down also helps greatly. When, exactly, will you start your resolution? How and when, exactly, are you going to do this? Are you going to try to have reached specific goals by certain times? If it wasn't already specified in your goal setting step, make sure to decide on a frequency here. How often do you need to do something for it to become a habit? Personally, I find that I form a habit best if I do it every single day, if only for a few minutes. If it's something I can't or shouldn't do every day (scuba diving, for example), I buy some books on the topic and spend a few minutes reading about it every day. This keeps me in the habit and is educational too. Just be sure that you don't start reading about your resolution when you could be actually doing it!

3. Get Psyched
This is my favorite step. Preferably before the starting date of your resolution, get excited about your goal! Subscribe to a magazine on the topic, join the local club, read discussion forums, watch YouTube videos, whatever gets you motivated! If you do this step well, you'll hardly be able to wait for your starting date to get going!

4. Stick To It
I won't sugarcoat this: After a couple of days on the trail of your new goal, it will get hard. That's the way it is with any worthy endeavor. The novelty wears off, the habit isn't quite established yet, and actually pursuing your goal turns out to be a whole lot harder than just dreaming about it! This is the hard part, just see it through. Eventually there will come a point when you don't even have to think about it or, even better, you look forward to it! Right now, you just have to pull yourself through that schedule you created until it becomes easy. Tip: Remember the tools you used to get yourself psyched in Step 3? Use and abuse them in every way you can to keep yourself motivated!

5. Be Progressive
This last step is a bit tricky and very much depends on your personal tendencies. We tend to have two sorts of problems when it comes to progression: 1. We're too progress oriented and get discouraged by the tiny steps that are part of normal goal achievement ("I've dieted all week and only lost 1 pound?!"). 2. We're not progressive enough and fail to push ourselves once some initial success is achieved ("I can now run a mile in 10 minutes, but going for 9 seems like too much work.").

Every person is different and has to find their own way of pushing through this, but I'll share with you my method. Every day, when I finish running/writing/riding/whatever, I stop and look at the progress I've made. Sometimes it's obvious and motivating, sometimes I just have to say "One day closer to achieving my goal!" and have faith that progress will come. Either way, I try to find an optimistic way of looking at it, and then figure out what exactly the plan will be for tomorrow and how I'm going to be better. I find it's so much easier to get myself off Facebook when I already have a clear picture of what I'm going to do. If I don't, the mere act of creating a plan seems like too much work to even contemplate.

So, there you have it, my goal setting techniques. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, or stories, I'd love to hear them!

I hope you enjoyed the Michelle Kleih Blog this fall and I'll see you again in August! Wishing you all a wonderful new year and the best of success in your endeavors.

*Please note that very little/none of this was discovered by me. This is merely the collection of bits and pieces of advice I've gathered. :)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"My Protagonist Made Me Do It!"

We've all heard it. Whether it was from one of your writer friends talking about their new project or the latest bestselling author sitting on Oprah's couch, you've heard it "I didn't write the story, I just started it and my characters took it from there!" or, my personal favorite, "My protagonist made me do it!"

Now, if you're a cynic like me, statements like this make you roll your eyes. They're characters for crying out loud, figments of your imagination. Of course, they should feel real and it's fun to pretend they're real, but they don't really have a mind of their own. Surely they're not capable of deciding that they want their fictional lives to go in a different direction and take over the story.


We can wave our logic around and talk about how writer's block is a myth all we like, but even the most jaded "inspiration is overrated" writer has to admit that sometimes it does feel like your story is coming to you by magic. I can't say how many times I've been muddling through my story, just putting words on the page, when suddenly Creative Guy (who, for the record, I do realize is imaginary) comes into the room and drops a brilliant idea on my desk. This new concept is fresh and unexpected, yet somehow manages to tie back to something earlier in the story as if I'd been planning it all along. It's almost enough to make me wonder if my story has always existed in its complete form and has waited for centuries before finally choosing me as the person it will bestow itself upon. Emphasis there on almost.

So, can a character really take over a story? While I can't say I've ever had a character take over my typing fingers and force me to write a scene a certain way (should something like this ever occur, I will check myself into a mental institution immediately), I do believe that a well-developed character can take some decisions out of the hands of the writer. Magic? Nope, it's rather simple actually. If a character has sufficient depth, the writer knows that there are certain things that the character simply wouldn't do. In fact, in some circumstances there's only one thing that the character would do. While the writer is in no way physically forced to write a scene a certain way, he or she will know that they're going against the character. Most importantly, though, the reader will know that the character wouldn't really do that--not a good thing. So the writer's hands are tied. They either need to go back and change something about the character to make this choice credible or they just go along with the character's natural action and see where it leads. Sometimes this new path turns the story in a whole different, but much better, direction. I believe this is what people mean when they say their protagonist "took over."

For those of you who were hoping I'd prove that there really is an easy way to get the novel written, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere. I've tried leaving my novels untouched for many months... unfortunately I have yet to peek in and find my characters have been writing in my absence. I have found a way to get them all to show up and lend me a hand, though...

More on that next week. ;)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Revisions: Blessing and Bane

Monday, Monday...
So, as anyone who has tried to hold a conversation with me lately knows, I'm scalp deep in the revisions for my latest novel "The Second." I've actually never gotten into the deep editing part of the novel writing process before, so this is an all-new adventure with unexpected twists and dangers around every turn (Why yes, I have been working on the pitch. How can you tell?). Today will be the fifth consecutive day that a shocking percentage of my writing time will be spent spreading color coded index cards across the living room floor (each represents a scene), staring at them, and occasionally rearranging them or jotting down a note. As thrilling as it sounds, this is actually the part I like. My brain loves this new puzzle of trying to arrange thirty-some renegade cards into a neat line of chronological orderliness. I originally wrote the draft in what I thought was chronological order, but it wasn't until I shuffled up all my cards and threw them on the floor that I started to realize how much more effective XYZ scene would be if I moved it back a bit, or if I had it immediately following EFG scene, etc. Of course, that usually creates a new problem in the storyline so I get to go back and figure out how to fill up the gap. Then, when I find that I'm puzzled and having a hard time moving any more cards, I jot down my questions, throw them to the boys in the basement (aka, my subconscious), and gather up my cards for the day. The boys almost always have a whole list of suggestions when the cards come out the next day and the manuscript improves at an amazing rate.

I have to say, though, that not all of the revision has been so fun. I've heard quite a bit of discussion about which is harder, writing or re-writing, and I'm more inclined to say it's the re-writing bit. While the first draft definitely has its own challenges of having to lock my Inner Editor in his office and then chase after Creative Guy as he dashes, carefree, through the whole length of the novel (with plenty of "Oh crap, where'd he go?" moments), there's a great amount of freedom with the first draft. If I don't know exactly where my plot is going, no problem! If I haven't done the research to know if I'm writing this accurately, I leave myself a note and go on! It's my novel's wild and reckless youth.

The revision stage, though, is when it's time for my novel to grow up and start to get things in order. It's when I herd Inner Editor and Creative Guy into the same room, lock the door, and try to keep them from killing each other long enough to get the novel into a readable state. Inner Editor, always the perfectionist, can't believe what a mess Creative Guy and I made while he was searching for the spare key to his office, and isn't sure the whole thing doesn't need to be scrapped. Creative Guy, on the other hand, is a hippy-esque figure who just wants to pitch me the idea for the next novel and does NOT do deadlines ("Can't hurry genius, man!").

When all is going well, everybody works together with Inner Editor pointing out plot flaws and Creative Guy coming up with (hopefully) original fixes, but at least once a week I have a mutiny on my hands. Try drafting a new scene when Inner Editor won't stop making sarcastic comments about sentence structure and Creative Guy starts yelling about "suit dude" making it impossible to hear his muse. Telling Creative Guy that we're drafting that pivotal scene TOMORROW so he needs to hurry up and decide what's going to go down is just as bad.

Chime in time! Whether you write novels, short stories, essays, blog posts, or work reports, what's your stand on revision? Are you one of those insanely organized minds who outlines and then just writes a single draft, or are you a bit more right brain and need more revision time. Any helpful hints that you've discovered? Do you have a routine?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

From Reality to Fiction

Hey again folks!
So a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to check off one of my "bucket list" items by learning to scuba dive. Extremely cool and even more fun that I expected it to be... which is saying a lot. In addition to the cert card, experience, and funny looks I got (Just FYI, if you ever want to feel like a super hero, unexpectedly emerge from the depths of a popular swimming location with scuba gear on. The kids--and opposite sex--think it's the greatest thing ever), I got one thing that I hadn't expected: some rocking story ideas.

Who'd have thunk that the first aid/safety section of the textbook would give me ideas for more original underwater dangers (did you know that breathing compressed air at depth can make your lungs explode if you hold your breath while ascending?) or that dive time tables would make for a sneaky twist in events (sidekick has reached his depth time limit for the day, so the protagonist must go alone to face the villain at 90 feet)! I have a whole page of notes with story and plot ideas, just from this one week class.

Looking back, I realize that this has happened a lot in my writing. The most obvious example is my current work-in-progress, The Second, which stemmed from my experiences with historical fencing/re-enactment. I find that the work which has its base in an actual experience tends to be the most vivid, believable, and easy to write.

I'm interested in hearing others' thoughts on this topic. Do you find that your best work is often rooted in an actual experience? Or do you enjoy the challenge of writing something completely from your imagination? Have you ever sought out experiences specifically for your writing? Please share!

Semper ubi sub ubi!

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Amazing First Post

Hey everyone! So the site is officially live, yay! A special thanks to those of you who were unlucky enough to be around while I was working on it and had to come in the room every two seconds to reassure me that it looked okay (yes, Shawna, Lauri, and Heidi, I'm talking about your super-heroic selves).

Anyway, I'm Michelle, and I'll be your blogger this evening ("No duh," says you, "It's written all over the place"). Since this is the first entry, I thought I'd start out with a nice description of what this blog will be about, an invitation for discussion, and a desperate plea for help. Moving right along, then...

So here's the deal. I suck at monologues. Unless I'm telling a story of some sort (in which case, you're better off to not let me start), I tend to run out of things to say really fast if I'm not getting some sort of outside response. So that's where you come in. I'm not here to jibber-jabber about me and the adorable thing my hamster did this morning (I don't even have a hamster); I'm here to talk with you. I wanna know what you wanna read on here. Within limits. I'm a historical fiction writer, so I like to talk about history and fiction (profound, I know). *Ideally* this blog would become a place geared especially towards historical and fantasy writers (medieval and fantasy is close enough for us to get along), but general enough for the history buffs and "other" writers to have fun too. Of course, if you want to hear about my fabulous life and amazingly adorable imaginary hamster (I sense a recurring theme coming on. Hamster now named Ned), that can be arranged too.

So here it is, the invitation for discussion: What are your interests and what, from the content mentioned above, would you most like to see? What sort of "crossover" stuff would interest you (i.e. if you're all about history, what writerly stuff would you find cool)? If you don't respond back, I'll be left to my own devices, and THAT could get very scary.

Finally, that desperate plea for help. Don't worry, it doesn't involve your wallet. I'm looking for content to add to the "For Writers" section of my website (tips, links, quick reviews of writing-related books/software/whatever) and guest bloggers (a knowledgeable someone to write a one-time post for this blog). Submissions for the "For Writers" section can be sent straight to me and I'll post them with credit to you if I like them (and credit to me if I don't, jk). For guest blogging submissions, though, please contact me with your topic idea first and we can discuss it. You can contact me here.

Next post coming in a couple of days. Until then, semper ubi sub ubi!