200 stories. 200 days. Over 800 hours of writing.
I must have learned something in that time, right?
The Monster of Self Doubt
1. Doubt comes and goes in waves.
200 days ago, I decided I was going to write and publish a story every day for the next year, and I am yet to exorcise the monster of doubt whispering sweet-nothings into my ear whenever my mouse pointer is hovering over the publish button. There must be someone out there who doesn’t enjoy these stories, right? Someone who thinks – and, maybe even hopes – this project is a waste of time? Someone who is asking themselves what right this clown from rural Australia has in claiming he is some kind of author? I then realise I, in fact, do not enjoy all of my tales (my least favourite being tale #152 – The Tale of a Hermit Crab Named Orange. I was falling asleep while writing it and the whole thing is, simply put, dreadful) and there is a genuine possibility this project will whimper away into an ocean of nothingness, drowned out by the sounds of a million writers with a better voice, better communication and a better idea than mine.
There’s no shortage of advice from those well respected in their field telling me if I am passionate about creating, then the rewards will come. But, don’t we only ever get to hear that advice from those who have made it? What about those who have poured their hearts and souls, body and mind into a project – as I am with Daily Tales – only to have it fail?
The Monster of Doubt’s Kryptonite? The publish button. I press it, and then I get a few likes. And some positive comments. Then an offer for a radio interview and an award nomination for a ceremony held in London. I can also come back to my personal favourite, and most popular story: #27 – The Tale of the Heart of a Spider.
I will always feel the monster’s breath, but at least he can be quelled into submission long enough for me to show my appreciation to those who take the time to read and provide feedback on my stories.
2. Meaningful reflection on writing is painful.
This project provides me with the perfect opportunity to experiment and increase my confidence in defining what is successful and what is not successful when it comes to writing. So, how do I currently define success? I break it down into two categories. Firstly, there’s the challenge of writing and publishing something every day. This is the least challenging part to reflect on. Did I write and publish a story today? Yes? Then I have succeeded.
The second goal of developing my skills as a writer took much longer to define. How do I measure my success as a writer? If I am happy with the piece of writing, is that enough? What skills do I need to learn about and develop? Doesn’t the bulk of the joy of writing hinge on other people appreciating my work? What if nobody enjoys it and thinks it’s trash? My naivety prevented me from realising for too long that there’s nothing wrong with defining my success in terms of wanting to write something that I am proud of and that people enjoy reading. The measure of this criteria then became significantly clearer:
- Am I proud of the story I have written?
- Did people enjoy reading it?
It might not be possible to quantify all the variables of these two measurements, but my website data (number of views, shares and likes) combined with the anecdotal data (meaningful comments, still being happy with it after reading it four days later, knowing that I applied what I have learned about writing, my levels of satisfaction once I hit the publish button, etc.) have provided me some metrics to measure how I am developing. They also permit me to conduct meaningful reflection within a considered framework.
The Craft of Story Writing
3. Storytelling has a structure. Your job is to hide that from the reader.
So, what are some of these skills and aspects of knowledge around story writing I have been developing? I’ll talk about two in particular. Let’s start with the structure of a story. This TED Talk by Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, WALL-E), called The Clues to a Great Story and corresponding infographic (which I keep stuck to the wall above my writing space in my office) have been instrumental in how I approach the plot-lines of my stories. Before I start writing, I’ll come up with the hero of the story and brainstorm some of their characteristics (age, temperament, confidence level, interests, etc.). From there, I’ll use the infographic to write a list of goals and potential barriers for the character to overcome and where they might end up. It’s very probable that everything will change (#161 – The Tale of a Meeting in the Forest was meant to focus solely on a character drawing a sword from its sheath and evolved into, well, this…), but I always try and remain faithful to the original idea.
While I’m drafting these ideas, I’m making sure the characters and the adventures they are about to undertake “fit” into the world I have created. Though the rules of this imaginary world have never been explicitly exposed to the reader (what is it about this recurring orb, anyway?), its value cannot be underestimated. My creativity cannot thrive in an environment where everything is possible. Creating a world with rules acts like the bumpers in a bowling alley, stopping me from ending up in a story-writing rut where my character has to work far too hard to dig themselves out.
4. Scrap excessive adverbs.
This will not be new advice for most of you. However, learning about when to remove adverbs has had such a powerful impact on my writing that it would be dishonest of me to leave this out.
As a teacher, I have often taught students about the power of ‘Show. Don’t Tell’. After following the white rabbit of writing advice down a YouTube rabbit hole one day, I stumbled across an attempted explanation about Stephen King’s infamous quote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs”, and realised that I had been teaching this skill incorrectly for many years. Many teachers often teach ‘Show. Don’t Tell.’ in the context of adverbs.
Teacher: “Show me how she opened the door.”
Student: “She opened the door slowly.”
Teacher: “Fantastically expressive writing!”
This is in contrast to (and, please forgive me as I assume the role of an elementary school student writing a short story) something along the lines of: Jasmine gripped the door handle, pushing down on it as though were made of a thousand pounds of lead.
I came back to the purpose of this project: To experiment and develop my voice as a writer. So, I write my first story without any “ly” adverbs, Tale #147 – The Tale of What Happened in the Video Arcade. I had a blast writing it, and the next week, I made sure to share my new love of hatred for adverbs with the students. All the while making sure we never tumbled into a world of absolutes by using our adverbs sparingly.
The Joys of Productivity
5. Productivity can be a hobby. And that’s okay.
My name is Gregg Savage and I love productivity apps. OneNote, Todoist, Wunderlust, Things 3, Evernote, OmniFocus, Notion. You name a productivity app, and I have most likely enjoyed countless hours messing with each of its features, comparing them to the methods in David Allen’s seminal book, Getting Things Done, and analysing their strengths and weaknesses. Even though it would take more than a miracle for me to change from my current set up (OneNote and OmniFocus for those interested), I get more excited than a five-year-old on Christmas morning when a new app makes it into the top of the productivity charts in the app store. Investing the precious hours in the day into working a full-time job, spending time with the family, looking after my wellbeing and writing a story every day, means that I am the perfect candidate to become a productivity addict; spending more time in the day capturing, organising and planning rather than doing.
The irony of my hobby was never lost on me, but it has only recently stopped manifesting itself as guilt. Why? Because I’ve learned that great things can happen when you do capture your ideas, organise them into projects and schedule time to unpack those ideas. The important part is to remember that they are a means to an end. I know there is a sub-culture of like-minded individuals out there, and I implore you to not lose sight of your goals.
6. Measure your productivity.
All of these apps are fun to toy around with, but, at some point in the day, I really do have to knuckle down and get some writing done. In that regard, this talk by Scott Hanselman about “scaling yourself” (featuring terrific lines such as, “It turns out if you do nothing at all, you can do it infinitely) introduced me to the world of the Pomodoro Technique. In summary, you work for 25 minutes and have a 5-minute break, meaning that you’re productive for 50 minutes out of the hour. There are some nuances, so I encourage you to do some research, but this concept bolstered my productivity significantly. Stories that would have taken 4 hours to write were now taking 2—2.5 hour, freeing up time for website maintenance, responding to comments, uploading illustrations from my talented illustrator, Alisha Towers, and spending more time with my family. Wouldn’t it be great to keep track of all these minutes I was now spending being productive instead of getting stuck at the end of a sentence and pressing the dreaded alt-tab?
As always, there’s an app for that! Several, in fact. My app of choice? Forest. This is a beautiful app that allows you to grow a forest with one tree being added at the end of each 25-minute session. If you touch your phone while the timer is running, your tree dies. Then you have this single dead tree mocking you every time you check your forest. And you don’t want that. It’s exceptional motivation to help you stay productive and achieve what I call ‘rhythm’ and others call ‘flow’.
7. You have to show up to work every day.
On March 13, 2018, 143 days into this project, my partner, Rachel, was admitted into the Townsville Hospital. I left work early to take her three children to visit her, and we spent as long as we could by her side before visiting hours were over. We were all deeply concerned about Rachel, and there was a lot of organising that needed to be done to ensure a comfortable transition home. It was 10pm by the time I made it through the front door and, emotionally and physically exhausted, I was convinced I wasn’t going to write that night. Then I remembered a saying by infamous daily vlogger, Casey Neistat, that was one of my inspirations for starting this project in the first place: “If you want to succeed here, you have to show up to work every single day.” I fired up the laptop and wrote Tale #143 – The Tale of the Owl and the Mouse.
Let’s reflect on this.
- Did I write and publish a story today? Yes.
- Am I proud of the story I have written? Certainly not from a technical perspective, but I am still proud to have used my knowledge of story structure to create a semi-entertaining plot-line.
- Did other people enjoy reading it? It has received a relatively high number of likes, shares and comments and I know of a few schools that have used it in their lessons on short stories.
After making sure my family were safe and settled, I managed to successfully write a story and I will be forever glad that I did. This is not to mention the numerous dinner invitations I’ve had to decline, the holidays we’ve planned around my stories or battling through colds and cases of flu to write and publish a story every day. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way, so here’s to the next 165 stories!
Thank you to Mandy Hilton and Rachel May for assisting me in putting this piece together.
My name is Gregg Savage and, every night when the house is quiet, I write and publish a free story at dailytales.com.au for you to share and enjoy.
Illustrations by Alisha Towers: FACEBOOK
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.