Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fighting (Non-Writing) Normalcy

Today is the last day of NaNoWriMo. After midnight tonight, any panicked tendency to ignore all responsibilities in the face of impending word counts will be dissolved. Excessive nail biting will abate. Caffeine withdrawals will begin. In short - life can finally return to normal.

If a writer's life is ever normal.

Which brings up the interesting point: how much normal do you want back in your life? Non-writing normalcy, I mean. The kind of normal that gears up and shuts your creative pursuits out.

Yes, I know we're all exhausted at this point, and desperately need a break from writing, at least for a little bit. There are great advantages to a cold read, after all, especially before editing. But this past month of stretching beyond our writing boundaries has really shown WriMos what they're made of, and what they can accomplish, when they jealously guard that daily writing time against countless distractions and demands for our time. Yet we fought off those distractions for a whole month, which begs the question:

Why do this only one month out of the year? 

The answer, as you might expect, is multilayered.

Let's be honest: When you're in the throes of NaNoWriMo, many things fall by the wayside. To squeeze out that minimum 1667 words a day - or more - we have blocked out, dropped, minimized, ignored, or pushed aside many things, and possibly people. Then November 30th rolls around and you realize - as I have - that I am not only exhausted, but there's a pile of responsibility awaiting my attention. There are semester exams to write and papers to grade, and mounting requests for social time from friends and family who are by now feeling a bit neglected.

In that sense, it's a good thing that NaNoWriMo is only once a year. Responsibilities must be dealt with. Family and friends should be cherished and supported while they are among us. We (and I speak to myself most of all, here) should never let our creative pursuits so consume us that we forget to live.

The Flipside:  We obviously can't manage insane word counts every day of our lives; heck, most of us must tap into our inner lunatic just to manage it during  NaNoWriMo. But experience has taught me that if I don't give steady attention to my writing every day (or nearly so), I lose steam. Forget my goals. Lose the thread of my characters and their lives. Forget what prompted me to write in the first place.

My writer's group has come up with a very simple solution to combat the Non-NaNo Doldrums. Some of this is almost juvenile in application, but that's OK. It's what gets the job done.

STEP ONE: 500 words a day. So we can't do a crazy word count every day - but we can manage a small one most days. 500 words is just shy of one typed page, if you use the standard 12 pt font, TNR, single space format. It's just long enough to push you, yet short enough to not be overwhelming. And after a month of striving for 1667+ daily word counts, 500 words is like a walk in the park.

STEP TWO: Annoy yourself with reminders. This is where the juvenile part kicks in. Find some way of branding your environment with reminders of your 500 word goal. In the Y5 (my writer's group), we do this by writing 500! on our non-dominant hand just above the thumb in black Sharpie, so the reminder is always staring us in the face, no matter what we're doing. I've also left post-it note reminders for myself on my bathroom mirror, and programmed alerts on my cell phone for different times during the week.

STEP THREE: Tattle on yourself. If all you do is write post-it notes to yourself for motivation, you won't get very far. The 500! on my hand, I've found, has worked best (at least for me). It not only serves as a constant reminder, but it makes other people ask you what the 500 is all about, and so you're forced to explain yourself. Also, having the Y5 hold me accountable is great. We do this through email and texting, not to mention our writer's meetings during which every member gives an account of their writing progress since the last get-together. When people hold you accountable, you're much more likely to be faithful in the details.

In short:

     * Please - take a break from your writing, at least for a few days.

    *  Pick a day to start back at the 500/day pace.

     * Aim for 500/day about 4x per week.

     * Be flexible with your goals. Make time for life as opportunities come.

If you need to edit? Do that too; only maybe count the time spent instead of words counted. If you know you need to "cut the fluff", then count whether your manuscript was diminished by 500 words. Either way - it's progress; and progress is what we need to get the job done - from frantic fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants wordmongering to a thoughtfully managed, carefully edited and polished manuscript.

What about you? When do you plan to return to your NaNo project?
What's your wordmongering plan during the other 11 months of the year?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Visual Dare: End-of-NaNo Jolt

Alrighty - for those of you who need a last push across the finish line to get your 50K, here's another set of visual dares for you to incorporate into your current manuscript. These are all pretty outside of the box, so pay attention to the details:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Melty Brains

No, this is not a zombie post. Although I feel like a zombie right now.

A good kind of zombie (if there is such a thing).


This has been a big month for me. First I had the honor of winning the "first line" contest at the WriMosFTW! website, and THEN - on Saturday night - I won NaNoWriMo four days ahead of schedule, with a grand total of 51,044 words.

I am SO very pleased...and exhausted. Hence the melty brains reference.

Of course, my NaNo draft is nowhere near finished, let alone in a condition for anyone else to look at. I employed several messy techniques to allow me to stifle my inner editor and push through, so I could get the greatest amount of narrative down during the time allotted to me. Those messy techniques included (but were not limited to):

     * Highlighting "fluff" passages to delete (or heavily edit) later in olive green

     * Highlighting substance that ought to stay, but needs serious reworking, in violent yellow

     * Line breaks between scenes that I wanted to write, but whose transitions just eluded me

All of this will probably be expanded into later blog posts of some sort, but for the moment it's sufficient to say that I am thrilled to be across the 50K finish line, and deeply thankful for all the wonderful writers who encouraged me and entered word wars wtih me, and so helped me win my NaNoWriMo certificate.

Below are the main cohorts who helped me cross that finish line. I've listed their Twitter names so you can find them there. Where possible, I've included links to their blogs. This is my online writing community, and they are all AWESOME.

@emholbert4                           @JamieOehring                         @JennyAdams
@ashviper                                @LillieMcFerrin                      @Redhed_Stepkid
@Love_Kenzie_                       @9inchsnails                            @placesense
@annaavenhoward                 @surlymuse                              @write_me_happy
@jbirchwriter                          @beccajcampbell                      @BettisiTheThird
@wrimosftw                            @LynMidnight                          @jennifergracen
@Jon_Stoffel                          @JasonRunnels                         @raineerose
@writenowcoach                     @MarkLanden                           @saraleggz
@AdrienneDorais                   @SpartaGus                               @zencherry
@lindseyEarcher                     @courtcan                                  @ColleenWrites2
@BerryKitsune                       @WordyWags                            @notashamed87

Thanks to everyone who helped spur me across the NaNoWriMo finish line! 
I hope all of you were equally successful in your writing projects, 
and I hope to see all your hard-won tales in print very soon!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

10 for 4

Things Learned From NaNoWriMo, Week 4:

1. A five day hiatus from writing, plus a weekend holiday with family, really throws off the word count.

2. When you don't type ANYTHING for 5+ days, it's pretty darned difficult to start writing again.

3. Having a writing buddy to alternately heckle or word sprint with you helps a lot.

4. By this point, the favored "soundtrack" for writing is getting a little old. Time for new music.

5. I should have stockpiled more motivational snacks. I am out, and NOW is when I need motivation.

6. By now, I am almost ready for the word sprints to end, so I can do the slow, methodical "sewing up" that allows me to really soak in WHERE I am with the tale.

7. My manuscript is currently full of FLUFF. It's helped me make sense of where I'm going, but a LOT of what I've written won't make the final cut.

8. Right now, the editing stage is starting to look more fun.

9. I just realized that I may well have TWO completed manuscripts before the end of the year. (Whee!)

10. I can't believe I actually kept up with my Impossible Promise, despite having THREE jobs.

How are YOU doing with your NaNoWriMo project??

Friday, November 25, 2011

Plot Problems & Quick (Temporary) Fixes

Hello there! I am enjoying an extended Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family, and am not near my computer today. So please enjoy this reprint of a guest blog I did for the wonderful WriMosFTW! website earlier this week. 

Welcome to the third week of NaNoWriMo! We've indulged in wild, literary abandonment! Hedonistic word abuse! Tangents that turn into plot development!!

It's great, isn't it? Only right now maybe it ISN'T so great. Maybe you are stuck. The how-the-heck-did-I-get-HERE??? kind of stuck.

Yep. Know that feeling well.

The problem with getting stuck in the middle of NaNo is that you're crunched for time. The whole point of NaNo is, after all, to give starry-eyed dreamers a kick in the pants so we will push on, even when we want to spin our wheels and edit, re-edit, polish and tweak Every. Single. Line.  So you barrel on, reminding yourself of that glorious finish line of 50,000 words, and that you can edit to your heart’s content come December. But sometimes you turn a corner and find yourself in a plot tangle that only gets worse the more you write.

Frustrated? Sure you are. Want to fix it? Absolutely. But since this is NaNo, the big, glossy edits come later. But take heart - there is a way to move on ---- even if you have to leave a mental "bookmark" or two for the editing process.

Below I've listed three common plot problems that make ME stop in my tracks, especially now, when I’m so focused on my word count. I've also given my "quick fixes" that allow me to press to the end of NaNo and THEN do the hard edit.

Problem #1: Too Many Characters, or Too Few: These are opposite problems, and neither of them can be fixed mid-NaNo. But you can still pause long enough to see if this is the root of your problem. Don’t be afraid to do it either – determining if you’ve got a problem in this arena will save you a world of hurt later.

Quick FixToo few? Add in the new people as you press on, but make some kind of notation to indicate you've introduced a character that wasn't there before, but ought to have been. (I manage this by putting that character's first appearance in bright red font.)
     Too many characters? Figure out which are your weaker characters, and mentally cut them loose. This will leave your stronger characters to pick up the slack, and they will be even more dynamic and engaging because of it. But don't try to fix your earlier pages now. Wherever you are in the manuscript, hit the enter key a few times to indicate a break from previous plot details, and keep going - but with the revised set of characters. You may even need to leave yourself a clear note about who got axed. Everything up to that point will need adjusting post-NaNo.

Problem #2Murky Plot Points: For me, a "murky plot point" is something that I haven't thought through very well, that is now turning out to be a bigger deal than I thought. In my current project, I knew I needed an underground train. I had no idea it would become so central to the story. Now I realize I need to study up on trains come December. I can’t become a Train Expert just now; but I will.

Quick Fix: When I realize I need technical jargon I just don't have yet, I'll insert some notes in parenthesis and in red (or bold, or all caps) that reminds me of what I need: For example: "Then Finn looked under the train (((and detected some serious problem that stalls the train out for the next two chapters))). Then he turned to..." etc. Since I already have a basic understanding of trains, I'll know that Finn at least needs to go for some parts, which would be conveniently located in a troublesome part of town. Plot moves on. 

Problem #3: Not Thinking Wide Enough? This is a different sort of problem. It doesn't create so much of a writer's block as a moment of realization amounting to: "Oh, CRAP I should have done this four chapters ago! Now what?" If you've hit that sort of snag, you've realized there is some key character, scene, or whole chapter that is missing from your earlier writing, and without it you don't have enough internal scaffolding to bear the weight of your story. But this is NaNo, and you want to press on to where you NOW know the story ought to go.

Quick Fix: Print out the pages you have so far, and quickly scan what you’ve written. In the margins, make plain but simple notes: “Put Anne in this scene.” Or “Needs more cowbell.” Or “’Add chapter about Marv’s POV from the Inner Sanctum”, etc. If you do this while it's fresh on your mind, you’ll not only thank yourself later, but sometimes you’ll pick up on other things that need to be added to the margin notes. (I usually sacrifice a whole evening of NaNo-ing to do this step anyway, even if I feel I’m doing well.) The trick is to not bog down here, and forget to type. Make your notes and move on.

It’s been said that “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” As writers, that is what we ought to remember as we pursue our craft. Your first pass at a rough draft – whether hastily written or no - is going to be just that: ROUGH. But if your tale is worth telling, then it’s worth telling badly - at least during the first pass.

But you’ll get to the ultimate finish line. Of course you will! Because we’re writers, and we know that rough beginnings are always the first step – but never the last.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


It's Thanksgiving today. Where you live, it may be just another ordinary day. But here in the U.S. it's a day of thankfulness, a remembering of blessings hoped for and blessings claimed, of small mercies given and miracles upon which our lives have hinged.

I am thankful for many things: for a Savior who loves me unconditionally; for family and friends who take me as I am, warts and all; for knowing all my basic needs are met and that if I don't have it - it's not necessary. I'm not staring a debilitating illness in the face. The people I love are happy and well.

I am also thankful for all the wonderful readers and writers in my life: the amazing Y5 (my hometown writer's group); my fellow writers who help and encourage me via Twitter and email; the wonderful readers and writers who visit this blog on a regular basis. These are the people who keep my writing skills sharp, who encourage me, who hold me accountable for my dream. I am so grateful for that.

So. Deeply. Grateful.

Next week this blog will return to its regularly scheduled whatever-it-is-that-I-do-here. In the meantime, I hope you all have a wonderful day of thankfulness, wherever you are.

What are you thankful for?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Triple Visual Dare

While I continue my efforts to catch up from my now-five-day hiatus from NaNoWriMo, I've decided to put up another visual dare for my readers - only this time I've put up three photographs, including one from the marvelous Alexy Titarenko.

Choose one, or two, or all three as visual references for some component, character or scene in your NaNoWriMo manuscript.

Think you can't? I think you can.

Heck --- you're a writer. I know you can.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

While I Was Gone...

I'm back from my road trip!!!!! Thanks so much to everyone who continued to check my blog and leave feedback and encouragement during my absence. You guys are wonderful.

As you can imagine, I'm pretty wiped out. Driving 1200 miles in 4 days, plus keeping up with 30 students between the ages of 12 and 17 as we scamper from one historical site to another really puts a girl through her paces. But we got to see some amazing things, had loads of fun, and learned a LOT --- and what more could you want out of a school field trip?

HOWEVER....tired or not, travel-brained or not, I would count myself as no real human being if I didn't take a moment to say a couple of very important things....

First of all - THANK YOU to everyone who voted, and THANK YOU to the marvelous Lyn Midnight and her judges over at the WriMosFTW! website; because guess what - I won first place in the first line contest!!!

This is amazing to me because I never win anything. EVER. Not even the "gag gift" door prize of the 50 lb bag of dog food at the company Christmas party. (Put this in context:  I don't have a dog.) So it was a huge honor to be included in the top 12, let alone to get the most votes overall. Not really sure how that happened, actually....there were some stellar entries!!

Congratulations also goes out to the fantabulous Jenny Adams and the magnificent Regina Grey, who both scored some pretty sweet prizes. Hit them up on Twitter if you haven't discovered them already!!

As for my own prize - it makes me the proud owner of Rochelle Melander's book Write-a-Thon, which is itself an amazing tool for taking my NaNoWriMo project to the next level. I can't wait to get my hands on it! With two working rough drafts and a soon-to-be third, I know this volume of writer-ly insight is just what I need to help me with the next step in my quest to be published.

It's that time again!

But the best part of all this?? I have made some amazing friends. These gals, and others I have met through NaNo (and especially through Twitter) have proven to be the most encouraging bunch of die-hard writers I've ever met. Go check out their websites, and find them on Twitter if you're in that corner of the social networking universe. make tracks with my word count!! Have a great day and keep on writing!!!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nine Days

Barring any snowstorms or shiny distractions, I and my students, plus all the brave chaperones, are now on our way back from our big weekend road trip. I'm typing up this post before the trip itself, but I will say it in good faith based on previous experience: we had a great time, and wouldn't have traded it for anything. I really do have the best students EVER for these sorts of adventures. If you're going to pile into a bus and head off for an interstate road trip --- these are the kids you want for traveling buddies.

As a writer, however, this means I am now four days behind on NaNoWriMo. All you energetic creative types have been blitzing away at the keyboard, adding steadily to your word count, while I've been playing the Pied Piper to my own traveling Hamlin.

And even though I'm typing this well in advance, I know my Future Self well enough to know that I'll be both eager to get back to my manuscript - but also exhausted, and tempted to do nothing but sleep till Thanksgiving.

So do me a favor -- comment here, or email me, or send me a tweet if you're on Twitter, and tell me to get a move on!! We've only got nine days left!!!

ONLY NINE DAYS! Are you ready? How are you doing with your word count?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

6 for 3

Things Learned from NaNoWriMo, Week 3:

1. By November 15th NaNoWriMo feels more like work and less like fun. But it's still fun.

2. More chocolate covered blueberries are needed for motivation though; and the supply is now dwindling.

3. Many people are frustrated enough to quit - but they don't, because of all the amazing other writers who are cheering them on. Writers really are their own cheerleaders.

4. It is not good to write in complete isolation. Find a writer cheerleader if you don't have one!

5. Word sprints with other writers are invaluable when you get stuck in the mid-NaNo doldrums.

6. Goonies never say die.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Road Trippin'

By the time most of my wonderful internet friends read this, I will be crammed into a van with chaperones and students aplenty, on a road somewhere between Here and There, on our big Road Trip 2011. This means that for the next few days I'll be beyond reach of a computer, though I'll still be able to read everyone's witticisms from afar, thanks to smartphone cellular technology.

But I'll be minding the kiddos, so I won't be able to reply until after I get back. So if I don't get to your comment, email, or Tweet right away --- it's because I'm being a responsible teacher person and introducing my students to all kinds of real-time history stuff. But rest assured I'll be burning up the keyboard later with replies when I return.

Meanwhile, here are some more awesome writers whose blogs should not be overlooked:

J N Khoury                                            Kathi Macias                                         Catherine McKenzie
Montgomery Granger                             Jenny Adams                                         Lindsey Archer
John Hansen                                          Gareth Young                                        Mark Landen

Enjoy!! --- and above all, keep on writing!!!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Argotal Acumen

The other day I was celebrating a fabulous word sprint with some other NaNoWriMo die-hards, and one Tweeter asked what I was being so smug about. I told him: "I am celebrating our literary prowess and argotal acumen." He thought that was funny. I'm glad - because usually when I pull that retort out of my hat, most people look at me like I have Brussel sprouts growing out of my nose, or something.

The "argotal acumen" snark is something of an inside joke between me and my dad. He's the one that came up with it - I can't take credit for it. But it's our little catchphrase for any smart use of higher vocabulary that we somehow, amazingly, manage to pull off in a quasi-normal sentence.

You know - something you drop into conversation just to see if your audience is still paying attention.

I do this all the time with my students. I'm always dropping odd words into my history lecture, very specific words with extremely specific meanings, just to see if they are paying attention. After fifteen years of teaching school, I can pretty well gauge by their expressions if they caught it or not. Whether they're confused by it, or are actively sifting out the context clues and filing it away for later use - I can pretty much tell they heard it (and how they're responding to it) by the look in their eyes. Sometimes they ask me to define words, but I rarely do - and never flat out; I just give them more examples. Sooner or later they piece things together...usually sooner.

This is a good thing to keep in mind as you write - or rather, as you edit. With every novel there comes a need, in some form or fashion, for a kind of specialized vocabulary that your average reader may or may not know. The trick is to:

     * Drizzle in specific information gradually. In his book On Writing, Sir Thomas Arthur Quiller-Couch said that readers are like large, narrow-necked bottles - capable of holding a tremendous amount, if you have the patience to drizzle in the information a little at a time. Be sure you don't strangle your readers with vocabulary overload.

     * Be certain that your vocabulary is appropriate for the work. Don't make it sound like an owner's manual, and don't go so prosey that you lose the narrative amidst your quest for sensual or textural details. There is a place for both, but either can be horrendously overdone.

     * Sometimes it's the combination of words, not the specificity, that works best. Maybe you could get very technical about the mechanisms in the uber-villain's laboratory; but for a wider audience consider using your specific knowledge to masterfully manipulate more ordinary words in unusual combinations.

     * Make sure that your super-cool vocabulary actually furthers the story. Do we really need to know about the uber-villain's machine? If it is central to the plot, then - by all means, give us the details. If it's just a background example of the kind of wickedness we can expect from the villain, then generalize more. Just don't lose sight of your overall goal.

Again --- for those of you hip-deep in your NaNoWriMo efforts just now, this is something that will be attended to after November draws to a close. Vocabulary tweaks are best managed in the editing stage, anyway. But it's still worth noting at the composition stage, because it is when you're doing a long, hard brain dump that you set the tone for things that come afterward - not only in your plot, but in how and what you should edit.

Of course the rough draft will be rough - as ugly as a warthog's backside. They always are. But thinking through such semantic rules beforehand, even in the midst of the wordmongering battle, will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

Am I the only one who continually wrestles with this aspect of writing? What about you?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Visual Dare

Photo taken by Jerry Uelsmann
Photo discovered via website Black and White.

Yesterday was the midway point for NaNoWriMo. Many of you have pushed through your difficult passages in just the last 24 hours. But if you're still stuck....

.....then I double-dog-dare-you to include Uelsmann's amazing photo in your story somewhere. I can totally use the idea in mine, even though I'm not exactly there yet in the narrative.

But I'm plotting. Oh, I'm plotting.....

Incidentally, check out the Black and White website if you haven't yet. There are tons of photos to stir the visual imagination...which is what writers often need in order to wrap their mind around a detailed concept.

Put a funky tree-house in yours. Or go to the Black and White site for another idea.

I double-dog-dare-you.

Can you picture this in your story?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Never Say Die!

Never say die! We're only halfway through the adventure!!!
Photo still from the movie Goonies (1985)

Today is the 15th of November - and we are halfway through NaNoWriMo!

Are you fed up yet? Stuck? Ready to kill off all your characters due to their inherent stupidity? Wondering if you should eat all your writing snacks and just forget the writing?

I totally understand the frustration. NaNoWriMo is all euphoria and cool snacks and lots of fun snarking on Twitter....for about the first four days or so. Then it's still fun, but fun that you have to work in around real life as the daily pressures mount up.

Around the end of the second week is when things get tough.

The honorable Chris Baty tweeted the other day to push through the 20Ks as quickly as possible, because once you reach the 30K, you're over halfway there and the psychological push to win NaNo isn't quite as toxic. He certainly has a very good point - and he should. As one of the founders of NaNoWriMo, he's been through this a few times.

So --- this is when all you writing goonies out there need to pull together, stare up the wishing well to the starry sky of the endangered Astoria, and shout 'GOONIES NEVER SAY DIE!!!"

We're only halfway through the adventure, after all. You gonna leave One Eyed Willie (or whatever your as-yet-undisclosed plot twist) in permanent pirate purgatory like that?

Of course not. Because you're a writing goonie. And Goonies NEVER say die (or kill off their masterpiece).

And to get you back in the groove of literary composition - here's a fun link that a friend shared with me a while back. I had to download this from iTunes, I love it so much. But note: If you're at work, or in a house with sleeping people, put in the ear buds or else watch the volume - they start rocking out around 0:50.

Enjoy!! And above all ---- keep on writing!!!!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Iron vs Ivory

Lemony Snicket, tracking down the Baudelaires

I love Lemony Snicket.

No, really - I do. I am of the firm opinion that his Series of Unfortunate Events is really adult therapy masquerading as children's cautionary tales, a big ol' slice of wisdom posing as sound and fury. I love the dark yet heartfelt irony with which he infuses his observations on life, and how he makes me laugh even during the darkest moments of his tales. Anyone who rejects the books on the grounds of them being "too depressing" obviously hasn't caught the full breadth of the series.

In a few of his books, he makes some lovely backhanded comments about authors and their tendency to stay holed up in ivory towers. I always laugh when I come to these references, because he's snarking at his own profession when he says such things. But in an offbeat way, he is very much spot on.

An ivory tower....or something like it.

An "ivory tower", of course, is figurative language for the personal happy space of someone so wrapped up in ideas that they can't be bothered to spend much time - if any - among mere mortals. Look through history - or even a random shelf of books in your own house - and you can probably turn up a whole list of authors who have done just that: - stayed in their own little cloister, writing their masterpiece, while Real Life slides past them. Some of these writers made their separation from the mundane everyday a point of pride (such as Marcel Proust). Others wrote while in forced isolation (John Bunyan and Dietrich Bonhoeffer both wrote their master works in prison), and still others were so fearful of criticism (Harper Lee) or blatantly defiant of public opinion (J D Salinger) that they withdrew behind a self-imposed veil from which they have yet to emerge.

Interestingly, both Lee's and Salinger's prize winning novels - both published to great acclaim by the early sixties - are their only novels to date. Both of them are still alive, though elderly, and with no hint of a second novel forthcoming, unless it be posthumously.

But therein lies the problem with the Ivory Tower Syndrome. Even if you are a literary genius and can imitate  real life in a prose that blows your readers away, it's not likely to happen again if you live by the standard of shunning almost all but the most immediate company. (Perhaps it is unfair to lump Lee into that category; though Salinger certainly does belong.)

Ivory Towers mean isolation. It removes you from all the nonsense, but it also cuts you off from your best source of writing inspiration - the muddled, complicated, drama-trauma of every day life with real, living, irritating, spontaneous people.

Iron spears, best sharpened against each other.

Perhaps the better pattern for an aspiring writer - or even a published one - is to take a verse or two from Proverbs to heart and accept that a friendship of  "iron sharpening iron" is far better, certainly if you wish to write in such a way that deeply stirs your readers - connects with them - allows them to live through layers of life, and all through the words you've presented on the page.

It's the other side of great noveling, belonging to those writers who wrote alongside other writers. They formed literary groups - usually very small, within the key range of five to seven people - and met to discuss, share, talk, critique and exhort one another to new levels of masterful writing. Giants in this arena would be The Bloomsbury Group (which included E M Forester and John Maynard Keynes*), and The Inklings (which included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis). In both cases people of similar but not identical passions came together and talked through their ideas, both literary and otherwise, and drew from that collective energy when drafting their next work. Perhaps they could have written in isolation, and it might have even been masterful writing; but they preferred to work with accountability - and it shows in the content and tone of their work.

(*Obvious note: Keynes was not a novelist; but I also doubt that he would have produced such in depth economic theories while cloistered in Proust's cork-lined soundproofed room.)

Of course, some of you are reading this and thinking of all sorts of exceptions to both sides of the argument.

And, whatever your argument --- you're right.

I know you're right even without asking you, because writing - and how we approach it - is really as varied as the individual. No two writers carve up the proverbial elephant the same way. We can cloister ourselves and write about our idea of life; or we can write shoulder-to-shoulder with kindred spirits within the everyday. But we can also work on our project within any one of countless variations between those two extremes.

Personally I think the Inklings and the Bloomsburians got it right. We ought to work within sight of each other at least, and with people who will hold us accountable to being readable, reachable and relevant. I've done it both ways, and can honestly say that writing in staunch isolation - always separated from all accountability - just does NOT work for me. I would encourage anyone who writes to find a likeminded group of tale-spinners and meet at least once a quarter, to sharpen iron against and iron, and see what comes of the collaboration. The results may well surprise you.

Or it might not. It might actually be the very thing you've been looking for all along.

What do you think?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

8 for 2

Things Learned from NaNoWriMo, Week 2:

1. Word sprints are treble the fun when racing alongside other nutzo, coffee-infused WriMos.

2. Sprints with fellow WriMos can result in daily word counts of 4000 or better.

3. The soundtrack to The Village is excellent writing music - especially if you've never seen the movie.

4. The Alice in Wonderland analogies come in very handy when explaining tricky plot points to someone.

5. Fellow WriMos are just the people with whom to share my offbeat literary humor. Because we're all strange in practically the same way. :-)

6. Chocolate covered blueberries are STILL the best motivational snack. Ever.

7. If you let your characters tell on themselves, it really cuts down a lot of the "fluff narrative", which is nice when you're blitzing at 29487293784 words per parsec.

8. I love it when people post their #nanolines on Twitter. Amazing what falls out of some people's heads...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Word Counts and Cohorts

Any other WriMos feeling like they're in a big pool of gibberish right now? Yeah, me too.

But it's fun gibberish. It's gibberish I can work with. Working on a sequel to an as-yet-unpublished novel, I actually have some momentum behind me. I'm getting into the next layer of personalities and conflicts, and laying the groundwork for many more layers of relationships and conflicts yet to come. It's fun, even if it is a bit messy.

As of right now (Wednesday evening) I am sitting at roughly 17,700 words, and that's with taking Monday off entirely, due to juggling so many of my jobs within the confines of one day. But I'm still ahead of schedule, and my messy-gibberish sequel is oozing together o so nicely.

Yes, I did describe my writing using the verb "ooze."

I say "ooze" because there are parts of my current work that belong in my first project; and I've realized there were some things I put in the first project that belong in my NaNo manuscript. So it's a bit like playing the shell game, only everything is a lot more squishy, and nothing really stays contained. So there's a lot of scooping and scraping as I move things around, and a great deal of tailoring to be done if the pieces are to fit in their new location and actually make sense.

"Word ooze" isn't the only great thing to come out of the past ten days of NaNoWriMo, however. Through the wonderful world of Twitter I have discovered even more writers whose works and/or blogs deserve a closer look.

Not all of the names listed below are participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but these are all savvy writers with a lot of pertinent, constructive, informative things to say - about writing, books, marketing, or general musings about the writer's life. Many are published authors with novels available for your reading pleasure. The rest of them will be, at some point. Check out their blogs and bookmark them - you'll want to go back.

J Birch                                                       LMStull                                                  Kristen Lamb
Matthew Wright                                        Lady Antimony                                       Lillie McFerrin
Surly Muse                                               Suzanne Leder                                        C A Kendrick

Got any other blogs you think I ought to check out? Send them my way!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Social Tangles

When I started this blog over a month ago, I knew what my general goal was: to build a "platform." Never mind the fact that building a platform for a fiction writer who isn't published yet is a bit nebulous, or that marketing yourself while trying to complete/polish/query said manuscript is more than a bit daunting.

OK. Not merely daunting. Terrifyingly daunting.

Part of the headache that newbies like me face is the whole social networking tangle. I've read a lot of articles that encourage would-be authors to connect into every possible social network - Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and goodness knows who else. (I admit, I don't know them all.)  Others recommend you pick two of the "Big Three" - Twitter, Facebook and Google+ - and really work those.

If that's the case, then I'm afraid I"m the new caveman on the block. When I decided to ratchet up my publishing aspirations, my first decision was to shut down my Facebook entirely, and deliberately avoid Google+. I decided that I only had time for ONE social network, and Twitter was the tool that best fit my networking needs.

In the weeks since making that decision, I feel that I've been proven right. With multiple jobs, multiple manuscripts on tap, plus needing to maintain some semblance of a normal (read: non-computer related) social life, Twitter more than fills up my social networking niche, and then some. Honestly, I did not have any idea at the outset of how intricate Twitter would be. For something that supposedly is as simple as managing status lines, I had no clue it could be so complex, and push my networking capabilities into such remarkable quadrants. Already I have made some amazing connections with published authors, agents, editors, and people like me who are navigating the murky waters of determined would-be authors.

But it takes time and energy to keep the social networking wheel turning - even if you're only working with one. Since late September, my internet time has revolved around a careful triangle of blogging, email and Twitter. Already it has become a dance. When to Tweet and put myself out there. When to be quiet and just scan, read, think about what I'm seeing. The whole hashtag dance, which is in some ways is its own coded language, but a great networking tool if you know how to tap into it. It's a whole other world.

And then, yesterday, I was introduced to Klout.

Klout adds a whole other dynamic to the social networking thingy. So far as I understand it, it's an online "pulse check" that measures your social networking influence. It's a nifty little gizmo, but yet another item that could rapidly swallow more time. One more thing to obsess over. More internet time that truly, honestly, ought to be spent on my writing.

Of course, Klout wants me to "add in" Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and every other social network it assumes I'm participating in (which I'm not). If I did do all of those things - heaven help me. I'd be obsessively checking it twenty times a day. Yet another reminder of how glad I am that I picked one and am sticking with it.

Where does this take me? I'm not really sure. I have a hunch that this is a topic I'll be blogging on again in the future, as it is a journey that is still unfolding for me. It's a double edged sword:
     *  time consuming, but it gets your name out there;
     *  promotes your work, but smacks at times of selling yourself out;
     *  gets public response to new ideas, but worrisome in regards to copyright and idea protection;

.....and so on. Kinda makes a person wonder if you started eating the whale from the right end.

This is where I'm hoping I get some feedback from blog readers....where do you 
stand on the social networking thing? How much is too much? What's your ulterior motive 
for social networking? Pitfalls? Benefits? I am ALL ears.

Let me know what you think!!!!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Forming Character(s): Part II

So last week we talked about how it was a bad idea to pattern your characters after specific people in your life. We looked at how....

     * the world is much bigger than the slice we see
     * real people might not respond the way the fictional character needs to respond
     * using real people puts you in the crosshairs for lawsuits
     * using real people puts you on a double operating table when the professionals get a hold of your story

So we know we can't pattern our characters exactly after the people we personally know. How, then, does a writer form imaginary characters who are still relatable, dynamic, even real?

Learn to love people-watching. One thing I notice about avid writers (whether published or not) is that they usually list "people-watching" as one of their favorite pastimes. There are good reasons for this. When you do any amount of intense people-watching, you begin to see all sorts of quirky details in how humans in general respond to each other. To their environment. To whatever new stimulus is pinging at them through their iPod or iPhone or computer or book. That's when you cull all sorts of interesting textures with which to "flesh out" your characters: nervous habits, facial tics, logistics of dealing with [odd clothing, multiple packages, disabilities, small children, or anything else with which you may personally be unfamiliar]. Because you are not personally attached to the strangers you're watching, you have a more objective view of them and the things they do.

Learn to have a well-disciplined mulitple personality. I am of the firm opinion that every author writes a little bit of themselves into every character they create. That is certainly true of me. If you should pick up (as one day, I hope you will) a copy of my book, you need to understand that there is at least a sliver of the real Angela in every hero, villain, stooge, sidekick, and good Samaritan. As a writer, we must constantly get into the head of our characters - ALL of them. We need to know why the stooge is dull witted, why the sidekick is so loyal, what makes the good Samaritan go out of his way for the outcast, and why the villain imagines himself justified in whatever nastiness he's up to. This means tapping into your inner idiot, your inner Samwise Gamgee, inner do-gooder, and inner villain - even if that's a part of you that (you think, anyway) isn't actively used.

Learn to take a "pulse check" by the people you know. This is going to sound a little contradictory at first to last week's character installment, but hear me out. There is, in fact, a time when you DO want to check your characters by people you know. Notice I said check, not pattern. For reasons given last week, we don't want to pattern our characters exactly by a real person; but sometimes we do need to refer to a specific template to get an idea of how near the mark we are (or aren't) with one or more of our characters. Since I do not have children, I am constantly taking note of the children in my life to see what is and isn't typical for children of a certain age. This is especially important since the main character in my current manuscript begins his adventure when he's about eight years old. But he's a composite picture of several eight-year-old boys in my life, and not just one. It makes my main character a very quirky, well-rounded character that (according to my beta readers) makes for a very precocious, dynamic, and believable kid.

What about you?? How do you "flesh out" believable characters on the page?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Miraculous Freak of (Writing) Nature

One of the biggest blessings of my writing life is belonging to a small, close-knit group of lunatics who share my passion for writing. We have spent the last three years feeling out how to best share/review each other's manuscripts, as well as what assuredly does NOT work. We share our triumphs and losses, mourn the passing of untimely snuffed characters, and circulate any information/inspiration that would further all five of us in our efforts to become published authors.

This past weekend, during our annual five hour NaNoWriMo "blitzkrieg" session, we decided to do something new - at least for us. It was an idea we had tossed around before, but this past Saturday was when the writing muses cooperated, and we went for it.

We decided to play Writer's Roulette.

We settled on the couches with our laptops, set the timer for ten minutes, and started a story. When the timer went off, we all moved to the laptop on the left, and read what had been put down so far, making sure we were well versed in whatever story we were adding to before we started. Then we set the timer for another ten minutes, and added to the already-started story in front of us.

Timer went off. Switch laptops again. Read up to the ending point. Set timer. Begin again.

Several curious yet vitally important observations came out of this little exercise, not the least of which was the fact that all five of us go in for very different literature. It was reflected in our story topics:

 * A girl in kindergarten keeps her monopoly of boyfriends and best friends, until the new kid, Robert, shows up at school.
* A bride in black is brought to her midnight wedding, where everyone is dressed in red or purple and no one is happy about the occasion. 
* A girl runs through the jungle with a makeshift spear, pursuing someone while yet someone else is pursuing her.  
* A boy tells, in a series of flashbacks, what brought him up to a point of sudden death.
* A girl in the hospital waits and watches as her nurse prowls the windows, waiting for the imminent danger that is soon to come.
bride in black

Each story beginning was interesting as they reflected the various genres or narrative styles we're each naturally drawn to. What we didn't expect was that, as we moved from laptop to laptop, we couldn't tell where one person ended and the next person had picked up. In short, we knew each other so well after three years that we were able to write in the general voice of the person who started it, and keep it in the same general vein of what we thought that person was originally going for, while giving our section our own distinct flair. It was rather creepy, once we realized this - and very exciting; because it showed that we could all get out of our own "writing comfort zone" when we liked.

(Incidentally, only one of the stories completely derailed, and in rather hilarious fashion. The midnight wedding began well, but when I added on to it I got the colors between the bride and groom sides reversed, which I guess was pretty significant. Then the next girl lost track of another detail, and so on. The end result was that we started with a Gothic midnight wedding, and ended with the bride and groom disappearing into an alternate reality while the congregation sent out for pizza delivery. Not exactly what the original author had envisioned!)

The big surprise, however, was the jungle story. We had worked on all the stories in ten minute bursts; so with the pre-reading needed at the beginning of each session, we had only an hour invested in the exercise at most. We took turns reading the results aloud to one another, and trying to guess who wrote which part. The Black Bride jumped the tracks early on, with hilarious effect; the hospital, flashback and kindergarten stories were off to a great start, and could possibly grow to novelette length, given the right attention. But the jungle story blew us away. As our fellow writer - the one who had been last to add on to the jungle story - finished reading it to us, we all realized.... was a complete story. COMPLETE. Nothing else need be done to it.

Oh sure, there's probably a couple of slight wording choices, a grammatical tweak here and there, to be managed; but that's small potatoes. The story arc, character development, drizzling of pertinent details about the situation, building of tension, climax, resolution - it was all there.

We sat around and scratched our heads, wondering if we had just witnessed the birth of a miracle, or a freak of nature. I'd say it was a little of both. It proved to us several things:

* It is a good thing to write outside your "comfort zone" now and then. Two of our group prefers writing in first person, two of us prefer third person. The fifth prefers impressionistic short story writing which can employ either point of view; but she also prefers more realistic writing, whereas the rest of us aim for the adventurous or fantastical. This means that all of us had to switch perspectives or genres at least twice. We all moaned and said "What the heck am I supposed to do with THIS?" at least twice. But then we pushed on, and we got through it. Moreover, it was all valid storytelling - even the time-warping Gothic wedding pizza party.
* Knowing a diverse group of writers is a great way to strengthen your weak areas. None of us would have progressed much as individual writers, if we'd kept only to the company of those who wrote exactly like ourselves. By putting ourselves out there with a common group who automatically scrutinize (graciously and thoughtfully, of course) what you do, it's made us sharper at defending our own work, but also taking constructive criticism. It's also enabled us to think differently in unusual and unexpected ways, especially as pertains to our writing.
* Sometimes you need a deliberate break from your current project, even if it's only momentary. During our Writer's Roulette exercise, we each typed about 1700 words - the average daily goal for a NaNoWriMo participant. And it was 1700 words that couldn't bolster our overall word count. What we each found, however, was that in returning to our own project after our "experiment", we were suddenly able to break through whatever nagging issue we were facing with relative ease. Inevitably the nagging problem was in our weakest area, an area that had been subtly addressed by playing Musical Laptops for an hour.

 The point is, of course, that as a writer you should never insist on always doing things just one way, and alone. We came to the meeting determined to buffer our NaNo word count by thousands; we ended up putting most of our energies into something else entirely. By mutual agreement, we were all thrown into the deep end of the pool, and we found out that we could swim - better, and under stranger conditions than any of us thought.

That's why we, as writers, need each other. None of us can improve in isolation. EVER. We need to sharpen each other, encourage each other, and sometimes even shove each other (graciously, and in love). That's when the dream starts to become a reality - and our writing transforms into that miraculous freak of nature we all want. You can have that, too.

Just don't go it alone. Write, and write what only you can write - but do it in tandem with those who will work alongside you, and never let you off the hook.

Do you have a writer's group? What are your thoughts 
on collaborating and commiserating with other writers?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

5 for 1

Things learned from NaNoWriMo, Week 1:

1. If no one calls or texts you after 9pm you can get a lot of writing done.

2. You know you're with the cool kids when mentioning NaNo elicits an avalanche of "Me too!" comments.

3. Setting the kitchen timer for 20 minutes and then typing like a maniac really buffers the word count.

4. Fellow WriMos are the best cheerleaders EVER, especially when they're unleashed on Twitter.

5.Chocolate covered blueberries are excellent motivational snacks.

Next big update will be Monday, November 7th. See ya then -- and if you're in the US, don't forget the time change! We get an extra hour's typing in this weekend, woo!!

Friday, November 4, 2011


The first week of NaNoWriMo is almost over! As of typing this post (late Thursday evening) I am sitting at about 7200 words, so I'm feeling pretty good about the whole thing so far. Plus I get to see my writer's group on Saturday for several hours, during which we are determined to do multiple word blitzes, talk about our current projects, dream big dreams, eat tons of food, and indulge in more than the FDA-recommended allowance of maniacal laughter and world domination plans.

So.....a typical writer's meeting. Yeah.

I hope all of you fellow writers are having equal success (or better) with your manuscripts, and that you have a regional NaNo meeting, or a local writer's group or something, that you can tap into to sharpen your focus and add to your word count. If you don't, you should check out some of the wonderful NaNoConfederates who live online. The following blogs are run by people who are actively participating in NaNoWriMo and whose websites I found intriguing, with lots of stuff to read and think over and cull through. Some of them are published authors, some of them are "not yets" like me; but they are all worth a closer look:

Write Me Happy                       The Daily Dose                          Lawrence Pearce                   
Liz Holbert                                Jason Runnels                          The Wild Pomegranate   
The Four Part Land                  Musings from the Slush Pile      Fly Casual

Like what you saw? Great. Want to find more blogging and writing greatness from WriMos across the web? Then go visit the hub of all the amazing NaNoNetworking at Lyn Midnight's site WriMosFTW! You'll find all manner of fellow WriMos networking there, plus a wealth of NaNo-centric information, writing tips and contests.

Now go add to your word count!! The month is still young....

But before you go, tell me - how are YOU doing with your NaNoWriMo endeavors?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Forming Character(s): Part I

When I first fancied myself as a writer - oh, way back in middle school, or thereabouts - I did what most beginning writers do: I populated my stories with my friends. I was rather insistent on this point, even if I had the subtlety to give them a different name (which I rarely did). It was a nice enough idea at the time and, I guess, in itself a necessary transition point. On some level, every artist must continually wrestle with what it truly means to draw from life and infuse it into your creation, whether it be a painting, sculpture, pottery, poetry, music or literature. How do you create something that is not only interesting, but relevant and inspiring?

You draw from life - or so they say; and it's true, to a point. But only to a point.

The world is bigger than the part you've seen. Never forget this. It doesn't matter if you're a world traveler or a hobbit who's never been outside of the Shire - none of us have seen more than a corner, a mere sliver of the world. You have not seen all there is to see, known all there is to know, and you certainly have not met all the myriad kinds of people in this world. Neither have I. Even current access to movies and television cannot grant us the wealth of possibilities that your imagination could supply. Yes, reality is a beginning point - but then what?

The people you know might not react the way your characters need to react in your tale. I know many brave, even courageous people in my life; but faced with the kind of things I put my characters through, most would probably run away screaming. While I certainly look to specific people to get an idea of how someone might act in a given set of circumstances, it's a bit skewed because neither I nor the person in question really know what they'd do when the crisis happens. You think you know, but it's only a guess, at best. But in your tale you've got to know - you're the author! Part of that author-ly responsibility means knowing when to twist your characters arms, and make them act a certain way - so long as it's within the boundaries of who they are. As the author, it's up to you to determine those boundaries, as well as the response.

Putting real people in your story is not only a good way to get sued, but to get fish-slapped by a potential agent/publisher. I saw this in an article online a couple weeks ago, where the agent made the point that if you put your sweet five year old daughter into the story, what are you going to do when the publisher thinks the child ought to die at the end? Or that the best friend (that you love so dearly) is too saccharine, or a downright drudge? Then you get double the emotional suckerpunch for the price of one character. Ouch.
     Oh - and that whole getting sued thing? For exploitation, defamation of character, etc?
     Yeah. That should be common sense by now. Goes without saying.

Want to know how TO craft dynamic fictional characters? Tune in next week for Part II.

(Yes, I know this is evil of me - but it is only three days into NaNoWriMo.
I need all the buffer space I can get with the updates!)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Current Fun Reads: The Not-So-Cerebral

So last week I did a post on current "fun reads" I keep on my nightstand or at the top of my Kindle queue; and after it went live I realized that three of the four books were ones that I've read multiple times over the years, just because I love them so much. Additionally, the fourth book was the only truly "fun read" that had nothing to do with school.

So today I'm going to change things up and divulge my guilty reading pleasures - again, those that I keep near at hand by my favorite reading chair, or at the top of my "this is just for me" Kindle queue. Not only that - but these are all books I am reading for the first time, and not my usual pattern of re-reads.

I picked up a used copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the local library book house a couple years ago. Even for a book nerd like me, it's a daunting size - 1024 pages of Gothic magical goodness, with the kind of crisp, watertight, complex storytelling you'd expect if Charles Dickens teamed with Jane Austen to rewrite the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.
     Really. It's THAT good.
     The only thing about this book is, because of its intricate and expertly woven storylines, this is not the sort of book you can put down for a couple weeks, pick it back up, and be back in the groove of things at once. It requires a bit of effort on the part of the reader to keep all the wonderful characters and slithering storylines straight. If you're up for a magical tale that requires a bit of stamina on your part - jump on in. Deep or not, the water in this pool is just fine. :)

Okay, so I lied. There's at least one cerebral read on this week's list, and this one is it. The Picture of Dorian Gray is by Oscar Wilde, the same quirky, irreverent Victorian mind that crafted my favorite stage play ever: The Importance of Being Ernest. But I include this book among my "fun reads" because - although I will add this book to my list of novels to teach next year - right now I'm reading it for the sheer enjoyment. Of course, it's obviously a dark tale, and Henry Wotton's every sentence is lifted straight out of the Enlightenment philosophers - so much so that his monologues are amusingly terrifying (or terrifyingly entertaining, however you choose to see it) - but the plight of Dorian Gray is so fascinating that I cannot put the book down. Thank you, Oscar Wilde - you've done it again.

Before Harry Potter, it was Madeleine L'Engle's book A Wrinkle in Time that sent up a howl of controversy. I never read the book growing up - so I am now. It is a tale that was definitely penned before it's time; but I'm not really sure that I can confidently put it square in the "like" category yet. But the tesseract idea is intriguing, and the trio of children are engaging (I'm especially partial to the brilliant Charles Wallace), and I have no clue where she's taking this yet - so I'm in it for the whole ride. Will give another two cents on this one when I finish.

The Tale of Despereaux is one of those books that took me by surprise - even before I read it. It seemed impossible that the story of a cutesy-wootsie mouse would take readers by storm; I mean, hadn't Stuart Little already "been there, done that?" - and a good deal earlier in the publishing world? Still, I heard enough about Despereaux (even before there was a movie) that when I finally had a few extra brain cells to spare, I downloaded it onto my Kindle. O my, but I am loving this mouse. I am also loving DiCamillo's sweet-yet-ironic narrative voice, that keeps the tale from being either too saccharine or sarcastic. Still eagerly waiting to see what happens next (no, I haven't seen the movie and no, please don't spoil it for me), which is the highest compliment I think anyone could pay any author.

What are your "fun reads" right now?