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Guest Post: A House of Prose, and Don’t be The Lauren

Everyone’s a critic.

When you ask for an opinion from someone on something you’ve done, what you’re secretly asking is ‘do you like this?’ And you secretly want them to like what you’re showing them. It’s the author’s curse; we want to be published, but we need to write something that people can relate to enough to want to buy.

The underpinnings of our society dictate that we have to ‘get along’, ‘be liked’, and ‘hold approval.’ Popular people are who we hear about; unpopular people are spoken about derisively or with hatred sometimes.

Books and writing our expressions of our writer’s soul. It is the innermost child (..or occasional lurking adult) seeking the light of day and the likes of others.

We pick our genre, the one we feel the most at home with, and we decorate the house of our novel home with the things that belong there. A family of characters, or a single person looking out the windows. A bunch of good-natured or mean neighbors to challenge the family. And then there are the things that try and burn the house down or break in and steal their stuff.

I say it’s a house here because the analogy is apt to me; we ‘live’ in the space of our novel when it’s going good, and then when it’s done, we do our best to spruce it up and invite guests to come visit.

I’ve lived in a few places over the years; that first moment when someone new sees my new place they always look around. Form impressions. Some of them look at the things I have on the walls, some of them look at my knickknacks, some of them look at my furniture, and a few of them poke their head in the bedroom.

“Nice place.” they say. Whether they’re being polite or not, I don’t know. But then again, I live in a rental, so it’s not a house I can do a lot of decoration with. I’ve been in a few houses that I’ve said, ‘this is a gorgeous place.’ I have things that I want in my house, so when I see one of those things, I appreciate it.

Now apply that idea back to books again.

Some folks can write an amazing epic tale that grabs you from the get go; some folks write a ramshackle tale that barely holds itself together; you can see the holes in the plot like you notice crayon marks or holes in the walls.

It is not a reflection on the owner/author; it is all about the _everything_ in the house/novel, rather than the bits that you notice that stick out to you.

I’ve got a friend that I’ll call Lauren. She wanted to be a writer, because I was one. She participated in the NaNoWriMo, because I did, and people really liked my first novel.

When she read it, the first thing she asked was, “Is this about you? Is that character there me?”

(The answer was no and no. Because I am not a six foot tall efficiency expert who drives a convertible.)

Then she started poking holes in the novel. Pointing out typos, a half-finished sentence here and there, that sort of thing.

“I know.’ I said, defensively. “It’s a first draft. Thanks.”

When she won NaNo for the first time, she gave me her first effort at writing a full length novel. Asked me what I thought.

It was a pretty good tale, but she got lost in the weeds when she hit Week 3 and there were two very similar characters that I kept getting mixed up, and there was another point where she was missing parts of the description because she was in what I call ‘fugue state’ — you can see the action in your head, and it’s rushing fast, but she didn’t put it all down on the page.

“Did you want me to make edits or did you just want an opinion?”

“Just an opinion. I know my writing sucks.”

“I liked it. It had some good suspense elements, and your heroine is genuinely likable. Your supernatural elements are solid, too. And your writing does not suck.”

“Do you think I could get it published?”

“I think it needs some work before you can get there. There are some elements that need more details, and your ending is a bit rushed. I’d like to see more of the world, too.”

“You hate it.” she said.

“No, I don’t hate it. It’s good! It’s a first draft and I like what I see here. That’s the nature of the Nano — nobody ever produces a perfect first draft, but the Nano makes you actually finish that first draft. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have finished it.”

Later, I heard she’d shared it with some of her other friends, with the additional rider comment that she felt I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was good enough to get published. Of course, she was giving it to friends who liked her as a person, and since she had predetermined for them that she was looking for praise, not critique, by way of ‘Friend didn’t like it, I’m hoping you will’ — she was told what she wanted to hear, rather than the truth. And when one of her friends, who is usually bluntly honest, said that it was ‘scattered and disorganized’, Lauren was done showing people. The manuscript went somewhere dark and never saw the light of another person’s eyes again, for fear of disapproval.

She tried her hand at writing the sequel the next year, because like many first time successful novelists, they still have a story left to tell. And it’s easier to work within an existing world than it is to spin up a brand new one.

But she got sick the first week, and stopped writing, and because she was a week behind, she gave up. This was the same year I wrote 100K words in the month.

She hasn’t attempted the Nano since.

For me, the NaNoWriMo is one of my life’s passions. I’ve done it every year for the past twelve. I talk about it a lot. Whenever I’m with friends or family, and I bring up the idea of Nano and they like the idea and are impressed with someone who can write that much in that little time, none of them really ask, ‘Yes, but are they good novels?’ If they do, or they ask when I’m getting published, I just grin and say, “I’m still working on that part. It’s a first draft, and a story that needs to be told, and one of these years I’ll like something enough to edit it and try and get it published. But it’s great practice and a grand adventure that I willingly take every year.”

They are invariably encouraging.

Lauren, if she’s also present, frequently jumps into the conversation with the “Hey, I wrote for the Nano too…” (Subtext: I want some of the positive attention you’re getting.)

“Oh cool!” is the response. “What are you writing this year?”

“Oh, I’m not likely to. I did it once about six years ago.” she says. “I have a bunch of good ideas, but I don’t have the time.”

Predictably, that means the focus goes back to me shortly after, because I have Ideas and Advice and Encouragement That You Should Play This Year. Nano is my passion, and I believe everyone should play at least once — if not more than once — because everyone has that lurking story in the back of their heads, triumphs, troubles,tasks, thoughts, tribulations, trout that traversed the trawler’s tail temporarily, those things. Tall tales. Truth, too.

At the end of one of those days, Lauren asked, “How come they never acknowledge me as an author like they do you? Do I suck that badly?”

“You didn’t show them your work.” I said. “You can’t know that they won’t like it until you show them, and the people you showed all liked it.”

“You didn’t like it.” she said.

“I did. I’m sorry you don’t think I liked it because I offered constructive criticism.”

“Well, I’m not a writer anyway.” she said.

Don’t be the Lauren, ladies and gentlemen. Write because you want to. Write because you have an amazing idea that’s half-baked — and understand that it’s okay to write a story that goes awry in the first chapter, as long as you follow the prose wherever it goes.

Don’t write because you need to be loved vicariously through your writing. I’ve written some of my best work when I was miserable, because pain is a crazy good resource to write out of sometimes.

Do write because you have a world you want to share, no matter how big or how small the space is. Do write because you want to finish the story, or at least take it for a spin around the block. Or the galaxy.

You never publish what you never write.

Nobody will ever see the house that you’re afraid to invite them over to visit. And when you decorate the walls with your art, be it imitations of the Masters or kid macaroni art, when you get your furniture of gleaming chrome and exquisite silks, stuff you, personally, might never be able to afford, but your characters can?

Don’t expect everyone who visits to want to move in. It’s your house of prose. You wrote it. You made the installment payments of 50,000 words or more (or occasionally less). Maybe the back rooms aren’t done. Maybe the roof has leaks that you didn’t see. Maybe the patio door is hung upside down. But it’s your home, the home of the tale you had to build from the ground up, and you ought to be proud of it.

You can always redecorate later, but you’ve got to turn the key in the lock and drag the readers in, first.

Build your first story, and you have the beginnings of a homeworld that is uniquely yours.

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NaNoWriMo 2014: Preparing, Week 1: Curiosity and Confidence

Back in 2010 was the first time I heard about NaNoWriMo. I had a friend who told me about all of what it was, and, mystified by the concept of writing 50,000 words in a month, I found myself wanting to do it. I wanted to tackle all of those words, but it was too daunting a task. I don’t think I even really tried to do anything until 2012 rolled around.

That same friend who told me about the month of November’s challenge still has yet to do it himself, let alone complete it. This month, I found out why.

Confidence. It’s the first time I’ve heard that reason said out loud, but I could see it in myself before, and in other friends who have tried. When you think about it, and how much you write every day, or every week, 50,000 words can be incredibly daunting, and daily writing even more so, if you’re not used to it.

So let’s look at November. When you take away the 50k goal, it’s a daily writing challenge. Don’t worry about the goal every day if you can’t reach it. The real reason for National Novel Writing Month is to work on an idea that’s been in your head, and to get it out, and to put any effort toward it. Work, no matter how small or big it is, will make a difference, and daily writing will take you where you need to go.

Any bit helps. 100 words to 1700. Only do what your pace can handle. There is always next year. And you have another 11 months before it happens again to improve.

Personally, my first NaNo attempt flopped in the middle. I didn’t have proper planning or work done, I started writing on November 1st and floundered until I just stopped completely. As much as I was determined to do all I could that year, as much as I wanted to finish and do something, I had very little done to help me get there, or so I thought, and I lost confidence, got self conscious, fell behind, stressed myself out, and let it fall.

Even if that happens, the most important thing is that you tried. You went for it instead of letting it intimidate you the entire time.

As far as preparation goes, what you need to run into the month with, at least have a basic outline of the plot. Know where you want it to go. Nothing’s wrong with going in without a huge, built structure, but, at least for me, knowing where the novel will take you is all you really need to keep writing.

Don’t be afraid to jump a few scenes ahead and write something else, either, as long as you know it can fit in later. Whatever gets you going.

Those who have been doing this for some time have their own rituals of how to crack down. As from last year, I like to know early what I’m going to do, and do as much character building as possible, plot building, put together something and then make a break down of what will happen. Unfortunately, this year, that little ritual has stalled out. Doesn’t mean I won’t try to do it this month, though it’s not as much time. Others take October to hash it all out and put things in their places. They write on post-its and have a dry-erase board at their disposal.

During the month, as Dominika had pointed out not long ago, having meals planned and set helps with being able to go about the day and get back into writing. I thought that was clever. Mostly, I just amble around aimlessly finding something to chew on while I reset my head, but for those frenzied writing days, it seems perfect.

For those of you who want to do it this year, you can sign up on the official website (Which reboots soon!) to keep your wordcount updated daily, and connect with others in your region, as well as finding kickoff parties and meetups with your fellow writers, doing word wars in the forums or the IRC chat (I think that’s what they have), and any number of outreach and community things. They also have merchandise available, and you can help but donating!

So if you’re still on the fence about whether or not to participate this year, I hope you come over to the writing side, not matter how scarce or how prolific you are in November. We’ll be glad to have you with us.

-The Novice Wordsmith

Disclaimer: Not a part of the NaNoWriMo team personally, I claim no credit, this is all theirs. Again, website here.

Running and Writing

I’ve made analogies to this before, they’re all spread through my posts, and the obvious reason for it is that I’m both a runner and a writer. I can see too many similarities to the two to ignore.

Both are free activities, but getting more gear and finding things to help your stride both in wordcount and in miles or minutes ran can get expensive. You can do both on your own, or with a group. Most importantly, both are done at your own pace.

In the writing community, our Boston Marathon can be equated to NaNoWriMo. I’ve heard my friend tell me about a woman who beats out everyone in his region to 50k, and she does triple that in the month, but she’s always the first to get it. Though, National Novel Writing Month isn’t so much about how fast you win, but that you won at all, and how many words you got out of the month.

Going at your own pace is a huge point to me, I remember looking at a favorite author of mine writing about how she got out so many pages in a day (which I knew how to translate to how many thousands of words she did, and it immediately blew my mind); she was doing, on a bad day, triple what I was doing on a good day. Then again, I had only just become more prolific, but it was still boggling. How could someone get out that much in so little time?

Practice. Dedication. Hard work. She knew what she was doing, she was a professional author of 20 years, and I was, and am, just a beginner, but I’m getting there.

Sometimes you find people with bad form and posturing, and they may get past the finish line, but what does their progress look like? Let’s take some highly ridiculed books, for example, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight. They get the most praise for crossing the finish line, but they struggled through the race, and none of what they did to get there is recommended.

On that note: rough drafts are like training for a marathon or a 5k for the first time. You go back out again and again to improve as much as possible until you finally finish with a product you love, and that becomes your race day. When you’ve  made it out with a winner’s medal and a grin on your face and the final copy in your hand.

On the more professional side, and in obvious news, you can make a career of both, or you could do either just for enjoyment. It is what you make of it. If running gives you clarity, keep going. If writing fills your head with impossible ideas that you’ve fallen in love with, don’t stop now.

Running in the rain is just as thrilling to me as a capturing story writing itself. Writing without much of a muse or inspiration is like running in thick humidity: so impossible that I’ll hate myself for even trying.

And it’s just as well; there are those who don’t care for running as a way to get active and fit, and those who don’t care or try to get the grasp of writing. To them, there’s no enjoyment in it, which is to be expected.

I’ve written more at length about writing for enjoyment, here, but it’s hard not to brush up on it again. Though there is a lot of focus on writing to get published and getting your works out across the world for people to see and devour and adapt into movies and what have you, there’s also a desire to simply write because you want to. Running has a pressure on races and qualifications, but if it’s not something you want to do, you shouldn’t. Hell, I still haven’t done a 5k and I’ve been running for almost three years.

Races can get pricey, though. Themed races especially, but most marathons and 5ks, 10ks, half marathons, usually require an entry fee. The gear you should have to help you achieve more for running can also get expensive. As a writer, I haven’t run into much expense, other than what I donate to nano, or the shirts I was thinking of buying, or the copy of Scrivener that I got this month… If you wanted to attend the Night of Writing Dangerously, though, it could make your wallet weep. That was the only qualifier I could think of for writing, too, while there are countless races you need to qualify for in running.

Then there are the more obvious splits: running is physical, writing is mental. Running can create or perpetuate health problems, or even alleviate, but writing does not help in any direction physically. Writing instead helps your vocabulary, your imagination and creativity, your brain growth and personal development.

It’s an insight I couldn’t keep to myself for much longer, and one I do enjoy thinking about. Both writing and running have helped shape me as a person, but I’m sure they aren’t the only two activities that hold so many similarities. Whatever you enjoy, however you spend your days, it’s likely not very hard to find likenesses in them. After all, you do like them for a reason, right?

-The Novice Wordsmith

Villainy

Something I’m still learning myself is how to create villains. I have plenty of stories where there’s a conflict, and a protagonist, but I’m still working on antagonists. Sometimes, I’ve gotten away with not even having one.

Some of the easiest work on antagonists is giving them simple motives and desires. Do they want for evil or are they selfish and bubbling up with inner turmoil that’s been there for years? What drives the goodness out of their heart and turns them into monsters, and are they really monsters, or is it some psychological battle?

It can also be easy to fall into a trap of making them too simple. Thinking of them like a protagonist is a good way to put it, where they are just as dynamic and prone to change in the story. That seems like a very mundane or basic way to put it, but hear me out: when creating that bad guy, the one who seeks out ill will, think about them in dimensions, just as you would your MC (if your MC is a do-gooder).

I had wanted to create a villainous character recently, and I have to admit that one of my first inspirations to draw from was Loki. When you look at him, he is a very conflicted character. He’s filled with anguish and hatred and while his ultimate motivation seems to be destruction of whole worlds, he also wants so sorely to be accepted.

So I suppose in one sense there’s a desire to appeal to that “human” side that I enjoy with all characters.

Then there are the characters whose motives are hidden. When at first the protagonist meets them, they don’t realize they’re such a threat, and neither does the reader. They push the main character to doing something that will further their own plot and agenda, buddying up to them close, only to stab them in the back once they have what they want. The true sneaks. ( Example: Petyr Baelish from Game of Thrones )

On the other hand, you have characters who do the reverse. They’re rough and hostile at first meeting, and as the story goes on, they warm up to the other characters and their motives become more honorable. ( Example: Zuko from The Last Airbender )

Writing them out and making sure that point gets across well can be tricky, though. At least, it is for me. Lying and scheming and plotting, laughing in the face of those who are more unfortunate comes easier to them than it does for the main characters who are significantly more focused on helping in the grand scheme of things. They have to say one thing with a smile but mean another.

Seeing them as the exact opposite to a protagonist helps me see them better, I think, to see all of the possibilities and that they aren’t nearly as limited as I thought they were. Antagonists can be just about anyone, they can want anything, but the reason they are antagonists is because their motives are in direct conflict with the protagonist’s.

Looking at it in that light makes it easier, but then, for me, it’s still hard to keep them evil or bullyish or mean.  I am, admittedly, a big softy, so to have a character being purposely mean is a little difficult, but that should be another reason why I make more, try harder.

I will say that I know someone who was much better at making antagonists, that it was just passive for her to do with new characters, which is awesome, actually. I can’t say I know too many other people like that, but for her it was just there, like it is for me and protagonists. Which, sometimes I envy, but to each their own, right?

A well-rounded character roster is always good, though. What are you missing from yours?

People Watching Part II

Another part to traveling is getting to know the people that you’re seated beside. On my way out here, I got to meet two very friendly, interesting people, one who works for Boeing as an overseer in their software department (not sure on the title), who worked his way up from a mechanic position, and the other who works for a portable classroom company, who was coming back from a trip through Europe.

There’s a second part to People Watching because the first was simply about little things that influence your writing in little ways, because I feel like I wasn’t understanding the task at hand as well. This is a deeper thought of, “how would this person be as a different character in your story/novel?”

You meet new ideas when you talk to someone to pass the time as the flight goes, or the train. Someone who speaks like it’s the easiest thing they’ve done since breathing, or someone who doesn’t care for the idea of marriage. They’re strongly political or they’re more easy going.

Of course, with the first post, if you see someone remarkable, in the way of their body language, a visible tattoo, or just something about their overall appearance. The two people at the help desk who are obviously flirting with each other but aren’t with the same party, the mother of two who butts her way into every conversation, or the sales person who doesn’t take no for an answer.

These people have potential. Let the knowledge and views of them influence you if they make an impression on you.

– The Novice Wordsmith