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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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Big-itis

When I was younger, the most intimidating thing for me was writing a novel. I always thought I couldn’t commit or I couldn’t spend that much time, or effort, or put something together that was an intricate, good story.

And now, I have Big-itis, both in the form of finding so many different ideas to create into novels instead of short stories, or to work on long-term, and in the form of running so long with my writing that I’ve barely reached the beginning meat of the novel’s rising action and it’s the halfway point of the month.

Part of it is inflation: I wanted to reach wordcount so many days that had been so badly off and struggling for me that I just drolled on and on without a care in the world and racked it up. I indulged in detail where I could have summarized, and I put in action where I should be just moving forward. So now my main character has had two physical problems happen to her and she hasn’t even gotten on the road yet… Not to mention that I just realized, a love interest hasn’t even been introduced.

It is easy to get caught in this loop. Inflating until you hit where you need to be is a good way to get the obligation done for the day and move on to other things. The other part is lack of motivation, or creativity for the day, stalling out and not being so certain where to go next.

I have a friend who was going to write in a certain style, of extra detail with every little moment, just to get wordcount. When the goal feels far away and you don’t feel like you can reach it, sometimes the first thing to do is just to add until you get there instead of letting your head run wild and coming up with new plot ninjas or something to keep the story running, or to stop it.

It sort of defeats the purpose sometimes, of writing daily. It gets you to sit down and commit, but sometimes when all you do is throw words at it, are you really making much of an improvement?

Don’t let Bigitis catch you! Give everything extra thought, keep those gears turning and continue to drum up new and innovative ideas to get the characters talking. Filler should only be there in case of an emergency, sort of like a swinging door; it can be there, or it can’t. You can even keep it from swinging back in one direction by taking it out later, in revision.

The story, however, needs you to keep writing in a productive direction. Don’t let it down! Bigitis can only take you so far!

-The Novice Wordsmith

PS: Happy Hundreth Post! Woo!

Guest Post: Start Big or Start Small, But Where it is Becomes Your Call

(Meant for yesterday.)

Morning folks.  Whether you have 0 words or 500, if you’ve hit your first roadblock, or the wordcount just isn’t coming as fast as you’d like, it’s time to look at what you’ve got and seeing if you blew through the easy words in your rush to get rolling.

That first hour of writing on a blank canvas can be deceptive; you put down the first stuff that comes into your head and burn through your Big Idea, Premise, and Opening Lines pretty quick.  But once the initial framework is on the page, the inevitable ‘Now What?’ comes into play.

If you’re feeling a little uncertain where to go from here, there are two paths you can take today: (insert Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race impression here): Stall, or Start Walking.

  • In Stall, you look back at what you’ve already written yesterday and add some details.   Add colors, sounds, smells, extra features, musings, impressions, extra dialogue to give your first characters in their first scene some more depth of focus.    For example, this year I started off with a brief sketch of a crime scene, and then pulled back a little to tease at the timeframe — the distant future.   I originally described the devastation of an explosion as simply ‘lots of bodies’, but when I doubled back, I added in damage to the building, the parking lot, and then described the era in more detail.    I actually described the main character as something more than a gender and ethnic background, and gave the secondary character some more lines so that he wasn’t introduced just to walk off and get coffee for my detective.
  • In Start Walking, you want to think ahead to what’s on the horizon,or, to wit, ‘where is your next scene going to take place?’    This is not a one man, one room play you’re writing here, odds on.   Whether you’re writing a Hero’s Journey or an Everyman/Everywoman slice of life tale, or a Superhero(ine) Saving the City, they’re not likely to be in the place they were when you wrote on Day 1.   Ask yourself, ‘where do I need to get the main character next?’   And start writing towards that direction.  Do they need to make any special preparations?  (An odd reverse example is Mr. Rogers, who fascinated me as a child by having the odd ritual of changing his shoes while talking to the audience after he came into the house.)    Do they tell anyone where they’re going?   Will any of the scene 1 characters be coming along, and are they opposed to doing so?

The point is that right now, today, Day 2, you are building potential. Potential energy, potential wordcount, and potential motion, along, of course, with potential plot.   Being able to lay tracks ahead of you or buy time to figure out where you want to be is still wordcount; the goal here is to breathe life into your novel by giving it enough detail and brea(d)th so that you want to keep writing in this space.

Eventually we’ll be setting things on fire (not necessarily literally) and maybe blowing stuff up, but it doesn’t have to be today.   Days 1 and 2 for me are usually reserved for either detailed worldbuilding, or meeting the main character, or setting up the stage where the main character will walk into any moment.    Or any combination of the three.

Hope this helps, and feel free to suggest a topic for a future guest post….

NaNoWriMo 2014: Preparing, Week 4 (Final): Outline THIS!

One of the biggest parts of any writing is knowing what you’ll be writing, either by way of post-it notes, corkboard, chalkboard, or whiteboards. Notebooks, on the computer or not, wherever you can get your hands to fly and get your bursting creativity into some kind of writing.

So it makes sense that an important part of NaNoWriMo is to have an outline ready and set for the next 30 days, so you know where to go. There are pantsers, people who write by the seat of their pants without having much of anything prepared, who don’t need the outlines, who are perfectly fine with or seasoned veterans of their whims.

For those of us (me) who feel utterly lost when they don’t have anything planned out, outlines exist. Thank goodness.

Funny enough, I found this guide just a few days ago,  which nearly does my job for me, giving a good explanation of different ways of outlining and examples. It’s a good place to look for what kind of outlining might be best for you, or to see what type you identify with the best.

On the reasons of why to do this, “painting yourself into a corner” is probably one of the best reasons, in my opinion. One year, Friend killed off his MC in the middle of the novel. I know, it’s not terribly exciting, but I love this story, that he issued their death and then went on to finish the novel. He didn’t care for the finished product, but he didn’t stop. Nothing could stop him.

While it’s an awesome story of perseverance, it’s also a bit of a nightmare. Outlining, even if it’s vague and free written, can help you avoid getting stuck. If you know where to go, even just a little bit, you keep away from little plot holes that drag you in and don’t let go.

To know who’s in your main roster list, who they mostly interact with, and to have an idea of where the story is going, is a huge advantage.

I still remember last year when I’d come up with a basic idea of the first few chapters and then froze, unsure of what to do. I just paused and blinked at the screen for a few seconds. Despite having the bigger points and a huge amount of the meat of the story fixed and fleshed out, the beginning area was stumping me. I had months of preparation under my belt last year. At least I learned from that; when you have a big idea, a seriously big novel, sometimes it’s easy to overlook details.

This year I have mercifully made it a much smaller task to finish the novel…

With outlining, you also have a chance to research, which can lead to more ideas and, like the article says, a better flow for creativity, as well as to help with the movement of the plot and conflict. It can change the tone or set of the novel, when it’s just in its first stages of creation.

Any kind of preparation is going to be crucial to the novel and its structure, to how you write it and those terrible moments of brain blanking where you have no idea what you’re going to do next. Where is point A, and where is point B, and how are you going to get there? What is important enough to make it into the grand scheme of things and what’s just filler?

Whatever you put forward is going to help, but if you’re not the type to outline, or you don’t care for it, I invite you to try, even just a little bit. Write out the plot, a couple of characters, and see where it takes you. Free Writing is the best option, usually, for those who aren’t so used to outlining. It helps to just let out a flow of conscious, and you don’t need to be super specific about every little detail going on, save that for the writing come November 1st!

I wanted to squeak in a Happy Halloween to everyone celebrating it, be safe and responsible! And a HUGE good luck to any and everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year, starting midnight tonight, the writing frenzy begins!

My blogging will be reduced by another day or two, or they’ll be shorter. I will try to keep up as best as I can! Happy writing, whether you’re participating or not!

-The Novice Wordsmith

Read, Write, Learn

On my way in to work this morning, I heard a commercial for Bic on the radio. It was a “conversation” about “get writing,” with a Bic pen, and how writing can help your creativity, your reading capability, and something else I can’t think of at the moment.

I grinned after I heard it because I had just been thinking about what I was going to write today, and ‘reading and writing’ was right up there. So I decided the commercial had made up my mind for me.

Reading and writing go together in the most obvious, passive ways. You read a sentence you’ve just written, whether during an exam or on your own, you read instructions on a manual, you write notes to people at work or to clients, inner-office notes. They’re hand in hand, no matter what the circumstance, pleasure or production.

It goes too, without saying, that the more you do, the better it expands your mind and your ability. The more books you read, the more style you take in of other authors, the more vocabulary you learn, the more you see and understand with different possibilities and your imagination just expands and expands. This can help non-fiction as well as fiction.

I will admit that there is a set of books that transformed my reading, and helped transform my writing. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is not only a gorgeous trilogy of thrillers– murder, police, and politics respectively– but it has so many themes and underlying messages that it was like literal headcandy for me. It is the most recommended set of books by me, and I think that will continue on for quite a while. Stieg Larsson had created an incredible set of characters with dynamics that blew my mind and development that was beautiful to watch. The situations he put them in, the mystery he wove, the little hooks and callbacks, every little detail was perfect.

To me, he was the first story teller I had really fallen in love with, and he helped me see the intricacies of the art a hell of a lot better.

When you shut the book completely after finding out a major plot twist, I think the author is doing their job incredibly well. I still remember how shocking that was to find out.

In that, you can see what difference reading makes for us. Seeing things in vivid detail brings out certain points and elements that maybe we hadn’t noticed before. It makes you pay attention, it brings you in and doesn’t let you go.

This goes for all good stories. They show us what we need or want to see, they open our eyes and give details we didn’t think of to put emphasis on before. They teach us. They show us the way. They help us become better writers, the way we want to become.

They also help us become story-snobs. When you read a story that hasn’t utilized all of its elements for good, is obvious and not terribly cohesive, you can tell, but even that can help us. “What not to do,” in some cases, and for example: Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’ll roll this lesson in too because I’m thinking about it. On the topic of Fifty Shades, and as I mentioned before, vocabulary and word choice is important in that it helps shapes the story, it helps us bring out the color in the story. It brings the images in our head to the forefront on a page.

I always joked that you can tell when an author learned a new word or found a new word they liked, because you’d see it more in the book in a certain section. I’d always vowed to write in a way that I wasn’t so repetitious, to have good word flow and sentence structure that was as colorful as the rainbow and then some. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s more difficult than I realized at first. Writing a book with no repetition within it whatsoever, 3-400 words of constant flow can be difficult. The trick, at least, is to make sure that you’re varying the word choice, keep it going.

One trick I learned was not to use the same word twice in the same paragraph, articles and some nouns excluded. ‘As’ and ‘just’ especially only should be used once.

Let me go back to Fifty Shades, where I’ve heard– and briefly seen– the word choice is about as staggering as it can get. It is an easy read, quick, something you can simply devour if you’re in the mood for it, because who really worries about vocabulary when you’re taking in literary porn?

For those who are more picky about what they read, who read for a good story and stimulation just as well, the word choice that the author uses can be what kills the mood and the desire to read more. If it’s poor, badly executed, it doesn’t engage, and it’s more of “meh,” reaction than an “ooh, 2:00 a.m? Who cares!” reaction.

On the other hand, that could bring up the topic of reading level. What we like and what we can take in. I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Dante’s Inferno eight years ago without falling asleep. Shakespeare was just as daunting. This is where we can improve by reading more, finding where our level is and going from there. Sort of like a video game, if you want to think of it like that. The more you read, the more you understand, and the better you do.

Still, there are books that exist at a decent reading level that manage to dazzle without being hard to understand.

I wonder now, after writing so much, how well I could read Dante’s Inferno. Though I still have trouble with older books that have thick, more antiquated vocabularies. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has been a slow read for me, but no less exciting. If nothing else, I can see the images that Jules Verne has written out so well, much better than I used to. And Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was a hard read back seven years ago just as well, but the more I write, the more I read, the more I’ve developed my ability and my apprehension (comprehension?).

I will say that there’s a sweet spot for vocabulary plus reader understanding. You can still have an intricate story that’s easy to read; take Harry Potter for example, which started as a sort of children’s book and continued on to the higher dredges of young adult (that’s my interpretation, at least, I could be wrong), and still continues to be one of the most read series by the target audience. At least, to my knowledge, for fiction writing, there is that good level of word choice plus intricacy plus good story telling skill.

We all have our preferences of what to read, just as much as we do for what we write. I’d still fall asleep reading non-fiction books, but that doesn’t mean they’re written poorly, and it doesn’t mean it’s not on my reading level, it’s just not what I’m interested in. So there is that difference: interest versus reading comprehension versus vocabulary used and flow of words versus personal taste.  Some enjoy books that others find mundane, and there’s an audience still for time travel and science fiction just as much as there is for Twilight fan fiction and so on. If we all had the same level and comprehension and taste, this would be a much shorter post.

Don’t be afraid if you’re intimidated by something. If you can’t read it, or it’s not engaging your interest enough that you’re having to read and re-read whole paragraphs, don’t force it. Come back to it later or not. There’s no pressure on what you have to read; if you want to read, don’t make yourself read what you think others will enjoy hearing you talk about. Find something you like and run with it.

The same goes for writing. Don’t force yourself to write science fiction if you’d rather write about Victorian era wizards, or steampunk rabbits with bayonets that shoot ethereal nets at ghosts. Find where you’re most comfortable, and just go for it. There’s an audience for it somewhere, I guarantee it.

-The Novice Wordsmith