Monthly Archives: October 2012

Are You NaNo’ing This Year?

A colleague at work approached me several years ago about “doing NaNo.” I looked at her as if she was out of her mind. “What’s NaNo?” I said. She explained it was the National Novel Writing Month and the goal was to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. A look of terror came across my face. I thought, “Now that’s really crazy.” At the time, I had two awful starter novels in the drawer and was struggling with a 120,000-word opus that would become my first published novel. I knew what it took to write a novel. I couldn’t wrap my mind around producing 50,000 words of fiction in just 30 days. Thirty months maybe, but 30 days? No way. Undaunted, she said, “You should try it sometime.”

Though it seemed an impossible feat, the idea of cranking out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days intrigued me. It was the ultimate challenge. The idea of a confirmed “pantser” like me attempting a feat that required writerly attributes like planning, outlining, character development and the like, was farfetched, but if I could pull it off, it would prove I possessed the discipline to meet a daily word count.

I didn’t “do NaNo” that year, or for the next three years, but last year I decided to give it a try. The deciding factor was a full-blown idea for a novel that had been rattling around in my head for 10 years. I never could sit and write it. My trepidation was that the story was in a different genre (murder/mystery) than I usually write. It was a huge leap for me, but the story was terrific. It had all the elements of great fiction: suspense, conflict, romance, murder, and, baseball—one of my passions in life. So I climbed the steps to that high diving board and leaped headfirst.

I learned a number of things. The most important lesson was that coming up with 1,667 words a day, even armed with a fully fleshed out story, is really hard. Another big lesson was to expect the unexpected. On October 28, 2011, the northeastern United States was hit with a freak snow storm and the region lost power for nine days. That’s right. No electricity. No laptop. So I adapted. I used pen and paper to write the initial chapters by candlelight. I hunkered in coffee shops with my laptop. We traveled to Vermont to stay with relatives for a weekend and I increased my word count from 3,000 to 11,000. The biggest lesson, though, was the value of discipline and determination.

On November 29, 2012—one day ahead of the deadline—I finished my 53,000-word first draft of Bonus Baby. What was then a first draft is now my work-in-progress.

Here are some lessons for writers thinking about doing NaNo:

  • Plan out your story ahead of time. If you have a premise and major characters, write an outline a month or so ahead of time. Don’t wait until October 31 to work out your story arc. Having a complete story outline was the difference for me. Even then, I found myself wondering if I could meet the word count and I ended up making a major plot change mid-course, which brings me to my next point.
  • Be open to unplanned changes to your story. For many writers (myself included) the first draft is a period of discovery. The major story elements are there, but those moments of intense creative brainstorming often produce magical surprises that enhance the story.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect sentence, paragraph or scene. Just write and keep moving forward.
  • Carve out time every day to write. Tell your loved ones and friends you may not see them for a month and ask for their support. If you are married tell (beg) your spouse to take on more of the household chores during the month.
  • Take time off. I took some time off from work around Thanksgiving just in case I fell behind and needed to catch up. It made a difference for me as those days produced strong word counts.
  • Become part of the support group in your region. When you register on the NaNo website (www.nanowrimo.com) you will see a link for the regional online forum in your region. Each region as a leader called the Municipal Liaison (ML), who organizes in-person meetings, writing sessions, and orientations for newbies. We are blessed in my region with an energetic and committed ML who organizes meetings, including the legendary “Night of Writing Dangerously,” an all-night writing marathon.
  • Take advantage of the resources on the NaNo website, which include inspirational essays and online forums where you can get answers to just about any question you pose (including how to poison someone, which was the question I posted last year).

If you have done NaNo, what tips do you have to offer to newbies? If you have not done NaNo, what is holding you back?

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Book Review: “The War of Art,” by Steven Pressfield

Like the recent related book, Turning Pro, Steven Pressfield’s 2002 classic, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, is a kick in the butt for writers and other creative types. I read Turning Pro recently and liked its message so much I had to check out The War of Art.

A wordplay on the ancient military treatise, The Art of War, Pressfield’s book likens an individual’s approach to the craft to an inner battle. The enemy is Resistance and two-thirds of the book is devoted to defining Resistance and developing strategies to overcome it. Pressfield writes short, digestible chapters that emphasize his major points. Book One is called Resistance-Defining the Enemy. Pressfield defines Resistance as all of those things that prevent a writer from practicing and honing her craft. Resistance takes many forms–some of which the writer does not recognize–and Pressfield covers them all.

To underscore the insidious nature of Resistance, Pressfield gives it mortal ambitions. “Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable,” he writes. “Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.”

Book Two is called, Combating Resistance-Turning Pro. This section covers many of the points Pressfield would later expand upon in Turning Pro. A professional is defined by his habits and Pressfield makes an effective analogy to a creative person’s paid job, where the person is expected to show up every day, work all day, master the job, make a commitment over the long haul, and accept remuneration. The short chapters that follow expand on the attributes of the professional: the professional is patient, seeks order, demystifies, acts in the face of fear, accepts no excuses, plays it as it lays, is prepared, dedicates himself to mastering technique, and so on.

In Book Three, Beyond Resistance-The Higher Realm, Pressfield gets mystical. He discusses “the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves.” He uses the terms “muses” and “angels” to describe these forces. Whether you buy into this theory depends on your belief system. The most valuable takeaway for me from this section was Pressfield’s discussion of the ego and the self. The ego is concerned with temporal, material things, while the self has a higher purpose.”Dreams come from the Self,” he writes. “Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate, we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on a vision quest, it’s the Self we’re seeking…The Self is our deepest being.”

There are scores of useful craft of fiction books. Pressfield’s twin books, The War of Art and Turning Pro won’t teach you how to write a novel, but they will give you something just as valuable—the knowledge of the inner forces that threaten your creativity and the means to fight them by making a commitment to turn pro.

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What Drives Your Main Character?

When I critique the work of developing writers, I’m often struck by the same thought. The writing is decent, the scenes are well-constructed, and there’s plenty of action, but something essential is missing. I try to put my finger on what is lacking. I re-read the piece and it hits me. What’s often missing is the main character’s motivation.

Craft books point to motivation as a basic ingredient for a successful novel. Why? Motivation moves the story forward. It gives the character a purpose. Without it, a novel is just a series of disconnected scenes. If the main character’s motivation is unclear to the reader early on in the story, the writer has failed and the reader will lose interest. Experts advise writers to make the reader care about the characters in her novel. Developing real, multi-dimensional characters is the way to do that, but the writer must first answer the question, ‘What makes my main character tick?’

What do we mean when we talk about a character’s motivation? We’re not talking primarily about physical needs and wants. The character is dying of dehydration and must find water within minutes. That makes for a riveting scene, but in and of itself, it reveals little about the character, except he wants to stay alive. Don’t most people? To use another example, the main character must return to his home planet before his fuel runs out. These are urgent needs, but effective character motivations should work on a deeper level. The strongest character motivations are emotional and psychological.  A character yearns for the love she never received from her emotionally distant parents. How does that impact her view of relationships? Is she too needy? Will that place her in peril? Another example is the character who has a chip on his shoulder. He is the son who could never accomplish enough to please his taskmaster father. How does that affect his outlook on life? What challenges does that set up for him? How can the writer pay off the ending by having him overcome his fear of failure?

Motivation does a number of things for a writer:

  • It guides the character’s actions and reactions to what happens to her.
  • It adds purpose and depth to the story.
  • It informs the choices a character makes and the consequences of those choices.
  • It allows writers to create deeper, more complex and interesting characters.
  • It ultimately defines who the character is and the challenges she must overcome.

Revealing a character’s motivation is tricky business for a writer. Writers shouldn’t come right out and say it. “Joe was bitter because his father never once gave him a compliment. He was determined to take it out on others.” That may be the case, but it’s better to let the reader discover Joe’s character through his actions.

This topic is especially timely because thousands of writers are getting ready for the annual National Novel Writing Month competition. The challenge is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. As I prepare to enter NaNo for the second time, I am outlining my story (yes, it’s true; the old pantser actually decided to prepare a written outline this time). One of the things that’s paramount in my mind is the motivations of the various characters. This story pivots on character motivations.

Even for writers who are pantsers like me, it makes sense as a writer develops the major characters in her book to take a few minutes to think through their motivations. It will give the story purpose, meaning and depth.

How do you determine the motivations of your characters?

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Book Review: “Telegraph Avenue,” by Michael Chabon

Like the mixed-race, polyglot neighborhood where it is set, Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is a tasty, multi-layered, hearty stew that bubbles and boils and ultimately simmers, but never overflows its huge pot. Or, to draw on the 1970s jazz, funk and R&B that provides one of the backdrops to this meaty novel, Telegraph Avenue is hot and cool at the same time, syncopated beats flowing into free form and back.

Telegraph Avenue is the dividing line between a gritty section of Oakland and the edge of the University of California, Berkeley, campus. The novel centers on business partners and musicians Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a used record store called Brokeland Records in a former barbershop on Telegraph Avenue. Barely scraping by, their record store is threatened by a mega-mall development that former NFL football star Gibson “G Bad” Goode wants to build nearby, which will include movie theaters, restaurants, and a used vinyl store with a huge collection that will put Brokeland Records out of business.

That’s not the only threat facing Archy and Nat. Archy’s wife, Gwen Shanks, is 36 months pregnant and catches her husband cheating on her. Gwen and Nat’s wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, operate a midwife business that is in danger of losing its hospital privileges after a birth goes wrong and Gwen is berated by a racist doctor. To make matters worse, Archy’s absentee father, Luther Stallings, a former blaxploitaton film star in the 1970s, is back on the scene to blackmail his old friend, a mortician and powerful Oakland City Councilman named Chandler Flowers, over the murder of a Black Panther. Flowers is the key to the development deal.

Archy’s problems are compounded when a son he has never acknowledged, Titus, shows up and 14-year–old Julius, Nat’s gay son, falls in love with him.

Several themes run through the various plot strands. The frayed relationships between fathers and sons is one theme. Archy has no love for his dad, Luther, who abandoned him, and Titus, in turn, resents Archy. Archy dreads becoming a dad. As Chabon explains, “Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks, open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.”

References to the 1970s, from soul music to movies, abound as Chabon riffs on the nostalgia theme. A dealer in memorabilia, early in the book, reflects that these nostalgic items “were worth only what you would pay for them; what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you. Their value was indexed only to the sense of personal completeness, perfection of the soul, that would flood you when, at last, you filled the last gap on your checklist.”

The novel is ultimately a story of redemption and forgiveness. Chabon is one of the most gifted writers of our time and his talents are on full display. Though his over-the-top prose at times is a distraction from the story, Chabon’s writing is so precise and vivid that this minor fault is easily overlooked.

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Avoiding the Social Media Time Suck

Writers blog about it–the amount of time they spend on social media: monitoring blogs, writing blog posts, tweeting, facebooking, leaving comments on other blogs. It’s a huge time suck, and yet writers still do it. Guilty on all counts.

I’m still trying to figure out how to spend less time on social media time and more time on my passion–fiction writing. I don’t have the answer yet, but let me share what I’ve learned:

Be selective about the blogs you follow regularly. At first, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Every week I would discover a new writer’s blog and add it to my favorites. I spent hours on social media and my writing output suffered. Now, I follow a few blogs religiously: Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Kathryn Magendie, K.M. Weiland, Jody Hedlund, Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman. Well, I guess that’s more than a few, but you get the point.

Set aside time for social media and time for fiction writing. That’s an easy rule to set down and a much tougher one to obey. How many times have you said, “I’m just going to check my stats, respond to a few comments and check a couple of blogs and then I’ll start working on my work-in-progress?” Three hours later, you haven’t put a word on the page. It takes great discipline to treat these as separate activities, but the writer must.

Use technology to manage your blog feeds. There are a number of tools available. Subscribing to your favorite blogs through email is one that I find helpful. Getting your favorite blogs on Twitter is another useful way to keep up, while not impacting your writing time.

Devote large blocks of time to writing and use social media as a reward. I’m a binge writer. If I’m not feeling it, I will produce drivel, but when I’m on fire creatively, I can crank out 3,000 words in one sitting. OK, it might not be riveting prose, but in some cases I’ve done my best work while on such creative rolls. The trick is to tell yourself you are going to write for three hours, four hours, whatever, and stick to it. Then treat yourself to a couple of hours on social media.

Go someplace else to write. This is a sound strategy. Pick a place–your local coffee shop or the library. Find a quiet table. Sit down with your laptop, find some music that inspires you and plug in your ear buds, and write for two or three hours. Try it sometime. Do your social media at home or on a mobile device, but not at your writing place.

Is social media a time suck for you? How do you find the time to write?

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The Elements of Style: A Timeless Classic

An essential part of any writer’s toolkit, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, is Strunk & White’s thin classic, The Elements of Style. Or as they would prefer to put it, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.

Packed with tips on the rules of usage and grammar (“place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause”), the 85-page book also contains chapters on the principles of composition and an approach to style.

The section on composition makes 11 points:

  • Choose a suitable design and hold to it.
  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Put statements in positive form.
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
  • Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.
  • Keep related words together.
  • In summaries, keep to one tense.
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

That’s it. A writer could scour blogs and textbooks looking for the most useful tips on composition and Strunk & White nailed them with 11 simple tips.

There is an explanation for each of these points. For example:

Use definite, specific, concrete language. “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”

And there is this one:

Put statements in positive form. “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”

And,

Use the active voice. “The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

The last section, An Approach to Style, offers these tips (with brief explanations on each:

  • Place yourself in the background.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Work from a suitable design.
  • Write with nouns and verbs.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Do not overstate.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  • Do not affect a breezy manner.
  • Use orthodox spelling.
  • Do not explain too much.
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs.
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Avoid fancy words.
  • Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  • Be clear.
  • Do not inject opinion.
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

There is so much more to The Elements of Style. It is an essential companion for any writer.

What is your favorite book on grammar and style?

 

 

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