Friday, November 30, 2007

Lessons From NaNoWriMo

Right, its nearly midnight on the final day of NaNoWriMo, and I've fallen appalling short of my goal. I could make excuses for my poor preformance (too much work, not enough free time, lack of a computer) but I've decided that this would be waste of my time-- and yours!

Instead, I'm going to offer the insight I've learned this month and my future writing goals.

I'll always be too busy
For years I've whinged that I don't have enough time, energy, the drive, to sit down and write for hours after a very stressful day. However, what I've learned is that I personally thrive better under deadlines and stressful situations. I'm not sure why-- although, I suspect it forces me to focus more-- which I lack sorely. I'm most creative, passionate, organized, and insipired when I'm super busy and stressed for time. Bizarre. This said, I've finally accepted that I enjoy being too busy. So, if i want my creative life to balance with my busy 'other' life, I have to enforce some real boundaries on my time. NaNoWriMo, has forced me to do just this, and do you know what-- on the days when I stuck to my writing schedule I felt incredible. Yes, sometimes I had to resort to the word counter to help me pass the time-- but honestly, i enjoyed the process of creating the world of my 'novel'. If I've learned just one thing from NaNoWriMo, its that I can always make a little time for my writing-- and a little time goes a long way.

A Word Count Helps

I wouldn't have thought a word count would be my writing saviour-- but it is! On difficult days when I know the scene I'm writing is shit, the only thing that gets me through the scene and onto the next chapter is counting my words. Knowning that I had to reach a daily word count to stay on schedule forced me to write through the crap and explore the characters and story. Of course, I'll have to go back and edit out the crap (or as much as it as possible) but without a word count-- my daily goal-- i'd still be pouting and moaning over difficult scenes.

Writing/reading outside my comfort zone is good for my creativity
I read a lot of fiction. I enjoy getting sucked into the world of a good novel. To me, there's nothing better than hanging out in someone else world for a while (ok, usually for the tube journey home). But this month I've really pushed myself to read things outside of my normal comfort level. I've read about zombies, vampires, women on the verge of nervous breakdowns, I've read crime novels (which i never read), and historical fiction, as well as the daily papers, and non-fiction short works. I really feel that reading outside my normal range of novels/chick lit/children's lit and foraging in the darker realms of zombies, crime, historical fiction, and yes brilliant non-fiction has helped me to create more vivid characters and a richer plotline. Yay for variety.

Writing Buddies and Regular Buddies Shame You into Working Harder
Perhaps, 'shame' is too strong a word, but at times it felt that way. Whenever I wanted to completely chuck out portions of my work I was reminded of all the support and love my writing buddies (and FRIENDS) had been emailing me and I was compelled to work harder. I have been writing this novel for myself, but knowing that others out there were rooting me on made the process so much more rewarding. So THANK YOU! I promise you I will SUCCEDE in 2008!

I'm Signing Up For ANOTHER Month
Yes, I'm serious. As some of you know-- I haven't owned a computer in about a year. Its been a real struggle for me to actually sit down and write with a pen and paper-- my fingers type almost as fast as I can think-- but my handwriting lags behind. This has been my biggest excuse for slacking creatively. So, since we're purchasing one this weekend I've decided I'll be signing up for ANOTHER month of writing. I'm going to set the same task for myself (50,000 words) . I would like to end 2007 with a completed novel. So, beginning Dec 1st, I'm going to do this whole process all over again. I'm going to consider this my training for the marathon of writing that NaNoWriMo is. I wont have the support of a large community of people all working towards the same goal, but thanks to participating in NaNoWriMo, I know I'll always have the support of my friends and writing buddies. I will update you on my proccess as the month goes on. I may not have been able to finish NaNoWriMo 2007--but I'm certainly going to smash through the challenge in 2008! So watch this space.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday!!

Here you go-- a circus theme-- or perhaps childhood!

When she was nine her most fervent dream was to runaway and join the circus. She could imagine the hot cramped tents, the smell of animals, and the rush of excitment just before a show. At thirty, the idea of running away and joining a circus still appealed to her; but with her lack of acrobatic skills, flexibility, and a general fear of heights and large mammals, she rather fancied she'd wind up cleaning up the elephant crap. Great, she thought, at thirty my fantasy is to runaway to the circus to become a professional pooper-sccoper.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Managing Power in Fantasy and Romance

This Thanksgiving weekend, I listened to Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass on tape while driving back from a visit with family. I've read this book several times--it's one of my favorites. I love re-reading my favorite books; I always notice things I missed on the first go-round. This time, however, I noticed something I wish I hadn't.

In The Golden Compass, the heroine comes to possess an alethiometer--a device that always tells the truth about any situation, if you know how to read it. It's a device of immense power. And at several points in the story, particularly when tensions were high and the heroine was getting worried, I wondered why she simply didn't check in with the alethiometer to see how things would turn out. I sure would have, if I were facing a life-and-death crisis. There were several points in the story where it seemed odd that the heroine didn't simply ask the alethiometer how things would work out--and what could be done to fix the problems she faced.

Like many fantasy and romance lovers, I'm fascinated with power. Objects and people with mysterious powers captivate me and draw me in, and I'm always interested to observe how special powers affect the personalities and relationships of the characters. But too much power is a bad thing for your plot. The more power a character has access to, the more difficult it is to keep up the plot tension. If your character is all-powerful, why can't he simply wrap up the problems he faces in the plot in a few minutes? If he's all-knowing, what does he have to worry about?

If you're dealing with supernatural powers in your plot, here are a few ways to put limits on them without rendering them insignificant.

Limit knowledge. In The Golden Compass, the heroine can read the alethiometer instinctively. This may have been a mistake. If Lyra had more trouble reading the device, it may have made more sense that she'd be worried about problems she encountered in the plot. I'm writing a psychic heroine into my current story, and I realized early on that her powers couldn't be consistent--otherwise she'd know too much and the plot would lose tension. Her psychic powers are unpredictable and sometimes fail her when she needs them most--making her world much more dangerous.

Make magic more difficult. You can give your hero or heroine fairly modest powers, but still make them seem impressive by limiting the amount of magic available in your world. If your world is a place where magical powers are extremely rare, a little magical gift is a big-time miracle--and an extremely powerful magical person is an almost impossible villain. A little magic goes a long way--and making it more rarified may up the tension in your story.

Make some things off limits. In Karen Marie Moning's paranormal romances, it's extremely difficult to see the future. She deals with some extremely powerful characters, from magicians and druids to the otherworldly Fae--but she does put limits on their abilities. Consider the limits of your world carefully, and make sure there are some things known to be beyond everyone's ability.

Watch out for weird inconsistencies. When I was a teenager, I loved David Eddings' endless series novels. His characters were witty, well-drawn (if a little stereotypical), and extremely powerful. Re-reading them years later, I realized they were too powerful. Eddings had trouble limiting them. Because they were so powerful, he had to force them to follow the complicated and meaningless dictates of a cliched prophecy--or there wouldn't be much of a story; the characters could simply blast apart everything and everyone in their way. An all-powerful goddess couldn't heal a character's heart injury because "hearts jump around too much." Characters inexplicably went to great lengths to hide from enemies much weaker than they were.

This is the problem with making your characters too powerful--it becomes more and more unlikely that these all-powerful people would have any serious problems. So set limits that make sense.

Balance strengths with weaknesses. My boyfriend is a Batman guy--but I love Superman. He's a fan of the tortured, dark-horse style hero, while I'm a sucker for pure, unadulterated power. Batman and Superman are two very different heroes, and each has a balance of strengths and weaknesses that works.

Batman is a principled guy, but he's not hung up on his morals. He's a dark horse. He won't hesitate to kill a bad guy just because killing is wrong in general. But he's not extremely powerful; his powers are mainly in technology and cleverness. His ruthlessness gives him a helpful edge in his struggles to protect Gotham.

Superman is much more powerful. He's got the super strength, the X-ray and heat vision, the power of flight, and much more. His main limit is his sense of ethics--he absolutely will not hurt an innocent, and he won't kill anyone he doesn't have to--even if it's a bad guy. He could do just about anything--but he won't do a lot of things. Many people criticize Superman for what they see as his "boy-scout" personality. But he needs that. If he had the ruthlessness of a dark-horse kind of hero, he'd be too powerful to plot around.

Power is fascinating in all genres. But the more power your characters have, the harder it will be for you to put them in believable danger. Limit their powers in a way that makes sense, and you're less likely to twist your plot into tortured elaborations just to give them a problem they can't deal with.

Friday, November 23, 2007

I couldn't resist either

Ok, its officially the holiday season and in addition to working on my novel, buying a computer (yes, FINALLY!), and getting the holiday shopping done, my mind has gone into meltdown mode. I saw Maverick's post earlier this week and had to add my favourite books as well! I encourage you all to comment and add your books! Or recommend a few-- I'm always looking for something good to read.

1. How many books do you own?

I can't say exactly. I tend to give away most of the books I read to friends and family-- probably a couple hundred though.

2. What was the last book you read?

A Brief History of the Dead also-- weird, no?

3. What was the last book you purchased?

Labyrinth, Kate Mosse. So far I'm half-way through the tome and still plugging along.

4. What five books are the most meaningful to you?

This is so difficult. I'd have to say, The Bean Trees, Watership Down, Harry Potter Series, The Secret Garden, His Dark Materials (yes, I know picking series is cheating-- but all well!)
5. What is your favorite most obscure book?

The Wild Swans
, Peg Kerr

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Writing Prompt Wednesday

Tomorrow's Thanksgiving!

Emma pulled up at the white ranch house with the over-trimmed topiary, swallowing a sense of dread. She didn't want to go inside. Her car smelled like the green bean casserole she'd brought to contribute to dinner; her breath solidified in the air in front of her. After the divorce, she hadn't been able to afford to fix the heating system in the car. And Ted would be in there with the kids and his new wife, Madelyn. Emma didn't think she could handle walking in there, green-bean casserole in hand, and looking them both in the face.

Suddenly the door to the house opened.

Monday, November 19, 2007

My Favorite Books Meme

Cruising the blogs today (in a desperate attempt to procrastinate getting my 2,000 words of awful novel in today), I came across a fun meme at Sylvia's Insight. I love books as much as the next blogger, so I decided to play along. Here are my answers:

1. How many books do you own?

I'm not sure; at least a couple hundred; a couple hundred more up at my parents' house; and I currently have two or three severely overdue library books too. I grew up in libraries and I'm pretty frugal, so I check out more than I buy.

2. What was the last book you read?

A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.

3. What was the last book you purchased?

Bill Bryson's latest book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. It was during a book signing he was giving in my home town. I got to be in the same room as Bill Bryson!

4. What five books are the most meaningful to you?

This is a toughie; there are so many books that mean so much to me and that I read over and over. This week I'd have to pick The Lord of the Rings, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, Midnight Salvage by Adrienne Rich, A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle, and....Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

5. What is your favorite most obscure book?

Grendel by John Gardner.

Okay, so usually people tag other people on these things...but I'm leaving participation up to you. What are your favorite books?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Update on my NaNoWriMo

Its half-way through National Novel Writing Month and I’m nowhere near where I should be with my ‘novel’. Currently, I am so far behind I should just give up—but I won’t.

Part of my problem is that I am in love with my delete key. The other major issue, is that I’m a perfectionist. Once I see the words I’ve written on the screen (or page) I automatically hate them. I become convinced that they are the most trite, over-used, poorly written words ever to make their way out of my brain. The truth is that sometimes they are.

None of us write perfect stories the first time round. If you do, I hate you. Ok, maybe hate is too strong a word—I am violently jealous of you and suspect you are lying about your skills. That’s better. Stories take time to cultivate. For a long time an idea just stews in my brain, gathering substance and then launches itself to the forefront of my consciousness with a story that I have to tell. I don’t know what its like for other people, but for me if I try to force a story it just all goes horribly wrong.

So at just over twenty pages into my novel, I’ve got a heroine who thinks she’s a bad person, a hero who wont appear for another forty pages, a villain who’s evil plots are so nefarious they frighten even me, and some lovable birds who get up to an incredible amount of evil mischief. Yeah, it’s a children’s book.

I’m not sure what comes next (well, exile for my heroine), I’m positive I’ve got the tone and voice of the story wrong, and that the heroine is just plain ol’ boring. Normally, this would force me to scrap the whole draft, but I wont, not this time. I am going to write the crappiest heroine ever and just suck it up and revise extensively later. If I’ve learned anything this month, its to just shrug my shoulders and write on.

I’d love to chat more about my story—but its time for me to head back to the internet cafĂ© and the world of my characters.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday!!

Whelp-- as you may have noticed we weren't able to bring you a writing prompt last Wednesday. However, we hope the below one makes up for it.

He had been observing her for sometime now. She didn't get angry often and generally had a pleasant disposition. Her hand shook as she hung up the phone, her face still red from the harsh words she'd nearly shouted. She hid her face behind a the curtain of her hair and sighed. He thought that sound was the most perfect sound in the world.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Writing My Novel: Resisting the Delete Key

So I decided to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge this month. I cheated, of course; I started with a novel I was already thirty pages into. But "winning" by their rules doesn't really matter to me; I just want to write this thing. I chose an idea I've been chewing on for several years: a paranormal romance in traditional Regency England. So far, my cute little debutante has had her parents killed in a freak supernatural attack of some sort, been propositioned and locked in a tower by an evil cousin who's been hitting the opium too hard, and nearly fallen off several roofs. I swear, whenever I need something interesting to happen in a scene I put the heroine on a roof and watch her nearly fall off. She must hate me.

My hero, fifty pages in, has remained a man of mystery so far. He's made a few cameo appearances, but he's yet to be formally introduced to my roof-dangling heroine. I'm always a little apprehensive about writing heroes. Why? I think it's because I really fell for the heroes in my favorite romances--paranormals included. I fell hard for a certain, specific and very subtle mix of arrogance and vulnerability that I have an innate fear of not being able to capture myself. I hold my heroes to near-impossible standards. Every word he says must be spine-tingling. Every glance must be smoldering. Every touch must be...well, you get the idea. I think I've got to break down this idea of perfection and write like he's just an average guy/vampire/werewolf/whatever. Then maybe things will get rolling.

I came very close to hitting the delete key today. My unfortunate heroine had escaped from a house fire of possibly-supernatural origins and wound up (where else?) on the roof. Then she wound up in the clutches of an unsavory distant relative who wants to marry her so he can inherit her property. I'm planning to have her escape and unwittingly crash a party of very rich and good-looking regency people, including my hero. And that's how they meet. The whole evil cousin thing is just a plot device to get her closer to meeting the hero. But I was toying with the idea of having her meet him much more directly--maybe she falls off the roof and lands on him--and cutting out the evil cousin altogether. I'd be deleting about ten pages, and starting with Chapter 3 all over again. Several times I highlighted the offending scenes and deleted them. Then hit "Ctrl-Z" and put them back. That's how it went, for about five minutes: delete, put back. Delete, put back. Delete, put back.

I finally decided to keep the evil cousin for now. He might wind up being important later, but that's not the point. The point is that the delete key is the call of the Siren, and I must resist. Or I will be dragged down to the bottom of the ocean by some chick with seaweed for hair, and never have access to a computer ever again. And I just can't write anything longhand.

So: that's how it's going for me. Resisting the call of the delete key, one cheeseball paragraph at a time. For those of you who might be tempted to respond with the advice of listening to my delete key so the world is spared another awful novel, don't bother. I tell myself that every day, and I don't listen. What makes you think I'd listen to you?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Why Grad School?

Lately, many of my friends have been squealing out their good news, they will be returning to grad school! Part of me is delighted that they have decided to pursue higher education, part of me is vaguely jealous, and the other part wants to scream: WHY?

Sure, I can see the obvious draws of higher learning—I’d love to get a MA or PhD in Creative Writing or Writing for Children (my two passions), but I’m not ready to put myself into anymore debt to go back to school. I’m still paying off far more student loan debt than I’d care to discuss. I would love nothing more than to go back to school and spend my days with people pursuing a similar creative dream and impassioned about their studies, but the practical side of me reminds me that for every bestselling novelist who went to grad school for writing (Jodi Picoult, Alice Sebold, Robyn Young) there are another ten (Stephen King, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwall, John Grisham) who didn’t. As my compatriot Maverick so often reminds me, if you want to write, then write.

I hate to admit it (actually, I’m proud to admit it—but it makes me sound lamer then I am, doesn’t it?) but she’s right. It you want to be a writer, then it’s that simple. You don’t need higher education. I’m not saying that an MA in Writing isn’t a good thing—it is, from all the professional writers I’ve talked to who’ve gone through an MA program in writing; it’s a rewarding and worthwhile experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about taking some writing classes—I feel like I’m out of practice and since starting this blog, I’ve been reminded of how much I love to write. I’ve been trying to decide if I need to take the plunge back to school….

I’m terrified to admit this—but most of the time I fear applying to grad school because I refuse to settle. I want to go to a school of my choice, that has an exemplarily program, and will help me become a published writer. I also know that Creative Writing MAs are pricey, in demand, and very choosey. I am afraid I wouldn’t get into the schools I would want to go to and have to settle—which at this point in my life is unacceptable. Here’s the other tricky matter—I don’t want to pay to go to grad school. I want a free ride.

So, I go back to the lesson about writing success that I see everyday in my job—if you want to write a novel, write it. Be possessed by the writing demons and just get your stories out on paper. Make time for your writing, Revise you writing. Create a writing habit. Write a lot of crap and pare it down to something really good. In other words, write.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grad school—and the obvious solution for me is to try to WRITE on my own, with the support of friends, for a few years and see where it takes me. I think going back to grad school at this time for an MA in Writing would be a waste of money (and time) for me. I’m not convinced that I won’t eventually go back for an MFA—I just think it would be well into the future, if ever.

So, while I’m happy to congratulate my friends who are returning to school to become professors (yay), nurses (ohmigod—these friends truly amaze me, I am SO proud of them), doctors (see the preceding comment), designers (I wish I had their courage), publishing MAs (why? I don’t understand this one at all—you can get this for FREE its called experience in your FIELD!). I will wait on my return to grad school (if ever), I firmly believe that I want to be a writer—not a professor, and a working writer at that. Someone who lives by her craft and I’m not yet convinced I need an MFA to do that.

Monday, November 5, 2007

My Take on the Writers' Strike

TV and film writers are now on strike after they failed to come to terms with the TV and movie industry about payments for new media distribution of their shows and movies. The industry is making money on downloads, despite the proliferation of pirated DVD's and downloads--but they're resisting giving writers a cut of the profits. Here are my thoughts on the strike.

There are plenty of established procedures in writing careers that strike me as exploitative. Ever since I started looking seriously at writing as a career, it's occurred to me that at some crucial point--or maybe consistently for decades and centuries--writers didn't stand up for their rights. As a result, certain practices became common procedure that seem horribly unfair, at least to me.

Kill fees, anyone? This one's at the top of my list, since I'm a freelance writer in my other life. I strongly feel that if you finish a project, you should get the full price for it--end of story. If the client doesn't like it, that's what the revision process is for. What writer took a look at a contract that stated he would get paid only a fraction of the full price if the publication decided--through no fault of his own and for any reason whatever--not to use his work, and thought "now this is a good deal"?

Book remaindering. If your book doesn't sell well, the publisher sells it at a steep discount--and you don't get a dime. How is that fair? And that's only if you're talking about a hardcover or trade paperback. They don't even bother trying to sell at a steep discount when it comes to mass-market paperbacks; the booksellers just rip the titles off and send 'em back to the publisher to be pulped. Jeez, why not at least give them to a used book store?

Royalty percentages are based on net, not gross. For every copy of your book that's sold, you'll get a check for some percentage of the profit (not a big percentage; something like 5% to 10%). But we're not talking gross profit here. We're talking net profit. That's the money left over after the publisher deducts printing costs, shipping costs, and all sorts of other costs it took to get your book from manuscript to Borders. Even movie stars get a cut of the gross, not the net, profit of movies they're in--but not writers. Guess actors have better agents.

No pay for DVD sales. Back when DVD's were getting big, writers failed to negotiate royalties for movies and TV shows that went to DVD. As a result, no writer gets a cut of any DVD of his movie or show. This is really unfair--in my opinion, any time money changes hands on something someone wrote, that writer should get a cut.

That's what this strike is about--new media rights. Writers want to get paid for movies and TV shows distributed over the web. And they have every right to, in my opinion. For decades, other people have been getting rich off the hard work of writers. It's time they took a little piece of the pie back. If there's any justice in the world, this will be only the beginning.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Making a Commitment to My (Really Awful) Novel

It's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo: say that ten times fast!) and I've officially made a commitment to write a novel in a month. This is a big deal for me, as I'm a compulsive eraser. I've started dozens of novels. Somewhere around a hundred pages in, I always manage to convince myself that what I'm writing should never, ever see the light of day--and I erase the whole thing and start over. Not this time!

I signed up for NNWM after I saw that my partner in crime, Minion, had done it. The goal is something like 50,000 words in a month. Shouldn't be too hard, right? That's something like 2,000 words a day for a week, if you don't write on weekends. I usually do write about that much per day when I take time to write my novel. The thing is that I do it once a week, not once a day. But this month, I've decided to push all other projects (except paid client work) to the side.

The thing about such a close deadline is that it leaves no time for editing. No time for second-guessing. I can't worry that my plot isn't making sense or my characters aren't deep enough or I always forget to describe my surroundings. I can't stop midway through and think "geez, this is really awful." If I'm writing this fast, of course it'll be awful. And I don't care. I'm giving up trying to write a masterpiece. I've even given up trying to write a halfway decent book.

The story I'm working on now is a paranormal romance novel. Before, I always tried to make this book literary and poetic and sexy all at once. I wanted it not only to be a romance, but a genre-busting masterpiece of contemporary fantasy. Yeah; I've given that up. In this book, the plot will not make much sense. The dialogue will not always sizzle and snap. I might lose my way and wander off course for a bit. Do I care? Nope.

The thing is, I always wanted to be a novelist. But I never quite hit my stride in novel-writing. I never got to the midpoint of the plot, let alone the end. I never allowed myself to have faith in the storyline and see how things unfold. A brand new book idea has the potential to be a brilliant masterpiece, but a book that's halfway through is limited. A hundred pages in, you've chosen your voice, your basic characters, your plot arc. And if you're a perfectionist like me, it's easy to look at the choices you've made and say "that's not good enough"--no matter how sound your choices were.

This time, I'm not doing that. Instead, I'm going to stretch my legs and see what I'm really capable of as a writer.