Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Six Reasons Why Your Novel Isn't Getting Written

Lots of people talk about wanting to write a book. But how many people actually do it? The truth is that you may consider yourself an author-in-waiting; may think of yourself as a writer; and may see yourself as a professional. But if you're not writing, you're still among those people who say it and don't do it.

So if so many people want to write books, why don't more people do it? I may know a thing or two about this. I have procrastinated, raged at myself, procrastinated, despised myself, procrastinated, wrote a sentence, and then procrastinated some more for years. This year I'm finally getting organized about writing my novel--and I really think this time it's different. Here's why for six years I didn't write a novel--and why you still may be stuck in that bookless rut.

You're too tired. Let's face it, we're all a little sleep deprived lately. If you're getting up early for work and going to bed late, you're not going to have enough mental clarity during the day to be open for inspiration. You're going to be run-down, headachey, grouchy, and have trouble concentrating. That's no condition to write a book in, or even a poem.

The easy solution, of course, is to get more sleep. Sometimes that's easier said than done. But in the meantime, you can use your sleep-deprived state to your advantage. Keep a dream journal and write down the striking images and scenarios you experience in your dreams. When you're woken up from a deep sleep, you're often jolted awake in the middle of a dream--which means that you may be able to recall your dreams vividly and with more accuracy than if you woke up on your own. So write those dreams down, and use them for inspiration.

You keep getting interrupted. Virginia Woolf once said that in order to produce creative work, a woman must have a room of her own. I believe that both men and women need a space of their own and some uninterrupted time to produce creatively. You need to be able to carve out that time and place in your life. Talk to family and tell them that between five and six (or whatever time works for you), you must not be interrupted. Turn off your cell and unplug the phone. Make sure everyone around you knows that you're serious about your writing time and respects your space.

You have too much on your plate. If you don't have time to write, you can't. It's that simple. But you'd be surprised at the stolen time you can find during the day. Take a notebook with you and write during your lunch break. Commute by train instead of driving, and write on the way to work and back. Keep a small notebook in your purse and write down ideas, lyrical lines, and striking images that occur to you while you're grocery shopping or sitting in a meeting. Take back that free time that occurs while you're out doing something else, and you'll be more productive than you think.

You don't have the technology. My good friend Minion didn't have a computer at home for a long time. She wrote during work, which is dangerous--you never know when your boss is peeking over your shoulder. But you don't need a computer to write. Go back to basics and fill a notebook with character descriptions and plot outlines. You may find that when you have it in hardcopy, it's more solid and real--and you're more inspired to stick with it.

You're scared. I get this a lot. I think my novel has to be perfect, and whatever I write invariably winds up being flawed and much less than I'd thought it would be. Don't let that stop you. Give yourself permission to write a crappy novel whenever you sit down to write. Say to yourself, "Self, what you will write here today might suck. That's fine. Just write it." Remember, writers are practical people who get things done the best they can. Perfectionists wind up being critics--not writers.

You're relying too much on inspiration. I did this for a long time as well. I had a great idea. I typed and typed and typed. I gave birth in a rush of creative ecstasy. But I never quite got the whole baby out. (That's a pretty gross metaphor. Sorry!) Anyway, the problem with inspiration is that when it abandons you, you often don't know what to do next. It's great while it lasts, but it's not dependable. To keep from being left high and dry, write a careful outline and stick to it.

Writing a novel isn't easy. But people do it. Some authors crank out a novel every few months. There is no reason why we all can't do that. Take a hard look at yourself--what's holding you back?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Writing Prompt Wednesday

Emily leaned out the second story window and watched the papers drifting to the ground far below. Michael's body lay in a heap, one leg tucked oddly beneath his body and his neck at a grotesque angle. She knew she would be sick if she kept looking at him. Still, she didn't look away.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Progress Report: My Big "Client Project"

So, I wrote in January about landing my "biggest client ever"--myself. In the wake of NaNoWriMo, I decided I needed to look at novel writing the way I approach client projects: with a detailed outline and a schedule I can stick to. I wrote an outline of my remaining story, detailed in places and general in others. I set a schedule. This is a big change from the way I used to write, mainly by the seat of my pants. So far, it's been a resounding success in the past month. Here are some of the things I did wrong in the past--that I'm doing right now.

I've learned that the outline is absolutely necessary. I have to admit, I'm not always on the same mental page when I sit down to pick up a narrative thread as I was when I left off. Sometimes I forget where I was going before, or what the point of that scene was anyway and what I wanted to do with it. Other times I'm just in a different mood and that can affect where I want to take my writing. With an outline, I can check back to see where I was in the narrative and what the scene I'm currently in will lead to--I can keep myself on track. I cannot stress how important this is.

Before, I would rely on inspiration to carry me--and sometimes it would carry me quite a ways before abandoning me, lost, in foreign territory--but it would always abandon me eventually. I've learned that yes, inspiration and imagination are key--but I have to use them within the framework of an outline, not rely completely on them. They are undependable, and my writing needs to be regular if I ever want this to be my job.

I also build flexibility into my schedule. My schedule is 2500 words per week. I don't say "per day," I say "per week." I can do them all in one sitting, or I can spread them out throughout the week--as long as I make my quota, it doesn't matter. I've been successful at setting aside a few hours each week, once a day, to work on the novel. I've found that within those few hours, I can usually get more than 2500 words easily. But if I don't, it's okay to do a little more later.

Before, when I set schedules, I'd be very harsh with myself: I must write 1,000 words a day, or I am Not A Real Writer. If I didn't have time one day or just didn't have the energy or inspiration, I would feel like I was doomed to failure. This would make me so discouraged I'd eventually give up on writing at all for a while. With this schedule, I have the flexibility to allow life to intervene--which it always will. It doesn't matter, I still get my work done.

So far, this experiment has been going great. For the first time, I really feel like I'm doing something sustainable. No, I don't feel like I'm being carried away by inspiration. I'm not convinced I'll like my book when I'm done; I'm pretty sure it sucks. The difference now is that my outline is keeping me on track and I'm finding it much easier to resist the delete key--because I have a plan. It's less easy for me to talk myself into believing that if I just start over again from a different place, the whoel thing will be better.

Will I wind up with a full-length book in less than a year? At the rate I'm going now, you bet. It's an exciting thought, but I'm not getting too excited yet. I don't want to jinx anything. Right now, I'm content to just plod onward, one step at a time.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Being a Good Writing Partner

Every year, a few of my friends and I get together for a writing critique group that lasts as long as we can keep it up before our lives take over. We're scattered across the globe at the moment, but we exchange and encourage through e-mail. As our latest round starts up, I've started thinking about how I can be a better critique-er (is that a word?). Here are a few things I know I should remember to do more often.

Stay encouraging. Sometimes I get so focused on how to make something better that I forget to think about how I sound to the other person. Remember that the piece you are reading is near and dear to the writer's heart, and make sure that you stress the good things about the piece as much as the things you think should change.

Give useful suggestions. It's not enough to make general comments like "I don't really like so-and-so as the main character" or "I don't think your character development is strong enough." Give specific examples of the things you're pointing out, and offer suggestions they can take to make the situation better. Negative criticism isn't useful unless it comes with specific steps to take to improve.

Even praise should have a purpose. Saying "I love this story!" is great and writers appreciate it--but why do you love it? What's working for you? General positive praise might be less damaging than general negative comments, but it can be just as useless. When offering positive feedback, tell what you like about the story and why.

Don't nit pick too much. I always go through everything with a fine-toothed comb in search of grammatical errors, awkward wording, and other nit-picky details. While this can be extremely useful, remember that in the first stages of a draft, that sentence you're agonizing over will probably get changed anyway. In the early stages of a story, what's more important is theme, organization, characterization, description--all the larger issues that can make the difference between a so-so and a truly great piece of writing. Don't forget the forest for the trees.

Writing groups can be a big help, but they can also tear down a piece of writing before it has a chance to bloom. Remember that as a critiquer you have a lot of power--and make sure you use it for good, not evil.

Friday, February 8, 2008

My Apologies

Normally, I'd write you a lovely Friday post-- but today I'm afraid I'm out of time. Its been an incredibly stressful week and unfortuantely, I just haven't been able to get a proper post up for you. You'll have to forgive my obvious lack of planning and I promise that NEXT week I'll give you some proper food for (blogging) thought.


a (very) overworked Minion.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My Romance Novel Experiment: Writing With a Buddy (Update One)

Right, so here I am on Ash Wednesday, glumly accepting that I've given up shopping for the next 40 days (don't know HOW I'm going to handle that). I'm not really religious, but for whatever reason ever year I find myself giving up something for Lent. I think its for this reason that I've decided to take on the task of working on two romance novels this month. One is a contemporary chicky/lit novel and the other is a real adventure in every aspect of the word.

I'd like to happily report that my romance novel experiment is going quite well. Over the weekend I began work on a novel that I'm writing with my darling friend, Amy. Normally I don't enjoy writing as a team. In fact, I detest it. I used to protest so strenuously over 'group writing assignments' that I'm sure my professors were convinced that if they assigned me one more 'group writing task' I'd stage a violent coup...and that's putting it mildly. However, when my friend Amy showed me the scenes she'd crafted off of a writing prompt I'd posted I thought-- this stuff is fun, its got potential. So, I wrote to her and said, 'Can we try writing this one together?'. Treating this whole project like a witty game we've embarked into the land of romance noveling, and I have to say, its been a hoot.

Whenever I can't decide if our main character should be ravished by pirates, cheat on her lovely (if a little bland at this moment) boyfriend, or throw her grief stricken heart into the sea-- I get to pass the plot over to Amy. Amy, who's wit and humour put mine to shame, always manages to create another improbable and delicious scenario that allows me to enjoy seeing her name pop up in my mailbox. In fact, working on this project has reminded me of all the fun I have writing. Long after I've sent my portion of our novel off to Amy, I plug away at my computer-- inspired to dwell in my made up worlds a bit longer.

Now, I don't know about you, but if working on a project that makes you happy and reminds you of WHY you like writing so much isn't a worthwhile venture, than frankly I don't know what is!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Characterization: The Backbone of Good Fantasy

Fantasy novels share a lot of features. They deal with a simplistic "good vs. evil" world view; coming-of-age themes; and the power of friendship to triumph over great odds. This last bit is crucial, because more than any other genre, fantasy novels are about friendship. The best fantasies center around a core group of characters who team up to take on whatever evil is threatening the world, and it's how these characters interact that can make or break the book. Here are some guidelines that work for creating a memorable cast of characters for your next fantasy novel.

Everyone should have something distinct to offer. Fantasy is the only genre I can think of where more characters are better than fewer. Tolkien had his four hobbits instead of one; Robert Jordan had a veritable flock of female love interests and three (not one) small-town boys destined for great things; and Eddings had dozens of sorcerors, knights and thieves who drifted in and out of the core group. But even though you have a lot of room to go crazy and create as many characters as you can invent names for, you must find a way to make each one matter.

The core group in a good fantasy novel is bigger than the sum of its parts. Each character brings a crucial skill or outlook without which the group as a whole couldn't succeed. So whenever you create your characters, ask yourself: how will they work together? What unique skill or quality does each character bring to the table?

Internal conflicts and romances are key. Does one member of your core group hate another? How does their relationship grow or change over time? Is there a love triangle going on? How does that change the group dynamic? Adding internal conflicts and unions between characters adds texture and interest to your group, and gives you a fantastic opportunity to spin sub-plots. Instead of creating characters who are just there to do a job, let them gang up on each other, form alliances, and fall in love. Then let them slowly grow to trust one another over time. This will make your group a stronger cohesive unit in the end--and let you make your characters more three-dimensional.

In Fantasy, splitting up is a good thing. Want to develop your characters further? There should always be a time when the group splits up. This will allow your reader to get to know each character on a more individual level, and let you showcase each character's skills and personality in more detail.

Each character should have his own agenda. Why is each character in the group? If they're all there for the same purpose initially, it can be boring. Let one of your characters be out for revenge or justice; another for wealth and riches; and a third to win someone's heart. Give each a strong motivation that may put him at odds with the group occasionally--even though it causes them to work together most of the time. As your story develops, each character might come to the realization that they want the same thing. But again, let that grow--don't put it there from the beginning.

Fantasy novels are all about that core group of characters. If your group isn't well developed, your novel will flop. If it's strong and well-conceived--and if you use the novel to develop your characters as you advance the plot--you're more likely to write something memorable.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Eureka! I want to write a Romance novel....

Right, so this week one of our readers sent me a hilarious opening to her story based on one of our writing prompts! I've never felt so proud-- or really, laughed as much! Its brilliant, funny, and reminds me of why I adore writing (and reading for that matter!).

Lately, I've been in a writing rut. I've been zipping my way through books and really getting my reading groove on, but I haven't been able to sit down and get into my own stories. Which is fustrating (to say the least!) and has made me feel really cross with myself.

You see, the thing is, I've got a secret ambition-- to write really crappy romance novels! I know, shocking! Its not that I don't adore writing literary fiction (I do). I know in a lot of ways that literary fiction is one of my strengths. I really enjoy crafting a beautiful and moving story that makes me see the world differently. The thing is, Romance novels feel like so much more FUN to write.

Maybe I'm just tried of the depressing weather, biting cold, and winter slump--but the idea of being ravenged by pirates, rescued by a prince, or seduced by a dark handsome stranger all seem like very appealing topics for me to write about. (Thankfully, I get to go home every night to my dark and handsome husband.)

Don't get me wrong I love the children's book I'm working on. It's just that I've got these super high standards for it and I think that's crippling my progress. As far as my literary fiction homefront, all I can think about are really dark (and somewhat depressing) stories, which are emotion heavy, and very thin on plot. I know I'm weird, but I'm really useless at writing unless I've got my plot all fleshed out.

So, this weekend, I'm going to go home and work on a 'romance novel' and on Friday I will update you on my progress.