Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Reading About Writing: 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron

I read a lot, usually 150-200 books a year, and I recently decided to turn at least a little bit of my reading time into something I could call productive with regard to my writing career. (Beyond the very nebulous notion of reading widely in your prospective genres, that is. I think I can safely say I've got that one covered.) I normally read fiction, but from now on I'm going to try to read at least one nonfiction book about some aspect of writing or publishing a month as well. Writing tips, editing methods, inspiration, the publishing process, something.

Feel free to suggest your favorites. I've got a very short list to work from right now.

And then, of course, at the end of the month, I'll blog about the book I read. Somehow I just knew I'd eventually end up writing about reading about writing. It seemed... inevitable.

What Writing Book Did I Read This Month?
In honor of the impending chaos of NaNoWriMo, I chose to read Rachel Aaron's 2k to 10k.

Why Did I Pick That Book?
I confess the fact that it was short and only cost me 99 cents had a great deal to do with my decision making process.

But more than that, learning to write faster without sacrificing quality is something I'm very interested in. When I started writing again last October, my very modest goal was to write 500 words per day at least 4 days per week. ~2000 words per week.

Starting in just a few days, I'll be taking a serious whack at NaNoWriMo and my goal is to write ~2000 words per day. Compared to last year's goal, that's a bit of a step up. And it's important to note, I think, that I have not somehow located four times as much writing time in my daily life to accommodate this change.

So, you know, writing faster would be nice. Writing faster and still writing well would be really nice. I'm sure the Inner Editor would appreciate it if I didn't just slap a bunch of unintelligible nonsense down all over the page in the name of hitting the goal every morning.

What Did I Think of It?
I enjoyed the book. It was a quick read. It was helpful without being preachy. There wasn't any fluttery nonsense about the drama and glory of art for art's sake and it didn't read like an instruction manual or a textbook either. It was just a very down-to-earth, sometimes humorous, account by a hard-working author, telling me about how she gets things done.

If you've never read a book on writing, you probably won't understand how rare that is. One of the reasons I don't read a lot of writing books is most of them make me feel like I'm an idiot and I'm doing everything all wrong and I'm never, never, NEVER going to sell a book if I keep carrying on this way. Or, if I get one of the starry-eyed, speshul snowflake versions, maybe I will sell a book, but I'll do so by betraying the very nature of art and I'll never be happy again.

This book wasn't like that. Aaron lays out her process and gives good examples from her own work, as well as creating a blue print that can be easily modified and integrated into my writing life. There's no earth-shattering revelations in here, just good common sense ideas put together in a way that's accessible and adaptable.

I also liked that Aaron used examples from her own work for the most part. There are some of the usual big-name hits in there--I have yet to run across any book that talks about plot structure that doesn't mention Star Wars--but I loved all the little bits and pieces from her own experiences. I feel stuff like that really helps to ground the advice. It's not theoretical analysis; this is what actually happened.

I don't think you'd have to be familiar with the Eli Monpress novels to relate to or understand the examples she gives, because they're general enough and well-explained, but since I recently read the series, I got the lessons and a few little glimpses behind-the-scenes too. :-)

What Did I Learn from It?
The book turned out to be exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it. As I noted in my year-end review post, I'm looking for a way to go from being a pantser to a plotter and 2k to 10k provided me with just that. I'm using her plotting guidelines to put together Guardian and I plan to use her writing method as well. I particularly love the idea of the Knowledge, Time, and Enthusiasm Triangle.

Yes, I drew one out and stuck it up next to my monitor. Don't even try to pretend your surprised.

I'm also planning on keeping track of my productivity right in my Scrivener project, which is something it hadn't occurred to me to do before. I doubt I'll see the benefits of that change right away, but I like numbers and data and I'll latch onto any excuse to play with a spreadsheet. Particularly if I can tell myself it's not procrastination; it's for SCIENCE.

I should probably have started doing all that already, so I could get some data on my plotting productivity too, but it didn't occur to me until now and I'm pretty much done with the pre-work at this point. Maybe next time.

When going through the plotting steps, I found the timeline particularly useful. I've done some timeline work before, but that was always a part of revisions and I usually only bothered writing down the scenes I'd actually written. This time I put in the things that happen off the page too, like what the villains are doing and when people do boring the things like eat breakfast and go home for the night. I found at least three plot holes doing just this step alone and shifting things around now, before the writing, was so much easier than it would have been otherwise.

Would I Recommend This Book to Another Writer?
Absolutely. If you need a good plotting method, or are looking for ways to eek a bit more productivity out of you day (and really, who isn't?), this book offers some great stuff. Even if you're not in the market for a whole new process, you'll probably find at least a few tips worth your while in there. Like I said before, it's a quick read and it's down-to-earth. Also, if you're like me and you enjoy the behind-the-scenes kind of stuff, it's interesting to hear Aaron talk about problems she solved and choices she made while working on the Eli Monpress series.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Flash Fiction: Drip

This post has been temporarily removed from the site because I have crazy dreams about someday publishing these words. Should those dreams come to nothing, I'll put the original post back up for you to enjoy or ignore at your discretion. In the meantime, you can find my other flash fiction pieces here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Processing Year End

WARNING: Long Blog Post Ahead

Wannabe writer/stay-at-home mom is not a situation I was born into. It's not even what I've been doing for the entirety of the "adult" portion of my life. Before my kids were born, I did my time in the business world. I worked retail jobs and admin jobs and customer service jobs. I never really liked any of those jobs, of course, because deep down I’m just not a day job kind of person.

(Don’t look at me like that. Some people do actually like having a normal day job. Or so I’ve heard.)

One of the things you hear about a lot in business is a wonderful little gem of a process called Year-End. “Finance has to run their year-end reporting on Tuesday so the servers will be wheezy and pretty much dead all day.” “Book a conference room and get all the sales guys in here so we can go over their year-end reviews.” “The branch manager will be stuck on a conference call all afternoon; I heard the DM wants to talk about year-end.”

For those of you who have never heard this term before, it works like this: at the end of every fiscal year (which doesn’t always coincide with the calendar year, by the way), a bunch of reports get run and analysis gets done and everyone has to sit down and talk for hours about how the year went. You’ve got to answer for how your spending matched up against your budget, look at inventory losses, and make sales plans for the following year. Depending on the size and complexity of the business, this can take days or weeks or even months. It’s a giant pain in the neck and pretty much everyone hates it, but it’s one of those necessary evils of the business world.

Lucky for me, the kids don’t demand much in the way of fiscal reporting and sales projections, so I don’t actually have to deal with this anymore. But I do still like coming to the end of a year and looking back at my progress, so I’ve decided to do a little year-end reporting with regard to my wannabe writing career. And because I'm blogging my findings, you all get to sit in on the process.

Please, try to contain your enthusiasm.

And yes, I know it’s not the end of the year yet, but it’s the end of my year. My writing year, by virtue of the fact that I started this little adventure in October of 2012, runs from October to September. Because I love NaNoWriMo so much, it’ll probably continue to do so unless a publishing contract comes along and forces me to change things.

So, where do I stand? First, we must look back. Journey with me back in time.

My goals at the beginning of October 2012 were very simple. I wanted to ease back into a writing career. Build things up slowly so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed and quit before I even got started.

1. Write a workable rough draft of Familiar by September 30, 2013.
2. Build a small social media platform through Twitter and Google+ (I don’t do Facebook), building to a habit of posting something every day.
3. Build a writing blog, working up to posting at least three times a week.
4. Work a decent chunk of writing time into my daily routine.

Those were my four goals and I think they were pretty reasonable. Fast forwarding to the end of the year, let's take a look at how I did with them.

Goal #1: Write a workable rough draft of Familiar by September 30, 2013.
What’s the Status? Unmet. :-( Even by giving up my plotting time for Guardian and extending my deadline to October 31, I’m still not going to get this done. I’ve got approximately 80,000 words down at this point and I’d guess I’m still about 30,000 words from The End.
What Went Wrong? I tried a loose form of plotting this time around with Familiar and while that did help keep me on track, I don’t think it helped enough. I spent a lot of time flailing around trying to figure out where I was going when I ran into problems. Also, I have a lot of scenes that look nice but don’t really do much of anything. The partial draft I’ve ended up with is a very bloated one and I can already tell revising it is going to be a nightmare.
What Went Right? There is a strong story and good characters here. One of my primary worries when I decided to come back to this story was that I would discover the idea wasn’t as good as I’d initially thought and there wasn’t enough to it to sustain a novel. There is enough (possibly enough for a couple of novels, actually) and even though I’m not going to meet my deadline roughing it out, I am currently planning to finish the project.
What Have I Learned From This? Given the small amount of writing time I actually have, I can’t afford to waste a lot of time writing a bunch of crap that’s just going to get trashed come revisions time. I need to suck it up and find a more detailed plotting method that works for me, so I can spend the bulk of my time on words that will actually be useful down the line.
What Are My Next Steps? I’m going to take November off from this project to work on Guardian during NaNoWriMo. Assuming I don’t completely burn myself out with that, I’ll come back to it in December to finish out the rough draft before putting it to bed for a while.

Goal #2: Build a small social media platform through Twitter and Google+ (I don’t do Facebook), building to a habit of posting something every day.
What’s the Status? Met! :-)
What Went Wrong? I’ve been less successful at using Google+ than I have Twitter. I can’t use one application to manage my account on both platforms, and the applications I use for Twitter are much more user-friendly than Google+, which means I often forget to post on Google+ or even check my Google+ stream.
What Went Right? I feel like the Twitter account is working out really well for me. I’m by no means a power-user or anything, but I have several followers who actually read what I post and interact with me. (A significantly larger percentage of my followers seem to be bots or people who just added me to boost their own numbers, but I’m okay with that. To each their own.) I’ve also found a couple of hashtags on Twitter that have helped me boost my productivity during my writing hours. The #1k1hr sprinting has been particularly useful and I’m getting 3-5 of them in every week now. I’ve more than doubled my weekly output since adding those sprints to my routine.
What Have I Learned From This? At this point I think the social media platform is more a background aspect of my career. It’s something I enjoy and I’m sure it’ll come in handy as a marketing tool one day when I’m actually published, but for the moment it’s not something I need to devote any more time to than I already do.
What Are My Next Steps? Continue with the Twitter account up and devote some time to figuring out Google+. Continue with the #1k1hr sprints, working up to 5-8 per week.

Goal #3: Build a writing blog, working up to posting at least three times a week.
What’s the Status? Unmet. :-(
What Went Wrong? The blog got off to a very rocky start, with posts coming few and far between. As of the end of September I was still only posting once per week. With October’s addition of weekly flash fiction posts, I’m up to two posts a week, but I still haven’t cobbled together time for a more regular blogging schedule.
What Went Right? The blog is at least still there and getting updated at least a couple of times a week. I’m starting to add some regular “features”, which I hope will help me stick to a schedule and possibly generate some interest.
What Have I Learned From This? It’s very tempting to spend a lot of time on this project, at the expense of my writing time. It’s also tempting to push it to the complete other end of the spectrum and make it too low a priority to actually get any of my attention. Designating specific time for blogging has helped level my posting frequency out without letting it overwhelm my calendar.
What Are My Next Steps? Continue to build time for this into my schedule and work up to 4 posts per week by the end of next year.

Goal #4: Work a decent chunk of writing time into my daily routine.
What’s the Status? Met! :-)
What Went Wrong? It took a long time to figure this one out, in part because the goal itself isn’t very specific. Just what is a “decent chunk” of writing time anyway? I spent a lot of time experimenting with different times of day and different lengths of time, trying to find the right balance of productivity and sleep-deprivation.
What Went Right? I have settled into a routine now that gives me about an hour and a half of time to write every morning, which I manage to stick to 5-6 days a week.
What Have I Learned From This? I learned several things during all my trial and error this year, which makes it very worthwhile, in my opinion. First, I prefer writing at night, but I’m just too tired to be disciplined by the end of the day. Much as it pains me to get up before the sun, needs must. Second, I cannot write every day. I end up giving one of my writing sessions over to these fabulous blog posts and I always end up with at least one day a week where I just cannot drag myself out of bed at ouch-it-hurts o'clock. Six days of getting up ridiculously early to write is all my sanity can take. Third, I need about a half an hour of random staring at the screen before the caffeine filters through enough of my brain to actually put words on the page in any kind of logical sequence. Which means in order to get my hour and half of writing time, I actually need a two hour window. And fourth, with an hour of dedicated concentration, I can bang out at least 1000 reasonably good words, which is much better than the 250-500 words an hour I get when I'm trying to write while doing other things, like watch my kids or have a conversation with my husband.
What Are My Next Steps? Continue to work regular writing time into my schedule, working up to adding another hour of dedicated time per day.

As you can see, I had a pretty productive year in terms of logistics and figuring things out, though I only hit 50% in terms of actually meeting my goals. I think this is a part of the process a lot of people write off, but I felt it was important if I was going to make a serious go of this.

What does all this mean for my plans for my writerly 2014?

Goals for 2014:
1. Finish the zero draft of Familiar by January 31, 2014.
2. Write a zero draft of Guardian by September 30, 2014.
3. Write, revise, and submit a short story (TBD) by September 30, 2014.
4. Work the blog up to 4 regular posts per week.
5. Create more regularly scheduled writing time, working up to 15 hours per week.

I've gotten a little more focused on output rather than logistics this time. 2013 was all about testing things out and finding a way to make my process work for me. I'm hoping that having spent this year getting a feel for what works in my schedule and what doesn't means I'll be able to have more predictable results going forward.

The Idea Salesman is (cautiously) excited about the third goal on the list, specifically the part where it says submit. Personally, I'm kind of terrified of that one, but it's there and I'm going to post this before I chicken out and take it off the list.

What about you? How are your goals going this year? Have you set any goals for next year yet? Anything on the list got you particularly excited? Or particularly anxious?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Flash Fiction: Fun Facts About Zombies

PROMPT/CHALLENGE SUMMARY: In this interest of full disclosure, this is actually an old piece from last October, but as soon as I decided to start posting flash fiction here on the blog, I ended up not having time to actually write any. Because that's how these things work. I yanked the prompt out of. . .  well, let’s say the sky. People talk about zombies a lot, particularly in October, and my youngest daughter was still a newborn and refusing to sleep when we actually wanted her to. The ideas just kind of collided. 

Zombies are so cool right now. People are just falling all over themselves to jump on the zombie train. And that’s nice. Everyone loves to be the popular girl every now and again. But before you all get carried away with the grey face paint, open sores, and dirty hair, there are a few things you should know about zombies.

For authenticity and all that.

Firstly, we rarely shamble. That whole arms raised and stumbling around as though we don't remember how to pick up our feet image is just rude. It's prejudice, like assuming every black guy you see in a dark parking lot is looking for someone to mug or every kid named after a province in India is the best one to cheat off on the chem final. We walk. Or run, if the occasion calls for it. I have even, in very rare circumstances, been known to salsa.

Shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut up! Just shut up and go to sleep, dammit! All I want is ten minutes of fleurking peace and quiet around here so I can pee and maybe make a sandwich! Is that really so much to ask!?!

Sorry about that. I ate a stay-at-home mom earlier. That infant was never going to nap. I did her a favor, really.

Hey, I did her a favor by putting her out of her misery. Geez, I didn't kill the baby. What the hell kind of a monster do you think I am?

Oh right. Zombie.

And I guess I have to admit that the baby is probably in some trouble. I’m not really sure when Daddy gets home from work...

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. Fun facts about zombies.

So we don't shamble. Secondly, we are totally capable of forming proper sentences. Clearly. We don't just go around moaning for brains all the time.

Braaaaaaiiiiiiiiins. Brrrrraaaaaaiiiiinnnnnssss. Brrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnssssssssssssssss!

How freaking ridiculous would I sound? Who would just stand there and let me chow down on their cranial goodness if I gave them that kind of warning?

Thirdly, a flamethrower will not do anything other than make it really hot in here. It's like silver bullets with werewolves and wooden stakes with vampires. People want to feel like they have a fighting chance. You don't, usually, but impossible has never proven much of a deterrent to humanity before, so why should this be any different?

Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep, little demon.

Good grief, lady, give it a rest. If I'd known you were going to give me indigestion... Note to self: stay away from the mommy types in the future. Bitches be crazy.

The whole thing with flamethrowers makes sense I suppose. Flamethrowers look cool in movies. They're a nice macho weapon for some inexplicably shirtless and--equally inexplicably--well-muscled dog-walker-turned-superhero to tote around, sure, but here in the world outside the silver screen, you're just going to hurt yourself.

Not that it really matters if you hurt yourself. You're about to be dead. So I guess you could spend your last moments flailing around with the combustibles if you really wanted. Whatever floats your boat, to each his own, all that nonsense.

Sorry for the rambling, by the way, but it's the fastest way to get you to stop thinking so I can get the psychic drain going. You didn't think we physically ate brains, did you? Ew. That's just gross.

Feeling a little sleepy? Maybe you should just lie down; it makes the dying so much more comfortable.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On Being Famous

Brilliance from Idea Salesman
Hey there, folks, Idea Salesman here.

We gotta talk.

Renee got an email from a blog reader. Apparently some of you really aren't bots. That's awesome news. Welcome, welcome, real human blog readers!

Sadly, it wasn't a very nice email. So, you know, that was a busy day for me, what with all the emotions spilling all over the place, needing to be mopped up. The Muse was too distraught by the whole thing to be much help and apparently Hot Librarian Chick only mops up messy words or some other superior-sounding crap. Which meant clean up fell to the only abstract left standing.

Who has two imaginary thumbs and a mop? This guy!

Okay, okay, sure, dealing with rejection emails and stuff is technically part of my job. We just weren't expecting to get one quite so soon, or, you know, one regarding the blog. Seriously, who rejects a blog?

Well, obviously, this one angry chick does, because here we are.

Idea, are you certain referring to our only confirmed human blog reader as "this one angry chick" is a wise idea? Particularly as she's less than thrilled with Renee's blogging performance at the moment?

Good point. (Thanks, Hot Librarian Chick!) Let me rephrase.

Well, obviously, one of our esteemed yet concerned blog readers does, because here we are.

As you undoubtedly know by now, Renee is a big fan of Lilith Saintcrow, and a few weeks ago she wrote this post about how she counts Ms. Saintcrow as one of her writerly influences. I thought it was a decent post. It got a little off track in places, but that happens with Renee.

Near the end of the post, Renee mentioned that she wants to be "consistently entertaining". She doesn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I'm down with that. We're gonna be in this writing game for the whole sixty minutes and it would be nice if some folks stuck around to watch past the opening kickoff.

Apparently, though, the post implied that if Hollywood came knocking and offered up millions of dollars in royalties for film adaptations and stuff, Renee would turn it down and she thought Ms. Saintcrow would do the same. And our angry blog reader felt that was, well, bullshit.

I can understand that. It doesn't sound quite on the level when you put it that way.

Let me just state: Renee's a practical gal and she's a big fan of money. Plus, she's got kids to feed. Who are someday going to want to go to college. And I personally think it would be awesome if we could move to a place big enough to have our own office, rather than a random little nook at the top of the stairs.

I could see us in a nice sunny room lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and one of those big ass coffee makers that can do espressos on demand. It would make for good publicity photos. And I'm sure the Muse would love sprawling out on one of those plush chaise chairs you see in old movies. Oh, and the Inner Editor could have a research assistant! She would love another human to boss around.

I'm getting sidetracked here. The point is, millions of dollars sounds pretty sweet to me and I'm sure Renee would agree with that. It's not that she wouldn't accept it; if it didn't come with a whole bunch of obnoxious strings attached, she'd be down with getting rich doing this writing thing. It's just that she's not actively striving for it. For some people, getting rich and famous is the whole point of playing the game. Renee just isn't one of them. It could be nice, sure, but it's not the goal around here.

So, you know, sorry if we gave the wrong impression there. And, hey, thanks for reading! Come back anytime.

Oh, and I can't really say how Lilith Saintcrow would respond to offers of international fame and fortune. I'm not living in her head. But she seems like a practical gal too, so I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest she probably wouldn't reject a swimming pool full of money offhand either. But you'd have to talk to her Idea Salesman about that.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Flash Fiction: Horror in Three Sentences

PROMPT/CHALLENGE SUMMARY: Write a scary story in three sentences. That’s it. Remember: a proper story has a beginning, middle and an end. It is not merely a vignette. And, no, really – make it scary.
(Source: this week's flash fiction challenge over on terribleminds, Chuck Wendig's blog. Per the challenge instructions, this was also posted in the comments section of that page.)

It felt like nothing special, just the tickling itch of a stray lock of hair poking the back of my ear persistently enough to wake me. My sleep-addled brain sent a hand to smack against the side of my head without even commanding my eyes to open. Something slimy, with legs--definitely not a stray lock of my hair--jerked away from my fingers, chittered out a dark, humorless little laugh, and then slithered inside my ear.

---

I really liked this challenge. It's hard to create a story in a small space and three sentences is a really small space. Especially for a scary story, which has to tap into some deeply held human fear if it's going to be any good. Horror isn't something I usually work with (my urban fantasy is on the lighter side) so this was a nice stretch for me.

The temptation to eek out some extra length by really flexing the punctuation muscles here was huge. I'm not going to lie; a few of the other entries over on Mr. Wendig's site left me more annoyed than scared because they went that route. The purist in me felt like they violated the spirit of the challenge. Comma abuse is a trap so many writers (myself included) fall victim to, even in full-length manuscripts, but some folks really just took it to a whole new level of cruelty. And I can't even talk about what was done to some of the poor colons, semi-colons, and em-dashes. *shudder*

Still, many of the entries are very good and very scary. Though I'm pretty happy with it, I suspect my own little bit of flash doesn't stand much of a chance against them. If you're interested and want to sneak a few more bites of horror to get into the Halloween spirit, or if you want to offer up one of your own, head over to terribleminds. Or, if you're not quite ready for/interested in so public a forum, feel free to post in the comments here instead, just for fun. My other bot readers would love to hear from you.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Casting a (Tiny) Light

I had a weird kind of morning today. I mean, most of it was normal enough, I suppose. I got up, I wrote, I took the kids to the rec center, pretty normal Thursday morning stuff. But there were a couple of odd little bits that got stuck in my brain and have rattled around for the rest of the day until I gave in and decided to put together a blog post.

A bonus blog post! The Idea Salesman will be so thrilled.

It all started while I was lying in bed, flipping through random apps on my phone and trying to locate my get up and go. I’m slowly working an extra hour into my morning so I can have more writing time for November. It’s not going well, but I’ll get there. Anyway, one of the apps I use to tell myself the snoozing is actually productive time is my RSS reader and I came across this post on The Oatmeal.

Now most of the stuff about Columbus was stuff I already knew because I also had to read A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, in high school. (In case you didn't click the link, Christopher Columbus was... not a good guy.) But I was caught by the bit at the end, the bit about Bartolome de las Casas and “casting light where there is darkness”. Because Mr. Inman is right; pointing out all the bad crap about someone is easy when you get right down to it, but going out and finding someone you can really look up to is a bigger, and better, challenge. I’m very on board with that message.

Happy (early) Bartolome Day!

I eventually made myself get up and get my day started, and the idea got filed away in the back of my brain with the other LOLcats and querying tips and badly decorated cakes brought to me each day by my RSS reader.

A couple of hours later my husband and I were talking about a coworker of his who had just lost his wife to cancer and discussing whether or not he was going to go to the funeral. Somehow the conversation devolved into me getting all riled up and ranting about the government shut down and the wonked up priorities of most folks doing the “leading” these days. I won’t get into all that here because, you know, the rules of polite conversation and all that.

But I will say that in the middle of the whole scree I did take issue with the fact that we’re sitting here in the future that was supposed to be all Star Trek-y goodness and we haven’t cured cancer yet. Cancer is a somewhat sensitive topic in our house. We have personal experience battling that bitch of a disease.

And then I took the kids to the rec center and while my daughter was in her art class I was fiddling around with my phone again and came across another interesting post in my RSS reader, this time from John G. Hartness over on Magical Words.

What do you know? Someone else ranting about the government and getting pissed off that we haven’t cured cancer yet. It would have resonated with me anyway, given the aforementioned sensitivity to the topic, but in light of the conversation I’d just had with my husband an hour before, it really caught my attention.

I wish I could say I’d be writing this blog post anyway, even if I hadn’t just been being all pissy about the same topic, but I know that’s probably not true.

You see (for those of you who didn’t click the link yet), Mr. Hartness got all pissed off about how we haven’t cured cancer and, rather than just randomly venting his frustrations to his spouse over coffee, he’s decided to form a non-profit organization to help artists who are suffering from it and other diseases and disabilities. He’s taking that same rage that he feels and I feel and possibly some of you feel and he’s doing something positive with it.

For a few hours, I was a little ashamed of myself. After all it hadn’t really occurred to me to do anything. Other than rant at Long-Suffering Husband. And then after my brain chewed it over for a while, I decided to stop being ashamed of myself and let it inspire me instead.

Now I’m probably not going to go off and start my own non-profit organization or anything. I don’t have the first clue about how to do something like that and, to be totally honest, I really don’t have the time or energy to learn it all, let alone go out and actually do it. I’m sure I’ll think of something else cause-worthy to contribute, because obviously the notion is going to stick with me until I do.

But for now I know I can spare half an hour to dash off a blog post about it. It’s not much, especially since this is a small little blog read mostly by bots, but it’s what I can do today. Consider it me casting my own tiny little light, my contribution to Bartolome Day.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Do You NaNoWriMo?



In just a few short weeks, writers from all over the world will be coming together for National Novel Writing Month, the 50k30day fiction frenzy that is NaNoWriMo. I shall, as I have for almost a decade now, be among them.

Once upon a time, I was a one-day novelist. As in “one day I’d love to write a novel, but. . .” I used to toy with the idea of writing a novel. Some days I would get so caught up by a story idea I had in my head that I would actually sit down at the computer and write a few pages. It felt wonderful and brilliant and I always left those random writing sessions energized and eager for more.

And then the next day I would sit down and open the beautiful pages I’d written and. . .  rip them to shreds. I’d edit them and tweak them and rewrite them, agonizing over them for day after day after day, unable to let it go because they just weren’t quite perfect yet. And after a few weeks or so of going over the same two pages over and over again, I’d get bored and frustrated. I’d delete the whole damn thing and go back to my day job, “cured” once again of the delusion that I could write novels.

And one time after one of these bouts of not-quite noveling, which happened to occur in mid-October of that year, I was feeling so frustrated and angsty that I decided to vent my feelings about the whole sad state of affairs onto the internet. And a friend of mine, upon seeing the post, commented something along the lines of, “Hey, have you heard about this thing called NaNoWriMo? I did it last year and it was great. It’s starting again in a few weeks. I think you’d like it.”

So I checked it out and I dithered about it for a week or so and then finally decided to give it a try. And so began the first draft of what became book one of the epic trilogy of doom.

I did not “win” that year. I only managed to get about 35,000 words, and, even through the sugar/caffeine/creation high, I could tell most of them would have to go. There’s only so much sitting in a carriage surrounded by fog that one can put ones characters through and I’d gone well past that particular limit.

But something quite remarkable did happen during that otherwise fairly average November that makes me think of it still as one of my biggest wins ever. Several somethings, actually.

First, it became a part of my routine to write every day, to make it a priority rather than an afterthought, which was something I’d not been in the habit of doing since I was writing that first novel way back in middle school. They say it takes 21 days to make a habit, and NaNoWriMo gave me an extra 9 just to really make it sink in.

Second, I got past page two of the novel and learned how to stop doubting the words to death. How to just get them out onto the page to be revised later. Because, as we all know, you can revise just about anything except a blank page.

And third, probably most importantly, I remembered that writing was fun and realized that it was what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

I’d considered writing as a career before, but I’d always let fear and self-doubt convince me that it was something I just couldn’t do. Writing was for other people, better people, people who were way more creative than me. But I’d let a few of my friends read along as I was working that November (a practice I don’t actually advise, but I was young and full of stupid back then) and most of them told me there was a lot of good in there and encouraged me to stick with it.

Ah, external validation. Something I’m pretty sure most, if not all, writers crave on about the same level as oxygen or caffeine or sex.

I’ve kept at it every year, through lots of ups and downs in my career. Even when my oldest daughter was a newborn, I tried to fiddle with a story during November. This year will be my eighth go. I love the rush, I love the spirit, and I love the people I’ve met along the way. I learn something new about my process every single time and I always come to the end of the month with a renewed excitement about writing.

If you’re thinking about trying NaNoWriMo out yourself, here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years.

1) Join your local region and go to some write-ins and events. Writing is very lonely sometimes and writing 50,000 words in a month is a challenge. You can get caught up in it pretty easily. It’s nice to have people who understand what you’re going through because they’re going through it too. Even if you just hang out in a corner with your laptop and pretend to ignore everyone else there, you can still get a little bit of comfort out of the knowing you’re surrounded by people who love words just as much as you do.

Also, I always get more writing done in an hour at a write-in than I ever do at home. There’s a great kind of communal creative energy at a write-in that I’ve never found anywhere else. And it’s unlikely you’ll ever have another opportunity to be in a social setting where it’s totally acceptable to sit quietly typing for 20 minutes and suddenly blurt out something like, “Does anyone know how long it would take to set a body on fire with one of those crème brulee torch thingies?”

2) Use NaNoWriMo to network, either through the forums on their site or through the write-ins or whatever. I met some of my closest friends and every single one of my critique partners through NaNoWriMo. There are people involved in this program from every level of writing. Big-name bestselling authors participate. Steady midlisters. Writers who have just broken into publishing and writers who are still hoping to get there someday. Folks with no publishing ambitions at all. People who have never written a word of fiction before in their lives. Find other wrimos who like writing the way you like it and connect.

3) The writing is the important part. Don’t sweat the winning and losing. I’ve only “won” NaNoWriMo twice. I’m hoping this year makes three, but I’m not going to be crushed if it doesn’t work out. As much as I love NaNoWriMo and all the hard work the folks over at the Office of Letters and Light put into it, it’s important to remember that this is a “fake” contest and the big grand prize at the end is a certificate you print out and fill in yourself. The goal and the deadline are just there to give you a direction and a kick in the pants. There’s no million dollars of prize money or the eternal approval of your parents on the line here. It’s not worth shredding your self-esteem, or losing your job, or making yourself sick, or some other damn fool thing over.

Also, going along with this, don’t cheat. Seriously. It may sound silly now, but every year we get to the fourth week of the month and I hear people talking about how they copied and pasted their work emails or their math homework into their writing file so they could boost their word counts. I spoke to a guy once who literally typed every word into his document twice for the last ten days because he was so worried about failing to hit that glorious 50k. I really just don't get the point of cheating, especially at something that is mostly about giving you an internal sense of accomplishment.

NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun and helpful. Don’t ruin the experience for yourself by making the word count more than it is. REMEMBER: The writing is the important part.

4) Don’t be afraid to try new things and learn about your process. I learn new things about what works for my writing and what doesn’t every single year. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Don’t know? Now’s a good time to find out. Have a character floating around in your mind but you’re not quite sure what to do with her? Plunk her down in your novel and let her run around a bit. She might not fit there, but you’ll find out a lot about her that you can use later. Do you write better in the morning or a night or in the middle of the afternoon? At your desk or in the coffee shop down the street or barefoot on the back porch? Test them all out next month and see what you come up with. (Except for that last one if you happen to live in a colder climate. November can be raw and not really good for bare feet.) Follow plot bunnies, chase little snippets of ideas, give yourself the freedom to step outside your comfort zone and get completely immersed in the creative side of the process. The pace will keep you going and even if things get totally wonked up, it won’t matter as long as you keep moving forward.

5) Leverage the internet WISELY. There are sites that can help you tremendously when you’re writing. I’m a big fan of Dr.Wicked’s Write or Die when I need to churn out a large chunk of text in a small chunk of time. Social media can help too. @NaNoWriMo does a lot with word sprints and such on Twitter during November and #1k1hr has at least a few people checking in and challenging one another pretty much 24/7. (I actually try to do #1k1hr a couple times a week all year long, not just during November.)

But there’s also a lot of temptation there. Who hasn’t lost a whole Saturday afternoon clicking their way through Wikipedia? Or Google Earth? You just went on there to find out what that creepy run down hotel you saw while driving through the Catskills was called and the next thing you know you’re checking out the location of every laundromat in upstate New York.

Make a note, do a quick check, set a timer if you have to, but don’t get bogged down in this kind of thing. It sounds like productive research time in your head, but 99.9% of the time it’s just another means of procrastination. Words read in cyberspace don’t end up in your word count. If you find yourself falling down the research rabbit hole, just put the mouse down and back away from the internet.

I have more, but this post is getting long enough to be its own NaNoWriMo project. I’ll probably come back to this topic a few times over the next two months though, so I’m going to give it a rest for now. Go forth and sign up if you haven’t already. And if you have, feel free to add me as a writing buddy. I had to create a new profile this year and so I have the saddest little buddy list ever at the moment.

So how about it? Are you in?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Flash Fiction: Coming Soon!

Flash fiction is all the rage right now. For those of you who aren’t familiar, flash fiction is basically like the Twitter of fictional prose. Flash fiction is a super short story, usually only 500-1500 words, and I’ve been seeing it all over the place over the past few years.

I came across flash fiction as part of a character building exercise. The prompt was “show us your character in 1500 words or less”. I found the wording intriguing. It wasn’t “tell us your character’s life story” or “summarize your plot” in 1500 words or less. No, this character builder asked me to show someone my character.

The session leader* summed it up like this: write a short scene that gives the reader a firm sense of who your main character is, without getting bogged down in backstory or introspection or subplots or any of that other nonsense. It’s just a flash of a story. Use your words take his/her picture. You’ve all heard that old line about a picture being worth 1000 words; now let’s hear the 1000 words.

Being particularly sensitive to that show don’t tell notion, I thought the idea was interesting.

I discovered that I really liked writing those little snippets, and that it was a whole trendy thing, and now I do it all the time. While writing short stories makes me crazy, because they inevitably take a turn for the too-long on me, I don’t have that problem when I’m writing flash fiction.

Yeah, I know. Ask me for 100,000 words or 1,000 words and I’m good. I don’t find either of those tasks daunting at all. Ask me for anything in the middle and I flail around like wibbley blob of inarticulate mush. I guess I’m just a girl of extremes.

IDEA SALESMAN: Renee, you’re rambling. Just get to the point already.

Ah, yes, the point! You may or may not have noticed that this isn’t my regular day to blog. (I say that like I’m a nice disciplined blogger who has a strict blogging schedule that I stick to religiously. I know, I’m not.) I usually blog on Wednesdays. This is Sunday.

See, I can be just as observant as the next girl.

IDEA SALESMAN: Renee!

Sorry, Idea. I know you want to get back to the pregame shows. I’m working on it. Anyway, the Idea Salesman and I have been thinking about it and he’s convinced me that I should expand the blog. One post a week about my random thoughts on writing isn’t really what we set out to do here. If I’m serious about building a platform, I need to blog more frequently and do more than just talk about wanting to shoot characters in the head or let the Muse go on about coffee table stains.

So I’ve decided I’m going to start posting some of my flash fiction. After all, I talk a lot about how I’m a writer. I should probably put my pixels where my mouth is and show you some of my writing. The plan is to post a piece every week on Sundays. Nothing fancy, just a little bit of something fun for the weekend crowd. Or to brighten up your Mondays if you don’t happen to hang out in the blogosphere on the weekends.

Be warned, I get my flash fiction prompts from a bunch of different sources and I like to test myself out in all different genres. Sometimes they’ll be relevant to what’s going on in the world/the time of year. (For example: I’m seeing a lot of prompts about monsters this week, what with Halloween coming up at the end of the month.) Sometimes they’ll be totally disconnected from anything but happened to grab my eye.

So just know that this stuff will be all over the place. There won’t be any kind of regular story or theme to follow. If there does end up being a theme, I guarantee it’ll be completely accidental and will probably tell you all loads about my various and sundry psychological issues. ;-)

So that’s the plan. It should be fun. I hope you like reading it as much as I like writing it.

* I really wish I’d written her name down or saved the hand out, because this was years ago and while I remember the exercise, I haven’t got a freaking clue who to give the credit for it to. Sorry.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My Influences: Tad Williams

I grew up reading. I was that kid in school, the one who read 20 books when the teacher challenged the class to read 10. My favorite store was a local book swap and when the first Barnes & Noble opened in my hometown (I guess I'm dating myself there...) I looked on it like my own personal Mecca. I learned how to use a computer at twelve-years-old (Wow, now I'm really dating myself!) so I could write my first novel. I have always loved books.

Well, there was a stint in the third grade where I rebelled and declared I hated reading, but I really don't think you can reasonably hold a few months of being eight against me.

My memories are littered with books. I vaguely remember having about a bajillion Little Golden Books. I also remember a lot of Judy Bloom when I was in elementary school and every Babysitters' Club and Sweet Valley Twins book I could lay my hands on. By the time I got to middle school I’d learned to love visiting my grandparents because my grandmother's closet was full of Harlequin romances she'd let me borrow.

Eventually I started secretly raiding my mom's closet instead--her romances were, shall we say, a bit racier.

When I got to high school, reading started to be all about preparing for college and my bookshelf filled up with classics and history and poetry. I remember one particularly dreary semester where I had to force myself through both Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. I got to read a bunch of Shakespeare that semester too, though, so it wasn't all bad.

When I finally had time for pleasure reading again, I decided I was too serious a person to read "trashy romance novels", and so with all the impertinent elitism a 20-year-old can muster, I turned my attention to... murder mysteries and legal thrillers. I tried sticking to the classics and literary fiction, but I just couldn't do it. I’m a genre fiction girl at heart. At least with the mysteries I didn't have to worry about my boss catching me reading a book with a naked women under the flap during my lunch break.

What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with science fiction and fantasy novelist Tad Williams? And how, if I spent all my time reading romance and history and mystery, did I end up writing books about demons and witchcraft?

I'm glad I imagined you asked!

When I was in college I had a friend who was a huge fan of Tad Williams. Seriously huge fan. He once convinced his girlfriend to drive hundreds of miles just to go to one of the man's book signings. (Washington DC is a really long way from Florida, especially when you're college-student poor. I don't think I'd have traveled that far just to get a book signed, but to each his own.) And about ten years ago, my friend gave me a copy of The Dragonbone Chair.

I'd never actually had much exposure to fantasy before that. I mean, I'd gotten myself hooked on television shows like Buffy and Angel and Charmed thanks to dorm life and The Lord of the Rings trilogy got very popular again while we were in college, so I'd read those. But that was about it.

Yes, I spent all those years reading and reading and reading and at no time did a science fiction or fantasy novel make it onto my bookshelf. Science fiction and fantasy was for boys and geeks and I wasn't interested in being either of those things. Girls liked loves stories and serious young adults liked proper literature.

Don’t give me that look. I know I had a lot of stupid in my head back then. Let's not get into the fact that sf/f isn't exclusively for boys or that I most certainly have always been a geek, no matter how much I tried to hide it in my youth, and just skip straight to the part where I tell you I’ve since learned my lesson.

Here’s how:

I loved The Dragonbone Chair. It was like Mr. Williams had taken all the things I’d loved to read over the years--mystery, romance, history, politics, and even going all the way back to figuring out what it meant to grow up--and mixed them together, with some magic and monsters and adventure tossed in to keep everyone’s heart rate up.

And, as I am wont to do with all books that I love, as soon as I finished it I made a trip to the bookstore, with the intention of buying every other book they had in stock by Tad Williams. And I discovered something amazing there. There was this whole section of the bookstore I had never spent any time in before.

How was this possible? I’d practically lived in Barnes & Noble as a teenager. I’d spent I don’t even know how many hours growing up roaming through those aisles, drinking hot chocolate (I had not yet discovered the joy and wonder that is coffee) and picking out new books to devour. How had I ignored several aisles of lovely shelf space over and over again?

Oh, right, because the signs at the top of the shelves that said “Science Fiction/Fantasy” had somehow ended up reading “BOYS/GEEKS” in my brain.

I paused. These books weren’t for me. Were they? No. No, they weren’t. Even this one my friend gave me, the book which I had loved and which had driven me into the bookstore in the first place, was really a “guy book”. I mean, it was about a guy. And written by a guy. And, heck, it was even given to me by a guy.

But. . .  but. . .  I liked it. And it’s part of a trilogy (sort of) and I want to know what happens next.

Then to hell with what anyone else thinks, I told myself, in what was probably one of the bolder mental moments of my life. I translated “Science Fiction/Fantasy” to “AWESOME/MUST HAVE MORE” in my brain instead and proceeded to read my way through everything that caught my eye. Including, yes, every other book they had in stock by Tad Williams.

I started seriously considering writing as a career a couple of years later. We’ve talked about the epic fantasy trilogy of doom before, so I won’t get into that again. But it’s probably worth noting that, when you get right down to it, all my stories are about mystery, romance, history, politics, and figuring out what it means to grow up, with some magic and monsters and adventure tossed in to keep everyone’s heart rate up.