Otherwhere: Last Week in January

dog with sunglassesYeah, it really is the last week in January.  Amazing.   And the sun is shining in my window as I write this–even more amazing!  Here are some coolio links for the past week:

Writing Stuff

In which genre do you write? Understanding how genre affects marketing is one key to success.

Every book needs a good editor, and if your publisher does not offer you one, you’ll need to pay for it yourself.  Here’s a post about how to lessen those costs.

One of the best things you can do in order to write gripping fiction is to torture your character.  This is really hard for most of us!  But Stephen Pressfield has some tips on how to make your hero suffer.

Method acting for writers. I’ve always thought acting and writing had a lot in common.  Thanks to Caroline Harrison for sending me this.

I’ve become more and more aware of diversity and trying to foster it in the fictional worlds I create. Here’s a post that talks more about it.

I know you don’t want to hear this, but it only gets harder (it being writing).

And in news unrelated to writing, check out this interesting idea, which assigns three words to every location on earth as an easy way to standardize addresses.

Also, I want to make this sweater.

That is all.  No wait, it isn’t.  I have a question.  Actually, you may not be able to answer it. But I’ll go ahead anyway. What days are you most apt to spend time reading a blog post?  I’m trying to figure out a consistent schedule for posting.  Monday, Wednesday, Friday? Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday? (Which has sort of been what I’m doing, except then I dreamed up Five on Friday so that gums everything up.) Any ideas appreciated.

The photo has nothing to do with anything. I just liked it. Credit: Duchessa.

Last Minute Gifts for Writers

Today is December 15th, which may qualify as last minute for some of you but not for me. I have not bought a single present.  But that’s okay, because A. my family has very much cut back on the over-the-top gift giving and B. I am a dedicated online shopper.

So as far as I’m concerned, there’s plenty of time for Christmas shopping.  And here are some ideas you might want to share with your beloved families or significant others in case they, like me, need some writerly gift ideas.  Here goes:

  1.  An online class.  James Patterson, famous (infamous?) as the most best-selling author of all time, has a class on novel writing that is actually pretty good, especially for the first-time novelist. (The lovely folks at Master Class gave me a copy of the class and I’ve not made it all the way through, but I have watched some.) It is worth checking out, and you can see a video preview right here.  (Also, this is where you should envision a cool photo of Patterson surrounded by all his books.  For some reason, it is not coming through when I publish. Weird.)
  2. How about springing for Scrivener? I have so far not mastered the software enough to claim myself as a fan but so many other writers love it so much that I have to include it.  You may covet it for yourself, or know another writer who longs for it.
  3. You can’t go wrong with a book. Duh. They are my favorite things to give and to get. Run to your local independent bookseller and buy up a batch, or if you find yourself stranded on a desert island, did you know you can gift Ebooks on Amazon? It’s kind of cool.
  4. Office supplies.  Never met a writer yet who didn’t love them as much as I do. Spirals, pens, fancy journals, plain journals, binders, notebook paper.  I’d be thrilled with a gift certificate that would allow me to run wild at Office Depot. (One of the best things about my grandchildren is that they both love sitting in my office playing with post-it notes, pens, paper clips and other odd bits.)
  5. Speaking of pens, how about a lovely fountain pen? Levenger, the more upscale version of Office Depot (by far) has some lovely ones.  There’s just something about writing with a fountain pen that can’t be beat.
  6. How about a coaching package? Really, there’s no better way to jump start your writing and if 2016 is the year you vow to really get it going, this would be a wonderful thing to put on your list. My prices are going up January 1st, so tell Santa to buy a package now and you can use the sessions any time.
  7. A tablet to read on. I have a long, tortuous history of trying to find the perfect tablet to read Ebooks on, starting with the cheapest most basic version of the Kindle, moving through the mini Ipad and the Surface and even a freebie Dell that I bought with my computer last summer (I love my computer but the tablet was a piece of you-know-what). So now I have my eye on the $50 Amazon Fire tablet.  At that price-point, you might put it on your list, too.
  8. A stand-up desk. I got this nifty number from Target early last year and I’m working very hard at taking my computer to it part of every hour.  Which reminds me, its about time to do that. I couldn’t find the Target link, but it is worth looking for, because I got it very inexpensively there, with free shipping. If you Google stand-up desks, you’ll find a ton of options.
  9. Coloring books.  Yeah, they are all the thing right now, but with good reason because they are stress-relievers. I also think they are excellent for brief breaks from writing, for when you need to think.  I like this one, for knitters, because I am one, or this line, too.
  10. And finally….the grandest present of them all. How about the gift of time and knowledge? Ask for the tuition to our writing retreat in France.  We have only a couple spots left, people, so now is the time to decide! We will be in my most favorite town of them all, Ceret.  See you there!

Okay, so those are my ideas.  What’s on your list? Please share any and all ideas in the comments.

Write On, With Confidence and Hope, Even Through Christmas*

My color-changing tree in full color.
My color-changing tree in full color.

Yes, I know.  It is the holiday season, and whatever holiday (Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, a pagan solstice celebration, your own made up day) you celebrate, odds are good that things are a bit, shall we say, busier than usual.

And, if you are anything like me (I presume you are, because we writers do tend to have certain traits in common) when things get busy, what’s the first activity to go? Yep, writing.  This is clearly ridiculous because writing is the most important thing in the world to me (besides my family, of course).   So why do I let my writing practice lapse at the first sign of being busy? Let me count the reasons:

  • Because writing takes concentration, and when I’m busy I don’t have enough bandwidth in my brain to work on my project.
  • Because in the crush of Christmas activities, writing easily becomes the least urgent item on the to-do list, so it doesn’t get done.
  • Because going out to Christmas parties and staying up late wrapping presents throws me off schedule and it is hard to get up as early as I usually do.
  • Because people visit from out of town and expect me to be at their beck and call, and really? I want to be. I want to spend time with them.
  • Because I ate too much sugar/drank too much wine/insert favorite Christmas vice here and now I don’t feel so good. Surely you don’t expect me to write?

You probably have a few choice arguments of your own to add to the list.   But I’m here to tell you why you don’t want to pay any attention to those arguments and carry on with your writing throughout this season, and how you can accomplish this.  First the whys:

  • Because for me, this is one of the most creative times of the year. The dark days of December engender all kinds of new thoughts and plans and ideas. If I didn’t spend time writing, I’d lose all those.
  • Because when I’m Not Writing, I’m an anxious, miserable mess. I feel like there is something missing.  I feel weird and out of sorts.  Now, listen, the holiday season messes with our emotions enough—do you really want to add an additional layer of anxiety onto it?
  • Because I don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel when I start writing again. I want to maintain the momentum I’ve created by writing every day or nearly every day.
  • Because it will make me feel better.
  • Because it gives me an outlet. When Great-Aunt Matilda tells me my hair looks awful for the tenth time, I can put my anger on the page and let it simmer there instead of inside me.

 Yeah right.  This is all well and good, but how in the universe am I supposed to accomplish keeping up with my writing.  Funny you should ask.  I have a few suggestions.

  •  Lower your standards. Of course, your writing is brilliant and you must labor over every word to make it so.  But cut yourself some slack this time of year.  Allow yourself to write crap.  Which brings me to my next point…
  • Do just a tiny bit. So you usually are a writing machine and you devote mountains of time to it every day.  This season, write a pebble’s worth.  As in, make yourself sit down for five minutes and be satisfied when you are done. Because…
  • You need a placeholder. By lowering your standards and lessening the amount of time you require yourself to spend, your keeping your hand in. You are maintaining the momentum and upholding your intention to write regularly.  This will serve you very well when Uncle Ralph leaves and your schedule returns to normal.
  • And also bear in mind… One of the things I love most about my Christmas tree this year its color-changing lights. When the push of a button the lights switch from colored to white.  This appeals to my fickle nature.  And you can make the concept work for your writing, too. How? By switching the lights.  Try writing in your journal every day during these busy times instead of writing a scene.  Write to a prompt, or write a memory
    My color-changing tree with white lights.
    My color-changing tree with white lights.

    from your childhood.  Let the writing be different and fun for a few weeks and see what comes out.

And please, if you have any of your own tricks and techniques for maintaining your writing, share it in a comment

below!

*My knitting readers will realize that this quote sounds familiar, and it is—I based it on the famous Elizabeth Zimmerman  quote, “Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crises.”

**By the way, in my last newsletter I offered Complaint Free bracelets to the first 10 people to ask.  I still have a couple left.  If you want one, hit reply and send me your address!

Otherwhere: Unusual Monday Edition

typewriter_machine_write_266203_lIt has been a good week for interesting links around the web, and I have saved several in my travels.  As regular readers know, I usually do this post on Saturday.  But this week on Saturday, I was co-leading a workshop called The Ins and Outs of Publishing, which was held at an awesome bookstore, Another Read Through.  And then yesterday was one of those days when I just didn’t get near the computer much.  Which brings us to Monday.  And a wet and dark Monday it is, at least in Portland. So here are some links to brighten your day:

I really liked this prompt from Janice Hardy.

Typewriters are hip again! (My grandchildren love banging away on the antique typewriter that sits in my living room.  They are going to be waaay ahead of their time.)

The role of hope in writing fiction (this is about the actual writing of fiction, not the hope you have while trying to sell it).

Why can’t our fiction be as strange as real life has gotten?

Hate Twitter? Here’s how to master it in 15 minutes a day.

One way to up your productivity as a writer.

And Jane Friedman’s take on her own level of productivity.

The future of publishing remains bright.

“I’ve been hearing about the demise of publishing since the first day I stepped through the doors of a publisher back in 1978.”

And, finally, look at the good you can do when you become the most bestselling author in all the land!

 

Photo by wax115, found on everystockphoto.com.

From The Archives: Why Writing a Novel is a Good Thing–Even If You Never Get it Published

And here's one final offering from the archives, back in September of 2012.

Yeah, so, you want to write a novel.  And you're even thinking of doing Nanowrimo this year. (Nanowrimo = National Novel Writing Month, just in case you don't know, and it's in November.) 

But then the voices begin:                             

Themabina_temabina_white_271865_h

The dreaded blank page.
The dreaded blank page.

You'll never get published.

Why bother?

It's a waste of time.

You could be doing other things.  Worthy things.

You think you can write?

Who do you think you are to write a novel?

And so on.  I'm sure you know the variations.

But I'm here to tell you otherwise.  To inform you that writing a novel, in and of itself, for no other reason than to do it, is a worthy activity.  It is.  Even if you never get published.  (Which, with all the publishing options we've got these days, you probably will, one way or another.) And here's why:

1.  It's a creative act.  And the world needs as many of these as we can get. Creativity breeds creativity, just as energy breeds energy.  Who knows what spending time writing this novel might lead to?  It might lead to a best-selling novel, or an amazing idea in another area.  And, it doesn't matter if that doesn't happen because the simple act of sitting down to create is important.

2.  Novels change the world, in big ways and in little ways.  Novels deliver stories, which we're hard-wired to accept, and stories change us.  Think of novels with grand, culture-baring themes.  Or remember how you felt the last time you read a small, intimate novel.  It changed you a little, didn't it?  And that's how changing the world happens–one person at a time.

3. Novel writing makes you happy.  At least it makes me happy.  I love it.  And I presume that it will make you happy, too.  Lest you think that happiness is an unworthy goal, remember that none other than the Dalai Lama says that happiness is the point of life.

4.  Writing a novel is an accomplishment.  The first time I finished a novel (it's the one sitting in my office cupboard)I was so amazed at how much oomph it took that I vowed to respect every single book ever written, even the crappiest romance novel.  And I do.  You should too–especially the one you're writing now.

5.  Writing a novel hones your skills.  And remember, getting better at one thing affects the way you do everything.  Improving your novel writing will impact your blog posts.  And your articles.  And your diet.  As the ancients used to say, as above, so below.

6.  Writing a novel helps you understand the world.  To write a novel, you must populate it with characters, and to create characters, you must understand people.  And, guess what?  People are what make our world go around.  Writing a novel helps you understand them.

7. It's your deepest, most heartfelt desire.  Don't let that desire go unanswered.  Go do it already. 

Here's what I recommend: create your own list of reasons to write a novel.  Name it the Novel-Writing Manifesto, or something a bit less grandiose.  Post it next to your computer.  Read it often–especially after something has shaken your confidence.  It'll snap you right back into a novel-writing space.

What are your reasons for writing a novel (or any project)? Do you use them to steer yourself back on course?

And if you'd like help with your novel-writing effort, remember my Get Your Novel Written Now Class begins in October!

From The Archives: Love Yourself, Love Your Writing

Here's one from the archives for you:

We're awfully hard on ourselves, our own worst enemies.   At least I am!  And I suspect I'm not  Heart_light_blackground_518497_hso different from other creatives: I'm judgmental of myself –hyper critical at the best of times.  My thoughts run all over:

  • That thing I just said?  How idiotic!
  • What a lump for not speaking up.
  • Oh god, I look bad today!

And when it comes to my writing, it's even worse, because the voices are so insidious and ingrained.  It is such a familiar thought pattern that sometimes I don't even notice it.  When I do, it runs something like this:

  • This work isn't good enough.
  • Is that the right word? You idiot, that's not the right word.
  • They're not going to like it.
  • It's not good enough to sell.

And so on and so forth.  I'm sure you can add some of your own to the list!  (And let me be perfectly clear here–there is a difference between unloving critical thoughts and loving critical thoughts–the latter help us hone our skills, rewrite until the work shines, and strive for excellence.)

Do you know anybody who is as openly judgmental and critical as the voice in your head?  I don't.  If I spent all day every day with someone as condemning  as the voice in my head, I'd be physically withered at the end of the day.  And yet, that's exactly what's happening in our brains.

The solution?  Try turning love on it.  Warning: this is not easy.  And if you're successful at it, the practice will change your life.  Also, it's a process–you have to keep going back at it over and over again.  You have to consistently apply it to your life and your writing.

So herewith is a process to apply to self-judgment:

1.  Become aware.  Pay attention to those nasty little comments flinging about your brain.

2.  Fight back.  Sometimes called denials, this is when instead of cowering under the onslaught of all those vicious words, you make a stand and refuse to accept them.  Mentally uttering "That thought I do not want" (a Course in Miracles saying) is one way to do this.

3.  Form a new thought.  And then love bomb your brain with it, constantly, all day, and especially every time the old thought comes up.  Maybe something like:

  • I am powerful.  (My writing is powerful.)
  • I am enough.  (My writing is enough.)
  • I am a creator.
  • Whatever thought works for your individual circumstance.

The idea being to let thoughts like these become the constant soundtrack running in the background.  I know it's woo-woo, and it's ever so much more pleasant to think this way than the other.

4. It might get worse before it gets better.  Because old negative thoughts don't go without a fight.  And one way they fight is to get stronger when they fear being eradicated. But don't fall for their devious plan.

5.  Stick with it.  As I said, this process takes time.  Those fearful thoughts didn't get there overnight.  They lodged in your brain over a lifetime. 

 What do you think?  Willing to give it a try?  Or do you have another technique for quieting that voice?  Please comment.

 Photo by Victory to the People.

Link Round-up: Tips on Writing

While I'm away in Europe, I'm posting some old articles from the archives and some link round-ups.  Today's selection is on writing tips of various stripes.  Here you go:

Notebook_pencil_264968_l

Saturday Writing Tip: Scenes

Saturday Writing Tip: Observation

Tips for Writing: Overcoming Resistance

Tips on Writing: Writing by Hand

Tips on Writing: Building Momentum

Writing Tip: The Process Mindset

A Compendium of Writing Tips and Tricks

Tips on Writing: Quick Fixes for Passive Voice

Writing Tip: The Roster of Fives

5 Tips to Getting Published

Wednesday Within: The Tension of Reading

Book-books-page-35496-lLike so many other writers, I came to writing through reading.  From the time I first learned to recognize words on the page, I was fascinated with those words.  And from the time I figured out that somebody actually put those words there, that's what I wanted to be–a writer.  I remember back when I was a freshman in college, discovering that I could major in journalism, and more to the point, that there was actually a practical application for my love of writing.

But, as I said, before my love of writing came my love of reading.

For something that has had such a big impact on my life, you'd think I'd remember the moment when it all came together and I started to read.  But I don't.  I don't remember if someone taught me, or if I figured it out myself.  What I do remember is my excitement about it, and proudly sharing this accomplishment with a fellow first-grader.  (We were a bit slower in those days–nowadays kids learn to read long before they hit elementary school, it seems.) The other student–all I remember was that she was female–sneered and said, "You can't read!  You're lying!" (I'm pretty sure this scarred me for life, in subtle ways like sometimes being unwilling to step into the limelight for fear someone will shout the adult equivalent of "You can't read! You're lying!")

I thought about all this recently because I read a really good book.  Now, I read a lot, as all writers should, everything from magazines and newspapers to blogs and books.  But even with all that reading, it has been a long time since I read a book that transported me as much as this novel did.  It is called Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and you should go buy it or get it from the library NOW.  Don't let the subject matter turn you off.  On the surface, it is about the world 15 years after a flu pandemic has wiped out most of the world's population, and all of the infrastructure we take for granted, too, like electricity and the internet and cell phones.  But really, it is about the importance of art to our lives, the strange and wonderful connections between people, and hope.  (It was also a National Book Award finalist this year, one of the first science fiction novels to have been so nominated.  Though I would not really call it science fiction.)

And it reminded me of the tension of reading. 

What do I mean by the tension of reading?  To me, it occurs in two ways:

1. Between wanting to find out what happens and not wanting the book to end.  I have this thing I do when I'm reading: I get so curious about what's going to ensue that the tension becomes unbearable.  So I open the book further ahead and peek–just a quick glimpse–at a page. Yeah, sometimes this backfires and gives away big spoilers, but often it gives just enough of a hint to defuse the tension and let me keep going.  And sometimes it makes me think one thing is going to happen and then something completely different does! (Serves me right.)

2. Between wanting to start a new book to have the same transporting experience again–but not wanting to leave the world of the book you just finished.  When I finished Station Eleven, I wanted to start another book immediately because I wanted to duplicate the reading experience I just had.  I'd just been to the library and brought home a stack of books–a particularly good haul, I'd thought.  But when I went to peruse my pile and choose what to read next, none of them appealed.  Much as I wanted to enter a new reading world, the old one of Station Eleven still lingered. 

This was really the first time I've identified these tensions in such a direct way.  I've felt each of them for years, of course, but never really fully named them.  And, as a writer, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that tension is the most important element of any work of fiction (and I daresay non-fiction, too). I'm quite sure the tensions of reading and writing are related.

So those are my Wednesday thoughts this week.  Please leave a comment--do you have a weird reading habit?  I know one of my loyal readers, who shall remain nameless, reads the end of the book first!  So c'mon, fess up–what are your reading habits?

Photo by pontuse.

Book Review: The Novel Writer’s Blueprint

Paperbackbookstanding-226x300I've got a new book for all you fledgling novel writers out there.  

It is called The Novel Writer's Blueprint: Start Writing Your Novel Today, by Kevin T. Johns.  I discovered the book when Kevin emailed me a wonderful query asking if I'd be interested in reviewing it. Since I'd just published a rant post about how often I got approached by people with terrible queries, I leapt at the chance.  

Kevin sent me the book, I read it, and now I'm reviewing it.

I like this book quite a bit.  It lays out in five steps the system that Kevin believes will allow you to write your novel.  (The genesis of the five-step system was Kevin's own struggle to write his first novel.  It took him eight years–and he swore he would not let that happen again.  Can you relate?)

The five steps are as follows:

1. Genre Selection–Learn to harness the power of genre.

2. Story Structure–Select a story structure already proven to work with readers.

3. Puzzle Work--Piece together your scenes into an indispensable beat-sheet.

4. Preparatory Regimen–Sharpen your writing skills.

5. Running the Marathon–Implement protocols to stay on track and beat the biggest challenges.

Not mentioned in this rundown is his introductory chapter, which has a lot of good information in it as well.

My favorite chapters were #2 and #4.  I love #2 on story structure, because I'm a story geek, and Kevin has a film background so he's well versed in various structures and he presents them clearly.  Chapter #4 covers a good collection of tips for writing, such as timed writing, mind mapping and brainstorming.  Kevin also mentions a technique called "Writing Down the Page" which it turns out I do all the time, but didn't have a name for.  It's when you write a sketchy outline of your chapter so you have the general flow down.

This book is perfect for the first-time novelist who wants a picture of the road ahead before launching onto the journey.  And seasoned novelists will find a few tips of use as well.  Check it out, guys.

Do you have a favorite book on novel writing?  Please share! 

Building Your Fictional World

Planet_earth_australia_264109_l

Recently, I was the judge in fiction-writing contest.  My job was to review the finalists in the novel first chapter portion of the contest, and select the top four winners.  It was fascinating because every entry had a good concept for a story.

But.

Every entry but one had viewpoint issues (a topic I'll address in a separate post soon), and the other big problem I saw in nearly every chapter was a failure to adequately develop the fictional world.  

While the set-up was interesting and the characters good (though also undeveloped) what I saw over and over again was not enough care taken to fully create the world of the story.  And I don't care if you are writing a contemporary novel, an historical story, or a science-fiction novel set on another planet, every novel has a world of its own that the reader will inhabit for the length of the book.  And it's your job to write that world so that we, the reader, truly feel as if we've stepped into it.

Some thoughts (in no particular order):

1.  Don't rush.  In many of the contest chapters, I felt like I was being escorted through the scene in a whirlwind.  Don't be afraid to slow down, to share description and details (see #4), to evoke the senses (see #7).  I guarantee that your problem is not writing too much, but too little.  Lay it on thick and write more than you think you should and you'll come out about right.

2.  Root the reader in the scene.  A simple technique is to continually hark back to the physical world in a scene to keep the reader reminded of where she is.  Otherwise, your reader will feel like she's floating in the air.   Use simple references to accomplish this–She leaned against the counter, or He set his coffee mug down on the table.  Doesn't have to be anything fancy.

3.  Fast is slow and slow is fast.  I learned this from a friend who learned it from the late Gary Provost. When you're writing a scene that would pass slowly in real life (such as an afternoon lolling on the couch) do it quickly.  We don't need the details.  And when you're writing something that would happen really fast in real life (like a car accident), slow it way down and note every detail.

4.  Telling details are your friend. Details are what bring a scene alive, such as the red rose petal on the wood kitchen table, or the solitary raindrop sliding down a window pane as a storm begins. But, don't include every single detail, the trick is to choose the ones that will illuminate the scene.  And that's something for you to decide.

5.  Setting is more than just location.  Setting is, of course, your friend when you're creating your fictional world, because it is what your characters walk through.  But it is much more than just the lovely ocean they live beside, it is all the furniture and accessories that fill the house they live in.  And guess what else it is?  Time.  Big difference between San Francisco 1906 and San Francisco 2014.

6.  Characters interact with their worlds in unique ways.  A man who grew up in Manhattan is very different than a farmer from Iowa.  The unique worlds of characters influence them in specific ways, and in return, causes them to exist in their worlds in certain ways.  Take advantage of this.

7.  Use your senses.  Obvious, yes, but also easy to forget.  One of the least under-used senses is smell.  Noting the aromas or odors of your world can be very evocative.  And how about touch?  When was the last time your character described the feel of a fabric beneath his fingers?  Or taste?  (Which reminds me, food can be very specific to different worlds also.) We get accustomed to our primary senses of sight and sound.  Adding in the others will bolster your world.

Okay, that's it, that's all I've got for you at the moment.  But do tell in the comments how you like to build your fictional worlds.

Photo by monique72.