Writing Is A Group Activity

As long as I’ve been a writer I’ve heard that writers are loners, that what we do requires solitude.  And, for me, that’s true.  I need to be alone to write effectively.  I’m not even one who writes to music that so many seem to enjoy.

But I also remember the days when I was involved in the production of magazines.  I remember wanting some quiet from the hustle and bustle of my editor demands so I could write.  Mixed with it, though, were the “let’s get some coffee” parts of that business.  Those of us in the throws of creating the monthly 128 pages that would hit newstands “real soon” interacted often, and the comraderie was as fulfilling as it was electric.

Those days, though, are behind me and I’m back to being alone as a writer, at least until NaNoWriMo came along.  Last year I did it mostly in isolation.  This year I was in the throes of doing the same thing when my NaNo regional ML suggested that I come to one of their evening coffee meetings.

I did.  Then I went again.  And again.  Last week NaNoWriMo 2011 came to an end and we had a celebration dinner together.  I had a bunch of new friends, all of them excited about writing.  It was great… it was over.  I was sad about that fact but then they said, “I hope we see you at our Thursday meetings.”

Huh?  “Yeah, we meet most Thursday nights at the place where you first met us.  You should come by.”  It looks like I’ll have some people to talk to about writing afterall.  Here’s a sketch I did of one of OUR meeting places.

It always feels good to “win” NaNoWrimo

 

With six days to go in NaNoWriMo, I hit the 50,000 word plateau that brands me a winner and turns my NaNo progress bar purple.  The word count and purple bar shouldn’t mean much.  It doesn’t mean much.  What matters is getting the draft of a novel on paper.  It looks like I’ll need another 20k words for that but we’ll see.  Clearly, though, the end is in site and I’ve got the bones of what I think will be a great story, after a considerable amount of rubbing and polishing on my part.

I hope that your NaNo writing is going well and that you too, will be a winner.

Increase your NaNoWriMo Word Count: Leave Words Out

This is NaNoWriMo month and we’ve reached the half-way point of our attempt to write 50,000 words in one month.  This is the time when many start worrying about whether they will “succeed” in that process.  NaNo forums buzz with “How can I increase my word counts? questions and “I’m way behind and I need help” calls.  I thought some might benefit from a technique I (and others) use to maintain the momentum when I’m drafting any document.

Those who get it

But first, I want to save some of you the trouble of reading this.  NaNoWriMo participants fall into two groups – those who get it and those who do not.  Those who get it understand that NaNoWriMo provides motivation to keep your butt in the chair long enough every day to write a complete novel.  They understand that while there is a 50k word goal, it’s about writing a story, not simply writing 50,000 words.

You can write 50,000 words by typing the dictionary into a document file.  It’s not about the words, it’s about the story.  You can tell the difference between those who get it and the rest by the fact that those who get it are talking about how their story is/isn’t flowing.  They talk about scenes and about what their characters are doing. The rest discuss how to increase their word count by having characters sing songs, recite poetry, or how much it helps to give each character three names.  What follows will only be useful to those who get it.  Those who do not shouldn’t waste any more time here.  Move on…nothing to see.

Maintaining the Momentum

When drafting a novel we all bump into the need for descriptions of this or that.  We need character and place names, maybe a snappy quote, or possibly the name of a famous clothing designer.  The list here is endless adn it can stop us in our tracks as we draft our novels.   These things form the color of our stories.  They are important, very important to whether the story will be enjoyable to readers.

BUT, most of them fall into two categories from the author’s perspective:

  • Necessary and author knows details
  • Necessary but author doesn’t know details
  • Unnecessary but adds color and authors wants them in story

What you do when these needs arise affect how well you will achieve the goal of having a complete story draft sitting on your desk.  If you head off to the Internet or walk away “to think”, it’s possible that you will derail the process completely, or at the very least you will disrupt the ‘butt in the chair’ ideal.

Combating Momentum Stoppers

I want to write drafts quickly.  If feel the immediacy of moving from scene to scene without interruption is important to my story-telling.  Further, once I have a completed draft I feel I’m on firm footing to turn that story into a complete, full-fledged novel without having to second guess the beginning, middle or end.  To facilitate this approach, I simply to leave stuff out of my draft, knowing that I will added it during revisions.  By doing so, writing 50k words in a month becomes easy.  Here’s how I make my decisions:

1) Necessary for story but the author knows the details

Generally, if you know all the details, you might was well write them.  But suppose your protagonist is rushing to meet someone and you’re really on a roll with the plot.  He/she gets to the location and you need to write a description of the location.  Doing so will slow your momentum as you can’t just jump into the meeting which is the point of the scene.  Instead, just add “[description of XYZ Pub here]” and move on.  You know the necessary details (eg – bar down the left side, protag sits with back to the wall, etc.) and so those details can be used even though they will be described later when you write the description.

More often than not, descriptions cause a loss of momentum because the author knows most of the details except for some aspect they want to include, but a name or some other detail is lacking.  For instance, “The bad guy slid the AR-15 from its case and brought it to his shoulder.  He put the protag in the crosshairs of its [type of scope] scope and pulled the trigger.”  In spite of this horrific prose, you can see how stopping to look up the brand name for the scope would slow you down and disrupt your train of thought.

2) Necessary but author doesn’t know details

Maybe you’re writing a Steampunk novel and your protagonist is in downtown London in the 1890s.  The protagonist is looking for a landmark that is well-known to all and you want to accurately depict its location to ground the scene.  But, you don’t know the names of the streets or you don’t know what they called those carriages that Brits used as taxis.  You could stop, fire up Google Earth, find a map of 19th Century London, or any number of things.  You’ll have to do that eventually.  but right now you’re drafting a novel.  And so you write “Madam Protagonist motioned to a [name of taxi carriages] and headed towards [street in front of the Savoy].”  Nothing is lost in this substitution and much is gained.

3) Unnecessary but adds color to the story

Here is where most of the momentum stoppers lie and if you’re goal is to complete a story, this is the stuff you can easily leave out without denting the plot or characters even a little bit.  Snappy quotes, names of books, references to art, famous people, places, or even food add a lot to stories.  They ground character and place like nothing else.  But often they do not affect plot.  Consider the sleuth quoting something when confronting the bad guy, or the lover quoting a line of poetry.  Maybe you have the engineer of a space ship talking about wormhole generation and you want him to quote Steven Hawking.  It doesn’t matter.  These things make or break many novels, but they are often not necessary to move the plot forward.  “Captain, our [wormhole generation device] must recharge.  As Hawking used to say, [Hawking quote].  We can’t jump until we hit 72% or more.”

By avoiding the stoppages caused by searches for this information you gain considerably in my opinion.  First, you retain the momentum of your story.  Your characters are moving through scenes more quickly, in a more realistic fashion.  As an author this impacts how you view those characters and scenes and, in my opinion, they become more real because of it.  Also, it keeps you writing and, by leaving these words out of your draft, you actually increase the number of words you write.  Most important of all is that leaving these things out, rather than spending time searching the Internet, you’ll end up with a complete story that you can then revise into the great novel you want it to be.  Notice that I use brackets and red font to make these omissions easy to find.  They are the first things I tackle when I start doing revisions.  Good luck in the NaNo challenge.  See you at the finish line.

Cheers — Larry

NaNoWriMo: A Writing Opportunity

It’s that time of year again, when there’s lots of buzz about the upcoming NaNoWriMo event.  If you’re a writer, or a wannabe writer who hasn’t heard of it, National Novel Writing Month happens every November.  It an oft-misunderstood event by those who have never done it and a cherished experience by those who have.

The obvious goal of NaNoWriMo is what it takes to win – write 50,000 words in one month.  Winning, though, means getting a certificate that says you did it and as great as the feeling that comes from receiving it, the small size of this token of “winning”  should underscore the importance and value of this aspect of NaNoWriMo.  If “winning” on this level were the only goal, you could copy the first 50,000 words from a dictionary and submit it.  You would “win” but that’s hardly the point.

What is the point is skills acquisition – a specific skill.  Fiction writers need talent and imagination.  Writers need to understand grammar, and other writerly stuff.  But a person with perfect grammar and great imagination can never complete a novel without one other skill, a skill that most wannabe writers lack.  It’s the ability to put your butt in the chair to write on a regular basis.

We all mean well.  We plan, we think, we “have the story in our head.”  But we also have excuses for why it doesn’t get written.  Our “muse” isn’t cooperating.  We’re too busy.  Some even use “I’m such a procrastinator” as though this were some genetic disposition that explains it all.  The excuses don’t matter.  In the end, most well-intentioned people never complete even a first draft of a novel.

The truth is, writing regularly, and with purpose is an acquired skill, just like any other.  It must be acquired and doing it alone is difficult.  It must become a habit.  That’s where NaNoWriMo comes in.  Starting November 1st, tens of thousands of writers, like yourself, will launch themselves into an intense writing month, requiring a word production of 1667 words per day if you want to meet the 50k goal by November 31st.  Support is provided in many forms and with so many people in the same boat, doing the same thing, it is easier somehow.  NaNoWriMo lets you experience being a productive writer and, if you perservere, it will cause you to get that story that’s “in your head” down on paper.  It won’t be a polished novel at that point but it can be with some subsequent effort on your part.  Once the draft is written, the rest is much easier.  Many NaNoWriMo novels have been published and many more will be.  Maybe yours.

Sign up for NaNoWriMo.  It’s free, it’s fun.  And add me to your buddy list.  My NaNo name is larrym.

 

Cheers — Larry

 

My Ideal Idea Book – What’s Yours?

Most writers have some method for recording ideas, making location notes, or maybe even sketching out a scene.  What’s yours? Mine must be portable as I never know when a good idea will start rattling around in my head.  I go for walks and just think about my current project.  Scene ideas will pop into my head, a whole new story idea might come up, or maybe I’ll have a great dialog idea.  I’ve got to write it down.

For most, the tools are a notebook and ball-point pen, though I’m not alone in being particular about my writing utensils.  What makes me anguish a bit more than most over this idea is that in addition to being a writer, I’ve got a fountain pen fetish.  If I’m going to put ink to paper; it’s got to be done with a fountain pen.

Fountain pens generate special challenges.  Those of us afflicted refer to the perfect triad of paper, pen and ink as though it were some magic potion, and I suppose it is, as a great pen only writes well with the proper ink on the proper paper and finding this combination is much of the fun of writing with fountain pens.

I’ve tried many combinations and I’ve found the ideal combination for my needs.  The goal is actually more complicated than just finding pen, ink, and paper that work together as I’m a guy.  I have no purse.  Some might say I have no brain.  So in addition to the general need for pen/ink/paper compatibility, I need:

1) The pen needs to be cheap because I’m prone to losing them.

2) The notebook must be small enough to fit in my back pocket.

3) The ink needs to dry quickly as I need to be able to make notes and shove the notebook back in my pocket without smearing.

Here’s my solution.  All of this stuff, except for the Moleskine notebook, is available from my favorite fountain pen store, Goulet Pens.   Nicest people on the planet and they provide a fantastic online shopping experience.

Cheap Pen & Quick-Drying Ink

Platinum Preppy pens are simply the best bargain ever.  With a street price around four bucks, they provide a smooth-writing pen and a natural for a portable, cheap pen system.   If you lose one it’s not a burden to replace it.

Platinum cartridges have a small ball inside them that help to keep ink flow even when the pen hangs out in my pockets for long periods of time.  The problem is the ink, which isn’t bad, but I’m fussy about my ink.  Goulet Pens has a tutorial that talks about converting a Preppy to an eye-dropper pen (you fill the entire barrel with ink) and I’ve done that.  While I’ve never had one leak, I don’t like the idea of carrying them in my pants pocket and elimination of the cartridges also means elimination of the small ball in the cartridge.

But it’s easy enough to use a syringe to fill any cartridge and that’s the approach I use.  My ink of choice for portability is Noodler’s Bernanke Blue (also comes in black).  It flows well from Preppies and it dries almost as quickly as I can lay it down.

Small Notebook size

The critical dimension for my portable notebook is that it must fit in my back pocket.  Thus, Levis determines my notebook size.  I use a Moleskine notebook as it fits well.  I have tried a Rhodia Webnotebook as the paper is superior but it’s just enough larger that it’s uncomfortable to carry on my butt.  If that’s not a problem for you, I highly recommend this notebook.  So, for me, Moleskine it is and my ideas are captured and I get to enjoy writing with a fountain pen.  What do you use to record your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Using Styles to Solve eBook Formatting Woes

If you hang around people who author eBooks you’ll find grumbling about the compilers that turn Word documents into eBooks.  Most of the grumbling reflects their use of a modern word processor as a typewriter, as they insert tabs, multiple carriage returns (enter key) and hard page breaks to format their books.  They imbed all sorts of format characters and then don’t understand why the compilers don’t like this stuff.

At the same time, anyone who has been in the publishing business knows that the proper way to format documents is without tabs and multiple carriage returns.  Microsoft Word revolutionized desktop publishing when it brought styles and stylesheets to the desktop.  Most editors don’t write a word until they have styles created to format them.  Apparently most of the world didn’t get the memo on this as few seem to use styles or stylesheets.

To the rescue, however, is Heather Marie Adkins, woman extraordinaire, the same woman whose The Temple I just discussed just yesterday.  This morning she released a five-part series on using styles to properly format a document.  It might be the most important blog post you ever read.  Find it here:

All Paragraphs Are Not Created Equal by Heather Marie Adkins

Getting A Writing Fix – What’s The Big Deal?

It’s said that writers don’t just want to write.  Rather, they need to write.  I’m always skeptical of this sort of stuff as, to me, writing is like any endeavour.  You do it or you don’t.  It’s likely that you procrastinate over it, look forward to it, and enjoy or hate it, all at different times.  At least that’s what I’d like to believe.

But I have to confess that I feel soooooo much better this afternoon than I have for the past couple weeks.  We’re in the middle of renovations that I’ve talked about here in the context of said renovations getting in the way of my writing.  Sunday, though, we got to a stage where we could actually start storing our sofas and TV in the living room rather than having them fill the kitchen.  I literally danced around the kitchen floor when it became available again.  Eating nuked frozen meals, grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs is not my style so getting the telephone and coffee maker off the stove top was a watershed moment.

So, what does this have to do with writing?  Absolutely nothing, which is the point.  All this has kept me from writing except for a couple of short blog posts – until today.  We decided to ‘take the day off’ which manifest itself in my wife and daughter going to a strawberry farm to pick strawberries, one of the pleasures of living in Quebec.

I stayed home, all alone, well almost.  I had my laptop and Scrivener, so I did some outlining and some WRITING!!!  It felt soooooo good.  I wrote only a couple thousand words but the spring is back in my step and maybe, just maybe, there’s something to that ‘writers need to write’ stuff.

 

What Drywalling Says About Novel Writing

I wrote earlier about the best writer procrastination tool in the world: remodeling.  It’s occurred to me, however, that lessons from our remodeling project say much about a wannabe novelist approaching their first novel.  So, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.  Besides, I needed a break and felt compelled to write some words. I hope I don’t get too much drywall dust on my computer as I type. Oops…too late.

My wife and I decided to replace our living room carpets with wood flooring. Then we decided that this would be a good time to paint as well. Then we decided that we should do some remodeling, creating an arched exit into an adjacent hallway and, while we were at it, some other structural changes. And since we were doing all that, I decided that I should do some electrical work too. In the software biz we used to call this “feature creep.”

In many ways this is what a wannabe writer does when he/she decides to write a novel. They get an idea, then realize they need some characters, a location, and some way to develop the idea into a story. They’re not sure how it all works, often will say things like “I’m not so good with grammar” as they launch themselves into the project but, undaunted, they proceed.

We were that way with our remodeling project but said, “How hard could it be?”

Simple tools are deceptive

Beyond the sawzall, hammer, and belt sander required for the structural changes, drywalling amounts to mounting sheets of paper-covered plaster, covering the seams with tape, and then plastering the surface smooth. Easy peasy. How hard could it be?

The tools required are few. A knife is required to cut the drywall and a screwdriver is used to attach it to the wall. Then, simple trowels and sanding materials are required to create a smooth wall surface. Heck the tools just get rubbed on the wall until you’re done. How hard could it be?

Writing a novel is the same way, requiring only a laptop or pen and paper. You just write a bunch of sentences, run a spell check and you’ve got a novel. The budding novelist has already done the hard part – they have an idea. How hard could it be?

In both cases the simplicity of the tool set, however, is deceptive and fools the gullible remodeler/writer into a false sense of security. As it turns out, tools have nothing to do the creative process. It’s true that War and Peace would be shorter if Tolstoy had to write it on stone tablets but otherwise, tools don’t matter.

Jump right in

We took to the task like ducks to water. I am somewhat skilled in woodworking so cutting and mounting drywall was easy for me. Neither my wife or I knew much about drywall “mudding” but she had done some before so she was the expert, until she wasn’t. So we had to stop and read about how to do it. The reading helped considerably but there was still the problem of execution. First we had to undo all the wrong that we’d done. If not for the resultant aching muscles from the work, I’d chalk this up to practice. Then we had to try to do it properly but found that our skills were lacking. It’s hard to understand how it can be hard to make plaster smooth with a trowel but I can’t do it. I need a lot more practice.

This is the same problem a budding novelist faces. It seems like it should be simple enough. Other people do it. You just write a sequence of 50 or so scenes and you’re done. You write the proverbial beginning, middle and end of the novel. That’s all there is too it. But, just like drywalling, developing skills on the fly sounds easier than it is and results are often less than stellar, which leads to…

Fixing the errors

We found that fixing our screw ups took far longer than anything else. We also learned that the last 10% of the job required 50% of the time. We learned that getting the little details right was the hardest and that unless we got them right, nothing looked good.

And sadly, this is the hardest thing for a wannabe novel writer to realize. So many poor stories could be great ones if new writers would simply understand that the details are the most important part of writing. Getting down the bones, as some describe writing a first draft, is a breeze relative to the work involved to get the details right, having characters to come alive, and writing descriptions that stimulate a reader’s imagination. Putting the polish on the execution is the most time-consuming part of novel writing. And just like drywalling, these stages require the greatest skill and knowledge.

Damn, this is taking forever

We learned that because our drywalling skills were limited and because we were constantly repairing mistakes, this job took us twice as long as we thought it would. A professional could have done the job in one long day, maybe two if he took long lunches. It has taken the two of us a week to accomplish. Our lack of skill has been the single cause for our slow progress. Still, we did accomplish it. Next time it’ll be easier.

If one reads what writers write to other writers, one sees this same thing in their words. Seasoned writers talk of being fast, efficient, and writing thousands of words a day. New writers struggle to generate a few hundred. They claim they’re ‘blocked’ and attribute this to some ethereal being rather than the grim reality that they’re bumping up against their skill limitations. These new writers haven’t yet learned the skills that permit their ideas to flow smoothly from brain to paper. But with practice, just like creating smooth walls, a novel will come together with a healthy dose of perseverance. You just might have to read a bit and practice your skills to make it happen

Why we do it

As we stood in the room, looking at our smooth walls and crisp, plastered edges, we could have hurt ourselves trying to pat ourselves on the back, but we were simply too tired to do so. Instead we just smiled at each other and thought about our initial thought. “How hard can it be?”

And this is true for novel writing as well. When you hold your novel in your hand, or load it up on your Kindle, the feeling is awesome. And when you get to that point you’ll also know just how hard it can be.

Super-charge Your Imagination: Turn Off Your iPod

It’s well-established that the human brain works best when it’s not distracted. In spite of that “sure, everyone knows that” statement, most of us constantly bombard our brains with twitter feeds, Facebook, and email. And when we’re on the move, we’ve got earbuds in our ears, as we travel to be the beat of our favorite drums.

Right now I am brainstorming my next novel and it occurred to me that one of my methods may be worthy of description.  I walk a lot, or at least as often as I can. When I walk I usually listen to an audiobook which helps me with my to-be-read pile. But when I need to figure out some twists and turns in my writing, or when I’m developing characters, I will often walk, and walk. This works for be and the ‘trick’ is to leave the iPod at home. It makes me smarter… every time.

Well, maybe not smarter but if I my brain has nothing to do but think, it thinks and it I pose questions to my thinking brain during a long walk, my brain responds. Instead of the iPod I take a notebook and pen with me to capture the thoughts.

I’ll think and walk, think and walk. And when something comes to mind, I’ll stop and write it down. Then I’ll think and walk some more. Today I went with a goal of figuring out what my antagonists were doing and what their relationships would be to one another. It’s a plot involving collusion and bribery and I needed to figure out the interconnectivity of the pieces. Not exactly, of course, but enough that I know where to put the pieces on the chessboard.  Heck I needed to know what pieces there would be.

After a two hour walk I had a diagram that showed those relationships and some brief notes about what sorts of characters I needed and how they are associated with each corporate entity.  The walk also spawned notes for three scenes that just came to mind.  One will show something about the theme of the book. Another illustrates the relationship between two of the principle characters. And the third is a humorous scene and, to be honest I have no idea how it will fit, if at all. Not a bad result for a couple hours of clear thought, all because I turned my iPod off.Oh, and as I did this “writing session” I burned some calories, worked on my tan, and I got to see a mother mallard duck with her newly-hatched brood of ducklings.

Cheers — Larry