Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NaNoWriMo #30: Five Top Tips, and Moving Mountains With Story

Last day of NaNoWriMo! I’m going to put up the last couple of pieces of advice contributed by our published authors, and in the next couple of days I’ll do a little wrap-up.

First up today is Elizabeth Miles, author of FURY. She wrote a great post recently with her top five writing tips, and is allowing me to reprint it here.

“After not using a Power Point or any type of formal presentation for the first set of tour stops with Becca and Moira, I finally decided to create one before I met BF in Toronto at the end of October. I found that it helped me stay on target while talking to school groups. In addition to the requisite "childhood embarrassing photo" and info about FURY, I included five writing tips at the end. My little gimmick (you gotta have one...)? All of them contain the word "out." Here's what I mean:

1) Spill it OUT. 
     Staring at a blank page (slash screen) is the absolute worst. Get something on there, even if it's crap (and some of it won't be). As some of you know, I know an editor who calls this "word-vomming." Whatever you want to call it, don't fall prey to the belief/personal expectation that your first attempt is going to be great, or even that good. Words beget more words, beget more (and better) ideas. Skip around, if that'll help - if you love writing dialogue, get some of that down and then come back to the exposition. If setting the scene is your thing, do that before you start hammering out plot details…” (read the rest of this post here)

Next is Karen Dionne, author of eco-thrillers BOILING POINT and FREEZING POINT. She’s also the co-founder of Backspace, the online writers hangout. And I do mean hangout: everyone from NYT bestsellers to the newest aspiring writer congregates in the forums, swapping advice, news, and support. She’s also very active in International Thriller Writers. But most importantly, she should know that Karen is one of the sweetest and most supportive people in the writing community, and a great person to have in your corner.

“Don't be afraid to move mountains. Accuracy and research are important, but the story has to come first - always.” Karen’s advice is spot-on. Without a great story—something that intrigues readers and makes them keep turning the pages—you have nothing.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

NaNoWriMo: Write a Great Book, Watch a Good Movie

We’re in the homestretch of National Novel Writing Month. We’re down to our last few tips, too. Today’s tip is a really good one and it’s from Alia Yunis, author of the amazing novel The Night Counter, a clever retelling of the Scheherazade story. As you’ll see when you get to the tip below, Alia has also spent a lot of time working in the film industry, and she’s currently a freelance journalist and a professor of film and television. I had the great fortune to meet Alia at Squaw Valley Writers Conference last summer. Alia is a great person to spend a weekend with! (Let me give a little shout out for Squaw, if you’re looking for a writer’s conference to hone your skills. Check it out.)

“What came first—the novel or the screenplay?  In world history and in most agent deals, the book came first.  Not a trick question.  The trick is for the writer of the novel to appreciate the screenplay while he or she is writing her book.  I spent years toiling in LA in the screenwriting trade, as a writer and as a script analyst.  There are days when I wish for the sake of my soul and sanity I had run away in half the time it took me to make the decision to leave.  But when I sit at my computer writing, I am grateful to the screenplays I wrote and the hundreds and hundreds of scripts I read and movies I watched.

“Freedom of speech does not apply to screenwriting, at least when it comes to structure.  Your three act structure, plot points, turning points, back stories, narrative description, and dialogue falls within a limited set of pages—or on screen running minutes.  So when I find my novel just wandering along without a plot, without stakes and turning points, I take a break and watch a good movie.  It gives my eyes a rest, but it also gives me a chance to map out my story.  I outline the script of the film I’m watching, and that gets me thinking about plot in my own novel, and then I’m ready to go again.  Indeed, screenwriting doesn’t allow for the freedom and creativity that novel writing does, but for the novelist struggling with too much freedom, taking a break to watch a movie can help give your freedom purpose.”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

NaNoWriMo #24: The Importance of Connecting

Not only can you stumble on your way to logging your daily word count during NaNoWriMo: you can stumble trying to do a daily post. Sorry for missing a day or two. I’m afraid it’s going to continue over the holiday weekend as I try to juggle turkey dinner, reviewing the copyedited pages from the publisher, and experimenting with a Facebook ad campaign.

Last week I went to hear Rebecca York address the Maryland chapter of Romance Writers of America. Rebecca has had a long career as a writer. Not only has she written many romance novels, she’s also written cookbooks, non-fiction, and mysteries.

I have known Rebecca—or I should say, I have known of her—for a long time for, you see, I worked in the same federal agency as her husband. He has always been proud of her work and I’d heard about her writing thirty years ago, when I just started on the job. She was one of the few people I’d ever met who earned their living writing novels, and has been an inspiration of mine all this time. We met in person a few years ago at a writer’s conference when I told her I knew her husband—and lo and behold, he was sitting in a chair a couple tables behind me! (I can’t tell you how heartwarming it is to see the two of them together nowadays, as Norm goes with Rebecca—or Ruth, to use her real name—to all her conferences.)

I had just reached out to Ruth to ask her advice about something and she invited me to her talk to the Maryland group. I’ve been struggling with writing my second book and wondering if I’d been doing everything all wrong, and so it was the perfect time to go see Ruth: she was to talk about the lessons she’d learned from her long writing career. I think all writers today are struggling to figure out what’s best for them given the sea of options that now face us, and it was generous of Ruth to share her thoughts.

I’ll write about her advice in future posts, but the point I wanted to make today is that you can get advice about writing and publishing everywhere on the Internet lately, it seems. The authenticity of some of that advice is suspect, however. It’s easy to present yourself as an expert in the virtual world. There is no substitute for listening to someone who has weathered change and can put it all in perspective, smartly.

I’m sure somewhere in your area there are writers groups. People who get together once a month to critique each other’s work, bring in outside speakers, and keep each other inspired and informed. I urge you to join one of these groups, no matter how shy and introverted you are. As much as the world of books live in our heads, in order to get beyond writing for yourself, you have to connect to the outside world, and the best connections are the flesh and blood ones.

I think that must be why the NaNoWriMo write-ins are so popular: it gives you a chance to work in the company of other people like you, and to make connections in what is otherwise a lonely pursuit. Just don’t let it stop with NaNoWriMo. Join a critique group or writer’s organization, continue your education as a writer, and make friends who will help sustain you over the long haul.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

NaNoWriMo #22: Pouring It Out

Today’s bit of inspiration comes from Alan Orloff. In addition to being the author of standalone and series mystery novels—Diamonds for the Dead, Killer Routine and, coming in January, Deadly Campaign—he’s also a writing instructor at The Writer’s Center in MD/VA/DC. You can read Alan’s blog here, or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

“BICFOK – Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard. The only way to get a finished manuscript is to finish it! Set up a schedule: daily, five-days-a-week, whatever, and stick to it. Do your time! Finish your quota! Eventually, you’ll have a first draft. It may stink, but then it’s time to really get to work—revisions!”

Alan’s advice gives me the opportunity to bring up Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, a great (and well-known) resource for writers. Her chapter “Shitty First Drafts” is a must-read. It explains why you need to give yourself permission to pour it out on the page for the first draft and is a perfect complement to what Alan said.

Monday, November 21, 2011

NaNoWriMo #21: Ruminating on Your Writing

If you’ve been faithfully participating in NaNoWriMo, you’re probably thinking about your novel all the time: while you’re driving the car or loading laundry into the washing machine. Good! You’ve now incorporated an important writing technique into your subconscious. Today, Elizabeth Miles, author of the hot hot hot YA novel Fury is going to tell you how to tap into your subconscious and extract the gems. In addition to writing fiction, Elizabeth is a reporter for the Portland Phoenix. You can find out more about her Fury series here, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

“When I'm required to write a lot in a short period of time, or when I'm on a tight deadline, or when I'm faced with a plot dilemma that I need to sort out before I can move forward with my story, I try to ruminate on my writing even when I'm not at my desk. Before I fall asleep, when I'm walking to work, in the shower, or in my car, I'll set the scene in my head and turn it over in a kind of meditative way. It's almost like the scene is a rock and I try to make my thoughts the stream, running over and around it, finding new crevices, new ways to maneuver around it. I don't force it. If certain words or ideas come to me, I find a way to write them down (this leads to lots of scribbled notes on the backs of envelopes and receipts :). When I do this, I come back to my computer with a new, slightly fresher perspective, sometimes some new words or solutions, and at the very least, more time thinking about my story, which can never hurt.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

NaNoWriMo #20: Show Up

Okay, so today’s tip isn’t technically going to help you with your NaNoWriMo project. But at least a few of you are new to writing, and after NaNoWriMo is over, will want to continue. Part of the reason I decided to go these tips for NaNoWriMo is to give glimpses into the writer’s life. Chances are, most of you are trying in the hope of being published one day. And there is more to being published than writing the book. The writing is the most important part, of course: don’t put the cart before the horse. There’s the writing—and then there’s everything else: reading and continuing to work at craft, becoming part of the writer’s community, building a network to help sustain you, pursuing publication.

Have you been to an author event lately? Whether at a book festival, or a reading in a bookstore, make it a point to go to at least two live events a year. Why?
  •  If you aspire to being a professional writer one day, you’re going to have to talk about your work eventually. You’re going to have to read out loud from your book. You need to see how others do it. And it helps to be there, in the flesh, and soak up all the atmospherics and to get a feel for how it’s done and what to expect.
  • If you consider yourself part of the community of writers, you need to help support that community. Bookstore appearances are important for authors for more than the opportunity to meet their readers. It gives authors a chance to get their name on posters and newspaper ads that are read by people who won’t be attending the event itself. It gives authors a chance to get to know booksellers, which is incredibly important, because if a bookseller doesn’t know about your book, he won’t recommend it to customers. I heard while on tour this September that the average number of people who attend a bookstore event is nine, and that’s the average from the newest of debut authors to the big names. The number of people who attend live events is dwindling to the point where such events may be in jeopardy for all but the most well-known authors. Let bookstore owners know you appreciate these events by attending them. And bring a friend with you.

Some people think that author events in bookstores will go away because they are so poorly attended. I think that would be a shame, and not because I’m one of those people who think we should continue tradition for it’s own sake. It’s because the experience you get from a live event is fundamentally different from what you get from reading. It enriches the experience of reading. It enriches your relationship to your chosen pastime. So please get out there and attend a live book event as part of your development as a writer.

Friday, November 18, 2011

NaNoWriMo #19: Improving Your Writing Through Reading

Today’s writing tip is: read. To be a better writer, you have to read, and read with a purpose. (Okay, Alex Berenson raised this point a few days ago, but I’m going to expound on it today.)

You learn to write better by reading good writing. You can take courses, listen to writers speak, read how-to books, but in the end, in order to become fluent in storytelling, you must read.

I was at a talk given by Rebecca York last night (more on that in the coming days) and she summed it up best: to become a better writer, you need to figure out what you’re good at, and what you’re not so good at. Then, find the writers who are good at the things you’re not good at, and read them.

If you’ve been meeting your NaNoWriMo quota, by now you probably have a good idea of which elements are your weakest. Do you have a problem with dialogue? Read someone renown for her dialogue, like Elmore Leonard. Do you plots tend to be anemic? The answer here will depend on your genre, but if you’re looking for a place to start, try reading award-winners (the winner of the Edgar for best novel, for instance, or a book that made “best mysteries of the year” for more than one publication).   

For problems with openings and weak endings, one of my favorite tricks is to sit down in front of my bookcase of favorite reads and to go through books at random, reading their first and last pages, studying the author’s technique. Put aside the ones that work best in your opinion, then go back and read the first and last chapters.

Some folks worry that they’ll inadvertently “lift” from the book they’re reading, and transplant a character or a subplot into the story they’re writing. I say if you find you’re doing this, you’re not analyzing the story you’re reading deeply enough. You want to uncover the writer’s technique, not that you found (for example) a particular character enjoyable, but you want to figure out how the author was able to make the character well-rounded. How the author was able to given that character dimension. What about the character made her come alive to you.

So, to recap: if you writing is feeling a bit beleaguered, try reading.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

NaNoWriMo #18: How Does She Do It?

How do you do it? Isn’t that the question we’re most often asked, as writers? The one we most often ask each other when we get together? What’s your process? How do you capture lightning in a bottle? Did what worked for you for the first novel work the second time around? How do you keep track of all your subplots—software, index cards, post-it notes, scribbles on paper napkins? Personally, I’m especially intrigued by organized writers, the ones who come up with methodical approaches to the messiness that is writing.

Today’s tip is from Miranda Parker.  I met Miranda—or Dee as she’s known—at the Decatur Book Festival, where she was volunteering as a stage manager. She writes the Angel Crawford Bounty Hunter series for Kensington Books, and is a member of International Thriller Writers (ITW) Debut Class of 2012. Just as she rolled up her sleeves to help out at Decatur, she volunteered to run The Thrill Begins blog for ITW—she’s that kind of person, always ready to pitch in when it’s something she believes in, and hence, someone who knows how to manage her time. You can follow her on Facebook here.

“As you get deeper into the month you may find your story is floundering or you have no clue what to write today. I use a weekly plot schedule. The plot schedule is broken down into 4 acts for the 4 weeks. Week 1 my objective is to get the intro done and to get my main character to the inciting incident. Week Two I'm focused on getting my character to the quest and then to a surprise she discovers about herself once she gets what she think she wants. The other weeks fall into my major plot points with the last week, of course focusing on the climax and the conclusion. Having this objective to meet by every Sunday gives me a point of reference. If I have a day that's too busy to get a great deal of words in, I still know where I need to be at the end of that week.” 

NaNoWriMo #17: Permission to Take a Breather

Today’s tip is from Jennifer Haupt, writing for magazines and author of books of non-fiction and fiction. She writes a blog, One True Thing, for Psychology Today, and is one of the bloggers at the reading website, Reader Unboxed, and is the author of the upcoming book, I'll Stand By You: Changing the World, One Child at a Time (Dutton, 2012). What I find amazing about Jennifer is her attitude. She defines herself: “I’m fascinated by how people define, discover, and pursue something more. I write about all aspects of passion—from travel and food, to putting more heart in your home, to relationships and parenting, to the many different ways we each approach the quest to become part of something larger than our own lives. It's all about making meaningful connections.” She has a profound interest in other people in a no-judging way that, to me, is intensely spiritual. So when Jennifer speaks, I listen.

“STOP Writing! Don't be afraid to stop the madness for a day or two and evaluate what you've actually put down on paper. I know the idea is to just write your brains out, but sometimes taking a breather and letting the manuscript simmer takes greater discipline and is actually a great development tool for your story.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NaNoWriMo #16: Practice Kindness

Today’s tip is from Rebecca Coleman, author of the recently released, highly regarded The Kingdom of Childhood. Rebeeca, a daring and talented writer, is one of the friendliest people I know. What she has to say today is very important, and if you don’t have this particular knack, you might want to start working on it now. It extends to everyone you meet on your publishing journey, from your professional partners (editor, agent, everyone at your publisher’s house) to each and every reader, because each of these people has taken time from their lives to do something for you. And in this day, that's an increasingly rare thing. You can follow Rebecca’s blog here, or follow her on Facebook here and Twitter here.

"Be friendly. Be kind. How is that a writing tip? Because when you're *this close* to getting a publishing contract, the agent and then the editor want to talk to you on the phone. Your people skills are part of what helps them decide if they want to represent you or work with you-- because believe me, they have a very large pool from which to choose. If an author shows she is easy to work with, she's a safer bet for the publisher, who will often put more money behind her book because they know she won't let her ego compromise her relationship with her editor. And once you have that contract in your hands, you're going to need cover blurbs from published authors, and people to promote your book on their blogs and mention it in their guest posts or interviews. If you've been kind to people along the way, this will happen easily and naturally. So when you come across idiotic posts in writing forums, learn to roll your eyes rather than fire off a snarky reply. You're going to need that skill, anyway, once your book is published and you enter the wonderful world of getting reviewed."

Pardon this commercial interruption, but I want to let you know that the price on the ebook of my novel, The Taker (Simon & Schuster), is $4.99 for a limited time. A great gift for the holidays.
An American Library Association-Booklist Top Ten Debut of 2011
A Cosmo UK Pick of the Week
Kindle            Nook             iTunes

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

NaNoWriMo #15: Ignoring the Siren Call of the Internet

Today we have two authors with the same message. I’m putting them together to also contrast writing styles. Alex Berenson is the NYT bestselling author of spy novels, the most recent being The Secret Soldier. Alex, a former reporter for the New York Times, started his career as a novelist after being deployed in Afghanistan for the newspaper. Thrillers need to be punchy and direct, compelling readers to keep turning those pages, as witnessed by Alex’s crisp advice, below. You can follow Alex on Facebook here and Twitter here.

 "Turn off your wireless connection.  And read."

Our second tipster is Kristina Yoshida McMorris. Kristina is the author of Letters From Home, historical women’s fiction. Her novel has been widely embraced by readers across genres and is beloved by book clubs, which are hotly anticipating the release of her second novel, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves. Here you get a sense of Kristina's more conversational writing style, and she gives practical advice on how to disentangle yourself from the Internet. You can follow Kristina on Facebook here and Twitter here.

“Pull the plug! To the Internet, that is. Turn off the modem, the router, whatever it takes to disconnect you from Cyber World so you can focus on the writing. And if your cell phone does anything more than make phone calls (unless it makes margaritas, of course), turn that off too. There's so much distracting 'noise' out there (FB! Twitter! Squirrel! Shiny!), like an army of techno-gremlins determined to keep you from reaching your final word count. Don't give them the chance. And if going cold-turkey is as terrifying as skydiving without a parachute (or a Blackberry), wean in doses and with mini-goals: type for 30 minutes = read new e-mails; finish the scene = check updates on Tweetdeck. Whatever it takes to disconnect, freeing your mind to focus, dare to take the plunge.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

NaNoWriMo #14: Essential Online Resources

Today is November 14th, about halfway through the month. It’s official: whether you’re at the 25,000 word point in your book or not, you’ve hit “the sagging middle.”  For most writers, the sagging middle is not a fun place to be. It will require a lot of attention—unsentimental evaluation, tightening, finding ways to up the tension. But not today. Today you are plowing ahead, continuing to put words on paper, playing out the story as it exists in your head.

 Today’s tip falls into the category of inspiration. Whenever we take on a new endeavor, we live in hope. Hope that this time, things will work out. Hope that this is the story idea that catches fire. To fuel that hope, I’m listing some online resources for your onward journey as a writer. Resources that will not only help you revise your NaNoWriMo novel when November is over, but will provide insights into the community of writers.

This is a short list, the online resources that are required reading in my opinion. And it doesn’t begin to explore the book blogger community, or sites for book reviews. Have a favorite you don’t see here? Add it in the comments section and share your knowledge.

Backspace: an online water cooler for working writers. Need a place to ask a question of other writers or a publishing professional? Want to compare experiences with someone who has been there? Look no further. 

Beyond the Margins: a lit blog written by authors who came out of the Grub Street writer’s center in Boston. Great advice, insights on every step of the writer’s journey.

Boxing the Octopus: a collection of writers and professionals in the publishing industry share their insights and advice.

Galley Cat: All the news in the publishing community here. A good place to catch the daily zeitgeist of New York publishing circles.

Guide to Literary Agents: Chuck Sambuchino’s blog for Writer’s Digest will help you find the literary agent that’s right for you.

How A Novel Gets Published: Want to know what it’s like to go from selling your first book to publication day? Meg Waite Clayton captured her experiences every step of the way, and provides thoughtful insights throughout.

Publisher’s Lunch: the daily free newsletter from this publishing industry trade resource. It’s subscription counterpart, Publisher’s Marketplace, is a great research tool when you’re putting together your strategy for querying.

Publisher’s Weekly: provides a daily email to the publishing industry.

Shelf Awareness: provides a daily newsletter to the trade, with a focus on booksellers. Also produces a twice weekly version geared toward readers.

Writer Unboxed: a roster of publishing professionals give advice on all aspect of the writing life, including super agent Don Maass and author of The Lace Reader, Brunonia Barry.

NaNoWriMo #13: Perseverance and Patience

Today, I’m featuring two great writers of women’s fiction, Jael McHenry and Ann Hite. I met both these women through my publisher—we’re all published by the same imprint, Gallery Books at Simon and Schuster—and both have been wonderful friends ever since. (And there’s a mini-tip for you for down the road: it’s important to make friends in this business, just as in any business.)

Jael McHenry’s debut novel, The Kitchen Daughter, is about a woman who discovers she can call up ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes. Described as Julia & Julia meets Jodi Picoult, The Kitchen Daughter garnered rave reviews and was a book pick of O, the Oprah’s magazine. Jael has a blog which you can follow here, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

“Don't expect a final product from your first draft. I often get discouraged in the early stages of writing because the book is completely perfect in my head, and then it doesn't turn out nearly as well when I start writing it down! But you can't get to a second draft if you never finish the first. Keep at it.”

Ann Hite’s Ghost on Black Mountaintwists folklore with the genres of Southern Gothic, paranormal and literary fiction like a fine, fat pretzel, a guilty pleasure after midnight,” says the Alabama Mobile Register. Ann also is the author of numerous short stories and book reviews, a self-professed “book junkie” and generous as all get-out. You can follow her blog here.

"Listen to your characters! I know it sounds crazy, but characters know so much more than the writers that created them. When you’re in the shower, walking, or just dropping off to sleep, a character will reach out to tell you something important or not so important about the book where he or she appears. Listen. And you just might learn something."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

NaNoWriMo #12: Recapturing Your Sense of Wonder

Today we have a piece of inspiration from Michael David Lukas, whose much-praised debut novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, is the story of preternaturally intelligent girl who becomes an adviser to the Ottoman sultan and changes the course of history. Michael’s piece today, about rejuvenating your imagination—in this case, children—was originally published in Publishers Weekly

"Excuse me, Mr. Michael. Excuse me." A tiny third grader with short, curly brown hair and a mouthful of braces, Anna B. waved her hand with the force of an outboard motor. Before calling on her, I looked around the room to see if any of my less talkative students had their hands up. At the back table, Jason was hunched over his notebook, chewing the sleeve of his sweatshirt as he doodled a grisly battle between ghost robots and mutant vegetables. To my right, a shy, red-haired girl named Mackenzie was watching the class rabbit chew through a pencil she had stuck into its cage. "I just thought you would want to know," Anna B. burst out, doing her best to stifle a fit of giggles. "That someone farted."

        Welcome to creative writing class at Thornhill Elementary School. When I first took the job, teaching after-school classes at Thornhill, I saw it as a stopgap, something temporary to help pay the bills. Little did I know Jason, Mackenzie, Anna B., and the rest of the third graders at Thornhill would help pull me out of the quarter-life quicksand into which I was sinking.

        I had just turned 30, had just moved back home, and was feeling like the punch line of a bad joke. While I looked for a "real job," I was supposed to be finishing the novel I had spent the past six years working on, but that wasn't going very well either. Every time I sat down to write I hit a wall, paralyzed by fear of failure and the possibility that I had wasted six years of my life. Who would want to read a book about a little girl who becomes an adviser to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire? Worrying about the future, I had lost touch with my sense of wonder and possibility, the very reason I was writing the novel in the first place…”    [read more]

Friday, November 11, 2011

NaNoWriMo #11: Finding the Story in What You've Written

One phrase I heard a lot once I sold my book was that “writing is a marathon, not a sprint.” It applies to so many aspects of a writer’s life, and provides a bit of solace whenever you run into a short-term disappointment: a bit of luck that doesn’t turn your way, not being selected for an award or recognition, and especially—as you’ll read below—when it comes to finding the story.

Today’s tip comes from John Milliken Thomson, whose most recent book, The Reservoir, a historical mystery set in Richmond in the post-Civil War era, rightly earned accolade after accolade when it came out earlier this year. John is a working journalist and the author of several highly-regarded works of non-fiction. He’s the consummate writing professional, and I’m thrilled to have him on the blog today. You can follow him on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

“I think the value of NaNoWriMo is that it gives writers confidence that they can complete a long piece of fiction, like a first-time marathoner realizing that, after all, he actually can run mileages in the double digits. The paradox, it seems to me, is that you have to be confident not just that you can write long but that you can abandon a work that's going nowhere. Many writers I know get 50-100 pages in and realize that their story has no forward momentum. On my latest novel, I probably wrote 30,000 words before I realized I was writing about the wrong people; I dialed the story back 50 years and started again. I felt like I'd struck gold, and had no problem writing 150,000 words.
        A writer completing the NaNoWriMo challenge, if she doesn't burn out, will have either a good jumpstart on a novel or several ideas that she can follow up on. Of course, the real work begins from there. I have a friend who is a week into the challenge and already has realized things about novels and novel writing that he never had before. He said he had no idea how hard it was just to put together a coherent story, let alone give it pathos, humor, meaning, interesting characters, and all the other things that go into a good novel.
        Writing 50,000 words in a month may not be many writers' ideal pace, but there's no doubt it'll give you a taste of what lies ahead if you see the novel through to publication. My advice, though probably not what people want to hear mid-month, is: Don't be afraid to drop those 50,000 words and start over. After all, this is a marathon, and you've just started training.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

NaNoWriMo #10: Getting to Know Your Characters

 Today’s tip comes from international bestselling novelist MJ Rose. She’s the author of 13 books—most recently the Hypnotist and The Book of Lost Fragrances, forthcoming—where the suspense comes from exploration of the individual’s personal unknown. Her novels ask the question, what lies beyond the edge of our own consciousness? Her books are full of wonder and mystery and beauty in all its forms. Her novel, The Reincarnationist, was the basis for a television series on CBS, Past Life.

In addition to her writing, MJ Rose uses her extensive background in advertising to help fellow writers, through her blog Buzz, Balls and Hype and her service AuthorBuzz, which gets books a little time in thousands and thousands of the right blogs, newsletters and websites. She is generous with her time and expertise in both the book and advertising worlds, and dear reader, if you hope to get into the book business, you really must follow MJ. And you can do that on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

“If you get stuck don't just vomit out more of the book. It is okay to stop. Most writers blocks issues come from not knowing your character well enough - so stop and take a walk and interview your main character. Or take her shopping. Or to a musuem. Talk to her and ask her what her issues are - what she's scared of - what she wants - why she's being elusive? Listen hard to the answers  - so many times for me the character's revelations allow me to keep writing. And oh - have fun!!!” 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

NaNoWriMo #9: Finding Time to Write

I’m honored to have Tananarive Due here for today’s writing tip. Tananarive is the very model of a professional writer: she’s written or co-authored thirteen books, from the ABA-award winning The Living Blood and her African immortals series (of which My Soul to Take is the latest), to mysteries with actor Blair Underwood, to non-fiction and screenplays. And her writing is consistently superb, genre-stretching, rich. She’s worked as a journalist and is now a professor at Spelman College. Tananarive has a blog on writing you can follow here, and you can find news on her releases and upcoming events here.

 “Too often, writers believe that they can only work if they have a huge block of writing time carved out of the day, preferably in a cabin or on a beach.  While it would be great if all writers could work at writers' retreats, most of us are juggling our writing, our day jobs and our loved ones.  (Spouses may be understanding, but children have a harder time thriving under a faraway gaze.)
        When I wrote full-time, I had the luxury of four-hour blocks for nothing but writing.  But now that I'm teaching full-time at Spelman College, I'm having to teach myself how to write in the cracks again.  Would I prefer to have an hour or two uninterrupted?  Sure, but sometimes thirty minutes--or even fifteen--will do.  Sometimes I have to write on my laptop instead of in my office, shutting away the television noise. 
        I was trained as a journalist, so I don't believe in pampering one's Muse.  Yes, promise her breaks and a treat, but she has to show up on a schedule just like the rest of us. 
        Too often, we are lying when we say we don't have the time to write.  It may not be the "perfect" time, but any time will do.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

NaNoWriMo #8: Books on Craft

Don’t forget to put time aside for inspiration. You may not have time to read a book on the craft of writing NOW, but here are a few to consider ordering from your local bookstore in December:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: a classic for good reason. Superb writing advice and inspiration. Go to Squaw Valley Writers Conference and get to hear her in person.

On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner: another classic. Still taught in every writing program in the country, I bet. Will remind you to keep your expectations realistic.

Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin: also a classic. Nuts and bolts lessons and exercises to improve your writing. Indispensible.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose: you must be able to analyze other writers’ work in order to understand how to put together a story. This book will teach you how.

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter: one of The Art Of series, this one is particularly good at teaching you about weaving overtones and undertones into your fiction. If your story seems one-dimensional, you might want to read this.

The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neill: do your plots lack narrative drive? Not enough oomph? One of my professors at Hopkins recommended this book. Makes plotting crystal clear.

Monday, November 7, 2011

NaNoWriMo #7: Writing as part of your life

 One of the reasons I wanted to do something for NaNoWriMo is because in many ways, it’s not so different from the life of every working writer. I think after the initial surge, you’ll find it’s less about plunging ahead pell-mell as it is about finding a rhythm and learning to trust your instincts, whether it’s over a character that doesn’t seem quite right or a thread that looks to be going nowhere. Every day, you have the challenge of working with words on page, and creating or sustaining magic while at the same time being as efficient as possible with your time and energy.

Today’s tip is from Nichole Bernier. I'm so pleased Nichole is joining us today: every aspiring writer can learn a thing or two from Nichole. In addition to writing her forthcoming debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, Nicole has written for a slew of magazines and has been a long-time contributing editor for Conde Nast’s Traveler. She is one of a group of writers who run Beyond the Margins, a lit blog  that provides some of the best writing advice on the web. She manages to do all this and raise her young family. You can follow her tweets here.

“It’s easy to be self-conscious about the pace of your writing, amid the hype of NaNoWriMo and watching the speed of other writers. But completing a novel isn’t a roadrace; there’s no expectation that you finish within a certain amount of time. The important thing is making your characters always a part of your thinking even if writing can’t always be a part of your day. I found that setting a weekly goal of 2,500 words was doable with writing sessions whenever I could grab them—nights, weekends, early mornings, kids’ naptimes. That was also a goal  forgiving enough that I could have a day be a bust without killing the week. It’s also a matter of saying no to the other ways you could be spending your time. For writers with multifaceted lives and responsibilities, many other hobbies and pastimes (hello, exercise, television) might go out the window. It’s about choices.”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

NaNoWriMo #6: Revising Your Plans

Always have a smiley face in your story schematic

Day Six of NaNoWriMo. Nearly a week down, three and a half to go. By now, you may be asking yourself questions: can I do this? Maybe you’ve fallen behind on your word count. Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. Maybe your protagonist is turning out to be less interesting than he original promised and the villain is threatening to take over the story. What if you need to revise your NaNoWriMo goals? Don’t break out in a cold sweat. Valerie Patterson, author of YA novel The Other Side of Blue, is here to help.

Setting a Goal:
The goal is to keep moving ahead on a project, and not try to revise as you go.  Treat Nov as permission to just write and send the editor away.  If you need to note where something isn't working, or where a scene needs to be inserted, or you're changing a character's name...just put a sticky note on a print out...or an e-insert in word and move on. 

At the same time, the goal should also be realistic.  Things happen....work, health, children, an editor says revise your old novel, etc.  If a novel in a month is too much (well, yes, sometimes it is), there's no reason not to create a goal of your own that is realistic but still a challenge.

Okay, So How much?

1.  An entire manuscript.  The official NaNoWriMo goal is 50,000 words in 30 days.  200 pages.  That's an average of 1666.66 words a day.  About 6.6 pages a day. 

2.  A partial manuscript.  A "half NaNoWriMo"--kind of like a half marathon.  100 pages.  3 1/3 pages a day on average.  Not easy but easier. 

3.  A detailed outline.  In her Book in a Month (BIAM) author Victoria Schmidt suggested if life is too much at the moment, don't try to write huge chunks.  Instead, focus on a detailed outline instead.  You could write the outline in the same basic frame that she suggests for a novel in a month.  Week 1=Act 1.  Weeks 2 &3=Act II.  Week 4=Act III.

4.  Revise a manuscript using same basic format.  Week 1=Act 1.  Weeks 2&3=Act II.  Week 4=Act III.

5.  Write 10 key scenes.  Another suggestion Schmidt suggests in her 30-day plan is on day 1 to write a one-sentence summary...On day two she suggests writing scene outlines. Based on her days as a filmmaker, she thinks the best movies have about 10-20 scenes total.  In a novel she suggests developing the story's ten KEY scenes--"opening scene, turning points scenes, climatic scene, etc."  There may be more scenes of course interspersed...but like a pearl necklace, the key scenes are the pearls...and the knots are the connecting scenes that may be needed later.  Scenes are not chapters...unless a chapter is just one scene.  Index cards are good, placing characters/setting/tone/mood/and scene objective on each card.  

Bottom Line:  Set a goal for yourself and stick to it.  Mark your progress on the calendar set up just for November.  Encourage your writing group members to meet their goals.  AIm for a celebration at the end of the month. Celebrate all successes--whether 50,000 words or something else.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

First NaNoWriMo weekend: how will you spend it? Tip #5

The first NaNoWriMo weekend is upon us. How will you spend it? Sure, the errands are calling, there’s a mountain of laundry taller than Mt. Etna and Boardwalk Empire on Sunday night (yay) but don’t let that throw you off track. Figure out a small reward you can give yourself—see the second tip, below—at the end of your daily writing session.

Our first tip is from Sarah McCoy, author of The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico and the forthcoming and highly anticipated The Baker’s Daughter. You can find Sarah on Facebook here, Twitter here and Goodreads here.

"Don’t be afraid of the trash. Make friends with it. Name it. I call mine Basura. That’s just “trash” in Spanish, but the foreignness of the word makes it sound like an exotic place—like I’ve sent those stories to a deserted island, a Neverland where the characters drink from coconuts and play in the surf instead of doing the hard work of growing up. And like Peter Pan and his posse, maybe they will some day. That’s the beauty of Basura. It’s not necessarily a permanent exile. In years to come, a plane of inspiration might fly by and one of the stories might decide it’s ready to leave the island. Other stories may laugh at it and warn that the real world is harsh and full of savage red pens, but it’s made up its mind. It’s felt the calling. After years of rest, that might be its time to develop. I would’ve certainly killed it, smothered it in its infancy, had I been too afraid to let it go—too afraid to close the document and send it to Basura."

Here’s my tip, and it has to do with bribery (also known as a coping mechanism for procrastination, the scourge of writers):

“Reward yourself. The urge to procrastinate will be strong. It will tear at your veins sometimes, cajoling you to get up from your keyboard and break the trance. When this happens, give yourself a deadline—say, writing for 15 minutes more—and a small reward (a snuggle with your pet, a few rows of knitting)—and then go back to work. Or, set aside a reward for the end of your writing time: a pumpkin muffin, that television episode waiting on the DVR, a walk in the woods. Of course, this strategy doesn’t work for the completely impetuous (or impatient.) Know which one works for you: tiny rewards sprinkled throughout the day, or a bigger reward at the end of the session.”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

NaNoWriMo #4: Character Driven

There is nothing like a great character. Plot may be the story, but it’s the characters that make people fall in love with a novel.

Today’s first tip is from Caroline Leavitt, NYT bestselling author of Pictures of You, which is kind of a study in character development itself. Caroline is the author of nine novels, has been published widely in magazines and newspapers, is an instructor for UCLA’s online writing program, and a book critic for the Boston Globe and People magazine. You can read her blog, CarolineLeavittville, here; follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

“Stuck with character development? Think like the Rolling Stones song. You don't want to give the character what he/she wants, but if they try sometimes, they might just get what they NEED.”

Our second tip is from mystery writer Alan Orloff. Alan’s first novel, Diamonds for the Dead, was nominated for the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery Novel.  Killer Routine is the first in his Last Laff series, and the next book in the series, Deadly Campaign, will be published in January 2012. Alan is also an instructor at the DC area's magnet for writing, The Writer's Center. You can read Alan's blog here, and  follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

“Finding age appropriate character names – Looking for a “popular” name to call your 97-year-old great grandmother character? Or perhaps you’re thinking about naming a two-year-old character Bertha—is that name still being used today? When deciding on character names appropriate for different-aged characters, I use an online tool provided by the Social Security Administration (http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/ ). Simply type in a birth year, and it lists the most common names, male and female, of people born in that year. Conversely, if you are considering a certain name, type it in and you’ll get a list of how that name has varied in popularity over the years. Pretty cool!  (By the way, Bertha hasn’t cracked the top 1000 names in the last 16 years. In 1911, it was the 36th most popular female name.)”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NaNoWri: Just Let Me Say This About That (and Tip #3)

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, you may have noticed some people on the Internets writing against NaNoWriMo yesterday. Not on this blog, but elsewhere. A few blog posts by some prominent writers decrying the concept of sitting your ass in a chair until you got your requisite number of words written, every day for thirty days in a row. (Which is, you know, pretty much what you are taught in writing class: set a goal of so many words, try to write to that amount every day. For the rest of your life.)

This is your typical backlash, which happens whenever something becomes popular. I’m not a sociologist but I’m sure there’s a name for this phenomena in human behavior. It doesn’t matter what you take—motherhood, apple pie—someone is going to object to it. Being an analyst, I’d like to track and plot the see-sawing, pendulum-like cycles associated with this phenomena (and hence the poor graphic accompanying the post today): if n is the event, then n+ 2 shows the peak of the backlash cycle, while n + 4 shows with peak of the counter-backlash…

Nevermind. You get the idea.

That’s not to say these people aren’t entitled to their opinion. But opinions change. Like mine. When I first heard of NaNoWriMo years ago, I wasn’t into it. Because I was raised a Yankee and kind of self-righteous and a strict self-disciplinarian, I thought that people should just do this without the structure of a formal mechanism. (I suspect a lot of the critics are of a similar mindset or were raised by parents of a similar ilk.) Because I was “serious” about my writing and I was going to work at it every day and if I didn’t need a website to keep track of my daily totals to reinforce my behavior then gosh darn, you don’t need it either. (I sound like somebody's father, don't I?)

Then I learned, one day, that not everyone was like me. Just as I am an introvert and not social and would just as soon not go to parties, I learned that they are some people who are social and will do better if they get to engage with other people. Just as some people like to learn a new skill by themselves whiles other opt to take a class right away, and not everyone likes bran muffins or the feel of wool against their skin…for God’s sake, can we all just unclench our backsides?!? Live and let live.

Okay, since I don’t want to embarrass any of my friends by forcing their really wonderful tips to be seen in public alongside my little rant, I’ll only run one of my own. We’ll get back on track tomorrow. And here's the tip:

“Exercise your imagination. When you find need to make a choice in your story—the gender of the “sidekick,” the location of the mysterious hideaway, your protagonist’s age—consider going with the opposite of your initial inclination. Push yourself: that’s what makes writing an exciting experience. Don’t stop for research—I have my characters using a hydrofoil to get to the oil platform, but can a hydrofoil travel that distance…?—just write in your best guess and keep going. You can always change it in the revision stage (and oh yes, there will be a revision stage.) Avoid the trite and see what doors open in your imagined world.”

NaNoWriMo Tip #2

(*"Friends"--get it?)

Day Two of National Novel Writing month. Chances are you’re still on a high from the work you did yesterday. Prose is singing in your head. You can’t wait to get back to the story you worked on, the scene fresh in your memory. The characters are like the best kind of new friends(*)—so funny, so charming! You can’t wait to be in their company again. You’re kind of in love with them. But you know the task ahead of you. You know this is a marathon, not a sprint. And if you aspire to be a professional writer, you might as well have that saying tattooed on a part of your part that you can look at easily, twenty times a day. In writing, it applies to more than the writing. It applies to every aspect of your career: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Valerie Patterson is a middle-grade author. Patterson’s debut, The Other Side of Blue, is a literary novel with “a story tender and true...each word seems to shimmer”-- Han Nolan, winner of the National Book Award. Val’s website is here, and she is hard at work on her next novel.

“A key to productivity is making the most of your non-writing time.  That's right--your non-writing time.  When you're commuting or cooking or doing anything that doesn't involve sitting at the computer writing, be thinking about what happens in your novel.  Take notes.  Draft snatches of dialog.  Before you go to sleep at night, put to your subconscious the puzzle of a plot conundrum  Let your sub-conscious work for you in the off hours.  All of this non-writing is geared to enhance flow when you do sit down to write.If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is all about maximizing flow.”

My tip of the day has to do with editing:

“Editing when you’re writing? Many pro writers start their daily writing session by rereading and editing the material they wrote the day before then writing the new material. It’s sort of like taking a running start at the day’s word count AND helps to reduce the editing/revision workload to come. Should you do this during NaNoWriMo? Depends on your discipline, and the amount of time you’ve set aside for writing every day. If you’ve met your word count and still have time, try polishing up a rough section.”