Monday, November 30, 2009

Take Your Places, Everyone!

By Pamela

When I’m writing, I focus on the story—the characters and how they act and interact. I’m not always aware of my weaknesses, but thankfully, a helpful critique partner lets me know pretty quickly. Setting is not my strong suit, but at least I’m cognizant of it. Isn’t that the first step?

Hello, my name is Pamela, and I’m not the best at settings.

In The Novel Writer’s Toolkit, Bob Mayer defines setting as: the where and the when to your story. Points to consider, Bob suggests, are: weather, socioeconomic structure, seasons, architecture, etc.

Noah Lukeman cautions writers in chapter 18 of The First Five Pages about too much setting vs. too little. He also writes that authors typically get caught up in telling vs. showing when it comes to setting. Do you tell me that the carpet had a dark stain and the air smelled rancid or do you show your character picking at the dried food on the cushion and coughing as the cigar smoke burns his lungs?

Certainly, placing a story in a location you’ve never been to requires some research on your part. Miss a detail and someone is sure to call you on it. Plus, placing a story in the Bible Belt of the Deep South calls for different characters than one in The Big Apple.

Setting often plays a huge role in novels, with telling titles such as these: Big Stone Gap, At Home in Mitford, Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, House of Sand and Fog. And in some stories, the setting is a character. Cold Mountain, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Devil in the White City. So, where you set your story can hugely impact your writing.

A recent blog post helped me get a firmer hold on the setting in my WIP. EditTorrent suggested creating a settings list. With two full manuscripts under my belt, I have to confess, I’d never done this. So, stalled for moment in the middle of a chapter on my current story, I decided to write up my list. (To set this up, my story revolves around two main characters: a 42-year-old woman and her 17-year-old son. And the entire story takes place in North Texas, current day.)

Here’s my list:

The Howard home
The Howard’s back yard
Portraiture by Nella (photography studio)
Parkview Village (retirement home)
Presbyterian Hospital
The lake (does it need a name?)
Seth’s Jeep
Seth’s bedroom
Meagan’s bedroom
The cemetery

I’ve also made a more detailed list that describes each setting, which I’ll not share here. Now I don’t have to go back and reread my story to find the type of tree growing in the back yard, the color of Seth’s Jeep, the hangings on Meagan’s bedroom walls, and such. Not every detail will end up in the story because we may not need to know what type of flooring is in the entryway or the brand of appliances in the kitchen, but if I know, then I don’t risk making a mistake.

Now my characters can comfortably take their places. It’s up to me to make them come alive in their environment.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Julie and Julia and Elizabeth and...

I went to see Julie and Julia a few days ago, a break in the middle of a busy and productive day. I’ve wanted to see it since it first came out however many moons ago, but only now got around to it. It didn’t hurt that it finally made it to “the cheapie theater” since I love a bargain. Double bonus for me, it was half price day, so I got to see Meryl Streep and Amy Adams for under a buck. Quite a deal.

Earlier in the day I’d made cornbread in preparation for Thanksgiving dressing, plus a mincemeat pie to delight my father-in-law for his birthday, and I roasted a passel of sweet potatoes since I had a hot oven anyway. I threw a load of darks in the washing machine, ran the dishwasher, grabbed a shower. I confirmed the kids’ dentist appointments, considered my afternoon commute from school to dentist and on to Tae Kwan Do with the last stop, a BBQ restaurant for dinner.

Oh, and I wrote.

I’m still plugging away on my NaNo (as it has come to be called, a nickname equally endearment and invective). As I stumbled bleary-eyed into my bedroom late one recent night, I announced to my husband that I’d reached the really terrible stage: To succeed, I’d need to squeeze out 2000 words every remaining day of November. More than seemed easy, little enough to be possible. The perfect storm.

The next morning, though, inspiration struck hard and brilliant. I not only added over 3700 words to the work, I also unearthed the story that had begun to elude me. (There are many words that won’t land in the final manuscript, but this is NaNo—they survive! At least until the end of the month. Word count, baby.) I’d whittled my obligation to 1600-something words a day. The next afternoon more words flowed, and now just over 1500 daily words would carry me to winner status. Today, in the final stretch, I really think I might make word count before the Monday-at-midnight deadline. I don’t know whether I’m more awed or flabbergasted at that turn of events.

Julie and Julia helped. In the movie, Julie Powell sets out to make every recipe in Julia Child’s exhaustive cookbook, and she gives herself a year to do it. Julia Child, some 50 years earlier, sets out to write that very cookbook, and she toils for a decade before seeing her efforts in print. Both of their challenges felt personal to me, both felt like what I am going through in my writing life, and this month.

But ultimately, both women succeeded. They met their goals, and the rewards were great—and I don’t even mean the publication both found. More poignantly, they found their their self-worth, their cores and their callings, and they learned (or relearned, for don’t we all?) that persistence and dedication are worth it. That even when it seems like a long hard slog up a rocky hill in the midst of winter’s dirtiest slush wearing last year’s tractless boots (this is beginning to sound like my mother’s description of her daily walk to school), it can be done. Keep at it, plug away, keep on cooking whatever you’ve decided to cook, write what you’ve committed to, and you will succeed.

So I’m keeping it up, and I hope that come Monday, just a scant few days from now, I’ll upload my 50,000 words panting for revision and get to say: I did it. Just like Julie. Just like Julia. Just like so many writers who keep on trudging word after day after word after day after... Bon Appétit.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

NaNo is NaNot for Me

By Kim

Pamela, Julie, Elizabeth and Susan have all blogged recently about NaNo (short for National Novel Writing Month). Most have not committed to the full 50,000 words, of course, but they have all made ambitious word count goals and are well on their way to meeting them. Even Joan, who has not publicly weighed in on NaNo, has her own private goal and diligently worked toward it on our recent writing retreat near Glen Rose, Texas.

When Julie, Pamela and Joan brought up the idea of doing NaNo as a group, perhaps even posting daily word counts on our blog to hold ourselves accountable, my first instinct was panic. The Bullock household was on the tail end of our own private Swine Flu epidemic, the cats had ringworm, the dog had intermittent bouts of explosive diarrhea from raiding the kitty litter, my husband’s travel schedule was insane, we would be out of town for a week, and then, of course, there is the issue of my office. I produced maybe five thousand words worth keeping in October. NaNo purists would jump on my phrase ‘worth keeping’ and tell me that’s the crux of my problem. NaNo is not about achieving perfection, but about forcing yourself to forge ahead even if the words that came before are nothing but literary vomit.

I’ve written a polished novel in three months before, so it’s not that I can’t produce words quickly. It took me a grand total of ten minutes to compose a 525 word excuse about why NaNo was NaNot for me. Here are some of the highlights (with a few extras added in for good measure):

One: I would kill myself writing 50,000 words in a month only to spend the six months after that completely rewriting 49,999 of them. Twice. I’d have plenty of time to do it because my family would no longer be speaking to me.

Two: You are supposed to start a new project for NaNo. I would rather hack off my own arm than abandon a story I’ve lived and breathed for the last three years.

Three: Have I mentioned my office?

Four: Everyone in my family expects to eat and have clean clothes to wear.

Five: NaNo works well for those writers who like to write first and edit later. I write like a painter paints – in layers. Start with a sketch, add a wash or two, build up details here and there, etc. If the composition as a whole doesn’t work, I’m not going to waste my time crafting a scene that will only be cut when I address the bigger issues.

Six: My protagonists are both artists, so writing like a painter paints can only be a good thing. My ‘comfort zone’ works splendidly for this project.

Seven: The Oak Lovers is, essentially, a true life novel. Research is on-going and I have no control over when new details will fall in my lap. Just two weeks ago I heard from a distant relative of Carl Ahrens’ first wife Emily, and the information and photos she possessed clearly spelled out a close relationship between Emily and Carl’s cousin, Eleanor. This completely changes the dynamic between Carl, Emily and Eleanor, which affects at least four early chapters and may come in to play later in the book. It must be fixed before I get there.

Eight: I have two small children. I don’t want the eldest asking me why I spend more time with my dead great-grandparents than with her.

Nine: Writing a chapter takes little time but requires me to disengage from my life and take up temporary residence in 1909. I’m tweaking dialogue while driving Ashlyn to school or composing one of Carl’s clever insults while listening to Sasha talk about her day. Something as disruptive as a phone ringing can make me lose focus for hours. Everyone who lives with me knows I’m not 'all here' when I’m working. It’s mentally exhausting to live trapped between centuries and I always go into it with a mild fear that I’ll be changed in some permanent way. If I spent a month moving directly from one chapter to another without emotionally decompressing, the men in white coats would come to cart me away by the end.

Ten: I have never experienced the kind of all consuming love Carl and Madonna felt for each other and I wouldn’t want to. It took nearly a year and dozens of drafts of the early chapters before I learned how to mentally fall in love with one or the other of them for every scene. I’ve fallen for characters before, of course, but not ones who were real people. It’s uncomfortable, not because their blood runs through my veins, oddly enough, but because the feelings come from someplace outside of me. They are an affliction as much as a gift, and I always feel a bit lost while under that spell.

I have nothing but respect for all the writers who have committed to NaNo. I’m thrilled for my blog partners and the satisfaction they receive from meeting their goals and breaking out of comfort zones. Do I wish I were among you? Not particularly. I’m perfectly content with the high quality 3,000 words I’ve tallied since November 1. I’ve written new material, and in the end I suppose that’s all that really matters.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Neil Gaiman's Pep Talk, Sort Of

by Joan

Last week, the National Novel Writing Month Web site posted a pep talk from Neil Gaiman Even Mr. Gaiman, author of the bestselling Graveyard Book (and about 25 others I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read), has insecurities, wonders if his writing is good enough. “The search for the word gets no easier, but nobody else is going to write your novel for you.” His essay not only applies to NaNo participants, but to all writers, every day.

He says, “Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.”

His words inspired me. Not only to keep going on NaNo, but also in December, January, February... (And his Web site is really cool, just like him.)

Confession time. I’m way behind (16,812). I committed to 30,000 words, knowing 50,000 was unrealistic for me. Some days I roll right through my daily goal (1,000) and others, well, every hundred words or so, I stop to update my excel spreadsheet. The one I’ve set up to record my writing count for the day. (What can I say, I’m an accountant.)

For the same reason I don’t like to tell people I’m trying to lose weight, I should never have admitted I’m doing NaNo. That way, if I don’t accomplish my goal, no one will be the wiser. The only person I let down is myself.

The whole thing has been unruly from the beginning. I started with the idea of adding 30,000 to my WIP (working title The Architect at Highgate—yes, Niffenegger’s Highgate, and Gaiman’s Highgate, but truly, I started this book last November before I’d heard of their books--plus, I actually did visit the cemetery in 2006). But since I’d outlined that manuscript a while ago and had written all over the place—chapters here, scenes there—on a deadline, adding to it linearly was starting to feel restrictive.

So I started fresh on November sixth, after having accomplished only 3,236 to date. The new manuscript idea formed in my mind after some brainstorming with Elizabeth. This one, as yet unnamed (NaNo draft is the name of the file), follows Aunt Greer, a vivacious has-been actress on the run from the law, and her recently widowed niece, on a cross-country cemetery/soul-searching trek (pun not intended, but actually, applicable). Of course there are ghosts, what good cemetery book doesn’t have a few lost spirits? I’m excited about where it’s headed, but I know right now, I won’t be meeting my goal.

Maybe you (and Mr. Gaiman) might think it’s quitting, that I’m letting myself down, but I don’t. Plans change, goals get revised. And here’s why: Beginning tomorrow, I’m spending Thanksgiving week with family. My husband of nineteen years (as of Saturday), our son (who is getting a well-deserved break from a hectic school and sports schedule), and my Phoenix cousins I haven’t visited with in months. I might even get some quality reading in. Realistically, I’m not going to be writing anything of significance in the next week. If I pick up on November 29, I’ll maybe reach 22,000 if I’m lucky. I’ll be happy with that.

I spend the majority of my time behind my computer, writing, editing, and researching. I’ve already blogged about being a loner. So for me to spend some time away from my desk, with real people instead of imaginary, will be a treat. It’ll probably provide new motivation and a jumpstart to my writing.

And the reading? While I usually read literary and women’s fiction, I’ve got Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere waiting for me in the other room. As of last week, he's got one more fan.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Stephenie Meyer and New Moon

By Susan

(Warning: Contains a few spoilers about the Twilight Series!)

Last night at midnight, millions of women and young girls headed to theatres to watch Stephenie Meyer's New Moon - her second novel turned screenplay about an unsuspecting girl, vampires, and werewolves.

Unlike many writers who swear they've never read them, I admit freely that I've devoured all four books from the Twilight series. Why? It's simple.

I have a 10-year old daughter.

Not only do I have a 10-year-old daughter, I have a girl who is a prolific reader, consuming To Kill A Mockingbird, Little Women, and the entire Harry Potter series all in one year. So when she said to me at age nine that she wanted to tackle Twilight, I felt it my motherly duty to read the book first. My perspective of this series is shadowed by my view as a writer, a reader and a mother. And I must admit, my opinion differs from many of my peers. Here's why.

1) My view as a writer: Writers criticize the series because the books have simple editing errors like passive sentences, dangling participles, run on sentences, and the like, and that's just the beginning of their complaints and critique of Stephenie Meyer. They've picked apart each paragraph, trying to comprehend how in the world this housewife from the northwest could possibly pull off what they've been trying to do for years - achieve the status of Superhero Fiction Writer. I have a simple answer to that: the mass market doesn't care.

The reader cares about the characters and the story. Now, that is not to say that shabby, lazy writing will get you to the bestseller list. It is to say that if you have innovative, unique and compelling people in extraordinary circumstances, you might have a chance. Stephenie Meyer has done just that. And millions of young girls - and their mothers - can attest to it.

2) My view as a reader: readers want entertainment.

Bella cuts her finger, blood oozing everywhere, in a room full of vampires. The one who loves her dives to her rescue. To save her from vampires and their never ending thirst for humans, he leaves her forever, driving her into the arms of the lusty werewolf. Hello? So cliched you can't stand it? Guess what? The mass market can't wait for the next installment. Will the vampire come back? Or will he leave her in the arms of the werewolf?

My 10-year-old couldn't wait for the next chapter. Why? Because she was utterly captivated by the story. She identified with the main character, the cliched and clumsy Bella. Story. Character. The same things that cause millions of American women to read flimsy paperbacks on the beach every summer. There is a chance for love. There is a chance for heartbreak. After all, whether we admit it, like it or hate it, isn't that what we're all looking for?

3) My view as a mother: I must say from a mother's perspective that the Twilight series has it all. Love, lust, longing? It's all real and opens a great channel for discussion. Besides the fact that (SPOILER!) Bella gets pregnant in book four, there's basically no sex. Vampires, werewolves, and consortiums? Not real. All the other stuff? A great venue to talk to my daughter about growing up.

I guess I should point out that as a daughter I was told basically nothing about puberty, growing up, boys, and what is natural. I was left to my own devices, sneaking Judy Blume's Forever under the covers when I was about ten (the same age my daughter is now, remember). Embarrassed as I was, I would have loved an opportunity to talk to my mother about all the weird things going on inside me and around me. Like it or not, our daughters mature. My daughter read most of the Twilight series in her bed with me lying beside her reading my own books. What better opportunity to discuss scenes, and life, and everything else?

I understand not everyone will agree with me. Writers will tell me Meyer is garbage. Sophisticated readers will tell me she's not literary enough. (Well, duh. I agree!) But ten-year old girls? They will tell me they got sucked into a fantasy world that entertained, spurred their imagination, and kept them reading. I'm here for my daughter, poised to explain that there is no knight in shining armor - especially the blood-sucking kind. But for the sake of a good, fast, and entertaining read? Good job, Stephenie Meyer.

And although I don't want to be her, or write like her, I have only one bit of advice: Write on, girl. I can teach my daughter about real love and real loss, about romance and heartache. Life will teach her even more than I ever will. But you, Stephenie, are keeping her eyes on the page, furtively reading, engaging her imagination. For that alone I say keep it up. Leave the life lessons and discussions to me. You've opened a great window for conversation without even knowing it.

As a final note, I didn't get tickets for the midnight showing. Frankly, it wasn't my style. But for my girl? Eventually, I know, I'll see it a million times over. And each time, I'm sure, we'll have a different conversation.

For that alone, it's worth it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wild dogs and Longhorn cattle couldn't drag me away

By Julie

Here's hoping our readers don't tire of hearing about our retreat for one or two more blog posts. It made for some good material.

I left home Thursday afternoon, frustrated because I'd spent the better part of two days preparing for the retreat instead of writing, but excited because three glorious days stretched ahead of me when I could catch up.

Well, catching up didn't happen.

See, at home, I have my routine. I settle into the same spot on the same sofa around the same time of day, do a little wandering on the Internet, read email, then get to work. Some days are more productive than others, but most days while drafting, I can spit out a goodly number of new words. Often, my night owl muse kicks in again -- or sometimes for the first time that day -- around 11 p.m., when everyone else has gone to sleep and the house is quiet again.

The everyday solitude I enjoy while my kids are at school and my husband is at work is my ideal environment for producing high word count when I need to.

I needed that reminder.

When I arrived at the gorgeous house we lucked into, the others were wrapping up lunch and settling into a quiet time for writing. I crammed down a sandwich and went out to explore the wraparound porch. It took me two tries, but I finally got comfortable in a rocking chair with a small table to kick my feet up, my headphones plugged in and my browser pointed to Pandora, my hand lotion and soft drink nearby.

For two hours or so, I felt at home in my body and environment and wrote a lot. But that was probably the last real dent I made in my 50K NaNoWriMo goal all weekend.

But word count isn't everything, even during NaNoWriMo. (Yes! Gasp! It's true!)

And the other things that did transpire in the next few days were not nothing.

In one read-and-critique session, I learned my NaNo project seems to have merit. I received good feedback on my topic and encouraging words about one point-of-view voice I'm developing. It seems my classes this year with Margie Lawson have impacted my writing positively, and several in the group wanted information about her.

In another session, I nearly put myself to sleep reading a scene from my previous manuscript out loud. Yes, the one I'm querying. I was humbled stumbling over the words, realizing I'd failed miserably at editing the scene.

Susan and I both stayed up until nearly 3 a.m., sitting at the dining room table, putting our metaphorical work gloves on and working through our scenes. Pausing to chat and giggle deliriously on occasion. We hoped we weren't keep anyone else awake, but apparently, a dog howling at something did if we didn't (the moon? Coyotes? Will we ever know?). The reworked scene pleased me, and I'm on alert for more of the former kind in my manuscript.

The mental work I accomplished while sitting and thinking and plotting allowed me to jump right back into my writing on Monday and sufficiently catch up to the point where I know I can meet a November goal (though perhaps revised downward from 50K).

Other valuable experiences nourished my much neglected Girls in the Basement.

A mid-afternoon chat with the house's owner, an amazingly talented and productive woman, reminded me how seldom I get out in the real world and talk with new folks. A mistake for a writer.

Looking up from my lunch and out the front window one day to see a small herd of Texas Longhorns crossing the front yard reminded me the world we live in is just plain funny.

A solo photo trek at dusk reminded me how much I love wandering in a beautiful natural environment, shooting the same subjects over and over until I get them right.

Hushed conversations with my cohorts reminded me how lovely it is to talk at length with the members of my tribe – they are the ones who "get" me.

(Well, for the most part. Though we all got along fabulously, there were a few moments when I just had to say my new favorite phrase out loud: "We are not alike." And that was a reminder how unique each of us is, too.)

I left early to attend a concert with my family. Creeping alone in my car, in the dark, down the gravel-covered road from our hilly perch on Saturday evening, I felt strangely melancholy to leave this place and these people behind.

I was happy to return to my family and my routine, and happy to get back to producing the rough draft that I hope eventually leads to a coherent new story.

But I'd also be happy to return to this weekend and do it all over again.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Leaving the Hilltop

By Pamela

Day one at home.

One of the most dangerous stages of an astronaut's mission is re-entry, that critical moment when returning to the earth's atmosphere. Come in at the wrong angle or at the wrong speed and the outcome is disastrous.

When you spend three straight days in the company of friends with shared goals and interests, it's a little like being on Mars. Your time is your own and the people around you respect that. You feel weightless as burdens and responsibilities fall off your shoulders and onto someone else's.

So as we packed up yesterday afternoon for the journey home, the reality of leaving Planet Writing Women and returning to Earth hit us full-force. I had the privilege of driving most of us home, so I got to see the reaction of families as mom returned. From strangle-holds around the neck to shouts of "You're home!" and lingering hugs, clearly we were missed.

I asked my friends what were the best parts about our inaugural retreat and the following is a conglomeration of our responses. Not surprisingly, many overlapped.

  • We could always find someone willing to play Scrabble at 1 a.m. (and then learn that "Crile means George Washington")

  • Joan's dark chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds.

  • No one called from the bathroom needing to be wiped. (If they did, I ignored them.)

  • Gut-splitting laughter.

  • Wine. Wine. Wine.

  • Gorgeous sunsets we would have missed at home.

  • Walks.

  • Getting immediate feedback and various viewpoints on writing.

  • Quiet time when we needed it.

  • Naps when we wanted one.

  • No one asking us to stop writing and help them find something to eat/wear/do.

  • Eating whatever we felt like, whenever we felt like it.

  • Hope and promise and encouragement on our WIPs.

  • Having your family appreciate your coming home.

    Mission accomplished!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hermits on a Hilltop

We've written about our writing habits -- our abilities to sequester ourselves and focus on our projects. But there comes a time when even the most reclusive among us benefits from interacting with others of our kind. Our tribe.

Months ago, the What Women Write members agreed a writing retreat would be a great vehicle for diving into our works and feeding off each other's creative energy.

Not to mention, it would be fun to get away.

After a little Internet research and a few (well, dozens) of back and forth emails, we reserved a lovely Texas Hill Country-style house along the Brazos River for a long weekend. We secured the date, changed and secured it again, and eagerly planned our retreat. We finalized transportation details and gabbed about what to bring. Laptop computers and food topped the list. It's possible food topped the list, actually.

And away we went.

Now, composing this post from our remote perch at the top of a lovely hill in Texas, surrounded by friendly dogs, curious donkeys, and a wandering pig, we can safely say: It's working!

We spend quiet time apart writing. We come together for critique and chat (and chat ... and chat ...). Some of us are piling up thousands of NaNoWriMo words, others are meandering happily. Over dinner last night at a historic inn (that came with plenty of ambiance and a delightful server happy to share the house's ghost tale at Joan's request!), we concurrred our retreat has been a success. And, except for Kim's allergic reaction to the prolific mountain cedar and an unfortunate run-in with some fire ants, we've had a fabulous time.

Now, back to writing ...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


by Elizabeth

I guess I should say something about National Novel Writing Month. Like, I'm doing it. Boy am I doing it. And was there ever a worse month to start?

My mother, two of my sisters, my mother- and brother- and father-in-law all have November birthdays, not to mention two nephews, and one of my kids. Thank goodness my parents are divorced. A brother and brother-in-law stretch out the month with early December birthdays. Rebels. And did I mention Thanksgiving?

My November starts on the day before Halloween. I realize the 30th of October is clearly not November, but when my doctor told me my first child was due the eleventh month, I figured I was in for just one more thing. Surprise, labor and the baby came three weeks early--even so, that was too late to keep from being lumped with the November marathon.

So this year it was already bad enough with the whirlwind of a slumber party followed by Halloween and the next day expect to spit out 1667 fresh new words by midnight. But then we had a medical emergency (everyone's fine, just one of those things), and I spent good parts of Monday and Tuesday at the hospital. Meanwhile, I had to plan for slumber party numero dos riding in fast. Somewhere in there, I had to tote kids to after-school activities galore, oh, and everyone still needed to be fed. (Can you believe the nerve of that?)

So not a great month to start NaNo. But you know what? I did it. As of Monday night, I'm at 14,244 words, slightly behind schedule, sure, but did I mention my week? I'm also thinking I'll double up (okay, time and a half it) during the retreat this weekend, so I'm pleased with my progress so far, and I think I'm going to make the 50K word goal by month's end. Even more, I'm pleased with the story I'm unfolding. Sure, it's a first draft, but the exercise in just plowing ahead is getting its message across. Which is great. I really think the point of NaNo is to teach us something new, to change up how we do things so we can do better, to help us realize that it's okay to write just okay. Greatness can come later. It worked for Jane Austen.

Here's the thing, too: is there ever a good time to start something as daunting and challenging and structured as NaNo? What if it were next month, instead? Oh, the holidays! Or March, with spring break and school activities in overload? Summer is summer, September gets the year rolling for parents with kids in school--there's never a good time. So why not November? And you know what? Pile it on. Sure, I'm busy. Sure, I'm staying up late writing, exhausted and sometimes drooling on the keyboard, but the key word of this sentence is a verb, active tense: writing. I'm writing.

I'd say that's worth the marathon. Oh, and if you're reading this and owed a gift? I'll get to it. But I have some writing to do, and I'm going to do it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Retreat to Nature

by Joan

It’s the weekend we’ve all been waiting for. Four days of writing, reading, and rejuvenating our literary souls in Hill Country. Aside from a few of the bigger cities, I’ve not explored much of Texas.

I like to say I love to be outside, despite my behavior to the contrary: endless stretches at my computer behind closed plantation shutters, hours browsing a library or bookstore, movie marathons with my son. I get an incomparable lift from spending sunny afternoons surrounded by a crashing ocean or ancient ruins, a sweeping breeze reminding me of how large the world is. But really, I’m a city girl. A run-in with a lizard in my own home sent me on a mini-retreat to Haggard Library.

To enjoy outdoors, I don’t have to be playing tennis, rock-climbing, or gathering blackberries (in fact, I’d rather not!). But I love to walk. When I was in high school, my best friend Chrissie and I would meet after school and walk for miles, solving the world’s problems, complaining about our own, laughing, sharing our tragic poetry and planning our futures. We traipsed our neighborhood so much, we probably could have found our way home blindfolded.

In new territory, though, my sense of direction is pathetic. Worse, I’m one of those people who thinks her sense of direction is much better than it actually is (kind of like my love of being outside). I once went on a stroll with a dinner party acquaintance in a neighborhood neither of us had visited. We got lost (pre cell phones) and had to stop at a stranger’s house for directions. If it had been on my Maryland family’s watch, the matter would have been dropped. But no, in my husband’s family, they tease mercilessly and I still hear about the breadcrumbs they should have sent with me.

The beach has always been my favorite place to walk, an infinite stretch of sand, lapping waters to comfort, sun to warm the journey. And no matter how far you go, once you turn around, you’ll always get back to where you started, sans breadcrumbs.

But when it comes to hiking in woods, I’m petrified. It’s one of those things I want desperately to like, to spend a day around jeweled leaves, musical footfalls, earthy smells, and good friends. But every time I head into a lair of viney trees, I panic about snakes and scorpions and all manner of unfamiliar creatures. I follow the others, sick pretend-smile on my face, and count the minutes until I return civilization. Maybe my fear stems from growing up without brothers and being raised by an over-protective creature-phobic mother and a bookish father.

For our retreat, we’re going to a fairly remote cabin, surrounded by woods and a lake. I want so much to join my writing partners for long walks during our breaks from writing. But how much fun will they have if I’m jumping on their backs at the first sign of animal or insect life? As a writer, it’s my job to seek out new experiences, get out of my comfort zone, like Susan says. But what if a snake coils around my leg or takes a bite of my ankle? What if I get separated from the group and end up at the Big Bad Wolf’s house? Sure, I’ll have a great story to write, but will I live to tell it?

It might be better for everyone if I let them enjoy the woods without me. Better if I curl up on the couch with my laptop or a novel. But with my luck, I’ll stay inside and a lizard will show up in the cabin.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Comfort Zones

I listened to a radio show this week where four women were thrown into crazy situations to see how they would react. One scenario was a day of skydiving. In the next, their life coach stripped naked and jumped into Lake Michigan and instructed them all to join her and they dutifully and joyfully followed suit. The tests seemed to have a few things in common: the element of surprise, facing a fear, and leaving your comfort zone. It made me want to do something different and cool too, until I thought about my novel. For whatever reason, I've been stuck in my same habits lately with no plans to change. And it's not working.

Writers, just like anyone else, sometimes have a hard time in leaving a comfort zone. We work very hard to classify ourselves as “YA” or “Women’s Fiction” or “Mystery” and not to cross any lines. We sit in the same chair in the same room at the same desk and write, basically, the same stuff, over and over. If we have poor habits we keep them. If we have great habits, then guess what? We keep them too. This is what separates the prolific from the pitiful.

And changing our writing habits is like deciding to jump out of a plane. (Note that I said ‘deciding.’ I can’t imagine it’s nearly as thrilling as the actual jump.) I switched from writing longhand to the computer after completing the first 30,000 words of The Angel’s Share, my work in progress. Then I started The Angel’s Share over after I decided that the whole thing needed to be in first person after all. Sometimes, as they say, a change can do you good. (Then again, sometimes I think maybe I just don’t know what I’m doing yet.)

This month, we here at What Women Write are participating in a writing blitz called National Novel Writing Month (or in some cases, our own versions of the challenge). The official goal is to complete a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. For some of us, it’s been uncomfortable. Or rather I should say, for me it’s become uncomfortable. Daunting. Overwhelming. Even, shall I say it, stupid. I don’t want to scribble a bunch of crap. I am stressed because I'm not supposed to edit as I go (and I'm great at editing while I go). I tell myself that I have no time for that kind of commitment. The thought of doing something a different way feels so weird that I can’t even fathom it will work.

And then I realize with all my internal grumblings that the problem isn't NaNo, the problem is simply me and my crappy habits. That’s when I think that doing something like write 50,000 words in a month might actually be a great idea. It could breathe fresh air into my novel. Frankly, what I’ve been doing (which is brooding, thinking, outlining, and daydreaming) hasn’t been working so great lately anyway.

I am going to do it. I’m going to step out of my comfort zone and do something that I wouldn’t otherwise do, and that’s committing to writing 50,000 works in the next 30 days. I’m not jumping out of a plane (though I might some day) and I’m not jumping naked into Lake Michigan (though it’s completely possible that one day I could), but I’m jumping into The Angel’s Share with a newfound goal- and the goal is as simple as getting the words on the page. I can’t think of a single thing that I have to lose.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Two by Two, or How to Board the NaNo Boat (not to be confused with banana boat)

By Julie

So, I started off November and my word marathon by taking a vacation day. That's right – on Sunday, I didn't write a single word.

Yesterday, I was determined to get moving. After all, November has but 30 days and time is already dwindling. I got moving, indeed, but discovered four new things about starting a writing marathon.

Two were helpful, two were not.

The negative

Reading and editing what I'd already written
If you're adding to a WIP (work in progress) during a writing marathon and have already written a pretty good chunk, it's a good idea to read through what you've already written ahead of time.

I was revising my previous manuscript right up to the last moment, and I didn't get a chance take the time to do this until Monday. Thus, my word count yesterday was -62.

Yes, that's a negative.

If you want to add words to your WIP, do NOT, I repeat, do NOT Wordle your last manuscript.

Your first clue should be the description on the site: "Wordle is a toy ..."

While they call it a toy, it'd really a great tool for discovering things about your writing. Optimally, you discover all those words you pecked out do indeed talk about the things you intended.

However, you may also discover how many throwaway words you've overused. If certain words appear in as large a font as your main characters' names, you might want to do a find and replace on your document.

Yesterday, I was horrified to learn I'd used the word 'just' 313 times in my last manuscript. After searching for each instance and discarding as many as I could, I was left with 128. That's still a lot of justs. We won't even talk about the word even.

It was a worthy activity. I'm querying that manuscript, so maybe even critical, but it certainly didn't help my word count. I frittered away spent several hours doing it.

And the positive

Three-Act Structure
Countless writers recommend using the Three-Act Structure for writing fiction. The problem is, most demonstrate it by breaking down a movie. Unfortunately, it seems like every movie they use is one I've never seen and have no desire to watch. I get bored and never make it past Act One.

I wanted a simple explanation. Short enough to please my right-brained muse, detailed enough to be useful. I set off on a search and came across this article by Patrick Dent.

Today, I copied and pasted the basics of his article into my WIP. I answered as many of the questions as I could. About three pages of work. Not too long, not too short. Just right, in the words of that famed fairytale blonde.

I know where I'm going now. Before I was kind of batting around in the dark. Not always a bad thing when you're exploring a story idea, but not so great for a writing marathon.

I'm no stranger to, the Music Genome Project. This incredible tool allows you to enter the name of a musician, and it plays music by that artist and many others you might enjoy based on that artist's style.

I employ Pandora for distasteful activities like working out. I know some of you people like working out, but we are not alike. I used to jump on my treadmill (until I injured my Achilles tendon, which is now healed, so I have no more excuses), point my browser toward Pandora, select my Nina Simone channel, and some of you may laugh to hear I practically danced on the deck. An hour felt like a few minutes.

It's also a great tool for writing.

I've found Pandora helpful while writing because I don't usually know the songs or lyrics, so I'm not as distracted as I might be listening to my favorites.

Today, I used it two new ways.

Do you know of writers who create soundtracks for their WIPs? I have, loosely, in the past, but it can be time consuming. This afternoon, I simply listened to the first six or eight songs Pandora played for me and chose several that spoke in some way to my story and characters. I pulled up the lyrics, made a note about which character might listen to that song and why, and in the process, my brain dove straight into my story and the minds of my characters. That list may not stand as a soundtrack, but it certainly helped today.

The time I'd spent doing that was enough and was verging on too long, so I stopped playing with the buttons. The channel where I stopped conveniently morphed into instrumental music, and with my headphones plugged in to block the noise of annoying cell phone conversations and coffee machines, I wrote more than 2,000 words.

I'd say that's a decent dent and a big improvement over yesterday's -62, wouldn't you?

And you?
What nifty tools have you discovered to nudge your marathon along? And if you're participating, leave a comment letting us know how it's going for you.

Regarding my title, my daughter said, "You're so funny, Mom. That's a knee-slapper." I'm not sure whether she's serious. She's 12 and has perfected the art of sarcasm.

Monday, November 2, 2009

NaNo or NaNot?

by Pamela

I can’t believe it’s already November. Seems just yesterday my kids were discussing what to be for Halloween. Now, with thoughts bending toward Christmas, it’s hard to think of shopping when it’s 70 and sunny today in north Texas.

Today is a perfect day to write.

Today is a perfect day to begin writing a novel.

If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to write a novel, there are thousands of folks out there who can say, “It only takes a month.”

I wrote my first manuscript in a month. I let the idea marinate for more than a year, but once I committed to writing it, the story flowed and a month later I had about 70,000 words in a file. They weren’t all good words, but they were there. The editing process took a lot longer and now that story is tucked away after I realized that, not unlike parenting a first child, I had learned and made my mistakes on that one. And, even though I love it dearly (again, like my first child!), it probably isn’t meant to be published. (The first-child analogy stops here; mine turned out great in spite of my pitfall-parenting.)

A few weeks ago I posed this question to my fellow women writers of this blog: Who is doing NaNo? Julie, Joan and I had met for lunch, and Julie mentioned she was going to NaNo. Having successfully completed her goal of 40K on a manuscript two years ago, she was ready to NaNo again. Having unsuccessfully participated in it last year, I was ready to try again. Joan had not tried it (although having considered it) and decided she’d up her usual writing goal in the spirit of the event.

NaNo is short-shorthand for NaNoWriMo which is shorthand for National Novel Writing Month. According to the official Web site (, NaNo is a fun, write-on-the-fly approach to writing a novel. Participants start November 1 (see, you are already a day behind if you haven’t started) with the goal of completing a 175-page book or 50,000 words by November 30. It began in 1999 when Chris Baty and 20 others in the San Fransisco Bay area decided to band together and each write a novel. Ten years later, the idea has grown into quite a literary free-for-all.

The goal here is quantity over quality. You don’t edit as you go, which is something I struggle with. You give yourself permission to make mistakes, take risks and embrace your reckless side. Be uninhibited. Have fun. And take comfort in the fact that there are 150,000 other crazy people in more than 90 countries doing the same.

NaNo organizers track participants' progresses via their Web site (and list fun write-ins by area), predicting an 18 percent success rate. And if you need validation that good does come out of NaNo, look no further than Sara Gruen, whose NYT best-seller Water for Elephants began as a NaNoWriMo novel.

So, we at What Women Write are all participating on some level. I know Elizabeth has already weighed in this morning with her word count for yesterday: 1862! on a new story. My goal is to finish a manuscript I started some time ago but haven’t touched for months, other than to weave it into a short story. I have about 13,000 words, so I have set a goal of completing the story—however many words it takes. Joan is going to add to her WiP (work-in-progress) and so are Susan and Kim. Julie’s goal is adding 50K words to her current manuscript.

Whenever you commit to putting words to paper, it’s more fun when you have support. Maybe you have a family member or friend who enthusiastically gives you positive reinforcement or offers a hug when the words just won’t flow. Support and encouragement can make a huge difference in your writing. If you don’t have a cheerleader or you don’t want anyone to know you are writing, finding online support via NaNo might just be what you need.

I know we’ll have a huge morale boost mid-stride when we all head to a cabin for our inaugural writing retreat. The six of us are going to hole-up for a long weekend of writing. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

How about you…are you on board for NaNo or some version of frenzied writing for November?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...