NaNoWriMo: We’re Down To The Wire, Part 1

Less than one week until NaNoWriMo 2011 begins.  Am I panicking?

Yes.

This will be my fourth nano in a row.  I haven’t won yet, although I got pretty close in 2008 and 2009 (I completely tanked last year). I’m still undecided on this year’s project.  I’m considering tackling a fantasy story that’s been in my head for about a decade, but I’d also like to scrap last year’s attempt and rewrite it.  Both ideas are appealing in their own way, and both have fairly well-developed plots that can get me to and beyond 50,000 words.

I’m panicking because I like to have my writing ventures planned out ahead of time.  I like to get the Halloween and be frothing at the mouth to start writing.  I like to know where I’ll be writing, what I’ll be writing, when I can get peace and quiet…

And at the moment, I have nothing much besides the “frothing at the mouth” part.  This will be my first nano as a working professional, and I don’t have any of the security I did as a student — no guaranteed quiet time or space, no dining hall for a quick meal I don’t have to prepare, and no network of 1,000 other local students all doing the same thing.

I have to write without my safety net.

Perhaps this is what nano is really all about.  I’ll certainly find out!

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Writing is Life — A Review of “Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons From a Writing Life” by Terry Brooks

So, on my hiatus from blogging (sorry!), I sat down and reread Terry Brooks’ Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons From a Writing Life.  This book is an awesome memoir/writing manual by a fantasy writing giant, the author of multiple bestsellers and the Shannara series.  It’s an excellent read that I recommend to any writer, whether you’re a fantasy lover or not.

What makes Sometimes the Magic Works such a great book is that Brooks is able to so wonderfully capture the writing life in all its complexity — the joy, the frustration, the back-breaking work, the odd moments, and the rewards of being a writer.  He sugar-coats nothing, but still manages to remind you how much the difficulties of being a writer, whether a hobbyist or a professional, are still worth it at the end of the day.

If you do not love what you do, if you are not appropriately grateful for the chance to create something magical each time you sit down at the computer or with pencil and paper in hand, somewhere along the way, your writing will betray you.

How true is that?  How much are we writers actually defined by what we do, shaped by a compulsion, as Brooks puts it, to put words together and create something meaningful?

Brooks doesn’t just wax poetic on the life of a writer, however.  He also includes a slew of practical information about publishing, as well as the craft of writing (he’s an outliner like myself!) and the necessity of staying in a state of child-like imagining no matter how old we get.

Probably best of all, Brooks has great wit and managed to make me laugh even when I didn’t expect to:

…My friends and family like me well enough, but they think I am weird.  Or at least peculiar.  I can’t blame them.  I should have grown up a long time ago, and yet here I am, writing about elves and magic…Readers used to ask me at autographing events if it wasn’t hard to making the transition from practicing law to writing fantasy.  I told them there was hardly any difference at all.

I am not a big fan of writing manuals — I personally despise most of the writing advice Stephen King has ever given (gasp, I know).   However, this “manual” is short, simple, and to the point, teaching me without having let me realize I was learning anything.

Go out and get a copy soon.  In the meantime, check out these other great resources:

The Wondrous Worlds of Terry Brooks

An Interview With Terry Brooks (B&N Studio)

Fantasy Writing @ Yahoo! Groups

Patricia C. Wrede’s Worldbuilder Questions (scroll down for index)

Read A Banned Book!

This week is Banned Books Week.  As a writer, avid reader, and supporter of the First Amendment, I invite you to read a banned book to celebrate and support non-censorship in schools and libraries.

As Amanda Rudd pointed out in her excellent post on Banned Books Week, there is, of course, the need for caution when introducing a child to material that may be considered inappropriate.  As a former teacher and a homeschool tutor, I fully support using age-appropriateness standards when giving kids reading materials.  I am a  Christian, so I also understand parents’ concerns about exposing children to material that doesn’t mesh well with religious beliefs.  However, no child should be sheltered and no one has the right to tell someone else they are not allowed to read or write what they please.

In addition, don’t we all know the universal axiom that making something taboo or forbidden just makes it more appealing to young, curious, inexperienced minds?

In honor of Banned Books Week and the Kids’ Right to Read, I’d like to suggest a few of my favorite banned books:

  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison — An absolutely amazing book, this is good for older teens, especially women and minorities.
  • To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee — If you don’t like this book, you’re a Philistine.  Period.
  • The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling — I find the objections to this series hilarious, as it is, in fact, written from Rowling’s struggle with faith and reads as a Christ story.  Great books for anybody, young or old.
  • The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier — A great book for high schoolers, this story details the horror of bullying.  A contemporary topic, no?
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood — Graphic, yes.  But still wonderfully written and a great example of what happens when we force our own ideals on others.
  • That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton — Have teens read it to teach them the consequences of drug abuse and violence.  Wonderfully written.

To hear the reasoning behind some commonly banned/challenged books, check out the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

What banned books have you read?

Why Are Characters So Important?

There’s an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where he and Patrick find a magic pencil that allows anything drawn with it to come to life.  After horsing around with mustaches, fake money, and a parodic version of Squidward, SpongeBob comes up with DoodleBob — a poorly-drawn version of himself that speaks only in yells and grunts and ends up trying to take over.

Characters in a story are a bit like that, if they’re done properly.  You mess around a bit and then, before you know it, they’ve developed free will and run off screaming, ruining all of your well-laid plans for their story.

Good characters — the kind that are not only realistic, but are as multidimensional as real people — are the lifeblood of a story.  Characters drive the plot of your story and  they give the reader a reason to, you know, read the story.  Most of us avid readers can rattle off a list of our favorite characters, even if we haven’t read a certain book in years.  Some of my childhood favorites were Samantha Parkington from the American Girl series, Patsy, Margaret, and Hattie from various Dear America diaries; Mary-Anne from The Babysitter’s Club, and, more recently, characters like Ron Weasley, Isobel Fairfax, and Kinsey Millhone.

Characters stick with us long after the story fades away.  As readers, hey become our “friends” in a way.  As writers, they can be our best friends or sworn enemies, or anything in between.

Some characters come to us fully formed, with names and backstory and that weird little quirk that makes them unique.  Sometimes, we are given only a block of personality marble and we have to painstakingly carve out the character inside.  Often, we get to a point in the story where suddenly, we realize something we never knew about the character, but which makes perfect sense.  Characters keep us up at night and are a source of terrible frustration oftentimes.

If you have characters who are dull, flat, inconsistent, uninteresting, or that fail to make themselves useful and worth writing about, your story will fail to launch no matter how brilliant your prose or amazing your plot is.  That’s why creating good characters is so important, and the reason I refuse to pick up Madame Bovary ever again.

Some writers prefer to start with characters, while others come up with a plot and then build a character to suit it.  Either way is fine, so long as the two work together seamlessly.  I tend to work with characters first, building my plot step by step asking, “What would happen if Character X did…?”  Whatever you prefer, characters need to always follow some guidelines:

  • They should always be consistent.  It doesn’t matter if your character is a wimp, a hero, a whiny teenager, a corporate jerk, or a homeless man who sleeps in the back of McDonald’s, just keep him/her consistent throughout the story.  Wimps who suddenly jump in front of speeding trains to rescue kittens are as baffling as the corporate jerks who suddenly throw away their PDAs and hand out cash at a local shelter.  If your character is going to become a radically different person, it should happen after appropriately radical plot events
  • They should be multidimensional.   Characters need to be life-like, which means they need to have a more in-depth personality than, “short temper, loves classical music and red wine.”  The exact amount of character depth needed will be proportional to the story’s plot and it’s length, but you should have a good idea of the inside of your character as well as the outside — what does he love, what does he need, what does he want?  What fears or goals drive your character, what makes him get out of bed in the morning?  How would he react to common situations, such as being asked on a date, getting fired from his job, etc., etc.?
  • They should not fit a mold.  Nothing is worse than a story with a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, or someone so unbelievably predictable you have them figured out after the first three pages.  Stories are unique, people are unique, and characters should be unique, too.

Suggested Reading:

How To Create A Character

Make ‘Em Perfect – Give ‘Em Flaws

The “O” Word: Outlines

With NaNoWriMo coming soon, I am going to start pushing my old agenda again — why and how fiction writers should use outlines.  I’ve probably already lost at least 1/3 of you, but if you’re still reading, thank you for hearing me out.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you I am not an organized person.  It’s not in my nature to keep things where I can easily find them again.  Only the most important things — money stuff, tax records, my passport — are kept in special places.  So, when I say “outline,” I in no way mean one of those Roman numeral-infested abominations we all had to do at least once in high school.  Those make me shudder and they’re a pain in the ass to format in Microsoft Word.

They also do exactly what a good outline should not — they stifle creativity and box the maker’s ideas into a predetermined, inflexible format.  When I say “outline,” I mean “guide,” or maybe “road map.”  An outline should be a tool you can use to find out what your story is about and where it’s going.

Two of the most common misconceptions about outlines is that 1) they have to follow a set format, and 2) they’re set in stone once written out.  I’d like to debunk both those myths here and now.

An outline should take whatever form works for the individual writer or project.  Outlines don’t even have to look like what you think they might.  For example, here are two of my outlines for past projects:

A rambling trail of imagination...
Yes, I kept schoolwork this old. Don't judge me.

The first one is for a story I wrote in high school and the other was for a literature paper in college.  They’re almost complete opposites in structure, but they both worked for their respective projects.  But even on the more formal one, I still went with what I felt was most comfortable and what worked for how my mind jumped from idea to idea.  Neither included just one aspect of the work, either — the top was generated on notes about plot, character, setting, and theme, and the bottom included my thesis idea, supporting facts, and so on.

Neither one was intended to box my writing into a format or keep it from growing or developing as I wrote.  These outlines were written with the express purpose of getting my ideas onto paper and figuring out what the hell I wanted to say.  If and when I got lost while writing, my outline showed me where my ending was.   My outline is the skeleton of my story, where I make notes, ask questions, try on new ideas.  If I get into writing and find the characters take me somewhere else, the outline gets stashed away (since I keep everything o.O).

THAT is why I think outlines can be so helpful to Nano writers.  They can give us a basic plan so we can jump in headfirst, screaming, and not sit there staring at the blank page wondering what to write (or writing “I don’t know what to write” a thousand times).  Outlines, for me at least, also help calm the pre-Nano “I love this story and I want to write it NOW!” jitters.

Hear a few others’ thoughts on outlining:

Nano 2011: To Outline or Not to Outline?

How To Set Up A Plotting Notebook

Beginning, Middle, and End Blogfest

So, I heard about the “Beginning, Middle, and End Blogfest” from Amanda Rudd and thought I would try it out, for the heck of it.

Essentially, the premise is to post the first, middle, and last paragraphs of a current WIP.  Mine, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is a hard-boiled mystery I call Someone’s Watching.  The basic premise is that Evelyn Locke, who has been stalked for months, goes missing one night and her best friend Raye hires a PI (Sean) to try and find her.

1st Paragraph:

Evelyn pulled off her apron as she pushed open the back door of the diner, folding it haphazardly over her arm.  It had begun raining, a steady drizzle that would freeze into slippery black puddles before long.  The back parking lot was unlit, the muffled rumblings from a big rig parked at the diesel pump echoing eerily.  She hurried to her car, unlocking it and sliding into the seat before she wiped the rain off her face.  Adjusting the mirror, she turned on the engine.  Before she could shift into reverse, it gave a whining cough and died.

Middle-ish paragraph

Sean went after him, the cold ground tearing at his feet as he went, icy air rushing through his lungs.  He didn’t think about the absurdity of the chase, but plowed on, barely dodging outdoor furniture and children’s toys.  The man was getting farther ahead of him, and the suburban complex was ending soon, coming to an outlet road occupied only by a dumpster.  Sean tried to clear the last fence, but slipped on a bit of ice that still clung to the upper railing and fell four feet to the ground, dropping his gun in the process.  He landed hard on his bad shoulder, somehow managing not to shoot himself at the same time, and swore loudly.  Cradling his arm to his chest and trying to ignore the pain, he pushed himself up and looked around in time to see the man disappear behind the dumpster, where a dilapidated Chevy truck was parked.  It roared to life and reversed quickly, the tires squealing and fishtailing, and bolted out of the outlet and towards the main road.  The man was gone.

Later Paragraph (because an end one would give it all away)

Under the light above the bed, he could see Raye, still asleep, and Sean, sitting with his back to the door, watching her intently.  He sat perfectly still, silent, his head cocked slightly to the side.  Vinny could see the side of his face from where he stood; it was stony and lined, stoic in the way that he always seemed to be.  As he watched, Raye exhaled heavily in her sleep and shifted slightly, one red curl falling into her face.  Sean leaned forward and pushed it away gently, tucking it behind her ear and then pulling back.  Vinny swallowed hard and looked away, unsure of what to say, or of whether he should say anything at all.

And there you have it!  Currently, it’s at about 50 chapters, mostly because I write very short chapters.  I can’t say offhand what the final word count is, though I estimate between 80-90K.  These bits don’t really capture the whole scope of the novel (it’s pretty involved) but I thought they were good.

Let me know what you think!