Back, Back, Back it up: Protect Your Work From Catastrophic Loss

If you sat my husband down and said, “Hey, what’s with your wife and her Dracula paper?”, he’d probably roll his eyes and tell you a sad story about the time I accidentally deleted one of my thesis papers in college.  My Dracula paper is infamous in my immediate circle — not just because I still have an obsession with that novel, but because I also spent an inordinate amount of time writing it.  I checked out probably forty books from the library and printed a metric ton of online material.  I drafted and rewrote it and spent over a month perfecting my thesis…only to lose the damn thing when I pulled my USB drive out of the computer too soon.

I tried everything I could think of to get it back and even enlisted a computer programmer friend, but, for whatever reason, the data was gone.  Since it was the night before the last day of the semester, I had to convince my professor to give me an extension (God bless you Dr. Davis) and then spent the first few days of Christmas vacation rewriting it from scratch.  My husband (then fiance) was my complaint soundboard.  Needless to say, he wasn’t happy.

Moral of the story?  BACK UP YOUR WORK.

Right now.  Do it.  Don’t hesitate another minute.  A good rule of thumb is to think 3-2-1:

Make 3 copies of your work, in two different formats, with at least one offsite copy.  All these backups should be independent of one another.

Your work is precious and irreplaceable, so don’t lose it.  Especially when technology makes it super easy to makes copies of everything.

Here’s a list of recommendations:

  1.  Flash drive.  Portable, cheap, universal.  You can put them on keychains, bracelets, necklaces, and store them pretty much anywhere.
  2. Cloud storage.  My personal favorite is DropBox because it’s free, everything syncs automatically when your computer is online, it’s easy to use, and it’s offsite, so I can access my work from anywhere (a boon when my laptop died and I had to borrow one so I could keep writing).  Other options for cloud storage are Apple iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Box, and Amazon Cloud.  You can find plenty of options with a quick online search, both free and paid.
  3. Email.  This one is simple: email yourself (or a trusted associate) a copy of your work.  Most email programs have folders for storage and allow fairly large file sizes through.
  4. External hard drive.  This is like a flash drive on steroids.  Where those tend to stay under 100 GB, external drives often have several terabytes’ worth of space.  These are a good option if you need to store large files like videos and photos in addition to your writing.
  5. DVD/CD.  Like USB-based systems, disks are cheap, portable, and universal.
  6. Print.  It can get pricey to print copies of your work, but when your computer crashes, you’ll be glad for that 3-ring binder of all your latest masterpieces.

So back it up.  All of it.  Check on your backups regularly to make sure that they’re in good working order and updated.  You don’t want a year-old version of your novel hanging around if something happens to the current version.

While working on this post, my darling toddler came up and tapped my off button…if I hadn’t set my WordPress editor to autosave periodically, I’d have lost my work.  Not much, but still.  Make sure whatever programs you use also automatically save and sync your work.

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Venturing Into the Gray Areas with Purple Prose

Keep your writing clear and coherent, and avoid pretentious or overly formal language.  Write to communicate, not to impress. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t dumb down, but don’t let your writing get in the way of your message. There’s a fine line between elegance and pomposity.

Mark Nichols, “7 Tips for Editing to Improve Usage” @ DailyWritingTips

Excellent advice.  The only problem is, where’s that “fine line between elegance and pomposity”?  The short answer is, no one really knows because it’s different for everyone.  One person’s purple prose is another’s beautiful description.  One type of writing might warrant lots of elegance, style, and 25-cent words, while another might require you to be short and sweet.  Or, you might need to use one style or the other for effect.

It takes practice to determine what’s best for yourself and your writing, and your preferences/needs may change over time.  Nichols, however, has some good guidelines that we should follow:

1.  Always be clear about your meaning.  Pretty writing is fine but don’t let it cloud the point you’re trying to make in writing.  Your readers should always know what you’re trying to say.

2.  Get rid of ulterior motives.  As a teacher/tutor I see this problem a lot.  Many new students, particularly college freshmen, write in exceptionally elevated and complex ways because they think that’s what they should be doing.  Instead of sounding formal and sophisticated, however, often it just comes out as contrived and stiff.  Don’t try to impress people with your vocabulary or prowess in using 4-line sentences that aren’t run-ons.  Just write.

3.  Know that the line is there.  If you understand that there is such a thing as being too grand, or being too basic, you’re less likely to fall into either trap.  You’ll be more aware of your writing and of how it comes across to readers.  If you find that you’re not, well, that’s what beta readers are for.

Practice!!!

Descriptive Writing From Photographs  @ ProjectGrad

Descriptive Writing Practice — $2.00 download in my TpT Store

Writing Concisely @ The UNC Writing Center Online

A Novel Idea: The Only iOS App A Writer Needs

So, I got super-lucky this year and scored an iPhone for Christmas. I’m pretty infatuated with it so far, and I’m proud to say that Goodreads gets a top spot in my app list alongside Angry Birds and Bejeweled.

There’s something like 1 million apps available for iPhone users, free and paid, for pretty much every purpose on the planet. By some strange fortune or by divine guidance, I managed to find a total gem among all the games, podcasts, and pizza delivery assistants. My friends, I introduce you to A Novel Idea.

No matter what platform or device you use, there’s no shortage of apps and software programs designed for the fiction writer out there. I’ve tried many of them and was never fully satisfied. A Novel Idea is the first such program that looks like it was actually designed for writers, by a writer, and by one who understands the need for a certain balance between structure and chaos and is realistic in his estimation of just how much time most writers actually spend writing on their phones/tablets.

Open up the free version of this app and you get all the basics — Novels, Characters, Scenes, Locations, Ideas. You can add and edit an unlimited number of entries to each section, then leave them floating free or attach them. I went in and made a page for each character in one of my novels, then linked each character to the Novel page. I added scenes and ideas and linked them to certain characters and novels, I could even link characters by their relationships — So and So is Such and Such’s daughter/mother/sister/wife/boss. And the best thing is that all of this linking and customization is completely optional, and there are no annoying reminders or notifications that pop up if you choose not to include them.

This is just one aspect of the beauty of A Novel Idea. For each novel, you can include a title, plot details, themes, premise, point of view, and more details. And even better, most of the sections are free-writes, so you can add as much or as little detail as you like. The same goes for Characters, where you can key in gender, age, physical attributes, roles, species, internal and external motivation, conflicts, skills & talents, education, and much more. When you’ve got all that information together, you can create custom groups to put your characters or your novels or whatever into. I grouped mine by genre — fantasy and contemporary fiction — and then by trilogy, since some characters belonged to multiple books, etc., etc.

It’s a lot of information. But the layout is so user-friendly that it’s as if some excellent friend went and organized all my notes and files in a way that’s actually organized but doesn’t feel awkward to me. (I had a friend like that once. In college. After graduation we moved to separate states. Sigh.)

I am, as you could probably tell, in total head-over-heels love with this app. My only complaint is that the Pro version — which allows you to sync between your devices, your computer, and Dropbox; export to iTunes, turn off the ads, and write scenes with word counts — is on the pricey side for an app at $2.99. But, the app is so great for note-taking and world-building on-the-go (or when I get an idea in bed and don’t want to dig out my notebooks or drag out my laptop) that I plan to most willingly pay the price next payday. Bottom line — if you are a fiction writer and you own any iOS device, you should be ashamed not to have A Novel Idea.

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What Are Your Writing Goals For 2012?

2011 was a whirlwind year on my end, and 2012 promises to be even more so.  That’s why, I propose to make it interesting: 12 Writing Goals For 2012.

Why 12?  Because that breaks it down nicely into 1 goal per month, it’s easy to remember, and it makes a good blog title.

I think it’s important for everyone to have goals, especially those of us in the creative disciplines.  It’s far too easy to just drift around, letting the Muse take us wherever, not committing anything because we don’t want to stifle that creative drive in ourselves with deadlines.  And while drifting with the winds of inspiration is a fun and vital part of being a writer (or artist, or whatever), those of us who really want to make something of it do have to knuckle down at times and commit.  Just like our characters need to move and grow to make a story, so we writers need to move forward.

How far you move forward, to where, and at what pace is up to you.  One writer may commit to searching for a publisher/agent for that fermenting manuscript, while another may just want to finish a sonnet started a few months ago.  Some of us may want to move into freelancing full-time, go back to school, try a new genre, or market an already-published work.  Some of us have goals of finally cleaning out that spare corner of the basement to make into a personal writing space.

Whatever your goals are, I encourage you to commit them to paper and keep them somewhere you’ll see them everyday.  Shoot for the big pie in the sky, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself or make a “goal” out of something you really have no control over.  By that, I mean, don’t try to tell yourself you’ll have signed a publishing contract by December 31st, since even the best writers really have no control over whether or not someone offers them a contract.  (Unless, of course, you have publishers knocking down your door to publish your novel, in which case, I envy you and implore you to make signing a contract a goal.)

So, instead of saying, “I will get a contract!” say, “I will send my completed manuscript to [X number of agents/publishers] by [date]!”

So sit down and think about your writing goals (and other goals) for 2012.  Write them down, think about them, talk them over with a trusted friend or fellow writer.  Revise them as necessary.  Share them on your favorite writing website, on your blog, over dinner with your family, with random strangers.  Make yourself accountable for achieving them and come up with a rewards system when your do.

I’ll be back on December 31st to share my goals and see how you’re doing 🙂

My NaNoWriMo Success Story (Due To Not Reaching 50k)

So, a while ago I posted a very upbeat blog about how well my first day of NaNoWriMo was going.  Well, that didn’t last long.  I haven’t made it to 50K and at this point, I’m not going to.  Although I really wanted to win (this is my fourth year participating without ever winning), I’m perfectly okay with not making it to the finish line.  I attempted it, which is more than a lot of other wannabe novelists can say.  Plus, every year I’ve learned something from Nano.

My first year, in 2008, I made it to approximately 45,000 word around 11:30pm the night of the 30th.  I was thiiiiiis close to joining the ranks of completed Nano novelists.  For a newbie who had never written more than 20 pages of one story in her life, I felt pretty damn good about it.  Getting interviewed on Baltimore NPR didn’t feel too bad, either.  Today, that novel is thiiiiiiiis close to getting finished, final publishable draft and all.  So close that after the holidays, I’m going to start stalking agents to get it published.  That year I learned that I can be a writer, I will be a writer.

My second year, I started the sequel to 2008’s novel.  Both were mysteries featuring the same private detective and a lot of angst.  I didn’t get very far with that novel.  Somewhere around 20,000 words, I believe.  I petered out because I didn’t have a sustainable plot line and I wasn’t sure where things were going.  I learned a lot more about my main characters, and I learned that plotting is absolutely essential to any writing, particularly mysteries.  I still have that draft sitting somewhere abandoned on my hard drive, waiting to be resurrected in the near future.  That year, I learned that my destiny as a writer isn’t to be a one-hit wonder, but with hard work and perseverance I can achieve my dream.

My third year, I was a senior in college.  I made the terrible, terrible mistake of using the novel I was writing for NaNoWriMo in my creative writing class.  It was fairly well-received, my professor liked it and so did my classmates.  I had a ball moving away from any set genre or mode of writing and just letting out raw, unadulterated emotions onto the page (it was a story about a pregnant widow).  I got critiqued, a lot.  Which, as we all know, is not conducive to the NaNoWriMo style of writing.  Lesson learned?  First drafts are for the writer’s eyes only.  And sometimes, so are second drafts.

This year, I went back to that same story.  I guess I have trouble letting things go.  I completely scrapped last year’s draft and started over with some new ideas.  I wanted to write a powerful story about love, grief, death, sanity/insanity, and parenthood.  I didn’t want to follow the “rules” of conventional storytelling; instead, I paid homage to my favorite style of writing, postmodernism.  I randomly switched between narrators, added flashbacks where I felt like it, used swear words and uncomfortable topics of discussion.  I learned that even though there’s a lot of elbow grease behind the process of writing, where it comes from is the heart, always.  That was learned most acutely when I started crying at my computer because I could really relate to what my main character was doing/saying.

I love NaNoWriMo.  There’s nothing like an impossible challenge or a group of kindred souls to get me motivated.  But even though I didn’t win, it’s been a great process year after year.  And isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?

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