Sunday, December 13, 2009

Things I learned from NaNoWriMo

This was the first year I participated in National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, and I learned a great deal from this experience.

The first step, taken in October, was to sign up on the NaNoWriMo website and commit myself to writing a 50,000-word novel in November. Was I that crazy? Could I do it? Why not? Other writers--thousands of them--have become NaNoWriMo winners. I once wrote a 100-page children's book in less than three weeks to submit it to a contest. So why couldn't I write a 50,000-word novel in one month? The only way to find out was to try it and see.

My reasons for taking the plunge were different from most writers'. I've already written about a half-dozen novels. These usually take me between six months and a year. I have a habit of editing while I work, a process I like to call "back stitching," and it generally works for me. But I wanted to test what it might be like to work free of my internal editor, to just write forward without looking back. I wanted to see if I could do it--and if I could, I wanted to see if I liked working that way.

I was in the middle of one manuscript when October ended, so I decided to check the NaNoWriMo rules to see if it was okay to work on more than one novel. The answer turned out to be yes: the guidelines make it clear that as long as the words are part of a novel or novels (not random gibberish), they count toward the 50,000 words.

I decided that I would begin with the novel already in progress, counting only the words written after November first. I also decided to have two other story ideas as backups in case I got stuck. In addition, I decided to fully outline those two story ideas the week before NaNoWriMo began. With three stories to work on and outlines to show me the way, I was ready to begin on November first.

For about the first week I worked on the manuscript already in progress. I wrote forward, barely looking back at all, just as I had promised myself. But then I hit a trouble spot. I tried to make a go of it, but things clearly weren't working. The whole process was slowing down, and it wasn't fun. Instead I felt bored and frustrated. Well, this was the reason I had written two additional outlines before NaNoWriMo, wasn't it? So I moved on to story number two.

I had my outline ready, so where was I to start? "Start with dessert" one lecturer had said at a writers' conference. It sounded like fun and something that would work quite well with NaNoWriMo.

I wrote out the scenes that most inspired me as they inspired me and outlined the rest. And it worked! I was enjoying dessert so much I couldn't get enough of it. I fell in love with my characters, who kept saying and doing the funniest, most outrageous things. I loved spending time with them.

When I didn't know what would happen in this scene or that, I just wrote a loose outline for it. When I came back, I'd fill those scenes out, and it almost felt like they were writing themselves. Sometimes I would just write a note, like "Describe this room through Gilbert's eyes" or "How does Uncle Ian react here?" and when I came back a short while later, I'd know what the room looked like or what exactly Uncle Ian would do or say.

Sometimes I had to push myself to write 2,000 words a day, the goal I had set for myself to allow for non-writing days over the weekends. But most often it only took a little push to get things started. Once they started, I was raring to go and I never wanted to stop.

Another thing I learned is that I can't do NaNoWriMo alone. I need the support of my family, which basically means I need them to get out of my way, take care of the housework and other things they're fully capable of taking care of, and let me write. A few times I growled, "Not now, I'm writing." That isn't an easy thing for a wife and mother to do, but my family understood. They want me to succeed. I had to make time for them, too, of course; but when I needed writing time, they gave me writing time. And for that I am grateful.

I also Twittered my daily word counts to all my followers, and I posted Facebook statuses for my friends. The support I got there was tremendous. I don't know if I could have succeeded without it.

So in the end, I wrote 50,000 words between November first and November 25th. Yes, I won NaNoWriMo with five days to spare! Most of my writing was done at night, when things are quiet in the house, and the only one demanding my attention is the cat. And these are the things I learned:
  • I can write a 50,000-word novel in one month.
  • An outline is indispensable, even if I do change it as I go along.
  • Having a backup plan (i.e. manuscript) is a great idea.
  • Starting with dessert works--and there's always more dessert and more dessert and more...
  • I can write in a forward direction and leave editing for later. However, if I see a real problem as I'm writing, I can go back to fix it. Fixing problems and filling out weak scenes are a part of moving forward too.
  • If I don't know the answer, write the question. The answer will come to me soon enough.
  • I need to keep my writing time as my writing time. Everything else can be handled later, and I can trust my family to handle a lot of things on their own.
  • Set incremental goals, like 2,000 words a day. When I do that, I usually end up writing more.
  • Twittering and writing about my daily word counts on Facebook helps, and I need to give my fellow writers the same kind of support they gave me. We're all in this together!
  • Don't write it if I don't love it. Switch to another manuscript, one I feel passionate about now. When I return to the manuscript that troubled me, hopefully I'll be able to see more clearly where things went wrong. Writing should always be fun.
  • When I'm excited about a scene or a character--even if it's something I don't intend to use in the story I'm currently working on--I need to write it down. I need to use that excitement before it slips away.
  • And finally one thing I didn't do during NaNoWriMo that I really should have: take care of myself. Half an hour of exercise a day would have done me a world of good. I'm not being a good writer, if I'm not taking care of myself.

Also, one thing I already knew but now know with greater certainty: super-geeks turned into vampires totally rock! I love you, Gilbert Garfinkle, but in a completely platonic way. (I know how much girls scare you, so I hope this doesn't freak you out.) I love spending time with you. You make me laugh, and you make me care. I only hope readers love you at least half as much as I do. NaNoWriMo was great, and I couldn't have done it without you.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

In response to a question about passive voice and "-ing" verb phrases

I think the "rules" can be useful in that they help you notice things you wouldn't otherwise notice.

Yes, passive verbs can reduce the power of actions. Yes, too many "-ing" verb phrases can become boring and repetitive. But I think eventually you'll get to a point in your writing when you instinctively know when using the passive or using an "-ing" verb phrase feels right.

I like to use repetition in my writing. I find it creates a rhythm, and that rhythm can be a poetic and powerful thing. But then I get critiques from less experienced writers who think I've made a mistake. Repetition as a style choice? That's not something they learned in the writing classes they took. Surely, repetition is redundant and should be avoided at all cost.

But I know better.

I know it works for what I'm trying to achieve, and so I know how to break the "rule."

So in the end, don't get rid of telling just because it's telling and the "rules" say you show. Don't get rid of passive words because the rules say they're bad. And don't get rid of "-ing" or "to be" phrases because someone told you should avoid them at all cost. Look at your story. Do these things work in your story? Do they help you achieve what you want to achieve? If they do, let the so-called "rules" be damned.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Top-Secret Guide to Creating Winning Titles!

If you're a writer, you might have heard that the title you give your work in progress doesn't matter. "Whatever title you come up with," people say, "the publishing house will choose something different."

While that may often be true, the title you put on your manuscript does matter.

I've heard editors say they sometimes throw out the first two chapters of a manuscript they're editing, because the story doesn't really start until chapter three. Does that mean it's okay to start your manuscript with two boring chapters? No. Chances are that--outside of a one-on-one critique with an editor at a writers' conference or workshop--the editor will never get to chapter three if the editor is bored by chapter one. In fact, most editors won't read past a boring first page. Sure this is something the editor can fix, but isn't it easier for the editor to just slip it into that SASE with a rejection slip?

Your job as a writer is to make it easier for the editor to accept your manuscript, rather than reject it. So start with a compelling first chapter--and a compelling first page! Polish that manuscript until it shines! And, for goodness sakes, give it a title that makes a person can't wait to start reading it!

We live in an age of soundbites and Twitter tweets. We're used to having our attention grabbed in just a few well chosen words. And that is what your title should be: a few well chosen words that grab the reader's attention, like someone grabbing you by the collar and staring you in the face.

So what are the secrets to writing a great title? Here are a few.

  • Choose a familiar phrase. Playwright Neil Simon said that using familiar phrases, like All American Girl and The Odd Couple as the titles of his plays made people say, "I've heard of that. Must be a play people are talking about." One of my most successful manuscripts so far has the title Ride of Your Life, and I know the title has played a big part in its success. (Of course, these should be familiar phrases, and not familiar titles. You don't want the editor to say, "I've read that before.") You can also use a play on words based on a familiar phrase for the same result, for example, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starfish or Apple of His Sigh.

  • Keep it short. Brevity is the soul of wit.

  • Use words that excite. (Shh . . . I've got a secret. We all know what exciting words are. Secret. Passion. Escape. Wonder. Sin. Exciting words make us want to read further. Now you know. And, by the way, one of my works-in-progress is titled The Secret Life of Mira Levy. Please don't tell anyone. It's a secret.)

  • Promise the reader something the reader wants. How to Write a Novel in 30 Days. Writing the Breakout Novel. If you want to do these things, what choice do you have but to read these books?

  • Create sensory images in the reader's mind. The Golden Compass. The Sorcerer's Stone. Can you see them in your mind's eye? Can you feel them in your hand? Do you want to? If your title creates an image of something the reader will want to reach into your story and pull out, you've got a good title.

  • Use a pleasureable action word. Scientists have discovered that action words touch the same parts of our brains as preforming these actions. When we read Dances with Wolves a part of our brains is actually dancing. Pretty cool, huh? Imagine the things your title could be making a part of the reader's brain do, things the reader would enjoy doing so much that he or she would feel compelled to read your story. Make pleasureable action words work for you.

  • Make the reader wonder. Up the Down Staircase. What is a down staircase? Who is going up it and why? The reader will have to open the book to find the answers to these questions.

Use these tips individually or combined to help you create irresistable titles that will hook the reader and compel him or her to start reading your manuscript. After that, your story is on its own.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

JPG Twitter template

This is a template I created in JPG format for making Twitter backgrounds. Just use this in the background to place your guidelines, delete the template itself, and everything else should work out fine.
If you have a problem opening it to the right size, the height of this image is 1556 pixels.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Just My Imogen and the Library Books

Imogen has got me in trouble again.

I don't know if you know Imogen. She's a fairy, and she lives with me in her little fairy house, which looks something like an ivy covered lantern. She's adorable, with her tiny little wings and big blue eyes, but she's always getting into trouble and dragging me along with her.

Well, today Imogen pulled a library book out of her house and informed me it was overdue. I didn't even know she had a library card. So I opened the book, and (I don't know why this should surprise me) I discovered it was over two years overdue.

"Imogen," I said with a sigh, "why didn't you return this two years ago?"

"How could I?" she replied. "I only finished reading it yesterday."

"Do you have any other books from the library?"


So of course I looked in her little fairy house, and of course I found six other books in there. I told her we had to return all of them.

"Can't," she said. "I haven't read those yet."

But I took the books back to the library, with Imogen darting in and out of my backpack trying to pull books out the entire way. I didn't know how I was going to explain this to the librarian. I hoped that she had a troublesome fairy, and that maybe she would understand.

So I got to the library and put the book in the book return slot. Then I tried to sneak out before the librarian noticed me, but no luck there.

"These are over two years overdue," she told me.

"I know." I sighed.

"Don't worry," she said. "You won't have to pay two years worth of fines for seven books. We never charge more than the price of the books."

"Oh, good."

So she looked the books up on her computer, and, surprise, surprise, turns out they were each rare collector fairy books, so I was better off paying the fines instead.

"That will be $532.80," the librarian said.

"Imogen!" I shouted, forgetting for a moment that I was in a library.

"You heard the woman," Imogen said. "Pay up."

So I wrote a check and, grumbling, gave it the librarian. To my surprise, the librarian squealed with delight and hugged me.

"Thank you," she shouted, "for keeping these books for so long!"

All the other librarians rushed over to see what was going on. The first librarian showed them the check, and the rest of them hugged me with tears in their eyes. One of them said, "Thank you so much! With all the government cutbacks, we rely on overdue books to pay our bills. You've saved our library! Thank you!"

Then they all thanked me over and over, and then two of them started to arrange a party in my honor. Apparently next week they'll be renaming the library after me.

Imogen of course is annoyed, because she thinks she should get the credit. After all, I wouldn't have written that check if she hadn't kept those books for over two years. And she's also upset with me because I took some of those books back before she had a chance to read them. In addition, I made her give me her library card, so this doesn't happen again.

Before we left the library, I used my own card to take out a book. It's How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier. I don't really plan to ditch Imogen, but I wanted to teach her a lesson. She was really cross when she saw me reading it, but now it's gone and disappeared. I was right in the middle of a really good part, too. I've looked everywhere for that book.

I wonder what could have . . .


Monday, July 27, 2009

Random Funny Thoughts #1

Some people think the British aren't romantic. It isn't true. My English husband still knows how to make my heart race after over fifteen years of marriage. He does it by driving on the left-hand side of the road.

Monday, July 13, 2009

TWO JEWISH MOTHERS (a comedy skit by Shevi Arnold)

Two Jewish Mothers
a comedy skit
Shevi Arnold
FLO: So did I tell you want happened last night?
MIRIAM: Something happened?
FLO: I heard a sound it middle of the night. Woke me up. It was a burglar.
MIRIAM: No, really? You don't say.
FLO: I swear, there was a burglar in my living room.
MIRIAM: What did you do?
FLO: Well, I didn't want to be rude.
MIRIAM: No, of course not.
FLO: So I offered him a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.
MIRIAM: (Nodding) Of course, you have a guest, you have to give him something.
FLO: So we sat down and had a nice chat.
MIRIAM: What did you talk about?
FLO: I asked him, "What do you want my silverware for?"
MIRIAM: What did he say?
FLO: He said he was going to sell it. I told him he could have the candlesticks that used to sit over there on the mantel instead. You know, the big ones my mother-in-law gave me at my wedding. I always hated those things.
MIRIAM: (Looks around) I noticed that chair your husband usually sits in is missing.
FLO: (Nodding) I told him to take that too. And you know how I'm always complaining about the stuff my son left here when he went way to college?
MIRIAM: Like all those old comic books and baseball stuff?
FLO: The burglar was nice enough to take those too.
MIRIAM: Imagine that.
(Long pause as the women sip their tea.)
MIRIAM: So then he left?
FLO: Well, I couldn't let him go without giving him something to eat on the way home, now could I? You should have seen him! Nothing but skin and bones. So I gave him some potato kugal and
roast beef. And some chocolate rugelah.
MIRIAM: Oh, I love your rugelah.
FLO: I'll give you some to take home. I made plenty.
MIRIAM: And that was that? He left?
FLO: Not quite. I asked him if he was married.
MIRIAM: Was he?
FLO: No, so I'm setting him up with my daughter. They're going out Thursday night.
MIRIAM: (There's a long pause. Miriam blinks and looks concerned.) Are you sure that's a good idea?
FLO: I know, I know. She's going to find something wrong with him. She always does. That girl is so picky, she'll never get married.
MIRIAM: (Frowns at Flo in silence for a long time) Well, if things don't work out...
FLO: Yes?
MIRIAM: Could you send him to my place?
(FLO nods and sips her tea, while MIRIAM smiles)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Why I Hate Secrets in Stories

Some writers use secrets in an attempt to keep the reader hooked. The main character has this big secret, and you need to stick around to find out what that secret is. Some readers like that.

I'm not one of them.

I actually hate it when the main character has a secret. Hate it.

This is the way I see it. When the main character has a secret, it feels like I'm playing a game with someone who is playing by a different set of rules than I am. The deck is stacked in the writer and the main character's favor. They're hiding their cards. They both know what cards they have, and they're showing them to each other and laughing at me because they know something I don't know. And I don't know it, because they're the ones making the rules, and their rules say I can't know this "big secret," which is apparently a secret only to me.

I find this particularly annoying when the book seems to be about nothing other than the secret. It's the sort of thing that can get me to close a book within the first few pages. The writer has to show me all of his or her cards. If not, I'm going to find another writer who will.

I'm okay if the main character's secret is one the main character doesn't know, for example, if the main character is in denial. That's okay. I get to see all the cards the main character can see, and that means the rules of the game are fair.

The best thing to keep me hooked, though, isn't a secret at all: it's the need to find out how the main character will resolve his or her conflict.

Make me invested in the main character. Make me want what the main character wants as much as the main character wants it, and make me need to find out how the main character does or doesn't get it. That's all a writer needs to keep me hooked.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009