Stir It Up

typewriter with paper flying out of itIs your writing routine working for you? My recent experiment is proof that changing things up can work to your benefit. I made it through 100% of my edits! (That may not seem like much, but I’m doing some extensive re-writes in the hopes that I won’t have so many drafts.) I just had to be willing to forego the must-write-every-day mantra–which was HARD to do. It still is. But I’m buoyed by the work I’ve been able to get done. If you’re stuck in a rut, I’d like to share two blog posts that talk about letting go of our routines to make way for motivation.

The first is guest blogger Amanda Linehan, who wrote “Writing Outside the Lines” on Lauren Sapala’s kick-butt blog. In it, she discusses how she was a ride-or-die outline user, until–well, until the outline wasn’t helping her. My favorite suggestion that she gave for those who are hesitant was to “try it out with some low-stakes project” like a short story.

The second is K.M. Weiland’s “Don’t Let Anybody Tell You How to Write” over at Helping Writers Become Authors. With sage advice such as “don’t let anybody tell you how to write. Not me. Not Stephen King. Not Writer’s Digest. Not Aristotle,” Weiland reminds us that “structures aren’t the destination, but rather the vehicle.”

In other words, stir it up, writer friends. If your method is not working for you, try another way. The writing police will not arrive, I swear.

Plotting vs. Pantsing

nanowrimo.jpgIt’s April, and that can only mean one thing: Camp NaNoWriMo! National Novel Writing Month is technically November, when crazy ambitious writers all around the world strive to “win” NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words in that one month. April’s Camp NaNoWriMo is similar, but each writer sets an individual goal. Some may stick with 50,000 words; some may be trying for writing ten minutes a day. The camaraderie is beyond inspirational!

One of the quintessential questions of NaNoWriMo is this: Are you a plotter or a pantser–or the combination of plantser? When I did NaNoWriMo the first time, I was a *pantser: a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. 

In my defense, I had already started that novel prior to NaNoWriMo. I knew where it began, I thought I knew where it was going, and I had a rough idea of how it would get there, so writing out a plot line seemed overkill. I mean, it was all in my brain. And writing is a creative endeavor, not one to plot out, right?

Sort of. Depends. Kinda.

The problem: I hadn’t thought through how some of my plot points would connect (or not). I had a couple of endings in mind, but they seemed impossible to get to, even once I was 50,000+ words in. I didn’t give up right away. I went back and re-worked scenes, moved scenes around (shout out to Novelize), edited, edited, edited. I just couldn’t get it right. So I shelved it. (You can read more about that here.) I do think it’s salvageable, but I think it will need to sit for awhile–and likely, I’ll start pretty much all over. Except this time I’ll plot before I start. This was a lesson I took with me into my current WIP.

I was about 4,000 words in The Devil Inside Me before I did any major plot sketching. I had my idea–then the idea for making it a trilogy–but thanks to my previous experience, I wanted to know where I was going with it before I was 50,000 words in. 

I did some research and came across the “snowflake” method for planning. I loved the idea of taking a one sentence summary of my story and expanding from there. I came up with my suspects and how they’d fit. I decided upon the locations of the murders–and the order in which they’d occur. I gave my poor protagonist a fatal flaw from hell. And I determined which Chicagoans were going to bite the proverbial bullet.

Magically, plot holes appeared. Shouldn’t I have this murder occur at that location? Shouldn’t I have this person die instead of that one? This non-linear method worked so well for me that before long, I was ready for the linear. I created a spreadsheet of scenes. More plot holes. I could see where the story became protagonist-heavy and antagonist-heavy, where I’d need to do some more research. Other obvious issues made themselves known, including my favorite: person A could not have been 18 during a crime committed ten years ago if they are only 21 today. (Did I mention I teach English and not math?)

Knowing these gaps in the beginning made writing that much easier. I still don’t want to try to control every detail because not doing so will allow some spontaneity and creativity to live in the process.  Has it been perfect? Not on your life. But has it given me direction and the freedom to sit down and pound out some good word counts? You bet, especially when you’re working full-time and trying to cram in 2000 words a day. If you’ve tried plotting and failed miserably, give the snowflake method a try. There is no one-size-fits-all writing handbook, after all.

Writers, who has NaNoWriMo’d? Did you love it? Hate it? Win? Fail miserably? Are you a plotter, pantser, or plantser? Share your strategies!

Readers, what are some stories you’ve read that have an impeccable plot that seems perfectly planned? Writers would love to read your well-loved examples!

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*Confession: Not having a plan is completely and utterly counterintuitive to who I am as a person, but for some reason, writing does not fit into that order for me. As a teacher, my lesson plan units for every class are all tabbed, labeled, divided, and in the same size, color, and brand of binders.  My clothes hang in rainbow (and sleeve-length) order in my closet. I once had a co-worker move everything on my desk to see if I could work without changing everything back first. I couldn’t. I’m that person.

Just Submit the Story Already!

pexels-photo-862115.jpegOn Twitter, I began participating in the #52stories52weeks challenge, which is just as it sounds: write a short story/flash fiction piece every week for a year. Now, let’s be honest– I stopped working on short stories to focus on finishing my WIP, The Devil Inside Me, but that challenge helped me in so many ways. In addition to connecting with fellow writers, I also explored my WIP’s characters through these short pieces. Each one had a background story to tell, from the protagonist to the murder victims to the H.H. Holmes tour guide.

The legend of H.H. Holmes, as you may know, is what prompted me to begin The Devil Inside Me. One of my short stories, “Downright Devilish,” is part of a series that re-imagines the childhood of Holmes, based partly on historical fact. I was hesitant to submit it anywhere because, well, I’m not a published author. But everyone has to start somewhere in order to become that published author, right? So I submitted. And submitted. And submitted. And got rejection. And rejection. And rejection. And…a yes!

Please enjoy “Downright Devilish” as it appears on Fourth and Sycamore’s online literary journal.

Writers, if you have a short story lying around, or some poetry tucked away in a notebook, submit it. That one “yes” will be worth the stack of rejections, I promise.

PS–If you want to read more of The Devil Inside Me, sign up HERE today!

Local Author Fairs

books-bookstore-book-reading-159711.jpegAre you a book lover? Are you obsessed with certain authors? Do you wish you could meet them, have them sign your copy of their book, ask them questions? Then check out some of your local author book fairs! It’s a perfect way to do all of the above AND support the arts in your local community. (Aspiring writers, you should go too! Keep reading!)

While I live in the sticks, I am also within an hour of three large (populations over 100,000) cities. There are a plethora of events among them, typically located at public libraries, community colleges, universities, and bookstores. These provide an excellent way to connect with and support your local writers!

Last November, one public library hosted a drop-in fair to celebrate NaNoWriMo. Six local authors were on hand to sell and sign copies of their books. There was a variety of genres from thriller to children’s, and attendees were also treated to complimentary snacks and drinks.

On the same day, another city’s public library hosted a similar event, this time to help a children’s literacy fund. Authors generously donated a proceed of their sales, and the library advertised it as a way to get some holiday shopping done–simultaneously stimulating the local economy, local authors’ pocketbooks, and funds for the non-profit.

Every local author event I’ve gone to has been free for attendees–and often there are free goodies to be had–from refreshments to bookmarks and other book-swag the authors have available. How cool is it to be able to discover local authors, to talk to them about their work, to discuss their processes not only in writing but publishing? Readers, you might find your next favorite, and never underestimate the importance of readers to writers. Without you, who would read our work? For aspiring authors, this is more than just a networking opportunity. Most people are more than happy to share what their path has been like and may be able to offer you hints and advice for your own journey. For example, I took a community education course taught by Joe Chianakas, author of the Rabbit in Red trilogy. He was instrumental in helping me believe that I, too, could travel down the writing and publication path. Thanks, Joe!

Not sure where to find them? Try bookmarking the local college’s website, and start following social media sites for your public library. Google searches may help you find locations you didn’t even know about. That’s how I discovered one of my now-favorite bookstores, Lit Books, and a super-cool Madison book fair called Madtown Author Daze. You’ll forge friendships with booksellers and authors alike.

On April 7th, my local Barnes and Noble will have several local authors representing everything from young adult to paranormal, including Joe Chianakas, Sylvia Shults, J.E. Mueller, Sydney Raine, Alana Hitchell, Ron Swan, and Dylan Nelson. UPDATE: I just found out there will be TWO DAYS of local-author-goodness happening! The following will be at Barnes and Noble on Sunday, April 8th: Jason HendersonNancy FrantzDemetria WilliamsAnne PetersonJessica PetersonBridget NelanCarrie Lowrance, and Ahaveh Maure.

Readers, have you attended a local author fair? What was the best part? How far would you travel to see your favorite author? What/who would you like to see at one?

Sign up HERE to get my blog posts delivered to your mailbox. You can always read them here, but email subscribers will receive extras along the way! Sign up today and receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me.

Editing, aka Negative Word Count

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Editing. The bane of some writers’ existence. This week I’ve been editing my most recent chapter in The Devil Inside Me, and I’ve been having a hard time following my own advice. In some ways I enjoy editing because it means I get to tighten everything up from character descriptions to plot lines. But what I hate about it, I truly hate: the disappearance of words from my beautiful word counter on the screen.

Logically, I know that is nonsensical. If I’m to tighten up my text, words will have to go. That doesn’t mean that I enjoy the feeling of work escaping into the ether. It’s been especially hard the last two weeks for me to go into editor mode from the must-get-butt-in-seat-and-words-on-page mindset that I mentioned in my post, “Finding Time to Write (and Read!)”.

And then, as if the writing gods could read my mind, Lauren Sapala’s blog post arrived in my inbox. All I saw was the subject line, and my gut heaved a sigh of relief: “Writing Progress Does Not Always Equal Word Count.”

Like the writing gods could read my mind, I tell you.

Guest blogger Anna-Marie O’Brien is behind this nugget of truth. Progress is more than just a word count. Sometimes you have to just let the book take you where you need to go. She says, “I’ve come to find that there is a push and a pull to writing…You have to go with the flow. But then, you also have to steer the ship.” Amen. For those of us who struggle with getting a word count in every single day and feel guilty when we don’t, this is a beautiful reminder that sometimes that’s not what it’s about. Sometimes you might need to get lost in research for a couple of hours. Sometimes you might just need to noodle over a character’s situation for a few days. And if that’s your way, that’s your way. Much gratitude to Anna-Marie for penning this post and to Lauren for sharing it!

Writers, do any of you fall in this category? Do you struggle with not fitting in the write-X-number-of-words-every-day form? How do you deal?

Readers, last week I shared a snippet of The Devil Inside Me. If you’d like to read even more, please sign up for my emailing list here!

 

 

Finding the Time to Write (and Read)

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Finding time to write and read can be challenging if you have a full-time job or children to tend to–or both. I teach high school English, and the demands of planning and grading for a writing-focused curriculum (for three grade levels) often cuts into my personal time. This is a way of life for many teachers; it’s just part of the job.

When I decided to be serious about putting The Devil Inside Me out there, I knew I couldn’t just write when the muse showed up. I would need to carve time out of my schedule. I’m a believer of the mantra “we make time for what’s important to us,” and this writing endeavor was important to me.

So, I crafted a schedule of goals for the year. That schedule included research, development of a website, and this blog. Each of those in turn added more to the schedule: trips to Chicago to capture the essence of a building or a nasty winter day, learning how to use WordPress and plug-ins, educating myself on creating a blog that could be meaningful to others. I wasn’t dedicating my “writing time” solely to writing; rather, I was dedicating my writing time to learning about the craft and how to get my work out there. Part of that included setting aside time each week for reading.

We all have challenges that take up writing/reading time. I live in the country. That translates to a 20 minute trip to get just about anywhere; to go to the nearest “city” means 30-40 minutes. (And I don’t mean Chicago–that’s 2-3 hours!) When a fellow writer serendipitously posted on social media that dictation made her commute productive, a light bulb went off. Why hadn’t I thought of that, especially when I listen to audiobooks on long trips? 

My next 30 minute trip into “the city” produced 1400 words. Second trip? 1200.  Third? 1300. I started simply–I’m only using Google Docs and my cell phone’s microphone. Now, this means you’ll end up with text that reads as follows: “ I always had these go floating around in my head goes spooky.” But it’s worth it to attempt to translate myself for the sake of having WORDS ON THE PAGE. Another plus: My inner editor is hogtied because I can’t look at my phone–all I can do is talk. This results in higher word counts in less time.

If you find yourself in your car frequently, perhaps this can work for you too! There are other tools that do a better job than my set-up. Joe Warnimont’s post on The Write Life lists several, including the well-known Dragon Dictation.

Writers, do you currently use voice-to-text to help with your writing? If so, share your tips and tricks in the comments!

Readers, do you love audiobooks, or do you need that paper in your hand?

Sign up HERE to get your hands on a snippet of The Devil Inside Me. Subscribers receive additional extras along the way!  

Murder Your Darlings

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Earlier this week, I focused on the argument of editing while writing versus writing without stopping. Part of that struggle includes editing out pieces that you love but just don’t fit.

I first stumbled across that concept in Stephen King’s book On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

That phrase has been attributed to numerous writers over the years, from Eudora Welty to William Faulkner and, of course, Stephen King, but the true credit goes to one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an editor and writer, who presented a series of lectures in 1913-1914 at Cambridge University about writing (which Bartleby has lovingly preserved here). He said, “To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament.”

In other words, just because something sounds fancy does not mean it’s good writing (or good reading). He continued with this snarky gem: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

I’d heard the concept, but I really hadn’t been forced to put it into practice until I signed up for a writing bootcamp. One of the comments from a published author and reputed agent on my writing:? “Too dense.” Dense as in too thick with those $5 words and crafted phrases. My darlings. I was immediately transported back to my sophomore year in college when my novels professor gave me my first (but not last) B on an essay. One word sat in red ink next to the offensive letter: “Wordy.” I had never received that kind of feedback, and the sting was palpable. My bootcamp mentor and novel prof were effectively saying what Mr. Quiller-Couch had: Write it how you want to write it, but then murder those darlings. Or, as legend Elmore Leonard put it, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

Don’t despair! You can always resurrect those murdered darlings. Cut and paste them all into one place so that, if you find you wished you hadn’t murdered one after all, you can bring it to life again. Mine now reside in a folder punnily named The Dead Files. That file made it so much easier to let go–because I wasn’t really letting go. Resurrection is right around the corner thanks to technology. (Doesn’t that just beg for a post about Battlestar Galactica?) 

Need some help on how to do away with those darlings? Ruthanne Reid shares lovely advice on The Write Practice.  (You should also read her post about Neil Gaiman’s rules of writing.)

Writers, is this your process too, or do you do something altogether different with those darlings when you cut swaths of your work? Comment and let me know!

Readers, have you ever wondered if a piece was cut from your favorite novel? Would you want to read those cut pieces? I’m toying with the idea of releasing some of mine here on the blog. Please comment if that’s something you’d like to see!

To get a free sneak-preview of my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me, please sign up for my mailing list here. Email subscribers will receive extras along the way!