Sunday, November 27, 2011

Crossing the Finish Line
(2011 NaNoWriMo Update)

There's a saying (I think it was something I actually heard in a Beatles song) that states, Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans. The same is true for a writer trying to finish his novel. During the process, you can count on this: life will throw many curve balls at you. The thing to do is to get up each day, take a breath, step back into the batter's box, and swing away. Some days you will strike out. Some days you will only make it to first base. But there are days when you will not only knock it out of the park, but you'll send a crushing grand slam into the bleachers and drive in all those other single-basers as well.

My 2011 NaNoWriMo experience was just like this. Some days I just didn't clock in the minimum 1,667 words. Those days were few, though, and all my other days made up for the process, especially the days when I clocked in more than two-thousand words. The items that krept into my life this time around? First, my daughter had a tonsilectomy. Personally, I have never had my tonsils removed, but I can tell you as a parent it has to be painful. My daughter is now at Day #7, and she's still in recovery. Suffice it to say, an event like this has a way of interrupting your plans.

The second thing that stood in the way of NaNoWriMo is so common that I might as well plan for it in the future: the holidays. As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, there is so much focus on family and food that all other plans need to sit on the bench... especially writing a novel. How do you tell your spouse that writing your masterpiece is more important than spending time with family? The answer is you don't. You go, you drink and eat, and you set your sights on picking back up later. I don't know why the creators of NaNoWriMo chose November to do this event. Maybe it's a way to see who is dedicated and who isn't. Thankfully, they didn't choose December. I believe the obstacles in that month would probably thin the herd of winners.

So, my NaNo goal was set back a day. Big deal. Last night I met my minimum at around forty-nine-thousand words. I looked at that and said, "There's no way I'm going to stop today when I'm so close to the finish line." So, I pressed on and moved past the ultimate goal: fifty-thousand words in thirty days. That's not to suggest that my novel is done. It's not. In fact, it's probably only two-thirds complete. But a finished novel in thirty days isn't the primary focus. Writing the minimum to be called a novel is.

With December just around the corner, and my other project (2011 Holiday Story Exchange) deadline just a couple weeks away, I'll probably slow down a little, and my novel will be finished sometime before (or maybe after) the first of the new year. But that's okay, too. My goal for 2011 NaNoWriMo is complete, I'm firmly on the path of my story and into the lives of my characters, and my finished novel is within my grasp.

Until next time...

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Mind Works in Mysterious Ways
(2011 NaNoWriMo update - Day 18)

I awoke this morning feeling like I needed to take a healthy dose of sinus medication and go right back to sleep. My head ached. My stomach felt like something sick and ugly crawled inside and set up camp. Forget about NaNoWriMo, that little voice in my head muttered. It’ll be there in the evening. Get yourself back to bed.

Thankfully, I didn’t listen to the voice. Sure, it took me an extra twenty minutes to pull myself together, but I put on a pot of coffee, took the sinus medicine (along with a couple Tylenol), and eventually planted my keister in the chair. The words came slow at first, too, but by six o’clock my word count reached topped off at a little more than one thousand. Sometimes, the best you can do is simply this: just show up.

The mind works in mysterious ways. Not a week goes by where I find myself amazed at the connective tissues the mind forms between experiences. For example, somebody in your day makes a comment, and the mind suddenly jerks a long forgotten dream from its dusty shelves. In some cases you replay the event over and over (Haven’t I seen this before?), and an unsettling case of déjà vu burns at the brain like an out-of-control fever. Mostly, though, you find yourself transported back to those dreams and everything granular—every sight and sound, every spoken word—swiftly comes into laser-sharp focus.

In writing fiction, I find that the exchange between reality and Neverland often works in reverse. Something a character says or does brings a real-life experience to the forefront and suddenly I am writing from the heart. Write what you know, they say, and sometimes we do just that. And it’s not just me; I believe this is true for all writers. If I had the opportunity to ask Stephen King one question right now, it would be this: How much of The Body (aka, the movie, Stand by Me) came from personal experiences? I would love to hear his answer to that. This morning (as well as other mornings) I found myself once again working with certain characters, and something they said or did brought an event or a viewpoint from the past to the forefront. That’s just the way the magic works for me.

The project is still on course. In fact, it’s better than being just on course; with the work now at more than 33K words, I’m two days ahead of schedule. My estimate is that I will reach the 50K goal by the twenty-fifth. And that’s not bad. It gives me plenty of room to reach 60K before the end of the month.

I hope life is going just as well for all of you, my friends. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep dreaming. This is what we do. This is what we love. And if we can share something new with someone else—even the weird or bizarre—then so much the better.

Until next time…

Friday, November 11, 2011

NaNoWriMo Update
(Day 11 and counting)

Given the choice, I would rather not whip and spur an old horse. It’s just not my thing. After this week’s news, however, concerning Q.R. Markham and the recent revelations about his book, I feel compelled to once again touch upon the issue I’ve written about for my last two posts.

It is true that we learn much from reading other writers. I have learned a ton about dialogue from Elmore Leonard. I have also learned much about narrative and prolific sentence structure from the likes of William Gibson and James Lee Burke and the earlier works of Dean Koontz (his later works aren’t quite as prosaic). I have learned much about writing characters and backstory from Stephen King, trying to give little pieces that readers tend to pick up and snap together. Still, it is one thing to learn from others in an attempt to hone your own voice and craft; it is quite another to copy their work into yours, and then have the audacity to say you wrote it. While we all learn from other writers, we can never-ever-ever stoop to the level of plagiarizing their work. I can’t stress that point enough.

And enough on that subject, too.

This week has had its positives. First, my NaNoWriMo project is moving along nicely. Today, I passed the twenty-thousand marker and moved beyond twenty-one-thousand words as well. And with that I am now over forty percent of the way home. In the next day or two, I expect to roll past the halfway point. Halfway for my NaNoWriMo goal, that is; the way this novel is working, I don't expect that it will be finished until much later. My first project two years ago ran over one-hundred-thousand words. We'll see how far this one goes.

The plot is starting to come together nicely as well. At this point in the story, I have been able to see little nuggets of foreshadowing—unintentional at their origin, but quickly recognized as something that will have more voice as the story progresses. The final road map is not clear in my mind yet, but it is coming into focus far better than it did when I started. And that’s a good thing.

In my readings, I finished Stephen King’s The Girl Who Love Tom Gordon. For those who criticized it as slow and boring, I have to strongly disagree. It was a powerful story and the end touched my heart in a way that many books do not. For those who have never read it, this is one of his better works.

Those are my quick updates for now. For a future post, I am considering the prospect of sharing some personal thoughts about dialogue. While I have learned much of what I do from other masters, I have also developed strong opinions of my own.

Until next time…

Friday, November 4, 2011

Let Books Be Your Guide
(2011 NaNoWriMo)

"Writing a book is very much like going on a long trip abroad...Writers who have gone before travel with you; all you have to do is welcome them along. Let books be your guides. Choose wisely. And, mostly important, limit yourself to exactly six books per writing project. Three books on craft. And three books exactly like the one you wish to write."

Heather Sellers ~ Chapter after Chapter (Ch. 16)

This post is basically a follow-up to the previous one (Snacks for the Road) where I recommended having a book along for the journey. I read Heather Sellers's book over two years ago, before I participated in the 2009 NaNoWriMo event. So as you can see, this is not a new idea, and it certainly isn't one I came up with. Still, it is one that I believe is an essential tool for writing a novel, or even for writing a short story.

On more than one occasion while visiting the Writer's Digest Forums (a public network for writers at any stage of their work) I have come across the following statement: Find writers you like and try to imitate what they do; it's what every writer does. And while to some that may appear to be debasing the value of what we do--imitation and not art--I disagree. And with good reason...

"You can't plagiarize a method of opening a chapter. You can't really steal a technique--the technique belongs to all of us. If you love the way one of your [favorite authors] does dialogue, use her pattern and cadences and beats in your own dialogue. It's not cheating. It's how all writers work."

Heather Sellers ~ Chapter after Chapter (Ch. 16)

The truth is that writers don't learn in a vacuum. They learn by reading and by writing, and the writing is usually influenced by the reading. You want to learn how to handle good dialogue? Read Elmore Leonard. You want to learn how to develop great suspense? Read Dean Koontz. You want to learn how to write mysteries with plenty of twists and turns that keep your readers guessing? Jeffery Deaver is a great teacher. In my opinion, he is one of the best.

Keep in mind, however, that not everything you learn in reading is necessarily good. You want to learn how to bore your readers by demonstrating your ability to spit out an almost endless supply of worthless details instead of moving the story along? Read The Last of the Mohicans. You might even learn how to teach your readers to skip whole pages at a time. I'm not recommending it, but if that's your goal...

In preparing for this year's NaNoWriMo, I picked out a selection of Young Adult books, since my primary characters are young teenagers. The book selected were as follows: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; the Harry Potter books, one through four, by J.K. Rowling (five through seven are still waiting on the shelf); The Body by Stephen King, I Am Number Four by Pitticus Lore; and finally The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, also by Stephen King. For my part, I wanted to see how other writers handled young kids as characters--their mannerisms, their dialogue, and such--so that I could start to do the same in my own writing. I think I've learned plenty to help me. And the good news is that I have each of these books within reach while I'm working on my NaNoWriMo project this year.

An interesting change of plans this year, though: What I thought would be a YA novel has turned into a supernatural thriller. I told someone the other day I thought it would be a horror novel, and there may not be much difference when all is finished, but I think supernatural thriller more accurately describes what I have in progress. As such, all those YA novels I read, while still useful for characterization of children, may fall short on the suspense angle; however, I have plenty of other books to lean on when the time is right.

Until next time...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Snacks for the Road
(2011 NaNoWriMo)

Part of the experience of NaNoWriMo 2009 including having a book at my side, to keep me company and generally feed my mind. Two years ago that book was Elmore Leonard's Out of Sight, probably my favorite Leonard book. In the process of reading, my mind would see something he did--how he handled a certain aspect of a scene or dialogue--and then it went about the task of working similar magic in my own project. The end result was always mine, of course. I never plagiarized his work. I simply used his writing as one of many tools to springboard my own ideas into something that could be used to make a splash.

This time around, I have decided to read Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. While some readers hate his work, others, like me, love him. He usually has a great writing style, and what I love most about King is his ability to take the reader deeper into the character--through voice, dialogue, and flashbacks--without taking the reader off course in the process. So far, reading this small novel has given me plenty of food for thought. Again, the end result will be mine, written in my voice and style, but reading a novel is already helping me to ask the questions I need in order to make my 2011 NaNoWriMo project better.

How about you? Do you usually take some reading brain food along on the journey? If so, who and what are you reading (or snacking on) this year?

Until next time...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

All Things on the Table
(2011 NaNoWriMo)

This morning I awoke about ten minutes before four o'clock. I gave the dog a good hug, a scratch behind the ears, and then stepped outside with her into the cool morning air. Which lasted about three minutes until a neighborhood cat belled by its owner--maliciously, I think--tinkled by the fence line and successfully sent my lovable, and for the most part quiet, pooch into a canine frenzy. Suffice it to say, I rounded up my dog with a few sharp whispers and together we walked back inside. Her genetically curled tail stood almost erect with pride.

The coffee made, I then went about the task of lining things up to sit down and work my magic on the keyboard. Today is Day 2 of the 2011 National Novel Writing Month, or affectionately known as NaNoWriMo to those who have participated in the past. Two hours and fifteen minutes later, my daily quota almost finished, I wrapped things back up and started with the task of waking children and preparing for another day. I'm happy to report that I am still on track with the project. By tonight, I will have passed my quota and moved my work-in-progress bar a little closer toward the ultimate goal: fifty-thousand words in thirty days.

While it may be easy for others--I have read somewhere that Stephen King sits down to write ten pages each day--for me writing a novel in this timetable doesn't happen without some planning. Two years ago, I made daily walks, mapping out issues and whole scenes in my mind. I had a good idea of where the novel wanted to take me before my fingers ever typed out the first word. This year, I didn't engage in daily walks, but I still had the mind working through scenes and issues prior to the first of November. I even drove to the office supply store last week to purchase a dry erase board, a tool I find indispensable for my style. It allows me to brainstorm ideas and to jot things down and erase them with ease. On Saturday, I made an initial sketch of the village for my novel, identifying some of the quirky places therein. All told, I believe I have put some serious planning into this novel like I did with the previous one, and I believe the dividends of my labor will pay off in the end.

This is not to suggest that I don't leave room for magic to happen. I do. In fact, yesterday morning I woke up earlier than expected. In that quiet moment between fully asleep and fully awake, I felt the magic stir within me. Short stories that I had started working years ago suddenly clamored for attention. "Hey," one shouted. "You remember me? Maybe I'm not a leading actor, but I can certainly play a supporting role." And thus, the spell began. I considered that story's statement, and then gradually nodded my head, the fog of sleep clearing with each passing moment. Yes, I thought. I think you'll do. And what I originally planned to be a YA novel has now changed into something else.

As writers, our inspiration can come from all sorts of influences: people we've met, conversations overheard, and yes even stories that we've never finished. The thing is to keep our minds open, even if the inspirations appear like phantasms in a dream. Allowing all options on the table is a key step to moving forward in writing any kind of story.