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Writer's Blah, Part 2

Posted by Ali on January 30, 2013 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (1)

Last week, I wrote about having trouble writing, (I forget, is that irony?). Jenny and John both had some answers for my question: How do you get over the blah?


Riffing on Jenny


Jenny had some good ideas, like setting arbitrary constraints for the story, writing out of order, and hopping between stories to focus on what was most interesting to me at the time.


Let's talk about the arbitrary constraints first. It may seem silly to mandate that one of your characters must be a gorilla and that each scene must end with someone saying, "banana." However, the nice thing about constraints is that it allows you to play. Since certain things are now set ahead of time, you have to be a bit more creative to make those things fit.


Writing out of order is an excellent piece of advice. When I was in college, I did this all the time. I'd start with a concept, paragraph, or quote that was fully formed in my head and, by starting where it was easy, I gained momentum/warmed up. Generally, that paragraph I started with led me to another idea, which reminded me of this other thought, and soon I had a few pages written.


When I was teaching freshman composition, I had conversation with a student that went something like this:


Student: Miss E. I'm stuck with this paper.

Me: What's giving you trouble?

Student: I can't figure out what I wan to say in my introduction.

Me: Do you know what you want to say in the rest of the paper?

Student: Yeah, but I just don't know how to start it.

Me: That's fine. Don't worry about the intro right now. Start in the middle. Come back to the intro later.

Student: I can do that?!


When I saw her the next time, I asked her if the new approach had helped. She was almost done with her rough draft. She was so surprised that you don't have to write the first things first that when I gave her permission to start wherever, it freed her up immensely.


I just fully realized, in writing this post, that this is something that is so clear and already something I do with non-fiction, but I rarely follow this advice with fiction. Oops.


Riffing on John


John also had some good ideas about getting back to the basics of story craft, focusing on a deadline, and sticking with one story at a time. Note how this last recommendation directly contradicts Jenny's.


Working on the basics is always a good idea, whether you're a beginner or a seasoned pro. As with athletes, surgeons, or anyone else, the goal of perfecting the basics isn't really to practice until you get it right, it's to practice until you can't get it wrong. I don't care who you are, if you can't make us feel invested in your main character(s), your story/novel is not a success, no matter how fancy your language or surprising your plot twists.


The back to basics advice was also the same thing I was telling myself. I was getting tied in knots about plot, so I took a step back and spent some time thinking about basic plot construction. People have to do stuff. And, when you're trying to decide what to make people do, an excellent place to start is by thinking about bad choices. This is the "What could go wrong?" question. Answering it is a good way to come up with an idea of how to worsen the conflict, give a character something they need to overcome, create motivation for an action, add a bit of liveliness, or simply figure out what happens next.


On the deadline note, John and the crew know me well enough to know that I'm stubborn and have a competitive streak. We have, from time to time, engaged in contests based on "Who can write the most words in the next two weeks?" This dynamic isn't what works best for everyone, but it is super productive for me. It's a clear, measurable goal. When I'm focused on a concrete deadline, it takes some of the pressure off of trying to make it perfect. If it has to be done tomorrow, it's more important for it to be done than perfect. There will be time to go back later and make it pretty.


So, what happened with my blah? On Sunday I walked into the meeting with copies of the completed story inspired by the Duchess of Bathory. John made some smart remark about how his submission was a page longer, but since our formatting was different, I pointed out that my submission has almost 1,000 more words, so if it's a contest, I win. Just saying.


But wait, there's more writer's blah to come! Tune in next week as I hash out some more strategies for getting past the wall and give you helpful links from around the web.

Writer's Blah

Posted by Ali on January 23, 2013 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (5)

In the past year or so, I've been focused on a lot of things - moving, a new job, non-fiction, revising a novel, etc. etc. What I have been slacking on is drafting brand new stuff, and especially short stories.


Recently, I've been trying to exercise those neglected muscles. My success has been less than overwhelming. I have realized that, thanks to neglect, I have fallen back to my pattern from when I first started playing around with this writing stuff. I figure out an idea I like, jot out the first few pages easily, then stall out. Part of me feels like all the practice, all the years I've spent figuring out how to see a project through to the end, has escaped me. It's like I've forgotten how a story works.


Needless to say, this frustration doesn't lend itself to motivation. Currently, I've got the following stories brewing/stalled:


Duchess of Bathory inspired story: 2.5 pages drafted. Stall = Overthinking the plot. How realistic would it be if the hero does that? Would it fit with the world-building I've developed, or would readers feel like it's a cheat?


Zombie story: 5+ pages drafted. Stall = The ending I want and the beginning I've got feel out of sync. How am I going to match them up? And/or should I abandon one to hold true to the other?


Girl with no face story: 0 pages drafted. Stall = I have a plot/conflict, but is that really the best pay off for the character concept? How do I write it without it feeling cheesy?


Transvestite prince story: 8 ish pages drafted. Stall = Okay, I'm having fun with the characters, but do I really have a conflict/plot here?


I'm working on some solutions to the blahs, and I'll write more about that later, but I'm hoping some of you might have some brilliant ideas on how to get over the sticking point. Also, I'm hoping y'all can give me something beyond, "Just write it out," because, while that is absolutely good advice, I think you guys might have some other, more creative, solutions.

Watching what someone else did with your baby

Posted by John Ridge on January 18, 2013 at 10:30 AM Comments comments (2)

Within the last six months or so, I've been able to add "Playwright" to my repertoire. Two different production companies have graciously allowed me to provide short scripts for plays they would put on the boards. The first was a repurposing of a short story I wrote a few years ago about a beverage product that purportedly bestowed spiritual enlightenment. The second I had to write in nine hours using four prompts as inspiration, which resulted in a story about love and the lengths people go to keep it, told with government agents and a werewolf. I didn't direct nor act in either of the productions, and generally had a hands-off involvement once the scripts were handed to their respective directors.


Writers sometimes discuss and noodle around with the idea of having their book made into a movie. They talk about which actor should be cast in which role and which known director would have the best visual style for it. It's a fun thing to do, and it re-energizes the momentum needed to complete a work.


I suspect some elements of the fantasy remain once the reality manifests. Of the five characters I've created between the two plays, I had seen four of the five actors perform in other roles. Some had taken similar roles before, some had not. Thankfully, no one was miscast, and in some cases, the actor I had in mind was the actor cast in the role. Everyone reached and exceeded my expectations for their performances. To say the least, watching them speak my sentences was a surreal experience.


There's an age old sentiment in writing theory that more or less states, "If it's not on the page, it doesn't exist." I first became aware of this while taking Journalism in high school, and I am still learning the depths to which it applies. When it comes to non-fiction writing, it's critical that you include all pertinent pieces of information regarding the subject, or you risk misinforming your reader. Simple enough.


When it comes to writing a work of fiction, things can get a little wonky. The words you don't use are nearly as important as the words you do use. What you're saying isn't as important as how you say it. Your goal is not just the transfer of information, but the evocation of emotional responses. So when you're writing the words you want people to say, you have to be very specific with the words you don't say.


People who have acted and directed for a while are well versed in the art of digging into words, looking for the unsaid information. Once they find the unsaid words, they are better able to say the words they are supposed to say. Where the playwright can get into trouble is when the words the actors are supposed to say don't lead them to the words they're not supposed to say. When that happens, they are left to their own inferential and intuitive powers. Sometimes it works out just fine, but there's a precarious potential for disaster.


I have seen roles performed by different actors, with different takes on the same characters. Identical words, different interpretations. I'm sure entire bottles of wine and cases of beer were consumed while discussing which actor has the most correct performance. Ultimately, if the playwright is dead, it becomes an academic matter over which interpretation most closely approximates the intention behind the words. More succinctly, we'll never really know the truth, so enjoy your drink.


While I'm still alive, I have currently have the luxury of seeing what happens, and I can make adjustments as I see fit. Watching the performances, I made notes in my head over which words on the page were missing, and which words not on the page were missing. Every time something went in an unexpected direction, I had to ask myself, "Hey, was that what you were thinking when you put that on the page? If not, what did you do to make them think this was a correct choice?" Don't get me wrong, some choices were better than what I had in mind, and I wish I knew what made them arrive at that conclusion.


When writing your book, your short story, your play, your poem, don't just think about your end consumer being a reader. Take a moment to consider whether you've provided enough material for the end consumer to be an audience member. Granted, not all written works are destined for such treatment as some things are most effective in written format. But, not everyone understands this, and some people go ahead with it anyway. It's their fault if their interpretation is misunderstood, but only if everyone else understands your original unsaid words.


Now, quit reading this and go write something.

Baking at Altitude

Posted by Ali on January 16, 2013 at 6:50 PM Comments comments (0)

When you live at high alititude, this is how baking works:

You find a recipe, you know the one, Death by Chocolate brownies, or Make Your Tastebuds Explode with Joy cheesecake, and you're in a baking mood, so off you go. You measure the ingredients with care, mix them with love, pour the mix into the baking dish, and pop that bad boy into the oven.

Some time later, the timer tells you that your lovely dessert is ready. Except, it isn't. The middle is still all jiggly. Your recipe probably says something about probing the confection with a toothpick or a knife to check for doneness. When you draw back your probe, it's covered in goo. That's not right.

Back in the oven it goes. You let it go for another ten minutes, surely that will do the trick. You check. No luck. Ten more minutes... and so the cycle repeats until, finally, the gooey middle has set and your knife comes back clean. As it turns out, all the waiting was worth it. Those brownies are To Die For!


Sometimes, that's writing. Or, rather, pre-writing. A while back, I got an idea. It started with a woman who has no face. Every day, she has to draw herself a face, or else she won't have one. I liked this idea, except it wasn't a story. What does the woman want? What's the conflict? I wanted something with life or death stakes, no subtle literary stuff here.


I know how my mind works, so I held on to this idea, but I tossed it to the back of my mind, a.k.a. the oven. Every now and again, I pulled it out and did a bit of what iffing, trying on different scenarios. Each time, the knife came out gooey. Back in the oven it went until, finally, the batter set and I realized the woman with no face was a hitman and the conflict was a job she didn't want to do, but failing to kill the assigned person meant she was in danger herself. Pretty standard issue stuff, but it fits.


Now the idea is baked. There's still some finishing touches to do - a bit of frosting here and there - but I feel like I can start writing the story now. The idea is ready to eat.

The Master Calendar

Posted by Jenny Maloney on January 7, 2013 at 8:50 AM Comments comments (1)

'Tis that time of year again: the beginning of the year. The slate is clean, waiting to be filled. As January 1st rolled around, I pretty much knew what I wanted to do this year: write two full rough drafts of new novels, revise the novel I just finished, and at least start a third book. As I was pondering how I would do this, I came across this little tidbit from Putting Your Passion Into Print by Arielle Ecksut and David Henry Sterry:

"Buy or make yourself a big one-year calendar. You will need to be able to change and modify it. A lot. A big white erasable board and colored erasable markers could be just the ticket. Or maybe a big blackboard with many hues of chalk...Mark your start date and your deadline. Then determine your various interim deadlines...Lay it all out for yourself very clearly. In number of words. In number of pages." ~Putting Your Passion Into Print

This calendar thing - which so obvious, right? - was a brilliant idea. I highly, highly recommend it. 

Three things about the Master Calendar in general, and then I'll tell you about what I did with it.

First, if you're already a published author with deadlines screaming over your head and you've got conferences to go to and marketing things to plan (I have to build a whole website?!!!!) Be sure to put that stuff in first. If you're a working person with a career sure to mark your work days and times. Give real life the priority, so you can make a more realistic timeframe for your work.  

Second, plan your calendar as if you were planning for someone else. This is very important. If you're anything like me or any of the other hundred writers I know, your writer-eyes are bigger than your writing-stomach. I have a nasty habit of overestimating my abilities and then, later, I wonder why the hell I'm so tired and still short of my goal. Burning yourself out is not a good thing. Don't do it.

But, whenever I hear another writer saying "I'll be able to finish X in such-a-such time" I always think to myself - "Oh yeah, bub? Double that time frame and I'll buy into it." Generally I'm right about the other writer's timeline but woefully, woefully, Oh! Full of Woe-ly wrong about my own timeline. With my Master Calendar, I decided to pretend I was an advisor to another writer. 

The third thing to keep in mind with the Master Calendar, is to be sure that you have the whole year in front of you and make sure the marks are eraseable. This is so that, should you miss a writing day, because you're sick, or you have to work the day-job unexpectedly, or a book signing took too long because the crowds were lining up outside the door and you had to stay out all night long signing your way into a handcramp, you can adjust your word count and goal on the back end. You can also see how one day - or a week - will affect your overall goals. 

Now, here's how I determined what I'd do for 2013: 

My Goal #1: Finish rough draft of one novel. After NaNoWriMo, and the subsequently exhausting first three weeks of December - where I was writing an average of 2000 words a day instead of the 1667 per day - I decided I needed to keep the pace more comfortable. 1000 words on the days when the kiddos are in school seems quite doable. 

From that determination, I decided I wanted the novel to be around 100K. A decent size adult book. With that in mind, I blocked out the days that I would write and how many words I would hit. 

Surprise, surprise. It was going to take longer than my original thinking indicated. (Mid-Febraury, right? Yeah. Not so much.) But taking a litte longer to finish is not a bad thing, I've come to realize. These things take as long as they take. When they say "slow and steady" wins the race...they're right.

My Goal #2: Revise the middle-grade novel I just finished last month.  According to my handy-dandy calendar - and factoring in various UGWP schedules - I determined it will take about 8 months for the group to read and mark up the book. That means (since I submitted it starting last month) I will have a fully marked manuscript around late summerish 2013. 

One of my own failings is that I never leave myself enough time to do a good revision. I read somewhere that it's a good idea to match revision time to first-draft time. Meaning, if it took three months to write the first draft, it should take you at least three months to do a good revision. (Sorry, does take longer to write a 200,000 word novel. If it takes a year to write, it'll probably take a year to revise.) 

With both of these figures in mind, I plotted out on my Master Calendary about how long it would take to do a good revision and I gave myself a word count pace (which is trickier with revision because some sections will need two or three days worth of work, another section might only need five minutes). Total: 3 months. 

My Goal #3: Write a rough draft of another new novel. Following my Master Calendar so far, Goals #1 and #2 will be accomplished. But #3 and #4 are kinda hosed. I won't have time (realistically) to finish a second whole novel. If I follow my own advice, I will only be halfway through another 100K novel by December 2013. Which means I won't have time to start a third book.

You might think I'd be bummed about having to throw out two goals - but you'd be incorrect. I now have three very solid goals that I feel more confident about completing: A full rough draft, a full revision, and 50K words into a new project. That's a pretty good project load for one year. And I feel confident about being able to hit those goals, which is much better than feeling overwhelmed before I even put finger-to-keyboard.

Plus, there's always 2014.

How do you guys figure out your projects? Do you just start and see how long it takes you? Do you set goals for yourself? Why or why not? 

Getting Tangled

Posted by Ali on December 12, 2012 at 8:30 AM Comments comments (1)

So, I've been working on this zombie story. I was looking at my little stack of pages, feeling pleased with myself, until I realized I had done it wrong. See, the story was supposed to go like this: Guy survives zombie apocalypse, guy meets gal, and then... things get weird.



I had a clear vision, I sat down, I started writing, and little by little, I got tangled. The bottom line is that the main idea of the story happens after the two characters meet and I was taking too many pages to get there. World building is a good thing, but I spent too much time on the stuff that wasn't important. In order to write everything out in a way that made the weird part balanced with the beginning, I'd have to write a much longer story than I needed. Otherwise, the end would feel lopsided.



Believe it or not, I (voted most likely to write too spare) had overwritten! Wait, unless... I hadn't. I started out with my vision, but sometimes, what you start out wanting to write and what you end up wanting to write are two different things. Also,by veering from my main plan, I wound up thinking about a third angle for the story. I'm not sure if it's where I want to go, but it's worth pondering.



To recap, right now, I'm trying to work out a knot. My options:

1. Scrap a lot of what's on the page and revise/continue writing to fit my original idea.

2. Keep writing along the path I'm currently wandering.

3. Revise/write to reflect another idea that's not quite 1 or 2, but something a bit different.



Ultimately, I have to answer some questions about what kind of emotional payoff I'm going for. If I go one way, it's a squirmy feeling. If I go another, it's still squirmy, but a little bittersweet (I hope). I know I want it to get uncomfortable, but what flavor of uncomfortable?



What's the last thing you wrote that went in an unexpected direction?

Pen and Paper and Zombies

Posted by Ali on November 29, 2012 at 12:10 PM Comments comments (3)

The other day I decided to start working on a zombie story. I've been having a difficult time focusing on writing lately, so I was thinking of doing some out of the house pages. The thing I like about going to a coffee shop to write is that it removes me from distractions. But, I wasn't in the mood for coffee, so I decided to replicate the OOTH pages experience at home.

Step 1: Clear off kitchen table to elimiate clutter/distractions.

Step 2: Light a candle with a nice scent.

Step 3: Make a cup of tea.

Step 4: Turn on some music.

Step 5: Write long hand so I don't get tempted to check e-mail or browse the web.

I'm glad to report that my reproduced OOTH pages went well and I filled up a number of legal sized pages in one sitting. I'm about 2/3 through the draft so far and very gratified to see physical pages full of ink. Yes, the ink is red. It's a zombie story. It's appropriate.

When you just want to puke.

Posted by John Ridge on November 20, 2012 at 1:05 PM Comments comments (0)

For those of you who don't me, I once trained in Olympic Weightlifting and CrossFit, Google the terms if they are unfamiliar to you.

My first year of training in Olympic Weightlifting took place at the Olympic Training Center, where the personal records of the people headed for the Beijing Olympics were posted on the walls. As I learned the movements, and lifted weight these people lifted in middle school, I would think to myself, "Okay, that's what I have to lift in order to go to the Olympics. Okay, guess I better keep working."

When I trained in CrossFit, I put my body through some of the most taxing, near tortuous physical exertion I've ever had the privilege of experiencing. I say near tortuous, because no one was forcing me to do it, except myself. Many, many times I brought myself to the point of incredible muscular pain, an exhaustive expenditure of glycogen, and near intolerable buildup of lactic acid. Especially at the beginning I often stood at the threshold of vomiting, while still hoisting heavy things over my head. As of this writing, I am having a difficult time remembering if I ever came in first place during a WOD. Usually I was either dead or second to dead last.

Both enterprises, in hindsight, were quite impossible. Between everyone else's lifelong time spent training, genetic potential, and blatant disregard for personal safety, I was completely out of my element. I was able to compete at the National Collegiate Level in Olympic Weightlifting, but I wasn't very competitive in my weight class. When it came time to see who could compete in the CrossFit games, I was in the bottom third for my region.

Why did I keep at it? Because there was someone in the room who was doing it faster, more easily, and without looking like they were about to puke. It bothered me enough that I couldn't do it as well as the other guys. While in the thick of it, it didn't matter as much that I couldn't perform at their level. What mattered was I was bumping against the ceiling of my own potential, and it felt damn good to make a breakthrough from time to time.

Over the weekend I sat in a write-in full of writers I hardly ever met before. I was (and still am) writing out my rewrite by hand, spending time to think about the next sentence, rather than blaze through and "just type" (like Jenny just talked about). I was surrounded by the sound of keyboard tapping, and stories of the amazing feats of imagination that are created when the mind is allowed to flow unrestricted. So many moments of, "Oh my god, I can't believe I just wrote that, but it makes SENSE!" The Bradburian Million was getting closer for a lot of these people, and it was exciting to watch.

One aspect of NaNo culture that I was previously unaware of is The Word War, also called The Word Sprint, The War, and really any other label for something competitive. You take everyone in the room, agree on a period of time, and then in a frenzy everyone tears through their prose, the goal being to write the most amount of words in the time allowed. I immediately recognized this as a CrossFit AMRAP (this is a test to see how thoroughly you Googled). My first Word War was completely comfortable for me. I've worked out in the same room as Olympians. Some of the people I worked out with in CrossFit were active duty members of the Special Forces. Writing with a pen when everyone else is typing? Bring it.

During more than one Word War, my hand cramped. You know what? It hurts a lot less than an entire body that's gassed from doing Grace. Sitting down for that long can make my back a little sore, which is nothing compared to seven rounds of deadlifting 125 kilos for seven reps, then doing ring dips for seven reps. Sometimes my brain started to fatigue, which is easier to deal with than keeping track of how many burpees I have left when I'm already overheated and my knees are shaking. Sometimes my brain wanted to puke. You'd be amazed how long you can maintain an exertion without actually puking.

Out of maybe eight Word Wars I've participated in so far in this NaNoWriMo year, only once did I out-write a typist. I usually ended up writing close to half or more than half the words that the winner wrote. More than once, the typists agreed the situation would be different if I were typing.

There are people who "thought about writing a book" and people who have written, or are writing books. I challenge you to see how close you can bring yourself to puking. At the very least you will no longer be one of the ones merely thinking about it. I don't think I've come close bumping against the ceiling of my potential with regards to writing. Have you bumped yours yet?

Now, quit reading this and go write something until you think you're gonna puke.



Actually Finishing Novels

Posted by Ali on November 14, 2012 at 6:30 PM Comments comments (1)

In honor of NaNoWriMo, I'm passing along an article I found. It's not about how to write a novel, but rather about how to finish it. The finishing part is essential, and I say this as someone who has written the same novel twice, only to get stalled out about 3/4 of the way through.


The name of the article is Strategies to Make Sure You Actually Finish That Novel, and it's got a list of twelve things you can try to power through to the end.


My favorite tips that I plan to use to help with the twice-written, never-finished project are:

1. Write the ending first. (Or, in my case, jump from where I am now to the end and skip all the in between bits until later.)

2. Write a terrible ending. (So, I get to jump to the end and just slap something down to help clarify where I think I'm going and where I really ought to be going.)


There are ten other exercises you can try out, and I'm sure there's bound to be at least one on the list that clicks for you. At the end of the article, author Charlie Jane Anders wraps up with great works of wisdom for first drafts, and especially NaNo:


"And most of all, don't forget to have fun with this! The first draft is just you playing a wacky game with yourself. It's the fifth or tenth draft that actually has to be all grown-up and dressed to go over to strangers' houses."

Frank Lloyd Wright and his work of genius

Posted by John Ridge on November 6, 2012 at 2:05 PM Comments comments (2)

In college, I once heard an old story about Frank Lloyd Wright about a time when a friend came to visit his office studio. This was at a point in his career when people were speaking his name more often, and the buildings he designed were becoming the stuff of legend. At the time of the visit, there was a massive drawing on his desk that he had just finished rendering for presentation. His friend marveled at the ideas and concepts that were presented in the physical form of the building, as well as the craftsmanship of the drawing.

After a minute or two, his friend said, "My goodness, you are a genius to be able to create something like this from just paper, pencil lead, and imagination."

Wright looked at his friend, and opened the wide drawer underneath the desk drawing board. In the drawer sat a stack of tracing paper easily the thickness of a novella. He pulled the stack of paper out, and spread the them apart. Each one depicted a different version of the same building. The ones closer to the top were looked more and more like the one on the desk. With each iteration, there was a purging of weaknesses, and a refinement of strengths.

"I don't know about genius," Wright said. "But I sure went through a lot of paper."

That's part of the reason why I'm doing NaNoWriMo with pen on paper this year, rather than fingers on a keyboard. There's a certain sense of accomplishment in being able to see a rising stack of papers which creates a certain snowball effect of motivational momentum. Slowing it down also gives me chance to work out things and construct the sentences with a little more craft. Plus, I'm writing on the backside of the pages of critiqued First Drafts. A sort of "The Second Draft shall be born upon the carcass of the First Draft," thing. Waste not, want not, and all that.

I once read an article in Grossly Generalized Things That Might Be Made Up But They Sound True Magazine that said a lot of creative projects that go on to become iconic or memorable go through a lot of refinement and perfecting before they are released to an audience. It is quite rare for something special to materialize on the first try requiring little work done to it. Think about that one tattoo you got on that place you don't want people to see because that one night in Vegas was the night you were working on your spontaneity (I read that in GGTTMBMUBTSTM as well). Not as many people remember Count Duckula as fondly as you, do they?

Anyway, this is really just a post to remind you that NaNoWriMo is still going on, if you're not doing it this year, I encourage you to do it next year. Once it's done, I also encourage you go through a lot of paper before you submit it to anybody who doesn't know you. Or even people who do know you. Let them all think you're a natural genius and not someone with huge stacks of paper hidden away.

Now, quit reading this and go write something.

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