Monday, October 21, 2013

Thinking About Writing a Book in 30 Days? (Here's a bit of advice to get you started...)

Last week I did a presentation at two local libraries for writers interested in taking the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. NaNo, in case you are wondering, is a cool writing site where participants pledge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. It costs nothing to join and you get to be part of a cool community of writers all chugging along on the same crazy journey. At the end of the month, if you meet your goal, you win a virtual badge (WOO HOO!) and the satisfaction of knowing you've got a finished first draft to play around with later.

Tracie, the awesome librarian at the Upper Arlington Ohio library who'd asked me to give the presentation, introduced me as a writer with lots of wisdom to share.

I had a hardy laugh about that. Yes, I may have won the virtual NaNo badges (For the record, I wrote four novels during previous NaNos and one of those novels turned into--after multiple revisions--my first published novel.) but in many ways I am still a beginner. Each day's writing is just as hard (if not harder) than the day before, and if I have learned anything over the years, it is that I always have more to learn.

Anyhoo, a few writers emailed to say that they could not make either of the presentations but would love it if I could share my notes. I'm not sure how useful these will be, but in the spirit of sharing "wisdom," here goes:

1. The nitty gritty. Get out a calendar page of the month of November. Look at the days you will realistically be able to write. Count them up. Divide 50,000 words by that number. The answer equals the number of words you will have to write per day if you want to win. To put this in perspective: if you plan to write all 30 days, you will need to write 1667 words per day. I NEVER could do that. There's Thanksgiving to think about. As well as life in general. My daily word count goal was always something nutty like 2800 words.

2. Every book begins with an idea (or two).

  • There's a saying that it takes two sticks to light a fire and two ideas to create a story. Sometimes these ideas are unrelated on the surface. For example, my book Thin Space began with the idea of a girl moving into a creepy old house AND the Celtic belief in thin places, where the wall between our world and the world of the dead is thinner. 
  • I read once that there are only two basic plots--the hero takes a journey or a stranger comes to town. That's it. Every story, movie, book you've ever heard boils down to either of those two plots. The hero takes a journey, for example, would be like Luke in Star Wars or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. An example of a stranger comes to town is Jaws. That story, of course, has both plots. The stranger (Jaws) comes to town, and the hero (Chief Brody) goes on a journey to kill him. 
  • Another way to look at your story is to ask a question. Will Luke defeat Darth Vader and restore balance to the universe? Will Dorothy find her way back to Kansas? Will Chief Brody overcome his fear of the water (and what a goofball that guy is living on an island!) and kill Jaws?
  • You can also ask yourself: Whose story is it? What's happening? What is at stake? 

3. Once you've got your ideas/basic plot/questions, the next step is

To outline


Not to outline

It's perfectly okay during this pre-NaNo time to outline your story. I'm not talking the formal outlines you did in seventh grade with Roman numerals. Simply write out a list of your characters, a few of your ideas, the conflict and questions. Chart out scenes, etc. Some writers I know write very detailed outlines that go one for 50 pages.

I am not one of these writers.

The beauty of NaNo is that you can start writing your book with very little plotted out in advance. Take your two ideas or your question or your basic plot idea and just see how it all plays out as you write.


Once upon a time I went to a writing conference where the brilliant author Jane Yolen told the audience of 1000 people that she was about to share her secret to writing a book. She paused, and you could hear all 1000 people holding their breaths and leaning forward eagerly.

The answer, Jane Yolen said, is BIC.

Another pause.

And then she smiled and said, "Put your Butt In the Chair and write."

Yeah. The truth is there are no short cuts and no magic answers. But know this about NaNo, and about writing a book in general (and this probably applies to anything in life--such as running a marathon or losing 20 pounds): if you chip away at your goal by writing those 1667 words per day, in the end you will make it to the finish line.

5. To get yourself warmed up each of those days

Read books on writing. (See the list below for helpful books on craft, inspiration, writer's block, etc.)

Before I begin a writing session, I read a chapter from one of these books.

Or journal the junk out. Every morning write for ten minutes--all the gibberish-y stuff clogging up your brain and keeping you from thoughtfully beginning your work for the day. Anxieties, snippets of dreams, arguments you're having with the comment section of a Yahoo news article, bills you've got to pay, etc. Get it on the page and out of your head.

Do whatever you need to do to get your daily word count done. Set an alarm. Flip an hour glass (my little trick). Leave the house and write in a coffee shop. Stay in the house and lock yourself in a closet. Or mix it up and try a different motivational strategy each day.

Don't forget to reward yourself at the end of a session. Writing 1667 words in a day may not seem like that big of a deal, but do it today, and the next day, and the day after that... and you deserve a piece of chocolate. Or a bag of Doritos.

6. Biggest nugget of wisdom I know: Resist the urge to revise as you go. NaNo is about quantity NOT quality. Get the words down (crappy as they may be) and worry about fixing things later. If it helps, keep a notebook on the side of all the things you want to delete/change/fix later. DON'T WORRY ABOUT THAT STUFF NOW.

And finally, remember E.L. Doctorow's true words of wisdom:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Good luck. And meet me back here in mid November for a middle of the month pep talk.

Some helpful books on writing

Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, and Thunder and Lightning by Natalie Goldberg
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See
One Continuous Mistake by Gail Sher
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
On Writing by Stephen King
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron
Elements of Style by Strunk and White

PS. Here's a post I wrote last year on why you should NEVER EVER send your "finished" first draft out to a publishing company or an agent on Dec. 1.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What's the Difference Between Being Published and NOT Being Published? (Also, a Brief Digression about Fleas)

It's been roughly one month since my first book Thin Space was released and lately I've been thinking about the differences between the Before I Was an Officially Published Writer ME and the After Me.

Before I was published I ruminated over the question too. I'd been writing and pursuing publication for years and truly believed I was on the verge of publishing almost as long, but somehow the ever elusive finish line kept moving out of reach.

When it finally happened--the book deal--it almost seemed anti-climactic.

The Pre-published Me struggled to sit down every day and write. That Me set goals and the majority of the time accomplished those goals. I'd figured out over the years that it's hard to write the first draft of a novel, and that the "finished" draft will need to be revised multiple times, and all of that will take a long time.

I was plagued by self doubt. There were days when I hated what I was writing. There were days when I thought my work was brilliant, but then I was plagued by the fact that no one would ever read this brilliant work because I couldn't seem to snag an agent--and later, when I had snagged an agent, she couldn't seem to catch the attention of an editor.

I kept writing.

I wrote ten books. I wrote multiple versions of these ten. The despair of finding readers for any of these grew exponentially. I kept writing anyway. I vacillated daily, sometimes hourly, between hope and despair.

So that was the Me then.

The me now is the same.

I still struggle to sit down each day and write. I still have terrible days when I think that what I am writing is horrible, that I will never be able to pull strands together, and that if/when I do, I won't be able to sell the damn thing.

I have been through the angsty painful process so many times that I know I will finish the project eventually. I also have an agent now who will read it. But there is no guarantee that she will like it and want to sell it. And there is no guarantee that an editor will want to buy it.

The differences:

One is promotion. I might want to spend all my time hunkered down with my WIP but I have to promote Thin Space (a book I finished writing five years ago). I am not complaining about that, just stating the reality. I am traveling around to schools and bookstores. Which is fun and gratifying and cool but also tiring. (see: I am an anxious traveler).

The biggest difference has more to do with perception and response from other people--and it's why being published had always been so important to me. I had made my peace with being a writer who wrote for the sake of writing itself. I love writing (even when I HATE IT) and know that if I never published another word, I would continue to write. But I will be the first person to admit that it is very nice to know that people are reading what I write.

I visited Middle Tennessee State University last week when I was in Nashville to sign at Parnassus Books and I talked to a lot of the students. The first question I asked was "Are you a writer?" Each one gave a hesitant reply.

Yeah, um, sort of...
Well, I hope to be but...
Um, I'm working on that...

I totally understand that hesitation--it's amazingly difficult to say out loud what your dream is--to say unequivocally Yes, I am a writer because the usual response from the questioner is something like, "Oh, what have you written?" (which really means, Is your book published/Can I find it at a bookstore?) and then the writer will have to hesitate again. Um, well, I'm working on something but, um, no, not yet.

It took me ten years to answer simply: "Yes."

It took another ten years to write something worthy of publication.

I told the students: Just save time, skip ahead ten years, and say I am a writer. If you write, you are a writer and in the end the only difference between being published and not being published is ... being published.

For years I had imagined the big release day of my first book. I'd be chatting on the phone or on social media with well-wishers. Maybe I'd visit a few bookstores and bask in the glow of my beautiful book faced out on the shelves.

Here's how I actually spent the long awaited for day:

Locked out of my house.

A couple of days before I'd discovered that my dog and cat were infested with fleas. Not sure how I'd missed this because the $*^&# fleas were all over the place. The morning of the Big Day I carted stuff out onto my back porch--open food containers and tooth brushes and pet food and the litter box. I corralled my anxious old cat and my skittish puppy (who even after a year of co-habitating still loathe each other) out there too. My neighbor and I ran around my house setting off flea bombs and screaming as the poisonous stuff spewed into the air.

We raced out the back door to find the cat hissing and the dog crying. My neighbor, no dummy, went home. I sat out on the porch picking fleas off my pets as they whined to me about their proximity to each other.

Did I mention it was the hottest day of the year?

While my house was being poisoned, I combed out fleas. I sweated like a pig. The animals finally settled down and in exhaustion and possibly under threat of heat stroke, they flopped out at my feet and fell asleep. I worked on my latest manuscript. My phone dinged every once in a while.

"Congrats on your book!!" said the well-wishers. "Enjoy your day!"

Ah, just as I had always dreamed.

I swiped the perspiration from my eyes and whacked dead a hopping flea, then I wrote back to each one: "Thanks!"

Just out of curiosity, why in God's name would there ever have been a child's game called "My Dog Has Fleas"? 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Teen Guest Post: WHO AM I? by Olivia B.

As promised here, I'm hosting a guest blog series called WHO AM I? and have invited teen writers to contribute.  

And a shout out to my artistic teen neighbor Courtney Berger for designing the awesome banner.


Who Am I?
A Poem by Olivia B., guest blogger

The new school year starts to begin,
As the teenage identity crisis sinks in,
Am I the same as I was before?
Exciting or fun, or just a bore?

What college should I be going to?
As relatives ask “what do you want to do?”
Does what you do define who you are?
Boy, your sisters really set a high bar.

Maybe I should stop talking about crew,
Do I want to row in college first division,
Or does my height already confirm that decision?

Is watching Gossip Girl on repeat a waste of time?
Should I be saving the world? Am I at my prime?
Does appearance matter when I’m just running to the store?
Will they think I’m not who I was before?

I know who I was, and what I want to be,
But what about the current me?
The past and future create an identity dent,
As you can never quite tell who you are in the present.

First impressions never seem to satisfy,
Whereas second impressions are a biased lie,
And even the closest don’t know everything, do they?
Is it supposed to be that way?

You read books telling you you can be whoever you wish,
All of the falsified information 1st grade teachers dish,
You are who you are, not who you choose,
You can hide, but the real you will win and the fake you will lose.

So why do people still pretend it’s okay,
To lock the real them far away,
Who am I? Is dropped day to day,
But what is that really meaning to say?

I don’t know, and I don’t think I will for a while,

But until then all I can do is just smile.

--Olivia B. is a 17 year old writer living in Ohio

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On the Book Tour Road: Confessions of an Anxious Traveler

Tomorrow I'm off to embark upon the second leg of the Thin Space Book Tour--otherwise known as the "The Tour through All the Places Where I've Lived slash Know People."

The first stop on this tour was Lexington Kentucky, my home for ten years, where I raised my kids through their pre-school/ elementary/some of middle school years, taught at an awesome creative and performing arts school, and experienced the hey day of my PTA-Carpooling-Uber Volunteer stage of life. (Update: I had a blast returning to my former school--where I did my first ever Power Point presentation. I loved catching up with old friends--my book club, PTA moms and dads, local writers and teachers and librarians and former students--and the signing at Morris Book Shop was so well-attended the store ran out of copies of my book. Woo!)

Stop Two is Nashville, and I must admit I am anxious for a variety of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the actual Book Signing/School Visiting/Public Speaking aspect of a book tour that might make other writers nervous.

The truth is I always get nervous before I travel. I love traveling but what I don't love is the actual getting to the new place part of the process.

I'm not thrilled with flying (the potential for missed connections/cancelled flights/lost baggage weighs on my mind. Also, plane crashes.) But I hate driving too. I think it's the combination of intense hyper-alertness intermingled with the mind-numbing boredom.

There's other stuff that goes along with gearing up for a trip that puts me over the edge, and usually I drive everyone my husband crazy in the days before we travel.

Example 1:

Packing. What do I pack? What will I wear? What is the weather like? What if I forget something important? My husband's answer to this rant is something along the lines of "I could be wrong, but I think they have stores where we are going."

Example 2:

Cleaning. Okay, this is totally my own weird idiosyncrasy, but every time I am about to leave on a trip, I feel compelled to clean my house. It's this thing where you know that when you come home you're going to have a bunch of dirty laundry and you're going to be tired from the trip and wouldn't it be nice to walk into a clean home? This compulsion manifests itself in scenarios like this: My husband is loading up the car and I am running around with a scrub brush scouring the toilets.

He yells at me to put the cleaning implement down and help him load the car and I yell at him to understand my mania and help me rearrange the silverware drawer. Big shocker: we don't always begin our vacations in the most chipper of moods.

Really, I am trying to work on my traveling anxiety. Especially today, the day before I leave on my Nashville solo road trip. It's hard though. I have a mile long list of things to do:

1. Revise a chapter in my WIP
2. change the cat litter
3. finish and post this blog
4. clean off the kitchen counter
5. Answer a bunch of emails
6. Vacuum the upstairs bedrooms

You get the picture.

And look at me, all efficient and productive and just about to finish number 3 on the list!

Readers, please say a quick prayer for me tomorrow as I set out on my 400+ mile drive, and if you happen to live in the Nashville metro area, pop into Parnassus Books to say hello, Saturday, Oct. 5 at 2:00. With any luck I will be dressed appropriately for the weather and the store will not run out of books.