Sunday, October 31, 2010

Beware: November Approacheth

November is National Novel Writing Month, shortened to NaNoWriMo, or just NaNo.  I've discussed it in previous blog posts, but if you don't know what it is and don't care to go searching through my old blog posts, it is when people from all around the world jump on board the train of insanity and work on writing an entire novel of at least 50,000 words in one month.

It is a lot of fun.

NaNo has already begun in some places around the world.  In my neck of the woods, NaNo starts in 6 hours, 56 minutes, and 21 seconds. (No, I'm not obsessive.  The NaNo homepage has a countdown clock.)

Basically, thousands and thousands of people all around the world are now going through some of the following (there were too many examples to fit into one drawing):


I would like to take the opportunity to talk about how it is okay to write poorly and keep moving forward.  I know there are some people who will scrap an entire section of writing if they make mistakes in it.  I know there are other people who will spend ages on one scene and try to make it absolutely perfect before moving forward.

But nobody I know writes a perfect first draft.  It is okay to have mistakes.  It's okay to have misspellings and bad grammar and to end sentences with prepositions.  Because your first draft isn't going to be your only draft.  You can go back and fix things later.  You can nitpick to your heart's frustration content.  You don't even have to do it right away.  In fact, sometimes you'll catch more mistakes and find new ways to smooth out your writing if you step back from it for a while after you write it. 

This is a very important thing to know if you're writing a novel in one month, because if you do NaNo and you stop to fix every little thing, you may not finish your book.  Of course, you may be one of those people who can fix everything and still churn out 100,000 words.  Find out how you write best, and then go for it.

No matter what you're writing and no matter if it takes you a month or three years, it's okay to take chances.  Make mistakes.  Be daring.  Be crazy.  Write outside of your box.  If you must go back and edit as you're writing, then go back and edit, but keep in mind that we are often our own worst critics.  Something that you've been staring at for a month might seem to be the most horrible piece of writing you have every seen, but it really might not be as bad as you think.  In fact, it might be a very solid scene.  If you give yourself some time, you might see it from a different light.

Above all, have fun exploring your story.

(And good luck out there to all my fellow Wrimos!)

(6 hours, 52 minutes, and 10 seconds left for me!  *still not obsessive*)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Buy a Book Day Results

Thanks to everyone's support in our "Buy a Book" day this past Friday, our rankings on Amazon soared upward.  We reached #499 in bestselling books on Amazon that day.  Considering there are millions of books on Amazon and considering that we had been wavering between 50,000 and 200,000 in bestselling books that week, this is incredible.  We were incredibly amazed and touched at all of the help and encouragement you all gave.  Thanks to all of you for making our Buy a Book day a success!

Here's a screencap of our peak ranking:


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ways to Not Invent a Light Bulb

My co-author, Faith, told me I should do a blog about all the ways to not invent a light bulb.  In writing terms, I'm comparing this to the willingness to throw away everything you just wrote.  When Thomas Edison was interviewed by a reporter who asked if he felt like a failure and should just give up, Edison said, "Young man, why would I feel like a failure?  And why would I ever give up?  I now know definitely over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work."  (After over 10,000 attempts, Edison got one that worked.)

It can be very hard for a writer to let go of what they write, especially if it's a scene they love.  Maybe you just wrote a fantastic bit of character interaction with some very witty dialogue.  Maybe you wrote an action scene that totally blew your mind.  Maybe you just wrote the climax to a romance and you're so thrilled and giddy that you bounce around your living room like a rabbit on steroids. (Of course, the rabbit-on-steroids effect could have to do with how much caffeine you've had, too.)


Maybe, two chapters later, you realize your story is not working out.  The direction you took it in isn't right.  There's a better path for your characters.  But this means you will have to remove that fantastic bit of character interaction.  The action scene has no place anymore.  The climax to the romance would work better a different way.  You're no longer bouncing around like a rabbit on steroids, but deflating like a leaky balloon.  You don't want to have to go back and rewrite.


(It is possible to be hyper and tired at the same time.  Trust me.)

But eventually, you begin to realize you have to do some rearranging and reworking if you want to move your story along.  You have to do what is best for your story.  Sometimes that means cutting something you really loved.  Whenever I have to cut something, I paste it into an "excerpts" file, because maybe later, I'll be able to use part of it, even if it's just a paragraph.  I'll never know until my story is over.

Once you take the plunge and decide to change things, sometimes it takes a while to figure out what the right path is, and this can be very frustrating.


This is usually when my support system comes to my rescue.

Every writer has their own process of getting the story onto paper; I talked about this in a previous blog.  My stories are not written in an entirely linear fashion.  Yes, I often write from scene 1 to scene 2 to scene 3, but sometimes a random scene from way later in the story pops into my head, and I have to write it so it will leave me alone and I can get back to the linear story.

This can be very helpful to me, because sometimes it helps me develop a character and see where they will be ten chapters down the road.  Sometimes it's helpful to the plot, because even though I have no idea why I just wrote a scene where Character A and Character B are eloping, it gives me a different perspective on them.  Maybe they really want to elope and it will be an adventure to see how that works when I get to it.

Some of the time, though, these future scenes don't end up working once I reach that point where they would have fit in the story.  Sometimes only half of the scene works.  And sometimes I can take the whole thing and plunk it right into the story.

Let me take an example from some years ago.  At the end of 2004, Faith and I were halfway through writing our first novel, Awakenings, and we were stuck.  Man, were we stuck.  We had written everything we had plotted, and we had no idea how to finish the novel.  What was the climax going to be?  We had no idea.

So Faith suggested we take a break and start writing the second book in our series.  We learned a very, very important lesson from this: never start the second book in your series when you don't know how the first is going to end.  We wrote a lot in book 2.  Then we finally figured out how to end book 1. We finished it up in 2005 and then took a look at what we had written for book 2.

Guess what we discovered?  Because of the ending of our first book, everything except about 500 words of what I'd written for book 2 was completely irrelevant.


This did not bother me, believe it or not.  I'd learned something of the characters I'd written.  But I know that some people would probably freak out at the thought of just deleting 22,000 words.  (For the record, that is the most I've ever cut in one fell swoop.)

Being a writer is not just writing scenes and never looking back.  Once you have a first draft, you have to do so much editing and rewriting.  Some people work best by finishing the first draft and only then doing any changes.  But for other people, it doesn't even have to be once the draft is complete: sometimes they'll just realize in the middle of their book that something isn't working.  I'll sometimes hit a point where I'll realize my story is not working, and I have to go back and find out where the point is where it stopped working.  Sometimes I have three versions of the same story on my computer, until I can decide which version is working best.

Another example.  Last year, I participated for the third time in NaNoWriMo. For those who don't know what it is, NaNoWriMo stands for "National Novel Writing Month". It's actually world-wide; people from all around the globe sign up to undertake a monumental task: in the month of November, start and finish an entire novel of at least 50,000 words.

It is insane.  It is full of caffeine and sugar and frantic typing, and the excitement of doing it with thousands of other people all over the world.  One of the huge "DON'T DO IT" rules of NaNo is do not erase anything and do not rewrite.  You only have a month to write, after all, so it is expected that you will write awful things.  You will change your mind about something in the story, but that's okay!  Leave the inconsistency there and keep writing!  Fix it when November is over!

But last year, I couldn't do that.  One day during NaNo, I wrote 4,000 words, got through this scene that had once been Very Important in my head, and discovered that it wasn't the best thing for my story.  My novel had to go a different direction.  So I cut everything I had just written and I rewrote, and I was much happier with my novel.

None of the scenes I write and then cut are a waste of time.  In some cases, they show me the directions my characters are not going to go.  They give me more ideas.  Other times, a character will tell me something about himself/herself that I didn't know before, and I have a new dynamic to my story.


And sometimes you just have to write something to know that it's not going to work.


If something isn't working in your book, it doesn't mean you're stuck forever.  Sometimes you have to find an alternate path.  This might mean deleting your favorite scene or one that you spent ages writing, but you might find that you write another scene that works better and is far stronger.

Let me make one thing clear: I'm not talking about chopping anything that doesn't come out perfectly or that you're not totally happy with. I know some people will cut anything they write if they think it's awful, but the fact is, we all write awful things and these are not always the things that need to be ditched.  They often  need to be left alone and fixed up later.   I'm talking about how sometimes you have to chop something if you learn that it's really not taking your story where it needs to go.  (I will do a blog post at some point about how it is okay to have things in your first draft that are terribly written.) 

Test things out if you need to. It will take time and energy, yes, but if you have to write a scene three different ways to see which one works and which ones don't, then take that time and energy.  You may be surprised at the things you learn about your characters and story.  Or you may find out that the original way you wrote it really was the best way.

The willingness to throw away everything you just wrote can save your novel.  And sometimes, leaving it alone is the best thing you can do.  But you won't know until you figure out how you work best, and you will find that every book you write will have a different process.   (If you do cut something, don't be too quick to completely ditch it!  Save it in another file in case you find you really do need it later!)

Eventually, with hard work and persistence, you will find a balance that works best for you.  You will have your working novel, and you will know all of the little secrets about your characters and scenes that almost happened.

You never know what your writing, rewriting, cutting, rearranging, editing, more rewriting, and more editing will lead to.  Just like Thomas Edison had to go through thousands of experiments before he found one that worked, don't be afraid to write a scene to see if it will work.  You have a world of possibilities in your imagination--have fun exploring them.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Having a Support System

Because I found stick-figure illustrations, however horrendous my art may be, to be a lot of fun and very beneficial to better explaining my writing posts, I went ahead and used them again.

I have always loved writing.  When I was seven years old, I would write stories and take them to my first grade class to read.  By third grade, I was writing my first "long" story in a notebook.  I was so proud of myself when I had about seventeen handwritten pages full of story.  I was so excited to be telling this awesome tale about kids who lived on a planet made entirely of candy.  I mean, come on.  Twizzler grass!  What nine-year-old could resist?


Never mind worrying about how a lemon drop sun could possibly heat a world.

I had very encouraging people around me.  My first grade teacher welcomed my stories.  My mother was always there with an open ear when I would want to share my stories.  I still remember lessons she taught me--when reading my Candy Planet story to her, she was the one who told me I didn't always have to say "he said, she said, they said, it said," but that I could throw in some variation.  Eighteen years later, this serves me very well. She was the one who helped me study for my spelling tests and got me to remember important grammar rules.


I was a writer from very early on.  Excited about grammar?  Yes.

We didn't have a computer until I was twelve, so up until that point, I would write in my notebooks or on a typewriter.  I constantly had pen smudged on my hand from where I was writing.  My parents would buy pens and if they noticed that I would test each and every one looking for the best "feel" to the pen before taking one, they didn't say anything.

When I hit my teenage years, I had a lot of trouble finishing stories.  I had so many ideas, but I would get bored with them after a while. This was before I learned how to push through the boring parts and commit to a story.  Or my computer would crash and I'd lose everything, and I wouldn't want to start over.  This was before I learned the importance of backing everything up.


My sister and I would plot stories together.  We'd laugh hysterically at some of the ridiculous things we wrote.  And no matter what, my mother would read anything I wrote and tell me how much she loved it and how wonderful it was.  In retrospect, I know it would be terrible compared to what I write today, but maybe it wasn't so bad for being fourteen.  Everyone starts somewhere.  The point is, I was encouraged.  My parents provided me with access to a keyboard, a printer and paper, and never once told me I should be doing something else when I holed up in my room and frantically typed away.


When I was eighteen, I was introduced to the much of the support group I have today.  I married my husband, and about the same time, I joined an online forum for writers.  There was a group of us writers who quickly banded together and would get on AOL Instant Messenger and have huge group chats.  Though we were introduced through writing and the internet, in the nine years since then, many of us have grown our friendship far beyond that.  We call each other.  We've met in person.  Some of us now live in the same city and/or state and have get-togethers, holiday time together, and other events.  This is actually how my co-author, Faith, and I met.

Over the years, I've met other writers, and as a result, I have the most amazing, incredible support system of friends, confidants, and fellow-writers.

First: my husband.  We've been married for almost nine years, and he is my constant support.  He is used to me bursting into random conversation about my plot, what my characters are doing, how I can't figure out this section of the plot, and so on.  He is used to me bouncing around the room, drinking loads of caffeine, leaving my notebooks around, losing my pens, losing my glasses, and losing my mind.  He lets me scribble notes, charts, and graphs and show them all to him so he has an idea of my plot, and then he offers suggestions.  He is used to me being like, "I can't sleep yet!  I have to write!  This scene has to come now or I won't be able to rest!"  Once, I was staring out the window and when he realized I was writing scenes in my head, he nudged me toward the computer and told me to go write.  He makes random sketches of my characters doing ridiculous, out-of-character things and makes me laugh.  He is my biggest supporter.  

Second: my friends.  Many of them are writers, some are not, and all of them are always hearing about my writing progress.  I can call them, email them, post to my LiveJournal (which is where I have my personal journal) and have people willing to help me.  My friends will be honest with me and tell me what isn't working, what I've missed, what they like, what really needs to be fixed.  Some of them are knowledgeable about subjects I don't know, and are always willing to offer their expertise.

Some of them brave my messy, in-progress drafts.  This means things are always subject to change, but it means I have someone who knows the story I'm writing, because they're reading it as I go, so they will let me bounce ideas off of them and they offer suggestions when I'm fumbling.  They make me a better writer, they make me think things through, and they make me excited about what I am doing when I am ready to go for the throw-the-novel-against-the-wall approach. 


Last night, for example, I was battling with my Plot Wall and taking my advice of stepping back and forgetting what I thought I knew of the plot.  But no matter what I was doing, I kept running into dead ends.  I ended up having a conversation with my friend Emma, who is bravely reading every part of my draft as I type it. Through some back-and-forth, something shifted and another character waltzed into my book, and I was a flaily, happy mess because my story once again has direction! And it was all thanks to having an awesomely encouraging friend.

Maybe some authors do better being locked up in a room alone somewhere, without ever talking to anyone.  I'm sure there are authors who have not had any support from family and friends and became amazing writers.  But I know that for me, without the help, support, encouragement, and love of so many people throughout my life, I would not be the writer I am today.   If I had one piece of advice to offer a fellow writer, it would be to find at least one person in their life who can help and support them through their writing.  It's such a wonderful, precious thing, and I'm so thankful to my family and my friends.  It is a huge blessing to me to have people who are willing to ping-pong ideas with me and who help me make my writing better.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sometimes You Have to Forget What You Think You Know

It can be very hard, when you think you have ideas for a plot and/or characters, to let go of them.

When I started writing my current, still-untitled novel back at the beginning of the year, I had only the characters and very vague hints of plot.  This is normal for me; I am a "character author".  I typically start stories because Random Character walks into my mind and introduces himself/herself.


I tend to know way more about the characters than the plot in the beginning.

Such was the case with my current novel.  Unfortunately, when I started writing what I thought I knew of the plot, it went nowhere.  I was running into dead ends.  I was frustrated and wanted to throw the poor beginnings of my book against the wall.

Then I began to think, I have four characters.  I know these characters will be in this book, but maybe I've been forcing on them my ideas on how they interact. Maybe I'm forcing the plot to be what it's not supposed to be.

This might sound ridiculous.  How can anyone force their ideas on characters?  Isn't that kind of the point?  I'm the author; shouldn't I be the one in charge?  Shouldn't they do exactly what I want them to do?

But most writers will tell you that characters take on their own life after a while.  I call this the moment when a character "clicks" into place in my head.  Sometimes this happens immediately; sometimes it takes writing two hundred pages.  Sooner or later, though, I'm not fighting to write a character or spending a lot of time thinking about what they would do.  They suddenly begin to tell me what they are going to do, and if I don't like it, that's just too darn bad for me.  This tends to lead to a lot of hair-pulling and numerous posts to my personal journal going, "WHAT ARE YOU THINKING, CHARACTERS?" because it oftentimes pulls my story in a direction I did not foresee.


This isn't a bad thing.  It might be unexpected, but it can add things to my story that I wouldn't have imagined.  Once characters have all clicked, I feel like I'm running after them, waving my arms like a crazy person and begging them to let me keep up with them.  Most of the time, they aren't very inclined to listen.

To every author, their characters become very real.  Authors have to get into these characters' heads, and know what is motivating them, how they would react in certain situations, and all sorts of little quirks.  Characters sometimes tell me the most random things about themselves.  Last year, I wrote a NaNo novel, and when it was finished, I read back through it.  I realized that one character liked grape juice and that when any color for her was chosen or described, it was always pink.  This was completely subconscious, but trust me, I was very pleased that she'd been consistent all the way through the story.

So.  Here I was this past April, sure that I knew my characters, how they would meet each other, and how they would interact, and then realizing maybe I was forcing my ideas on them when they had ideas of their own.


I decided I needed to visualize. I didn't have any posterboard, so I taped a bunch of printer paper together, stuck it to my wall, and scribbled out an outline for a map.  When creating a fictional world, sometimes having a map, however rough, to visualize can spark fresh knowledge and ideas.

Then I went at the paper. Before long, all of the pieces of paper were filled with scribbles.  I did my best to clear my mind of everything I thought I knew.  Maybe, I mused, there was a different plot somewhere in here.

By the end of the day, I had a brand new plot.  My characters were the same, but they had altered some of my perceptions about them.  They had decided to meet in different ways than I had originally planned.  Character B, who was supposed to trust Character C completely, ended up not trusting him at all.

With this new knowledge of my plot and characters, I sat down and began to write.  It still wasn't easy.  I hit 18,000 words and ran into The Hump. I was ready to surrender. I'd never, ever had such a hard time writing any novel.  I wasn't sure where I was going and the characters started to flounder.  Then I was whining talking about it to my wonderful friend, Faith, who is also my co-author for the Restoration YA fantasy series.  She told me, "Commit, Laura!" and I had to make that decision to just keep plunging forward.  (I will do a blog very soon on having a support system when writing a book.)

After several months of writing, part 1 of my novel was finally finished.  I felt great.  The characters were real now, the world was real, and part 2 started flowing so very nicely.


Until I reached The Hump in part 2 and began to realize my carefully constructed plot is missing something.  What is it missing, you ask?  I wish I knew.  I have all the pieces, but I just know that something about it needs to change.  I am now back to asking myself, What if I'm trying to force this part of the plot on these people?  What if they have something else in mind?  What if there's some political agenda that I haven't seen yet?  What are my characters trying to tell me?  And for the love of all things good, could they please tell me soon so I can get rid of this urge to throw the book against the wall!?!?

This puts me at today, where I taped yet more papers together (I really need to get some posterboard) and stuck them to the wall.  And I am back to trying to visualize what it is I'm missing, just like I was back in April.

The thing is, writing is a journey.  Sometimes the writing flies out, and sometimes it's step over step, dragging yourself along and poking listlessly at the keyboard.  It can be joyous, but it can also be aggravating.  It is work.

Sometimes, something unexpected has to happen.  You'd be amazed at the story that can come from throwing a random, unplanned event into the story.  Someone gets a call from the hospital.  A mysterious letter shows up at the door.  A new character waltzes into the story and wreaks havoc on your book. 


If you're writing a book, there may be times when you're really bored with it.  You may think no one would ever want to read it.  You may think that you should just give up and save humanity from having their eyes burned should they ever see your pitiful words.

This is normal.  Really.

It doesn't mean you should give up.  Maybe you need a break.  Maybe you need a good cup of coffee and some chocolate.  Maybe you need a friend to tell you to commit already!  Every writer works differently and writes best in different conditions. 

But every writer has characters that speak to them, and through my current novel, I've learned that sometimes what I really need is to take several steps back, forget everything I think I know about the plot, and let the characters take me at it from a different angle. 

So in a few minutes, I will go back to my plot wall of papers and ask, "What are my characters trying to tell me right now?"

I expect the unexpected.