With a Little Help from My Friends

HelpingSo, this last year I had the personal goal to earn the Writer of the Year award through the Alaska Writers Guild. To do this, I had to accumulate the most points of anyone who entered the Guild’s anonymous bimonthly writing contest for members, wherein entrants write within rotating categories, and see how close to the deadline they can turn in a piece without getting disqualified. (Oh, wait, was that last part just me?)

Now I’m not all that super at nonfiction, and I truly suck at poetry, but, hands down, the hardest one of the contests for me to write was the category of Alaska Mystery. I think I’m getting phantom chest pains just thinking about it.

Two months seems like it should be plenty of time to write a story with a maximum of 2500 words, but that can seem like a mighty tight deadline when you spend the first six weeks of it feverishly drafting and then summarily executing- I kid you not- twelve different story ideas. It was very easy to feel very discouraged very quickly. And so I did, verily. With hardly more than a week left before the deadline, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But the trouble was that I keep this pesky husband. And we sometimes talk to each other about our goals and stuff. He knew what I was working toward, and he knew how important it was for me to enter every contest, even the difficult ones.

That man gave me no rest.

Every time I sat down, he’d start pestering me. “What are you working on? Are you doing the one with the mountains? With the serial killer? With the fox? What are you doing? Why? Why not? (Have a cookie.) What are you working on?” The man was relentless. And he would hear not a word of giving up, not on my goal and not on this Alaska mystery contest.

And that was before he started telling everyone we know about it, too. *shudders*

I don’t know about you, but I have confidence problems sometimes. Sometimes too much, most times not enough. My husband, and a few close friends like him, give me the kick in the pants when I want to lie down and surrender, and the tackle of forbearance when I’m full steam ahead on a really bad idea.

The secret weapon of all successful writers is tenacity. And for some of us, a little of that tenacity can be sponged off others. I tend to break down my cheerleading squad into two broad categories: writers, and nonwriters.

Writers Your fellow writers are the monarchs of commiseration. They understand what it’s like to be blocked. They know the brain-addled madness of waiting- for beta readers, for query answers, for book reviews, for sales reports. They understand the pain of rejections. They also know when a story of yours isn’t working, and are usually able to articulate what’s wrong. They’re widely read and industry savvy. Your writer friends are ideal when you have a piece that you’re working on and could use a little guidance in making it presentable.

Nonwriters These are the people who, although maybe they enjoy reading, don’t do any writing themselves. And as well as being legion in numbers, they’re also chattier than a giggling high school clique back from spring break. Once you let one of them know (cough, cough, husband, cough), they’ll all know, and they’ll all want to know why you’re not done yet. They don’t know how long drafting takes, let alone editing and submissions. And they don’t care. Your nonwriter friends are ideal when you have a concrete goal combined with motivation issues.

So there you have it: my fail-proof formula for squeezing out a piece even when it hurts. One part cheerleader, one part drill sergeant, writers and nonwriters alike are always at the ready to help their buds with what is important to them. Of course, you still have to want to reach your writing goals yourself, and be willing to put in the work, but the endless harassment loving encouragement of your friends, family, mail carrier, and grocery clerk can be the final nudge to help you get that story out the door and into the wide world.

(And it works, too- I did win Writer of the Year at the 2017 guild conference! Yay!)

So if you find yourself struggling, whether with improving a piece, or just summing up the motivation to work at it, clue in your pals! They’ll hold your feet to the fire in a way you never could for yourself, and they’ll cheer you at every victory along the way.

Happy writing!

Advertisements

Writing Craft Listening List

podcastHello, fair denizens of the internet! Last week, I shared a reading list on some possible game-changing craft books (link to full post here!). This week, I thought I’d try something just a little different and cover a few media beyond the written word. If you like to hit a different learning style every now and then, try some of these other types of literary learning.

 

YouTube channels!

Lessons from the Screenplay So I stumbled across this one during my regular YouTube perusing, because Google is stalking us all and knows what we think and there is no hope once the AI uprising begins. But for now, we get these great targeted suggestions! Hurray!

Ellen Brock’s Novel Writing Advice So these videos aren’t visually stunning, but I like to just turn them on and let them run in the background while I wash dishes or what-have-you, kind of like a podcast. They all come in under ten minutes and have helpful tips and ideas that are specific and applicable. Definitely worth a watch.

Ted-Ed Ted-Ed is kind of awesome in all ways ever (and I’ve used it for researching everything under the sun) and they have some very good writing lectures about the psychology behind stories, the hero’s journey, worldbuilding, language craft, you name it. And they’re all so charmingly animated, too! I like to watch these with my kids- we get entertained and educated at the same time!

(Want more YouTube channels? Check out Kelly Gurnett’s 15 of the Best YouTube Channels for Writers!)

 

Podcasts!

Writing Excuses, by authors Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and web cartoonist Howard Tayler Alpha reader and fellow Sanderson fan M. Elizabeth Tait started me on this podcast, back when I did not do podcasts. The fact that she got me to willingly try out some newfangled doohickey them kids is into really speaks for itself.

Jennifer Laughran’s Literaticast This one was pointed out to me by a librarian friend, and she’s right, it’s fun and informative without ever getting too dense. This one throws a wider net than Writing Excuses, including publishing info as well as craft.

 

Lectures!

The Great Courses After receiving a writing grant, I nabbed a few of these audio classes, but there are tons more out there. My fave so far is Writing Great Fiction, and I can’t wait to get started on Building Great Sentences, which I sincerely hope is just as nerdy and pedantic as it sounds. (But seriously, is it just me or do they use the word GREAT a bit much?)

Master Class Okay, so I haven’t done this one, but I reeeeeally want to do the new one with Judy Blume, it looks fantastic. Here’s a link to it. There are other writers on there as well, and I’m sure any of them would be just super. *stares longingly at screen*

 

And there are always classes through your local higher education institution. You pay a bit more, but you also get some swanky feedback and networking as part of the deal. Give it a think or two!

Anyway, I hope the last few weeks have been useful. I’ve really been on a craft kick lately (maybe my brain’s way of punching me in the butt after the especially bad first draft I limped out this last NaNo) and I feel like I’ve been getting a lot out of it. Maybe you will too! And as always, please share any other resources you love that I’ve missed in my list, and I will send you a dozen imaginary bonbons straight to your cerebral cortex. Promise!

Happy writing!

Writing Craft Reading List

Okay, I have to post my word count graph from NaNoWriMo because it makes me laugh. Can you guess which days I was out of town?

Stats

Anyway, I hope you’re all hitting your own writing goals and pushing forward with your literary dreams. I know sometimes my own hopes and aspirations can seem a little laughable, but we’ve gotta keep pushing forward, even through the rough patches.

One of the things that can show a person is serious about their business is a commitment to improvement, to continuing their education in their field. I love writing, and I love reading, and I love learning, so reading books about the craft of writing is kind of the no-brainer intersection of those loves.

I read a lot of craft books, and I’ve definitely found some to be more useful than others. Here are a list of some of the craft books that have either had the greatest impact on me, or that I think at least have potential to be of use to you.

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks I do believe this was the first craft book I ever read, and it’s stuck with me ever since. (Seriously. It’s in my reference case at the desk I’m sitting at right now. It is hugging my shin as I type.) I don’t even remember a whole lot of specifics from the book, but it impacted me deeply and marked the start of my feeling like I might actually be published some day.

No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty Being a huge NaNo fan, I didn’t love this one as much as I wanted to, but I think a big part of that was that not having a plot really is a problem for me, haha. I have a hard time just pounding out words without some idea of what I’m getting at. But this book was useful to me for encouraging better writing habits- most importantly, consistency and working on a deadline.

The Pen Commandments by Steven Frank Okay, so this is really a grammar book, not a craft book, but it’s one of the more engaging and fun grammar books out there, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read more grammar books than the average human. If you feel like your language could use a little cleaning up (or you’re just an incorrigible nerd), this book could be worth a read.

On Writing by Stephen King Part memoir, part craft book, this is a bit of a straddler as far as genres go, but I really enjoyed it anyway. (Read the full review here!) It had been on my to-read list forever (but really, what isn’t?), but I was so glad when a friend finally just bought it for me just to make me shut up about this one corner of my litany of literary eventualities. I won’t say that this book gave me much new information regarding craft, but I did enjoy a sense of affinity while reading it, and I like the no-nonsense tone.

Writer Mama by Christina Katz Full disclosure: I didn’t finish this one, and I think there are two main reasons for this. First, I found a lot of the suggestions to be impractical for my situation. (I basically stopped paying attention after reading the “hire a nanny or a daycare so that you can write” part.) And second, most of the advice targets a career path in nonfiction article writing, while I hope for a career as a traditionally published fiction author. I probably could have pressed on with one or the other problem, but not both. Seriously, I’m making this book sound worse than it is. If you can afford/don’t mind using childcare and are looking at freelance article work, this is probably the book for you. With lots of practical exercises, bulletized tips, and query/submission tips, this book as a lot to give. Just… not to me.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott I think I read half of this book aloud to whatever poor schmuck happened to be standing within earshot of me. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, this is a bit memoirish, and a bit craftish, but it’s all muddled together without any distinctions between the two. And it is beautifully written. I think my favorite thing about this book was how frank and funny and hopeful it is. I may not have encountered much craft stuff that I didn’t already know, but I felt a lot of encouragement and comradery throughout.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss Haha, that title. That cover. And with the rallying cry of “Sticklers unite!” how could I resist? Again, this is more a grammar (specifically punctuation) book than a craft book, but I’m putting it here anyway. I was laughing out loud by the preface. Truly, if you have any interest in punctuation, you should read this, and then priggishly correct all your friends. It’s lighthearted and accessible, a rant and a romp that I couldn’t stop snickering over.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder This is one of those books that I heard recommended for years before actually procuring a copy. And really, it’s more for screenwriting than for novel writing, but a lot of the principles are the same. This book is very practical and provides a strict formula to follow, laying out how to craft a tightly structured screenplay blow by blow. This book may not be as inspiring and artful as the other craft books on this list, but it is easy to read and easy to follow without any of the wait-for-the-muse mumbo jumbo that I so love and hate.

The next craft book I’m going to read is Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, followed by Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Like so many of the other books on this list, these both came to me highly and repeatedly recommended.

How about you fine readers? Any books I’m missing out on? Please let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Reblog: 5 Ways to Save Your Character From A Drowning Story

Hey, gang! I’m down south visiting family in Anchorage Alaska, and getting very little writing done while I instead plan vacations, bake all the things, and hold the tiniest of humans far more than is necessary.  Fortunately, I’ve got the word count buffer to sustain this kind of lifestyle for another few days during this NaNoWriMo adventure. Any of you fellow wrimos- how go the literary hijinks?

This is our last reblog of the month, and then I have to start being thoughtful again. This one comes from Nicole Blades via Writers Digest, and stuck out to me probably because my story kind of stinks this month, haha. It’s nice to know that if the ship sinks, I might at least be able to launch a lifeboat and get my MC to dry land again.

5 Ways to Save Your Character From a Drowning Story

NBladeby Nicole Blades

As writers, we’ve all experienced that moment when it becomes painfully clear that the story we’re working on just isn’t. We’ve tried to twist and bend it this way and that, but then it’s time to finally admit that we’ve come to the end of the rope with the manuscript and will have to let go. It’s next-level kill your darlings, and it’s rarely pleasant or easy. But what if the protagonist or a key character in that sinking story won’t let go of you? What if the character continues to haunt you and you simply cannot give up on them? Is there a way to valiantly rescue a great protagonist from a less than great story? Short answer: Yes! So, move over, Rose; there’s definitely room for Jack on that floating piece of wood.

I’ve lived through this with my latest novel, Have You Met Nora? (Kensington). My main character, Nora Mackenzie, is a young woman with an incredible secret and a heartbreaking but complicated backstory. She is flawed and layered and fascinating to me. However, the initial setting of the book—an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school in Vermont, where a 17-year-old Nora reigned as the queen of Mean Girls—wasn’t connecting. As Dawn Brooks, a character in the revised book would say, “it didn’t curl all the way over.” I had received feedback from agents, writers, and early readers that kind of all said the same thing: she’s too mean. As compelling as Nora’s story was in my eyes, having readers say that they couldn’t relate to her, that they couldn’t find the connection site with the character, meant that they would never care about what happens to her. And that spells The End for the story. Who’s going to want to keep reading when they don’t care about the protagonist? Exactly.

The thing is, this character captivated me, and the heart of the story I was trying to tell was still beating strong. I just needed to strip away everything else around Nora’s foundation and rebuild it using sturdier, more developed bricks. I went about it by first growing Nora up, moving the character out of school and into full-blown adulthood. I had to construct a fresh world around her that included new relationships, experiences, and weighty conflict that served the character and the story. This kind of revise wasn’t a walk in the park; it took years to pull it off, but I did it. (After all, the book is going to released into the wilds come October 31, right?)

I wanted to share what I learned through this experience with others who may be trying to save a character from a burning book before just hitting DELETE on the whole thing. I asked some other author friends to loan me their two cents on the topic, too. So, here are five actionable tips on how to keep the baby when it’s time to dash the bathwater.

Ready to read some more? Head on over to Writers Digest for the full article. And until next week, happy writing!

Submissions Pump Soundtrack

Submissions. *sighs* Submissions are hard. And while I feel like I’ve gotten way better at it over the last year, it can still take a bit to get myself worked up enough to actually hit that send button.

So after I have all my research done, I’ve got my customized query or cover letters, and I’m done with the thinking, I start playing my jams and sending out those submissions.

Believer by Imagine Dragons 

Bodak Yellow by Cardi B (Radio version, haha) 

Me Too by Meghan Trainer 

Whatever It Takes by Imagine Dragons 

Lose Yourself by Eminem (This was my first pump song and the nearest to my heart. Sometimes I just listen to this one on repeat until I have done all the things.) 

(All I Do Is Win by DJ Khaled almost made the list, but I don’t actually own a copy of it, nor do I listen to it as much as the others. We’ll call it an honorable mention.) 

You may recall my rejections goal for this year. (Link here!) So far, I’m about 3/4 of the way to hitting my goal. I know that doesn’t sound that impressive, given that we’re 11/12 of the way through the year, but it’s actually quite a bit better than I thought I’d be doing. But in addition to a swanky check list that is slowly filling up, I’ve also had a few acceptances to soften the blows! Wahoo! I don’t think I’d have as many acceptances if I hadn’t been so stubborn about submissions this year.

Submissions can be difficult, especially given their high proclivity for turning into rejections. But only a submission can result in an acceptance, and only acceptances can propel your writing career forward.

So plug in those headphones and crank those tunes. The year’s not quite over yet and I’ve got a few more rejections to rack up. I’ll let you know the final tally in another month. Until then, happy writing- and submitting!

UPDATE: Discovered after publishing this post-

Motivated by NF 

Reblog: A Guide to Spotting and Growing Past Stereotypes

Hi! Welcome to another month of NaNoWriMo, and that means lovely reblogs by people who are smarter than me- yay! This week’s reblog was written by Ellen Oh of We Need Diverse Books and posted to the NaNoWriMo blog. Enjoy!

Nano

One of the most common mistakes I see when people try to write diversely is that they fall into the practice of writing a positive stereotype. After all, if it’s positive, it can’t be a stereotype, right?

Wrong.

A stereotype is a positive or negative set of beliefs about the characteristics of a group of people. Just because it is positive, doesn’t make it any less problematic.

Why?

Because a stereotype is a generalization, and a generalization can never come fully to life in your story, no matter how beautiful your words might be. Readers want to care for your characters. Talk to any fan of a well-loved book, and they can often rattle off the detailed physical characteristics, and tragic backstory of their favorite character.

As an author, this is what you want.

Ready to read more? Check out the full post here!

And if you’re looking for more info on writing diversity, check out the writers’ resources page of We Need Diverse Books, or the DiversifYA website. Happy writing!