The Apiary School of Writing

In the ongoing mission to turn my property into a small farm, I have somehow taken up beekeeping. (“I don’t know how this keeps happening,” she says, standing with a pitchfork and hugging a chicken.) To be fair, I didn’t jump into this completely blind. I did tons of research and I’ve spent the last couple summers harassing my neighbor-up-the-road who keeps bees. I bought books. I took a class. And yet it still feels a little surreal. How did this happen?

It felt extra surreal when I found myself standing on the garden terrace behind my house, ankle deep in the snow that won’t let go, hugging a humming plastic cage of about fifteen thousand honeybees against my side. (If you want to watch a ten minute video of that—including the moment I realize there’s a bee in my pants because I’m an idiot—follow this link!)

It’s gotten a little more real as I’ve done a couple hive checks since then. I’ve already made an embarrassment of mistakes, but overall, it’s beginning to feel less strange to open up a knee-high box behind my house teeming with tens of thousands of buzzing arthropods and not immediately call someone to get rid of it. I’m even beginning to grow fond of the creepy crawly little things. (We’ll see if that feeling holds after my first sting. I know it’s coming. I know it’s coming.)

Actually, beekeeping reminds me of writing a lot of the time. It’s a thing I’m enjoying that is also a lot of stressful work. I have to work to carve out the time for it in the midst of a hundred other demands. I obsess about it more the longer I go without it. But there are also lessons that I’ve been able to pull about the writing life in just these few weeks of beekeeping.

Don’t Drown the Bees In the early spring, before any of the plants up here in central Alaska have started making nectar or pollen for the bees to eat, I have to feed my bees. I do this with a big slab of calories and protein called a pollen patty and with a pitcherful of sugar water every couple days. On my first visit to the hive after installing them, I went out to fill my in-hive feeder, only to find it full of bees. ‘That’s okay,’ I thought. ‘They’ll float. That’s what the stick in there is for.’ I then proceeded to pour an entire pitcher of sugar water all over the poor bees inside just trying to get a drink, as well as accidentally dumping a bunch of syrup all over half of the frames as well. The bees were not happy. Sometimes in writing, we get a great idea. And it’s really a great idea! But in our eagerness to realize the great idea, maybe we pour it on a little too fast, or too thick, or in the wrong place, or whatever the problem is. Maybe instead of working the great idea in, it comes as a big fat Info Dump right at the start of a chapter. Or maybe we try to work it in, but we put too much of it in too fast, telling instead of showing. Whatever our issue is, we drown our reader in information all at once. Don’t drown the bees. Give them a trickle at a time so they have a chance to climb up with the rising waters.

Let Nature Take Its Course When the hive was first starting out, it was everything I could do to not slip on the bee gloves and hustle up there for a peek. I wanted to know how they were doing! What if they needed meeeeee? Yeah, they didn’t. Beekeepers are there to avert disasters in the hive. But beekeepers can be their own kind of disaster if they show up too frequently. Hive checks stress the bees out and disrupt their work, and some of the bees may try to sting you to defend their home, which, in the case of a honey bee, spells death for those individuals. Hive checks are also a prime time to accidentally crush bees with all the moving around, lose precious warmth especially in those first few chilly weeks of the hive’s existence, and maybe even lose your queen if she falls out of the hive during a frame examination. Sometimes—ofttimes—the best thing for a hive is to simply leave it alone. A hive check once every ten days is, under all but the most extreme circumstances, perfectly sufficient to keep the hive healthy and thriving. Overdoing it does more harm than good. Likewise, there is something very comforting to writing with a rigid outline of every single scene. You’ve got a plan! What could go wrong! But stories, at least mine, have this shifty way of diverting course the harder I try to force it in a certain direction. Characters start acting like plot puppets. Even the scenery bends to my will as freak storms and random monster encounters pop in at just the right moment to stiffly push the story along the worn wheel ruts. But all I end up with is a rigid A-to-B recitation of events, when I should have been letting the story unfold more naturally. Outlines are great, but if the outline overtakes the story itself, whatever form that story must take, then you’ve lost the wonder that is a story unfurling.

Don’t Lose the Queen The queen is the future of the hive. She makes the babies. She helps the hive members to feel content and purposeful. She’s also hundreds of dollars to replace. I was super excited when the workers had finally managed to chew her free from the cage she came in and release her into the hive, only to realize I now had to search once a week across several frames for one particular insect amid thousands. And that was going to take a lot of care and diligence. Similarly, the plot is the future of the story. Without a plot, the reader is wandering, lost, through pages and pages of perhaps interesting, but ultimately futile yammering. You might not fully know what your plot is in the first draft (see the warning above about rigidly following outlines), but you should have it figured out by the last. Every scene, every sentence in your story should advance the plot. Don’t lose track of it or you may find yourself needing to replace it or, worse, ending up with a dead story entirely.

I still have a lot to learn about beekeeping, and about writing as well. In writing, I seem to persist in the same mistakes over and over again, but I’m getting better over time, even when that progress is so slow that it’s hard for me to notice. That’s why it’s important to keep working at it! Things are still super crazy in my household (and the rest of the world), but taking the time to write every day helps me to keep working on my craft and progressing my projects. And it makes me less of a crazy person too, haha. All good things.

Until next week, happy writing!

Prep Work

Prep Work

Hello, friends! It’s Camp NaNoWriMo time again! And that means- bad art! reblogs! now later than ever!

I don’t think anyone could argue that any of the NaNoWriMo sessions churn out polished masterpieces, but lemme tell you, I needed this. I’ve been in an awful slump since… well, since last November, really. It’s nice to feel excited about a new project again.

Speaking off, I haven’t hit my word goal for the day yet. I’d better to see to that. Happy writing!

Jill’s Planning Process

© Flickr | nist6dh

Howdy, friends! A few weeks ago, someone asked me about my planning process. The question corresponds perfectly with an upcoming NaNoWriMo session, and my current blundering toward it without a plan.

New projects usually start life on a document called Master Story Idea List. There are currently a dozen or so on there, ranging from picture books to thrillers to contemporary YA, although most of the ideas hover somewhere around speculative fiction. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down on the master list and there it sits until I get around to it. Some have been there for years. Some only live there for a couple months, or even weeks. When my docket opens up for a new project, this is where I first look.

Choosing which project I want to do mostly comes down to interest; if I’m not that interested in the idea, it usually translates into a super boring draft that I abandon midway and stuff in a dark corner of my closet. But if I have more than one project that interests me, I consider other factors. How much research does the story require, and do I currently have time for it? Is the idea robust enough to make a whole book, or is it so robust it’ll need to be broken into a series? It may take me a few weeks, but I eventually narrow it down to one project.

Once I have a project selected, I open up a blank document, copy over everything from the idea list, and start typing. Most often, I end up with a basic storyline, interspersed with character or setting notes. This is usually created in a single brainstorming session, and these are always so laughably awful that it’s painful to read years later.

After I have this basic information down, I typically start to dial in either the plot or the characters; for some reason, I can’t do both at the same time. Usually, I work out the characters first. I’ve found that when I work out the plot first and then shoehorn character profiles into it, the cast tends to feels more cardboard. (But that’s just me! Different authors write differently.) When I’m fleshing out a character, I start with their background, then move on to their personality, and then fill in gaps from there. When I have a really firm grasp on the people I’m dealing with in the story, I have an easier time seeing where the story will go when I boot them out the door with inciting action.

At this point, I proceed to one of two methods: fill in the blank, or lazy bum’s snowflake.

Fill in the blank works best on projects that are already about sixty percent of the way there outline-wise. If I have a really good idea of all the things that need to happen throughout most of the book, I can just inject bits here and there. The things I’m filling in most often have to do with why-because gaps- I know where the character will be, I just need a good reason why. It’s important that a character’s goals and motivations shine throughout the entire story. (They can’t just end up somewhere because the plot needs them to.) Fill in the blank allows me to make sure that, not only are there no giant plot holes sulking about, but the character’s inner workings are driving them just as much, if not more, than the outer conflicts.

Snowflake is my go-to method on projects that have a super interesting premise and maybe a few vivid scenes, but not a whole lot more. (For those of you not familiar with the snowflake method, check it out here. What follows is the so-lazy-it-hardly-counts version.)  I take what I have and I see if I can mold it into three sentences, one for the beginning of each of the three acts of the book. Then I balloon each of those sentences out to a paragraph. That point is usually good enough for me to move on to fill in the blank method.

I always intentionally leave a lot out of the outline. Side stories are more or less left to evolve as they will. The conclusion is always undecided. I leave these gaps for two reasons. First is my own short attention span. If I have a story worked out from start to finish before I sit down and write the thing, all the fun of discovery is over and I find myself at least twice as likely to get bored with the project and drop it before it’s completed. The second reason is that if I don’t let any parts of the story happen “naturally”, I sometimes have a hard time getting any of the story to feel natural. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to be a factor. (Another reason is just that I know things are going to deviate wildly from the plan before this is all over, and I hate wasted effort, haha. Again, that laziness issue.)

So once I get past the fill in the blanks stage, I usually let it all rest for a week or two and then I’m ready to write.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I just decide to sit down and smoothly work out a story without any hitches. This process usually takes weeks of picking at it and thinking about it and starts and stops and erasures and you name it. (And the ‘weeks’ assessment is assuming we don’t count the time before the idea gets plucked off the master list.)  But once I get into planning mode, I can usually work it all out in a couple weeks, sometimes less.

That makes this the perfect time for me to start working on the outline for my NaNo project this November. A few weeks to plan it, a few weeks to rest it, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Time to go check out that idea list!

Happy writing!

NaNo Prep

This is the last Monday I have before November, which kicks off National Novel Writing Month. (If you aren’t doing this, you should. If you don’t know what this is, I don’t know you.) Paradoxically, NaNoWriMo is not the busiest month of the year for me. Really, my pace of writing isn’t much higher than it usually is, and it’s probably actually easier because there’s so much support and encouragement. The busiest month of the year is the month before NaNo. In particular, the week before NaNo is killer.

Different people approach NaNoWriMo preparation differently. Some like to compile playlists. Some like to outline. Some like to character sketch. Some like to stock the kitchen with ramen and Snickers bars. I dabble in most of those things. But my biggest time sink during NaNo prep often has little to nothing to do with my NaNo project.

This month I am preparing and sending out six short story submissions to various magazines across the internet. I like to do this so that all that nail-biting while I wait for responses gets sucked into the attention black hole of writing a new novel. Likewise, I’ve prepared a batch of five agents who I’ll be querying with City of the Dead. Also, I am planning, prepping, and writing (where appropriate) all the blog posts for next month so that I can concentrate on NaNo. The problem is that the month is nearly over and I still have much to do. And I’ll be spending two of the next four days in a local high school mentoring for the Young Writers Program (the youth oriented version of NaNoWriMo) during the precious, rare time that I usually spend on my writing career. (I regret nothing! I love spreading the writing love around, and this is exactly the sort of project I would have swooned for in high school.)

So you will of course understand if I more or less blow off a meaningful blog post this week. Sorry. I remind you all of the looming deadline for Apocafest (tomorrow! see this post for details) and encourage you to put up your best apocalypse scenario of 200 words or less. See you all next month!

Conference Lessons, Part I: The Five W’s

I’m assuming most of my readers have heard of the Snowflake Method. It’s more like a planning method than an actual writing method, so I don’t know what the pantsters think of it, but I came across it recently and I think there’s some real merit in it.

At the Alaska Writers Guild fall conference, I had a few sessions and a workshop with Lisa Cron, and she had a similar method, but a touch difference. In a lot of ways, it seems much more succinct than the Snowflake Method. She called it the Five W’s, and it probably seems pretty similar to most of us.

Ms Cron suggests that using her planning method, much like the Snowflake Method, will help keep down the necessity for rewrites, make you a more confident writer, and, when you are writing, your story will be more compelling. (Reminder: Lisa Cron wrote the book Wired for Story, which is all about the neurology behind the entertainment we get sucked into. She’s awesome. Her book is awesome. Her presentations are awesome. If you find any of this information useful, I suggest you get the book or go to a session. Plus she’s just fantastically nice.)

So let’s dive right into the hows! Because I’ve got NaNoWriMo coming up and I need to get cracking on my prep work. Without further ado, the Five W’s.

What-if, Who, Why, World-view, When

Got all that? It probably looks pretty familiar. The idea is to take these questions and apply them to your story idea before you start writing it into a book. So tackle this one at a time as you work your way through the bones of your story.

What If- This is the external conflict, the arena of the story. This should always be about what happens when someone’s expectations were not met. It implies that something has gone wrong or will go wrong which causes trouble. Your what if scenario could be: “What if the internet shut down? What if the earth’s magnetic poles switched? What if my parents showed up for a visit a week before expected?” Make it as crazy as you like. Whee!

Who- Who is our protagonist? Whose skin are we wearing as we navigate this problem? Your who could be: “A thirty-five year old man living in his mom’s basement without human interaction for the last decade. A rising-star geophysicist and mother of three. You. A golden-maned shiatsu imported from China.” Whatever. Have fun with it.

Why- Why is what’s happening in your What If scenario going to matter to your Who? If you can make it really matter to your protagonist, it will matter to your reader. (Assuming your reader likes and sympathizes with your protagonist. If not… maybe go back to your who make make him/her less odious.)

World View- How does the protagonist see his or her world and how does that change over the course of the story? Knowing your character’s world necessitates knowing the past, sitting in the present, and projecting into the future. We have to be able to get into the protagonist’s head. And one of the things that has to be in the character’s head is the misbelief, the fatal flaw, the whatever you want to call it- something your protagonist is WRONG about, some way that he or she can evolve to be a better person at the end.

When- When does your story start? This should be at the last possible moment, the time when tomorrow becomes today, when the protagonist no longer has a choice and must act. At what point can the protagonist no longer ignore the problem, the ticking clock, and has to deal with it? And finally, how does it end?

If you’ve got all this figured out in advance, you’re ready to pound out that first draft. Personally, I’d probably throw in a plot arc as well, but that’s just me. I’m a plotter. How about you? What else would you add to this prep line-up?

(PS- And those of you in the critiquing mood, I have a query letter that I’m hoping to send off later today. If you wouldn’t mind taking a peek at it and letting me know what you think, I’d be much obliged. As always, thanks for reading!)

Why I Outline

Today on Twitter, instead of participating in word sprints with my cadre of awesome writerly pals, I hopped in on #NaNoPrep. We have one week to go until the second session of Camp NaNoWriMo comes barreling down on us in all its sleep-deprived, subsist-off-ramen, hunt-the-plot-bunnies, ignore-all-else glory. As we discussed the things we do to prepare ourselves for some madcap adventure, it quickly became apparent that there were two tribes in this camp- the pantsters and the planners (and a few of their half-breed children, lovingly dubbed the plantsters).

The pantsters fly by the seat of their pants. They are the happy-go-lucky authors blithely wandering out into the wilderness to see what happens. The planners are just that- planners. They’re happy to go on this crazy road trip, but, by golly, they’re taking a map with them.

Generally speaking, I’m a bit of a hybrid myself. I do a bit of both. But which banner I swear allegiance to entirely depends on what kind of campaign I’m on. When I’m writing short bits, it’s crazy adventure time- let’s see where this runaway train takes us. But that doesn’t work so well for me when I’m writing longer formats. So pretty much if it’s longer than three thousand words or so, I outline.

I used to not outline ever. I hated them. They constrained me. They stifled what the characters wanted to do. And I largely ignored them anyway and had to rewrite them later. I hated them. They conjured up the pain and misery that was Freshman English back at North Pole High School, where you couldn’t write a blessed thing, interesting or otherwise, unless it was first OUTLINED. Outlining was a tool used by teachers to force their students into non-creative submission. HATE.

Interestingly enough, I was busily writing a novel at the time. I loved that novel. And I refused to outline a word of it. So my characters ran all over this crazy world of mine, doing whatever popped into their heads. There were cowardly runaways and brazen attacks and nobody needed reasons for any of the silly stuff they did. They just did it. And I told myself, feeling wonderfully superior and oh-so authorly, that my characters led the story, not me, and surely this made me some sort of divine pen goddess or something.

I found out about a decade later that, no, really, it didn’t. I was churning out an impressive amount of words on paper, but little else. The process produced a ridiculously long, rambling, and utterly pointless story with no meaning, no lessons learned, and certainly no plot. It didn’t even really have a conclusion- just a big fight sequence at the end that seemed like a good place to stop. It was my baby. And I thought my baby was beautiful. Until one day…

By this time I was married and my wonderful husband, who was far less attached to my ugly little creation than I was, ever-so-gently asked me to outline the story and then we would figure out what it needed. “But I don’t outline,” I sputtered, scandalized. “The very idea!” He persisted. “I can’t work from outlines. They don’t work.” He persisted. “Bu- buuuu- noooo…” He finally convinced me, sometimes through the use of ice cream and/or back rubs.

So I sat down, cracked a few knuckles, and gathered the tools of my trade. Pen and paper in hand, he first asked who the bad guy was. I shrugged a little and jotted down a few things- random people, a war, some other junk, anything that was in conflict with my main character. It was a sloppy little mess. MC apparently fights with everyone. What was the conflict? husband asked. I scribbled a few more things. What was the climax?

I stared at the paper. I stared at him. I looked back at the paper. I studied my cheap Bic pen and wondered if I should have a nicer one. I looked at our very fine stripey sheets and tried to remember the last time I had washed them. I looked back at the paper. And then I felt horror rising in my throat. Eyes wide, I looked up at him, clattering away on his own keyboard, and asked in a hushed voice, “Honey… does my story have a climax?”

He looked back to me and asked gently, “Do you think it does?”

That was the moment I realized my baby was ugly. It had been ugly all this time. My friends had probably all thought it was ugly and just hadn’t had the heart to tell me. (This is why impartial beta readers are so important!) My family, too, had probably clucked their tongues behind my back and whispered what a shame it was. Everyone had known all along. Everyone but me.

I had worked on this story for almost fifteen years before I had this epiphany. So I plucked the characters out, because I loved them, and the basic problem, because it was still good, and I built them a cozy home. I outlined. I made believable and meaningful antagonists for my MC to butt her pretty little head against. I forced my characters to make sense. And I killed my darlings, oh so many of them. And then I rewrote the whole thing, word by word, in less than a year. It was glorious. It had a plot. My baby was all grown up.

And so I outline long works. Chapter by chapter, I know where I’m going. And I pants it within the chapters themselves, but they still exist within the framework. Some people swear by pantsing. Two years ago, I would have been one of them. But now I only write long stuff by outline. Outlines don’t necessarily make the Muse come, but, by golly, they keep that flighty wench in line!

Outlines keep me organized. They keep me on theme. And they keep my loose ends tied in. Without them, I write some lovely, rambling prose, but the stories are lame. Just sequences of action all sloppily hung together until they run out of steam. I know exactly where this crazy train is going, but that doesn’t make the journey any less exhilarating.

Of course, everyone writes differently. How about you? Do you plan? Do you pants? Why?