Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Food for Thought

Goals, Resolutions and Words A simple post on the roles of resolutions in our lives as writers. I'll be writing about this a bit on Monday. (@ Rachelle Gardner)

The More or Less Choice I think this is a choice we all make everyday to a certain degree. (@ Seth Godin)

The Alternative, The Underground, The Oh-Yes-That-One List of Favorite Books of 2011 Just in case you needed another list of books for the end of the year. (@ The Millions)

12 Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing in 2012 These are good tips to put into practice. (@ Angela Booth)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reading List 2011 Part 4

As promised in an earlier post, every Wednesday in December I'm going to be posting a list of the books that I read in 2011 with a quick summary of what I thought of them. Numbers 31 through 40 are below.
Evenfall by Liz Michalski I was completely captivated by this book from beginning to end. It was a memorable story and fun to read.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan This is a book that got passed around through my family as soon as my mom bought it. She and all of my sisters have loved it so far; it's definitely a book worth sharing and talking about. Read my full review here.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith The characters in this novel are so true to life, reading it feels like checking in with old friends. 

Dear John by Nicholas Sparks There were a lot of things about this book that felt strange or unrealistic to me, but the ending was far more creepy than romantic in my opinion.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern I cannot say enough good things about this book. It was so delightful and different from everything else I've read this year. Read my full review here.

Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez This is great advice for anyone who needs help managing their personal finances. It's a great resource for anyone looking to get out of debt and start saving money.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides Excellent. Read my full review here.

Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf I find Woolf's life and work fairly interesting, but there are a fair number of repetitive parts of this book as it's not supposed to be read cover to cover. I read it over the course of a few months and found much more meaning in it this time than I did when I originally read it in college.

Room by Emma Donoghue This is how you write a novel. The child narrator is effective without being overdone and the story is at once simple and powerful.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins I just received this one for Christmas, so I'm only part way through it. So far the story is engaging and entertaining so I have a feeling I'll finish it before the New Year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

This is one of the only times of year that I get to see all or most of my family at once, so I'll be spending this week with them. The other thing I love to do during this time of year is watch the Nutcracker ballet. I find it to be so moving and a beautiful representation of the season. If you've never seen it, here's a video of one of the most famous scenes in the show: the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Food for Thought

The 7 Deadly Sins of Writing 7 things we should try to avoid as writers. (@ Writers Digest)

How Art Changes With Us A professor once told me that the best way to get a keen sense of who you were at any point in your life is to read Hamlet once a year and write down your reaction to it each time. The play never changes but your thoughts and interpretations will. (@ Nathan Bransford)

What's Your Brick Wall? How badly do you want your childhood dreams to come true? What obstacles are you willing to overcome in order to make them happen? (@ Rachelle Gardner)

The Only Way To Become a Real Writer Don't forget to be afraid to tell people you're a writer. (@Jeff Goins Writer)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reading List 2011 Part 3

As promised in an earlier post, every Wednesday in December I'm going to be posting a list of the books that I read in 2011 with a quick summary of what I thought of them. Numbers 21 through 30 are below.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett I loved this book so much, I didn't want it to end. You can read my full review here

There's nothing that I can even say about the Harry Potter books. I have a special place in my heart for all of them. I've lost count of how many times I've read them, like so many other people of my generation. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender This was a strange and fun idea for a book.

Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman I first picked this book up because I read an excerpt of it in The New Yorker. I'm so glad I picked it up because it was so beautiful and emotional and sad. If you haven't read this one yet, get to a library or bookstore now.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling 

Little Bee by Chris Cleave I read this one quickly, when my power was out after Hurricaine Irene. I couldn't put it down, even after dark when all I had was a candle to read by. This is the kind of book you will remember for a long time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Henry David Thoreau on Being Awake and Alive

"To be awake is to be alive...We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep."

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden "Where I Lived and What I Lived For"

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Food for Thought

The Research Bust A good argument for restructuring the tenure track of modern literature professors. It may be time to focus on quality, not quantity. (@ The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Don't Tell Me the Book is Dead The New York Daily News launched a literary blog this week. The first few posts were decent and I'm interested to see where it goes from here.

There's been an interesting debate going on this week between independent book store supporters and Amazon shoppers. So far it looks like the indies have it, but it's certainly not over yet. (@ NYTimes and Slate)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reading List 2011 Part 2

As promised in an earlier post, every Wednesday in December I'm going to be posting a list of the books that I read in 2011 with a quick summary of what I thought of them. Numbers 11 through 20 are below.
Beloved  by Toni Morrison This book gives me chills every time I read it. Morrison's voice is so strong and poetic you can't help but feel every emotion the characters are experiencing.

Pushing Up Daisies by Rosemary Harris This was a fun book to read. I don't usually read mysteries, but this one was light and kept me turning the pages.

Saturday by Ian McEwan This book takes place over the course of one day, so much like real life there are parts of it that are exciting and engaging, and other parts that are very dull. 

Traveling With Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor I picked this book up on a whim at one of my favorite bookstores, and once I finally got around to reading it, I couldn't put it down. It's an incredibly moving story and I'd highly recommend it to just about anyone.
The Piano Teacher by Janice K. Lee It wasn't until after I finished this book that I noticed one of the blurbs on the cover compares it to Ian McEwan's Atonement. I didn't see the connection at all, it felt to me as if there was only one character who felt any guilt at all and the worse offenders went on to live without guilt, which was problematic for me even without the comparison.

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay I've never really been a fan of historical fiction, so for me to read 2 books in a row about WWII is sort of shocking. I liked this book a lot more than I expected to and have added de Rosnay's newest novel to my 'To Be Read' list.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan This is a great book. I've recommended it to so many people since I read it. You can read my full review here.

BossyPants by Tina Fey I laughed out loud so many times reading this book. Even if you think you don't like celebrity memoirs, this one is worth a look.

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan This book is breathtaking. Sullivan takes the story of four friends trying to make their way after college and turns it into something much darker.
Me & Mr. Darcy by Alexandra Potter I have finally started to come around to Jane Austen as an author, but I still don't understand the obsession there is with her that makes people write these modern day spinoffs. They just aren't as good.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know by now that I generally only write reviews of books I enjoyed reading. My philosophy is that a good book should be talked about. Plain and simple.

That said, let's talk about The Marriage Plot! This was a delightfully complicated and beautifully written piece of fiction. Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell are just graduating from college in the early 1980s and trying to figure out where their lives are going. 

Madeline is torn between her manic-depressive boyfriend, Leonard, and her world traveling friend, Mitchell, who both love her. Though this is the central conflict, each of the characters have their own internal struggles to deal with and address so that by the end you've almost forgotten that you're reading a novel about a love triangle.

These characters aren't just graduating from any college, either. They're graduating from Brown University in Providence. The novel is filled with as much ivy as its walls can hold. The references to academia are frequent, but not so much so that they distract from the story. Madeline and Mitchell are both characters that can't walk into a scene without a book in their hands, but this is a good thing. It makes them feel like real people. 

This is a great book. I haven't had the pleasure of reading Eugenides other works yet, but after this, there's no chance I'd miss them.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Food For Thought

How To Pick Just The Right Book Gift This is a great place to start if you're trying to decide on a book gift for someone on your list. (@ HuffPost Books)

A Year In Reading: Amy Waldman Jude the Obscure is one of those books that's been sitting neglected on my shelf for years. After reading this review I might give it another chance. (@ The Millions)

Five Books: David Hamermesh on Economics is Fun I recently discovered this website. It's a fun way to learn more about a given topic, with experts listing their picks for the 5 best books on their area of expertise every day. You can search the archives for just about any topic you want to learn more about. (@ The Browser: Five Books)

The Writing Cave This is a brilliantly written piece about the importance of putting passion into your work in order to entice readers to keep turning the pages. (@ Writer Unboxed)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reading List 2011 Part 1

As promised in an earlier post, every Wednesday in December I'm going to be posting a list of the books that I read in 2011 with a quick summary of what I thought of them. Numbers 1 through 10 are below.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich This is the second time I've read this book and it's still a compelling, exciting read. It's one of my 10 Favorite Books.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert I found the first half of this book so heartbreaking I wasn't sure I would make it to the end, but I'm glad that it did.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath This is the second time I read this book too. It's another heartbreaking story but it's well written and worth a second look.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver This was a fun, quick book to read with a surprise ending.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier I can't get over this book. It's not beautiful, poetic writing but it makes you want to turn the pages and sticks with you long after you've finished. It's also on my favorite books list.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell A thought provoking book, this asks you to rethink the way you see the world. Check out my full review here.

The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller I was left wanting more with this book. There were a lot of good ideas in it, but I didn't see how they could be applied in a practical sense.

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich Sadly this book is already pretty outdated.

Incendiary by Chris Cleave I could NOT put this book down. It's one of the best books that I read all year. Check out my full review here.

Bread and Roses -- Mills Migrants and the Struggle for the American Dream by Bruce Watson I wasn't crazy about this book, the authors tried to narrate the facts as if it were a novel but in the end it didn't do the story justice.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Herman Melville on the quality of existence

"...truly to enjoy bodily warmth,some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself." 

-Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Food For Thought

A Summer In Europe: Finding Meaning in Florence Setting is an important piece of a novel. Read how one author incorporated it into her story. (@ Writer Unboxed)

Writers: What Are Your Year End Goals for 2011? It's always important to have a goal to work on as you move forward in life. My goals for the coming year are to grow my readership on this blog and publish my novel. (@ Make A Living Writing)

6 Tips to Make the Learning of Fiction Techniques Less Painful I personally find reading fiction craft books to be helpful and educating. Not all are created equal, but I usually enjoy looking through them for ideas I haven't heard before (@ Jody Hedlund)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Importance of Being Well-Read

The one piece of writing advice you will hear over and over and over again? Read a lot.

It's definitely important. If you want to be good at something, why not study what other people have done before you in order to build off of it and make it new? You have to be a reader in order to understand what readers like. That's how you get more readers to pick up your books. It's simple, really.

People will tell you to read outside your genre, too. Don't just read the best of what you want to be but read everything you can get your hands on. Personally, I try to limit my intake of bad writing, but once I've started a book, I try to finish it even if I'm not crazy about it. Why? Because I can still learn something about writing from it. If I only read the first chapter I may not be able to put my finger on exactly what it is I don't like. If I read the whole book I can usually tell you exactly what it was I didn't like, and thus know what to avoid in my own writing.

The one thing that people usually don't  mention when they give this type of advice is what they are actually reading. I'm going to tell you what I'm reading. In fact, in the spirit of it being "Best Books of 2011" season, I'm going to tell you all of the books I read in 2011. I read a total of 40 books this year, and I plan to break up the list into manageable chunks over the next 4 Wednesdays. I'll give you a few of my thoughts on each book so you can decide whether to add them to your reading list. 

In the meantime, check out the NY Times list.

UPDATE: I recently found The Millions' A Year in Reading List which is similar to what I'm doing, but asks famous authors to name their favorite book that they read in 2011. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Finding Inspiration In the Face of Writer's Block

What inspires you to write?

For me it is almost always scenery. My surroundings are the most constant inspiration I can think of. It doesn't even have to be beautiful or aesthetically appealing scenery. Just something other than my writing desk is all I need.

The quickest way for me to overcome writers block is to take a walk around my neighborhood, where ever that might be at the moment. If I'm at home, I walk around the block a few times until I am ready to sit down and work.If I'm on vacation, or at a relative's house, this is even more effective. 

A change of scenery is the best inspiration for me because of all of the new sights and sounds available. The atmosphere at my brother's house in rural North Carolina is very different than it is here in suburban Massachusetts, so it gives me variance in the things I observe and notice as I walk. 

I'm lucky enough to have grown up near the beach, and have gone to the same beach hundreds of times over my lifetime. Every time I go there, though, I find something new. I see different people, seashells, broken bottles. I love to visit the beach when I need inspiration because it's one place where the constant change is visible. After the tide goes out, the beach won't look the same when the tide comes back. 

There is always something new to see in our surroundings, and being aware of these changes will make your writing fresh and exciting. Pay attention to the scenery around you and write about what you see. Not every detail needs to be in the final draft of your story or novel, but if you don't write it down, it definitely won't make the cut. Write about everything you see and worry about how it fits into the story in the second or third draft. 

The point, in the beginning, is to write.

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Does Your Writing Want to Become?

I was lucky enough to go to college at George Mason University, where each fall they have a week long literary festival called Fall for the Book. They have authors come from all over to read excerpts, sign books and give lectures about a wide variety of topics. It's a pretty great event, and I got to attend a bunch of great programs over the years. 

One of the most memorable events I attended was a lecture by a Mason English professor about using meditation to improve one's writing skills. He taught us how to meditate and did some short guided meditations to show us how it is done. Then, he gave us a simple mantra to use as we meditate:

What does my writing want to become?

This mantra is simple but to the point. I use it regularly in my practice because it gets me to focus on my writing and tune everything else out.

Meditation is incredibly helpful for writers because it helps you to clear your mind of all distractions. It gives you a chance to start fresh. If you meditate for fifteen or twenty minutes before you begin to write, you won't be worrying about the dishes or the cat, you will just be focused on your writing. 

The quality of your writing will improve because you won't be distracted by the rest of the things going on in your life. You will have the clarity of mind to focus completely on the task at hand until the story, blog post or chapter you're working on is finished.

I have found this to be incredibly helpful in my writing practice so I always like to pass on my professor's advice to others who are struggling with their writing. 

All you have to do is sit up straight in your desk chair, put your hands in your lap or on your knees, close your eyes, breathe deeply and ask yourself: "What does my writing want to become?"

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Food For Thought

2011 National Book Award Winners Announced It's that time of year again: National Book Awards of course. See if your favorites won. (@ The Millions)

Has China Found the Future of Publishing? This is certainly an interesting idea. I'm not sure it would work as well in America because there's not as many limits here on what you can do on the internet and people would be better equipped to find ways around the payments, but it's worth considering. (@ The Guardian)

Anatomy of A Small Press Book Deal This post is a bit long but worth reading if you're still debating traditional publishing and self-publishing. (@ My Kingdom for a Novel)

Drop Everything and Write The most important writing advice you will ever get. Even if you don't have a deadline yet, you must make time to write no matter how crazy your schedule is. (@ Beyond the Margins)

Six Simple Questions With Junot Diaz If you don't already know who Junot Diaz is you're missing out. (@ JM Tohline)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Deciding What to Leave Off the Page

I know a lot of writers who struggle with writing about uncomfortable topics, be it sex, other bodily functions or what have you. I don't think any of these things should be left off the page all together, but as a writer you need to be conscious of why you're including it and when. Is it adding to the plot of the story or getting in the way? 

If you go into too much detail about the wrong topic, it will take your reader out of the story and make them less interested in reading the rest. Recently I read a novel where a character was eaves dropping on someone from inside of a tour bus bathroom. While some of the things in the scene were funny and plot-driven (the information she gained was important to what happened later) other things brought me out of the story. I had to skip over the parts where the narrator described the sound of her urine hitting the water in the toilet bowl, because as a human being, I've heard the sound before and don't need it described to me. 

Don't think I'm being prudish -- I'm all for descriptions of any kind that are in some way relevant to the plot of the story. In a tense moment like the one described above, the sound of the narrator's urine is not directly related to the plot, it just gets in the way of an otherwise suspenseful scene. 

Most of the time things like this can be left off the page. You can trust that the reader will know what's going on without having it spelled out. There is a time and a place for these sorts of details, but they have to be carefully chosen and should always add something to the plot rather than simply filling space.

What sorts of things do you leave off the page? How do you decide what stays?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I recently had the pleasure of reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It is a delightful book that has been getting a lot of great press and is well deserving of the attention.
The novel unfolds much the same way that the circus does: deliberately. Both evolve over time, seeming to be one thing at the beginning and by the end becoming much much more. Each chapter of The Night Circus is cleverly composed, and details are chosen with the utmost care. Each detail feels like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle and we are all (reader, author, characters) putting it together as one. 
"The circus is the venue" and the vehicle of the novel. It is what drives the plot and sustains the characters. Its mystery and magic keeps the reader turning pages just like it keeps the reveurs (devoted followers of the circus who wear all or mostly black clothes with bright red scarves to distinguish themselves) coming back night after night.
The story is told in present tense which only adds to the excitement and suspense. It makes the reader feel as though she is in the moment with the characters and at Le Cirque du Reves anything can happen in that moment.
Morgenstern also does a great job of bringing in characters who should be completely separate from the circus and binding them to the place in irreversible ways. Though this doesn't always have a pleasant ending, it adds to the accessibility of the story -- anyone can be a reveur. The second person passages sprinkled throughout the book do this too, driving home the point that this circus (and this book) is for everyone.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Food For Thought

Are Libraries Good for Authors Although I buy books from local stores when I can, I'm on a limited income so I use my local library very often. (@ Rachelle Gardner)

What's the Language of the Future? This is an excerpt from a new non-fiction book about the history of English. The ways in which the language has changed over the course of time are highly intriguing. (@ Salon)

5 Persuasive Writing Tricks that Work This is an important skill to have. It's something you need to be able to do even if you don't work in advertising or sales. (@ Jeff Goins Writer)

How I Got My Agent: Kevin Sheehan I am always interested to see how other writers got their agents, as it's a process that I'm going to be starting myself in the near future. (@ Guide to Literary Agents)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Write What You Know versus Research

I remember the first piece of writing advice I ever received: write what you know. I was seven years old and just developing an interest in creative writing and at the time it made sense.

It’s a reasonable idea. Write stories about things you are familiar with and turn them into something more than what they are. Take experiences from your own life and make them fictional.

Okay, but what if you want to go beyond your world as it is? For example, in planning for NaNoWriMo this year, I began by writing a short story loosely based on something that happened to me during college. After writing the story, I realized that the characters in hand were not fitting properly in the short story form. They didn’t have enough room to grow and I decided to attempt to tell the story as a novel.

About the same time, I read this passage in Robin Hemley’s excellent book, Turning Life Into Fiction: “You should ask yourself if the time frame is important. Is this a story that could only have happened in Depression-era Mississippi, or is it timeless? Is it a story that could take place now? If your answer is yes to the second question, you don’t need to set it in the past. Setting the story in the present might ultimately free you in your handling of the material, might make the story less biography and more fiction.”

As I thought about it, I realized that my story was more or less timeless, and in fact might even be more interesting if set in the past. I decided to set my novel in 1963, but this led me to another problem – I didn’t live through the 1960s. My parents weren’t even married until 1968.

What did I know about 1963?

I knew one important fact: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 and this would play a crucial role in one of my main characters’ story lines. Beyond that, I was clueless.

So, I turned to the internet to find out what movies and music were popular that year. 

I turned to the library to find out as much information as I could about Kennedy. 

I turned to my parents for stories of their youth.  

I brought my short story to my workshop and learned important information about the clergy (which plays an important role in the story as well) from one of my fellow writers. 

In short, I’m learning as much as I can about my subject so that I can write intelligently about it.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to the write what you know philosophy. There’s also nothing wrong with expanding your knowledge base when your writing demands it.

How much research do you do as you write?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Voice in the Novel

It’s day 7 of NaNoWriMo 2011 and sadly I’m far behind where I would like to be. Why? My novel isn’t flowing the way I’d like it to yet. I have great characters and a solid plot line, so you’d think it would be moving along quickly right?

The problem I’m encountering is the ever illusive VOICE.

Since NaNoWriMo 2008, I’ve been working on drafts of a novel that I feel will be ready to start the long journey to publishing in 2012 (yay!). I’ve put a lot of work into it and finally feel like it’s ready for the world. However, this novel has a very distinct voice. That’s great, but it’s also getting in my way. 

The piece I’m working on right now is so far removed from the one I’ve been working on that it’s hard to break away from the voice I’m used to. As a writer, I have to find a way to make it work. If I want to have a career as a novelist, I can’t expect to write one novel and call it a day. So, how can we as novelists learn to write in different voices and make them each unique?

  • Relax. Writing is a fun, creative process and stressing about it will take the joy out of your novel. Readers will be able to tell by the sheer lack of joy in your language that the writing process was miserable and they probably won’t make it to the end. Have fun and enjoy what you’re writing, the rest will fall into place.
  • Listen. Reading your novel (or story or poem or whatever) out loud will help you figure out what works and what doesn’t. It will alert you to the moments when the language sounds off or your grammar is bad much more effectively than reading it silently will. If you want to know if your novel has a unique and moving voice, listen to how it sounds out loud.

  • Keep writing. If you know you have a good story and you want to share it with the world, you have to keep going. No one will be able to read your work if you give up hope. Keep writing and eventually it will pay off.
 How do you deal with voice in your writing? Do you find it hard to transition between longer projects?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Food for Thought

How People Watching Makes You A Better Writer I think this is an important skill to master as a writer. Of course you always have to make sure not to get caught (@ Write It Sideways)

"Writing a novel takes so long" Duh. Is this an excuse for authors to start writing tv shows instead? It's definitely fun to challenge oneself with new styles, but I'm not sure how I feel about novelists turning to television. (@ Full Stop)

 5 Steps to Discover What a Publication Will Pay This is useful information to have when trying to break into a new market. (@ Make A Living Writing)

How To Start Writing A Novel There's still time to get started with National Novel Writing Month and if you're hesitating because you don't know where to start, this post will give you some great advice. (@ Nathan Bransford, Author)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Year It Snowed On Halloween

Here on the East Coast of the United States we got walloped over the weekend with a Nor'easter that dumped a lot of snow on us in OCTOBER. 

There were huge power outages across New England and all the way down the coast to New Jersey. It is a total mess out here right now. In my town, we have finally gotten our power back and everything is slowly returning to normal. Many people are still recovering from the storm though, and I'm thinking it will be a long time before everything is completely repaired. 

I've had a lot of time since Saturday to write, but because I couldn't use my computer it's all been on paper and will take me a few days to transfer. Everything will hopefully be back to normal on this blog after today. 

As for everyone out there still recovering from the storm and waiting for the power to come back on, I wish you well. I'm sending warm thoughts your way and hoping for the best.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Food for Thought

The Digitalization of Reading (and Writing) This is a thoughtful piece about the ways that reading and writing are changing as our world becomes increasingly digital. (@ Aliventures)

Why Every Writer Needs As Much Editing As Possible As more and more writers become self-published the standards for editing seem to be dropping, but writers need to remember how that impacts their readers. (@ Jody Hedlund)

The Difference Between Your Current and Future Platforms An interesting post about the need for a platform as a writer and the way to explain growth to a potential publisher. (@ Writer Unboxed)

Novelists: Stop Trying to Brand Yourself Who exactly needs a brand or platform? One agent argues that novelists should focus solely on writing well and worry about the other things later. (@ Rachelle Gardner)

A Halloween Reading List Looking for some spooky stories or horror novels to read this weekend? Here's a list that's sure to make you think twice about turning out the lights. (@ The Guardian)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Are You Writing This November?

I mentioned in my post last week that the first time I attempted NANOWRIMO I won. I wrote 50,000+ words in 30 days, and have since written 3 more drafts of that novel. I’m finally happy with what I’ve come up with.

That was in 2008. In 2009 I wrote about 8,000 words and have since abandoned that project. In 2010 I wrote only short stories during the month of November and didn’t even bother logging my numbers on the site.

This year, I’m ready to try again. I’ve had multiple ideas for novels in the past 3 years, but for one reason or other they didn’t happen. This year, though, I have no excuse. I’ve graduated, I’m underemployed and I’ve got nothing but time. I write every day anyway, there’s just no way around it.

So what the heck am I going to write about?

Recently the instructor for my writing class gave us a homework assignment: create a character from two real people that you know.

As I drove home I started thinking about people I could combine into one character and include in a story. I mulled over a few possibilities and finally got stuck on two people from my past that both seemingly overnight disappeared from my life because of our differing values and beliefs. In each case, the other person was heavily devoted to their religion, whereas I am not a heavily religious person. This got me thinking about how religion can be a seriously divisive force and I wonder why that is. 

I’ve been grappling with this issue for a while and was deeply hurt by both people. I’ve been trying to think of an interesting way to write about this for the past few months.

As I thought about it, the story started to materialize. The character began to come alive as her own person and I knew I had a story that I could work with. But later, as I began to write my thoughts down and determine the structure and timeline of the story, I realized that I had too much material to deal with in ten pages. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like a novel to me. The dissolution of a friendship and the consequences of the choices we make in our youth. The story that I had started out to write was only the climax of a much larger piece. 

But why wait to write this novel until November? Community.

That’s one of the beautiful things about NANOWRIMO. We are all in this together. The forums are there so you can talk to other writers who are going through the same pain of trying to get this thing finished quickly. 

This novel is going to be very hard for me. It’s going to be emotional and I will have to work hard to be objective as I write so it doesn’t turn out sounding whiny or bitter. I know that being part of the NANOWRIMO community will help.

Novel writing is a solitary business. It can be lonely. NANOWRIMO reminds us novelists that we are not alone. That’s one of the things I love about it.

What are you planning to write this November? Tell us in the comments section.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What’s the Value in Writing Things That Will Never Be Read?

No writer (especially at the beginning of her career) should be naive enough to believe that every single word she writes will be read by at least one person other than herself. As my creative writing teacher put it, ‘if you have a VERY patient spouse, maybe they will read a third of what you write.’ I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it is simple: sometimes you need to just write for yourself until the stuff worth bragging about comes out. 

The class I’m taking now is called Crafting Fiction from Personal Experience. I’ve always had a problem with writing from experience because I worry what someone might think if something they said to me ended up in my novel. That’s right. I’m incredibly self-conscious of what I put into my stories, and there’s a good chance if you say something to me that I want to use I will disguise it so heavily that you will never know it was you. But this class asks me to put a reign on that. Of course it’s up to me how much of the stuff I write for this class is fiction. The point though, is to take observations from the real world and fictionalize them in a way that creates a universal truth for any and all of your readers. 

Universal truths are that kind of elusive, ethereal quality that all writers should be striving for. Somehow though, when I’m asked to create that quality from personal experience, I find it more helpful to ground my stories in reality more heavily than I might normally. To that end, I doubt I will ever show any of the things that I write for this workshop to anyone outside of it, for fear of having a friend or family member say, ‘oh hey this is about me, isn’t it?’

Of course a character might be based on the person reading the story, but no, MY STORY IS NOT ABOUT YOU. And yet it is. 

That’s the point of a universal truth, or a well written story.

What I mean is that, when you read a story that is effective in the universal truth department, whether or not you know the author, you feel like the story is about you. So, in an abstract way, any story is about any reader that it resonates with.

If I write down verbatim a conversation that I have with my Aunt Sally (hypothetically) and then rework it so that it fits into a story I’m writing, it’s not necessarily about my Aunt Sally, right? If she reads it and asks me that inane question, “This is about me, right?” My response would be, “I don’t know, is it?” It doesn’t matter that those are her words on the page, what matters is whether the focus of the story resonates with her. If it doesn’t, then it’s not about her. She might not like that I used a conversation I had with her to illustrate my point, but beyond that, it’s only about universal truths.  Not every reader is going to like every story, even if it is about them.

So why write these stories if you aren’t ready to share them with your Aunt Sally? Writing things that no one will ever see will make you a better writer.  Writing these kinds of stories is an exercise. Even if you will never publish them or show them to outsiders, writing them makes you a better writer. It shows you a new way of doing things that you might not have considered before. Even if you’re not writing Pulitzer material every day, you need to be writing every day, so why not use all the material you can? Do something to get the juices flowing every single day because the faster you get out the crap that you don’t want anyone to read the easier it will be to write. Writing regularly is the only way to get better at it.

My writing instructor gave us an exercise last class that I think anyone out there who is intending to be a writer should try out.
Write two pages on this topic: something you don’t want anyone else in the entire world to know about you, not even your spouse or closest confidant.

If you typed it, print out these pages, then delete the file from your computer permanently.
Find a way to destroy these two pages, preferably, burn them. Other choices include shredding them, eating them etc.

Wait one hour. If you find you can’t live without whatever it is you wrote, go back to your computer or notebook and try to recreate it as best you can.

Have fun.