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.