The State of the North

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Pumpkin meringue pie for turkey day

Hey so how about that November, huh? Yeah. I’d apologize for my absence on here but I think just about everyone has been taking time to recover. A month and a half ago I thought that our biggest national issue by now would be what they would name the president’s spouse’s Twitter account (FHOTUS? FGOTUS?) Now, there are actual, serious news articles questioning whether Japanese internment camps were really a bad thing. So pardon me if I spent about a month working out the logistics of how to marry my Irish bae and skedaddle. Yes, I know that’s not helpful.

Okay, so I haven’t just been busy with that. I also finished Nanowrimo in a kind of cheaty way by writing 50,000 words over 30 different short stories. None of those stories are currently finished, which is disappointing, but I do like a lot of them so once I get out of this funk, I hope to polish them up.

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The view outside my office.

I also have gotten very busy at the day job, which jumped from part time to full time very suddenly last Thursday when my boss was unexpectedly hospitalized. She’s not coming back and there are several massive projects due by the end of the month and it’s just a little bit crazy.

Oh but here’s something I have been doing: I’m an editor and photographer with A Lonely Riot Magazine, which publishes short, genre-agnostic fiction and poetry once a week. We’ve been publishing since May and there are a lot of good stories up there. We only pay a token amount of $20 per short story and $7 per poem, which is a very small payment, I know. I believe authors should be paid reasonable prices, so I highly recommend you try higher paying markets first. We do accept simultaneous subs. But if you like what we do and you want to be a part of it, please submit!

That’s all from me for now. Time to crawl back into my pillow fort.

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Learning Paralysis

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At the end of the Writing Excuses cruise, while we all mingled in Dazzles, drinking bellinis and rum punch and quietly envying the top ten attendees who had each written over ten thousand—and in some cases twenty thousand—words during the week, Mary Robinette Kowal got up on stage to talk to us about what was going to happen after the cruise. Don’t be surprised if you don’t write for quite some time after you leave, she said. The majority of people who leave this retreat don’t put hands to keyboard for weeks or months afterward. Writing is suddenly very hard.

The idea behind that was that now that you’ve been introduced to a whole bunch of new techniques and methods of writing and outlining, you’re paralyzed by trying to keep everything in your head at once. It’s like trying to drive for the first time after driver’s ed: your brain is so flooded with trying to remember to adjust the rear-view mirror and the driver’s seat and release the parking brake and put the car in drive and check both side mirrors and on and on that you sit there for a bit, unsure if you’ve remembered everything you need to remember before you can start to drive.

I didn’t think that was going to apply to me because I’m not exactly new to writing. Although the retreat was really helpful and I highly recommend it, I don’t think I heard anything *new* during any of the panels. Yet it’s been a couple weeks since I got back and I haven’t written a single word since the flight home.

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My rockin’ bridesmaid dress from Rent the Runway.

Okay, part of that is because what with my brother’s wedding immediately after the cruise, and then the flood upending my life and forcing me to live out of a suitcase while everything else I own is packed away in trash bags in the garage, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities. But since things have started to settle down, I haven’t been able to write a word. Even the story I started to write on the cruise has come to an abrupt standstill. Nothing feels right to me; every idea seems unoriginal. Every time I try to make myself sit down, my brain rebels against it. In related news, I’ve clocked over 140 hours in Fallout 4, 60 of those in the last couple weeks.

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The rehearsal dinner contained a surprise skeleton.

Am I using this convenient explanation as an excuse for my own laziness? Well, probably. I want to write. I just am having a lot of difficulty putting butt in chair (or whatever the equivalent expression is for a standing desk).

Nanowrimo starts in 12 days. This is going to be my fourteenth year doing it, so I can’t not do it. I need to get my act together in the next two weeks. The first step is probably going to be to take the batteries out of my Xbox controller and hide them, but after that, we’ll see.

Halfway through Nanowrimo

My novel in its natural state

My novel in its natural state

I thought I’d be past the tough part of Nanowrimo by this point. I really did. I think the only time I’ve had such a difficult time was in 2006, when I was writing the second half of a novel I’d started the year before and slowly discovered that there wasn’t enough novel left to fill another Nanowrimo. This time, I still have more plot to get to, but I’m being derailed by plot hole after plot hole. I’m still chugging along, but it’s going to get really hard once my outlined plot ends.

One thing that is helping me get through Nanowrimo is my complete lack of a console that would play Fallout 4. For now I’ll have to content myself with Fallout Shelter. Is anyone still playing that anymore?

Nanowrimo Now What?: The Synopsis

A hot air balloon over Lancaster, PA.

A hot air balloon over Lancaster, PA.

In the second part of my “Nanowrimo Now What?” posts, I’m going to talk about writing a synopsis. This might seem like jumping the gun; after all, you’re not going to be querying agents for this monstrosity you’ve written just yet. But a synopsis can be used for more than just getting an agent interested in your story. It’s a key editing tool for figuring out what the heck your story is even trying to say.

When the rough draft of your novel has been spewed out onto the page, it might not look like what you first planned, if you planned at all. For people who write organically, you probably didn’t know where the story was going to end up until you got there, and that’s fine! For people who outline, you probably discovered along the way that the story needed to take a different direction at a certain point, or some key plot elements that seemed obvious in the pre-writing stages turned out to be unfeasible when you actually got to them in the story. When that happens, you need a synopsis.

If you really want to learn about writing a synopsis, go to Miss Snark’s blog and check out her critiques of various synopses. Actually, read everything she has to say about everything, because she’s got a lot of good advice.

A few things I learned from her:

The synopsis does not need to talk about every plot point in the story. It’s not really possible to fit your whole novel plot into the two to three pages (or less!) that a lot of agents ask for. So instead, look for the main character arc, and summarize that. Where did the main character start? What did she work to accomplish? How was she changed along the way? How does that fit with the theme of the story? What is the point to the whole thing? Forget all the side characters and details. This isn’t your story bible. This is just a broad summary of the main theme of the book.

On the other hand, you don’t want a character study. We need to see the specific events that changed your character, not just how they changed. You don’t need to follow the chronology of the book. Write the events as they logically lead into each other.

Make sure you put the stakes front and center. What does the main character stand to lose? What is her motivation? What does she want, specifically, at the beginning of the novel, and how does she get it?

Forcing yourself to whittle down your novel into a svelte synopsis makes you focus purely on the bones of the novel. If you can’t answer the questions I asked above, then there are some big things missing from your novel. This is why you want to do the synopsis now, when you’re beginning editing, and not wait until after you’ve polished the fifth draft to a high shine and are ready to send it out. If you have any major plot holes, you’ll find that out now. If your main character doesn’t really have any strong desires and just lets herself be wafted about on the winds of fate, that’ll show up too.

Once you finish your synopsis and find all the incoherent plot points and unmotivated characters, put that synopsis aside and write a new one. This time, make sure it makes sense. Keep it broad. You don’t need to go into the details now. What you want is to make sure your story has strong bones before you start putting the meat on it. And yes, I know you’ve already written this thing, but the first draft is really just a method of piling up a heap of words so you can pick through it later to find the good stuff. You’re going to need to do another draft or two (or three or four) before this story is really done. So take this time to fix the mistakes you found in your first draft.

There. You’ve finished the synopsis. Now you have your blueprint for how the second draft is going to go. Time to get to work.

Nanowrimo Now What?: How to Critique and Be Critiqued

I got my laptop back from the Genius Bar 10 days ago, and the graphics card has just started to go again, so I probably only have another week or two before the whole computer dies a third time. In the meantime: the post-Nanowrimo entry that I promised!

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Writing groups are invaluable for authors. The one I’m currently in is run by my friend Rob, who I met through Nanowrimo lo these many years ago. If you’re looking for a writing group in your area, check out Meetup.com, or get in touch with the people in your regional Nanowrimo forums. If there aren’t any around, there are some online writing groups that might benefit you. You could also start your own, but I’d recommend seeing how other people run this kind of group before you take on the responsibility yourself.

How To Critique

1. It’s not all about you

A lot of groups require you to attend and critique other people’s work a few times before you can submit your own. The group isn’t there for you to dump your most recent work on and then jet off when you’re done. We’ve had a few people do this in our group—a brand new member signs up for their first month in the group, gives us a short story to have critiqued, and then never shows up again after that. Worse is when they do that but don’t actually show up for the critique itself. Writing groups are give-and-take, and that means you have to put in the time before you get the benefit. And why wouldn’t you? If you cultivate your relationship with the group, you can continue to use this resource for years afterward.

2. Their work is not your work

One of the first mistakes a lot of critiquers make is trying to mold other people’s work to fit their own style. You don’t say “It would be better if you…” when you’re critiquing. What you say is “This part didn’t work for me.” You’re there to tell the author what parts felt off to you. You’re not there to fix it. That’s their job.

3. Prioritize

Sometimes you’ll get a work that’s perfect in every way, and you struggle to find something to say. Other times you’ll get something that looks like someone mashed their face into a keyboard for ten minutes. In the first case, you congratulate the author and ask them what specifically they’re looking for, since the odds are they have an idea of what they think needs work (unless they’re just there for the accolades, which is something I’ll address in a moment). In the second case, you need to think about what advice will help the author the most. You can’t point out every mistake, because the author might get demoralized and give up on this story (or writing in general) forever, and in any case it’s a waste of your time. Instead, look at the big picture. What is the biggest problem with the story? Which thing, when fixed, will make the biggest difference? Focus on just one of them.

4. Forget grammar and spelling

No, seriously. Forget them. That kind of stuff is cosmetic, and it’s a waste of everyone’s time to focus on that when the whole story or chapter might be rewritten. There have been people in my writing group who refused to critique someone’s story because of the typos or punctuation problems they had, which is a ridiculously condescending thing to do. It’s not helping anyone. It’s just embarrassing the author. Remember when I talked about priorities? Grammar and spelling are two of the lowest priorities, and should be focused on only when the bigger issues have been fixed. You, as a member of the writing group, are not the end audience for this work. You’re seeing this story in all its rough, half-constructed squalor. Don’t waste your time critiquing the paint job unless the author asks for it.

5. Don’t forget the good parts

Yes, you’re there to point out the mistakes, but it really helps to point out what worked, too. Every single time you critique, try to find one thing you liked, even if you absolutely hated the story. They probably didn’t get everything wrong, after all, and a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as they say. They’ll be more likely to listen to your critique if they know all is not lost. Additionally, letting them know what worked means that they won’t cut that part out in their edits.

How to be critiqued

1. It’s not all about you, part 2

It’s nice to get compliments on your work, but your writing group is not the place to get them. If you have a story that’s perfect in every way, maybe consider submitting something else instead. And if you do submit something that you think is perfect, don’t be surprised if and when it gets criticism. That’s the point of a writing group.

2. Stay inside the glass box

Some writing groups have this as a rule. Mine doesn’t, but sometimes I wish it did. When you’re getting critiqued, you cannot argue with your critiquer. Ideally, you shouldn’t talk at all. If your critiquer has completely misunderstood the point of the story and is going off in the completely wrong direction, it’s not your place to tell them. Once your work is out there in the wild, it has to stand on its own. You won’t be there to correct every reader of their misconceptions. So when your critiquers get something wrong, take that as a sign that you need to fix the story, not set your critiquer straight.

3. Give yourself a few days to soothe your ego

Critiques can be demoralizing. Remember: they’re not critiquing you. They’re critiquing your story so you can make it better. The ego punch gets easier each time you get critiqued, but it still can bug you even if you’re a seasoned veteran. Your first reaction might be to reject all the critique and give up on editing entirely. Don’t let that happen! Instead, wait a few days or a week, then revisit the criticism with an open mind. (I hope you took notes!)

4. Consider saying yes

There have been a few times in my writing group when my critiquers have suggested a change to the story that was completely out there. Get rid of your main character. Write the story from someone else’s point of view. Rework your magic system. My first reaction was to dismiss that out of hand. That big of a change is ridiculous, right? It would require rewriting everything. But then I actually sat down with my notes and said to myself “What if I did make this change? What then?” What had seemed ridiculous quickly became exciting, and the changes I made to my novel (rewriting it from the point of view of an entirely different character) vastly improved it. If you get advice like this, especially if it’s from a majority of your writing group, it doesn’t hurt to consider the possibility. Squash your initial urge to say no and seriously consider what the changes might do.

5. Know when to say no

On the other hand, there can be times when your writing group is urging you to write an entirely different story from the one you wrote, and you have to put your foot down. Remember that this is only a small subset of people, and they don’t always know what’s best for your story. If only one or two are advocating for a big change, or if the people who don’t like what you’ve done are people with little to no experience in your genre, it might be a good idea to put their advice aside. After all, your writing group is there to critique, and there is always going to be more to critique, ad infinitum. At a certain point, you have to know when to stop editing and release your story out there into the wild.

Nanowrimo prep: Point of View

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We’re coming up to the wire now: Nanowrimo starts in less than 3 hours for me (on Eastern Daylight Time) and has already started in most of the world. So here’s my final post in the Nanowrimo prep series. I hope to do a couple posts during the month of November if I can tear myself away from my own book, and I definitely have some plans for a “What Next?” series after Nanowrimo ends. So without further ado:

Point of View

This might seem like something very minor, and when compared to plot and setting and character, it is. Still, your decision to write in first, second or third person can make a big difference in how your reader receives the story.

Arthur Golden, who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha, said in a later interview that his first few drafts were written in third person, and while people were interested in the concept, no one wanted to touch the novel.

Before meeting Mineko, I’d written a draft in third person. Even after interviewing her I felt no temptation to try entering the head of my protagonist by writing in first person. Instead I wrote another 750 page draft in third person. While I was revising it for submission, a number of big name agents and editors in New York began calling me–very heady stuff for an unpublished writer. But when they saw the manuscript, they all lost interest. I know I’m a perfectly competent prose stylist; I didn’t think the writing itself had scared them away. And the subject matter is so fascinating–or at least it was fascinating to me. The way I saw it, if I’d failed to bring the world of geisha compellingly to life, I’d done something dreadfully wrong. And in fact, as I came to understand, my mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator.

Writing the novel in first person made the story closer and more personal, which was exactly what the novel needed.

First person (“I walked down the street”) is particularly useful in genres where the action or emotion of the plot needs to come through. It seems to me that a large part of the success of Fifty Shades of Grey has been because it was written in first person, which lets the reader imagine that they’re the main character. It’s also popular in urban fantasy, which is often full of romance and action. Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy did fantastic things with first person point of view, breaking a lot of rules. If you want to learn how to do first person well, read that series.

Second person (“You walked down the street”) is extremely rare. A lot of people have an irrational dislike of it. I happen to like it, but that’s just me. Unless you’ve been in Homestuck fandom, you probably haven’t seen too much of it, at least not in fiction. I wrote a short story in second person and my writing group unanimously hated the POV. One of them complained that she wasn’t doing the things described in the story, so why was the text telling her she was? It was a bizarre complaint, but not uncommon. Writing in second person can make your novel stand out, but it runs the risk of putting off readers. Any time a writing technique is too obvious, it distracts from the story itself. If you have a good excuse for it, though, do it! Just beware of the potential response you’ll get. (Side note: this is why I recommend that beginning writers write fanfiction. You can experiment with lots of writing techniques like this one with very little consequence).

Third person (“She walked down the street”) is most common, and therefore most invisible. It might be more narratively distant than first and second person, but it’s useful if you have multiple points of view in your story, or if you want to leave a little bit of mystery in your main character’s head. It’s a pretty safe bet, for better or worse. Don’t rely on it too much, though, because you could be missing out on a better option.

Basic? Yep. And you might not even know which POV your story should be in until after you’ve written it. If you get a chance during the frenzy of Nanowrimo, try writing the opening scene in all three POVs and see which one sounds best. It might make a big change in your novel.

That’s it for my Nanowrimo prep posts. I hope they were helpful. For those attempting it this month, good luck!

Previous posts:

Outlining your novel
Making characters
Setting
Themes

 

Nanowrimo prep: Themes

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I remember in high school, reading books like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck’s The Red Pony and having to identify the Christ metaphors and color symbolism. I knew without a doubt that no author would ever actually put this crappy symbolism stuff in their novel intentionally. Unless you were doing it with the sole purpose of giving high schoolers work to do, what was the point of it all?

The idea of annoying high schoolers is a good motivating factor, but now that I’ve had a little more experience with novel writing, I’m beginning to realize that you can’t really write a story without a theme. A story without a theme has all the soul of a grocery list. It’s just a sequence of events with no real meaning behind it.

First, let’s define theme. A theme is what your story is about, even though it’s never stated outright. It’s the invisible thread that links your subplots to the main plot, and it’s the kind of thing that makes readers think about your book after they’re done reading.

For example, in Love, Actually, there are a number of story lines going on at the same time, but they’re all exploring different facets of love, illicit or familial or unconventional or passionate. In Batman Begins, the theme is fear, and how you let your fears define you–whether you use it to become a hero, or use it to control and incapacitate a city. In Finding Nemo, the theme is how avoiding all risk keeps you from experiencing life.

China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station always comes to mind when I think of themes. The book explores intersections and borders—that in-between space that happens when something meets up with something else. One character in the story is made up of pieces of many different creatures. He hires a sculpture to sculpt his portrait, and her challenge is finding how to represent those places where he turns from one creature into another. Yet she herself is a creature that has the body of a human female and the head of an ant. Another character is a bird-man, but his wings have been cut off, so he’s not quite bird enough and not quite man enough for the societies around him. The subway station after which the book is named is integrated so completely into the cramped neighborhood around it that no one can really tell where the neighborhood ends and the station begins. The more you look at the story, the more connections you can see to this specific theme.

I previously talked about making characters, and how they need to have goals throughout the story. The three questions that I recommended you ask for each scene were:

What does your character want?
What does she do to get it?
What do her actions achieve?

When you’re developing a theme, you can go back to those questions and add another question on the end:

Why?

Why do these particular consequences happen, and not others? If your character achieves what she set out to get, why? If she doesn’t, why not? What message are you trying to send with the outcome of your story?

I’m not saying that you have to have a moral to your story, but you should have a question that your story answers, or a statement that your story affirms. If your theme is “do the means justify the ends”, then at the end of the story, your plot should have answered this question in some way. If your theme is “love conquers all”, then when the curtain falls, love will have done so.

A lot of times, if you have an idea for a story, you already probably have an idea for a theme, even if you don’t know it yet. It’s especially thrilling when you examine your story in progress and realize that your various subplots already fit into a theme. As an exercise, look over something you’ve already written, or something you have in progress, and try to find a unifying thread that runs through the story. You might be surprised.

As an added bonus, just think of the irritated high schoolers who might be searching your book for these very themes in the future.

Next time: Point of View