Writing Self-Help Series: 500 Ways to Write Harder

January. JANUARY. A month of new gym memberships and weather patterns in the South where it can be 60F on Wednesday and 20F on Thursday because we don’t understand how Winter works!

I am typically very fond of New Year’s Resolutions but I’m giving them a bit of a miss for 2015. Instead of making myself some semi-achievable goals I did the following:

1. Got a big ol’ calendar (like this one but cooler looking) that shows the whole year at once. It’s nice because it helps you see your time better when you can see the next month and realize “Oh, I don’t have March plus whatever infinite time lays beyond it, I’ve got three and a half weeks” when planning things out.

2. I’ve adopted Victoria Schwab’s calendar method for checking off daily achievements and keeping track of what I’ve done and when I’ve done it.

3. I cleaned out my closets which, uh, doesn’t really have a lot to do with writing? But it was fun and it felt good?

And most importantly, I’m reading and writing and at the moment I’m reading about writing. That is the worst possible segue I could manged to move into a review of 500 Ways to Write Harder by Chuck Wendig.

First things first:  if you’re not reading Chuck Wendig’s blog YOU REALLY SHOULD. IT’S THE BEST. Okay, yeah, I mean some other blogs have their insight into the craft of writing and offer wise advice that can be applied to life at large but do they swear in their posts? Do they invoke such imagery as the following thoughts on the new year:

The ideal state would be that we change when we need to, not when the calendar suggests it, but let’s also remember that the holidays and the transition from one year to another are vital times to reflect. We build up to the orgiastic rush to Christmas, and then are left with a startling, almost shocking void — all that’s left is cleaning up the wrapping paper and throwing the Christmas Hobo on the bonfire. Ha ha ha, I didn’t say Christmas Hobo, you said Christmas Hobo. I said tree. Christmas tree.

Well, I think he’s funny.

Anyways, on to 500 Ways to Write Harder. All of the advice and self-help books that I’ve read have a feel to them. Some make me feel like I’m sitting at a desk in a lecture hall, worksheets spread out before me. On Writing by Stephen King feels like a long walk down an Autumnal, leaf-littered nature trail while King quietly relates the stories of his life and the wisdom garnered throughout his career. Wendig’s Writer Harder is a night at the bar spent playing poor and heckling the karaoke singers and a friend turning to you and, with a sloshing gesture of their drink, saying “Let me tell you a thing.”

500 Ways to Write Harder is broken into collections of 25-ish points about subjects such as Bad Writer Behaviors, Things to do Before You Start Your Novel, 25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story, 25 Ways to be a Happy Writer, and 25 Ways to Get Your Authorial Groove back among many others. This format works out because you can read it section by section intermittently or, if you want a refresher, go back to a specific area and re-read with ease.

Just as there is no single way to approach writing a story, Wendig offers occasionally opposing pieces of advice to let you find your own path. He also advocates that all writers need to care for their mental health which I super-appreciate because I loath the romanticized notion of artists being inherently broken.

[ASIDE:  If you feel that you are suffering from anxiety, depression, whatever, please seek help. Treatment will not steal your muse or wreck-up your creative nature. Athletes aren’t expected to “suffer for their craft” by running on broken ankles; artists don’t need to endure mental torment to do their artist thing.]

500 Ways to Write Harder is sharp and wickedly funny. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing at Wendig’s advice as much as I was silently nodding along at all the sage wisdom he was dishing out. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts:

Seek consistency and clarity in point-of-view, lest you confound and bewilder, lest you seem like the king of amateur-hour karaoke. Hell, seek consistency and clarity in all of your writing. Also, in your take-out orders. because you think you ordered a “ham and cheese sandwich” but then you open the bag and suddenly your face is on fire from a thousand stingers and you’re like OMG THEY MUST’VE THOUGHT I SAID HAM AND BEES.

Like I said, sage wisdom.

The advice is advisory, the humor is humorous, and he make two Avatar: the Last Airbender references which makes Wendig one of my new best friends. Get the book, read the book, then get back to writing.

RECOMMENDED FOR SURE.

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Clever with the Word Count.

As previously mentioned in my last blog post, I had every intention of participating in the 2014 run of National Novel Writing Month, or as the I’ve been informed the kids are calling it these days, The NaNos.

And, uh, so I am participating in the 2014 run of National Novel Writing Month. Huh, that worked out nicely didn’t it? Look at me and my holding to a promised action! I’m like some kind of functioning human being! PRAISE ME.

Anyways. We’re at the mid-point of National Novel Writing Month and so far, so good-ish. I’m about four thousand words behind at the moment due to missing a few days because that whole Life thing insists on continuing even when I ask it nicely to pause for a month. But only a few thousand words isn’t that bad in my NaNoWriMo history! It’s practically on schedule except for the part it isn’t! This upcoming week is going to be my mad push to reach 40k before Thanksgiving so I can, for once, not have to worry about frantically pushing out twenty-three thousand or so words in the last four days of November.

So far this has been my most successful NaNoWriMo. Honest to gravy this is the first time I have actually and factually pinned down an ending to a story before working on anything else and woah dang howdy, I will never attempt another story without doing so. The fact that I have an end point to work towards, or at the very least an end conflict, makes it a lot easier to piece together the fiddly middle bits that have to connect the beginning with the end. I’ve got myself a main character, she’s got herself a little sister, there are class mates and magical abilities and categorical divisions that eventual fans will be able to identify with and buy merchandise based on them. It’s going to be brilliant, I tells ya, and I’m enjoying the process so far.

But let’s jump back a month, shall we? Travel back to October with me when everything was beautiful and I could fart around making sure a 500 word piece of flash fiction was just so for days on end. O, the halcyon days!

Back in October I bought a Humble Book Bundle [see note at the end of this post for a correction], which if you’re not aware of this being a thing that exists, OH MY GOODNESS LET ME TELL YOU A THING. The Humble E-Book Bundle offers you, go figure, a bundle of themed books for a price that you name. There is a base price (which is going to be stupidly cheap for the amount of books you get) that will net you a handful of e-books in various, DRM free, format or as the case is right now, a bunch of audio books. However, if you pay above the median price you unlock another handful of books that often include a big name author to help sweeten the pot. When you pay you can choose how much of your money goes towards the authors, towards the selected charity that has been connected to the bundle, and how much goes as a “tip” back to the Humble Bundle makers themselves. If you’re feeling flush with cash and make a big donation you even get your name on a leader board! Whee, recognition!

The first bundle I bought was a collection of what I think of as “Writer’s Self Help Books” and which for the love of all things adorable I cannot find right now on the Internet @#$%!!! I’ve perused these books and their promises to teach me to write a novel in 30 days/Three Weekends/Fifteen minutes but I’ve never taken them seriously.

Until now.

*cue dramatic music*

From now until I’ve read them all, I will be trying out each of these writing aid books and seeing what shakes out from following their direction. Some are more literal step-by-step guides to produce a manuscript while others are more tips, tricks, and viewpoints from an already successful author. I’ll have a review up each month to let you know my experience with each book.

First up is going to be No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty. Technically this wasn’t part of the Humble Bundle, but hey, I wanted to be thematic for the whole National Novel Writing Month thing I’ve got going here.

(Yeesh, six hundred words to get to the review. It’s almost like I’m trying to pad some sort of word count or something…)

Chris Baty is the head-honcho of NaNoWriMo. He started the event among a close group of friends and developed it into an international event that invites all comers to bang out a fifty-thousand word novel just to prove that they can reach into themselves.  It gives people the excuse to dust off the story that they had always promised they would write “one day” but never thought they could really write, and lets them write it out in full. No Plot! No Problem? Gives readers the history and ideas behind what NaNoWriMo has become today as well as giving loads of guidance on how to accomplish a fifty-thousand word novel in a single month.

If it helps your personal journey, Baty is not totally beholden to the month of November. If that time frame doesn’t work for you then he would be delighted if you picked a more preferable month and held your own, personal NaNoWriMo.  The whole theme of the book is that all one needs to do for a successful NaNoWriMo experience is to simply sit down and write. Hit your daily word requirement with no excuses and to the exclusion of your normal daily life. Tell your inner editor to hush and get the story out.

No Plot? No Problem! Itself is a light-hearted collection of advice on how to NaNoWriMo including where to write, how to set a writing mood, how to prepare without burning yourself out, how to put aside any attempts at editing, and how to manage real life responsibilities whilst churning out 1,667 words a day. There are tips from former NaNoWriMo participants and a week by week guide to lead you through the month.

It’s a surprisingly funny book. I wasn’t expecting to laugh out loud (or as the I’ve been informed the kids are calling it these days, lol) at a book about NaNoWriMo, but Baty has a sharp wit when relating his own writing experiences.

“Things went awry almost immediately. With nothing to do all day but write, I found myself doing everything but writing. Essential errands were run. Laundry was done. The bathroom was cleaned. Less essential errands were run. The bathroom was re-cleaned. A complex rooftop Habitrail system designed to make tree-to-tree transitioning easier for the neighborhood squirrels was built and nearly installed before the county’s animal services intervened. And so on.

The mounting guild I felt each evening over accomplishing so little writing during the day would then force me to cancel the plans I had made with friends that night. So I could stay in and get some writing done.

Night, of course, simply involved more work on the Habitrail.”

Per my own personal preferences, the advice offered in No Plot? No Problem! Neatly skirts the line between Solid, Practical Writing Advice and Tripping the Muse Fantastic nonsense. I have absolutely no patience with the idea of my character running away with the plot I have designed for them because oh goodness, don’t those characters have a mind of their own~! No. They don’t. They are mine, wholly and totally, and will serve the purposes I set out for them. Perhaps I am not a very whimsical person? Maybe I need to buy a prism or something. That being said, it’s very easy to heed the advice you want and skip over the advice that doesn’t apply to you. My eyes flitted over the small section about how to choose a Writing Totem but I lapped up every bit of the time management tips offered.

The week by week advice is my favorite portion of the book. It’s 75% carrot and 25% well-applied stick. Baty will cajole, encourage, and praise NaNoWriMo participants for making it this far and do his best to convince readers that if they just keep putting one foot ahead of another, they’ll make it through the month with their fifty thousand word count complete. He gives little booster exercises and both accepts writer’s frustrations while offering paths to move past them. This section is very similar to the weekly encouragement emails that NaNoWriMo participants receive and I’ve always found them to be a nice little life line. After your NaNoWriMo summit has been reached there is even a little bit of guidance in regard to editing that beast of a manuscript.

 Overall, I recommend No Plot? No Problem! As a read. If you’re a serial NaNoWriMo participant than buy it, and if you’re a writer just seeking overall advice then I super-duper-recommend you get it from the library at the very least.

OH HEY WAIT I FOUND THE BOOK BUNDLE! Okay, turns out it is a Story Bundle, which is different from a Humble Bundle even though they both work the exact same way with their you-name-it price levels and donations to charity. The National Novel Writing Month bundle is still available at the time of writing this entry (click here) if you wish to partake. I would keep an eye on the Story Bundles for sure because they are a super cheap way to beef up your e-book collection. Now that I’ve scanned over both it looks like Humble Bundles are more games and comic selections.

Buy both? Both. Both is good.

Life of a Former Slush Pile Reader

A TALE IN WHICH THE AUTHOR, at her computer, comes across a newly released story.

“Didn’t they already release this one?” she asks herself. “I could have sworn they printed it last year. Let’s see if anybody else noticed in the reviews.”

But no one did. There was nothing but praise for the story, and so the author reflects on where she might recognize this story from.

“Oh,” she says to her cat, “I read this when it was in the slush pile. I approved it and sent it to the next level of approval/rejection. Huh.”

The author felt pretty cool about that.

Podcast Review: Writing Excuses

“This is Writing Excuses! Fifteen minutes long because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart!”

Out here in the vast wilderness of the Internets an intrepid browser could probably discover an infinite amount of professional advice on any given topic. Naturally, much of the advice is sarcastically quotation-marked “professional” at best, and you can only filter out so many of the crazies by analyzing whether or not it looks like they used Geocities-izer to make their site before you stumble across someone that has the pretense of actual knowledge.

So, gentle listener, how does one divine true and authentic information from the Intertrons in a safe and timely manner, without running the risk of clicking on a site that once seen, cannot be unseen?

First you read my reviews. And then you go listen to Writing Excuses.

Hosted by bonafide authors Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells along with verifiable web-comic creator Howard Tayler, this podcasts is a veritable font of useful information for writers. A quick-fix of advice and opinion from the viewpoints of established authors who are willing to share their experience in podcast form. I believe the audience intended for this podcast is new or unpublished authors, but I think a writer of any level could gain some usefulness information out of Writing Excuses.

Relevant Links:
Main Site
…honestly, the main site is all you need. Each host has links to their own blogs, you can find the iTunes and RSS feeds right on the front page.

And why not, here’s the Wordle you get for the Writing Excuses website:

Wordle: http://www.writingexcuses.com/

Can’t say they’re not consistent when it comes to mentioning their sponsor.

Episode Length: Fifteen minutes on average. Occasionally longer, depending on how verbose the hosts are feeling about a particular topic.

Release Schedule: A new episode is released every Sunday.

Each episode focuses on one particular topic that relates to writing in some way. Example topics from previous episodes are:

The Anti-Mary Sue episode
Trimming
How to Write Without Twists
Plot-vs. Character-driven Fiction

Look at those topics! They’re positively brimming with…topicability.

Each host in turn will share their ideas and experiences, and do their best to show how their information can be utilized by the listener. Their approach is friendly and welcoming; this is the kind of podcast that, could it be worn, would be your favorite hoodie from college. Brandon, Dan and Howard work together to host the majority of the episodes, but there are frequent guest hosts who are in turn harnessed to give a fresh view.

The hosts will touch on both the creative and business ends of writing, which will be much appreciated by aspiring authors. It is not enough to know how to write a story, or even how to edit it and make it presentable to editors, but how, where, when to submit, how to approach editors and publishing houses, what to expect after you actually write something! It is refreshing to see a creative task explained and examined with reason.

Content Rating: Clean. They may occasionally drop a very tame swear word. Or mention monkey poo.

Unintentionally Good Part: Writing Excuses Episode 632. Trust me.

Unintentionally Bad Part: This podcast is niche-niche-nichy. Even for aspiring authors, the advice generally pertains to only the science fiction/fantasy genres, so this podcast will attract only a very specific audience.

Drinking Game: Have a brass monkey every time they use a monkey as a plot device in their writing prompt.

Writing Prompt: A secret organization has implanted a device into your head that records your every thought for a live-steaming podcast. Go!

Take As Needed

My computer is still in a state of disrepair. The new hard drive is installed, the BAZILLIONS of updates to the OS are up and running, and I installed FireFox so that counts for the majority of necessary fixes. However, my stupid battery backup decided to kick the bucket so it will still be a few days before Writing Base Alpha is back up to speed.

Sidenote: batter backups make me feel guilty when they die because they make those sad little beeps as they fail. Poor things.

In the meantime, please allow me to offer you some delightful links!

Crossed Genres is seeking first readers! First Readers are the front line of slush pile submissions and as such, are always in high demand so that editors can spend their time more efficiently. Sort that wheat from that chaff!

Chuck Wendig’s excellent writing blog has an excellent article on the 25 Things A Great Character Needs. I highly recommend that you give his site a looksie as it is chock-a-block full of interesting and useful thoughts on writing.

Tired of writing, thinking about writing, reading about what other people thing about writing, and need a break from the craft in general? Whenever I want to do something creative that doesn’t involve trying to write out the scenes in my head, I bake. The King Arthur Flour blog is an excellent resource for any level of baker. Baking is a great way to create something in a different way than you might, say, crochet or write or garden. I think it is a great way to clear my mind and in the end, I get something delicious to eat when I get back to writing!

What are some good sites that you think I should be looking at? Let me know in the comments!

Furious Self Reflection

Let’s take a look back at what I said on November 12th, during the second week of this glorious National Novel Writing Month:

So far the outline is helping. Writing down one-sentence summaries of characters seems dippy, but it forces me to describe minor characters further than I normally would. If I spend a month in a writing experiment that leads me to a solid first draft then that’s good enough for me. I’ll be hung if you don’t find me scrabbling to churn out 20k words on the 29th-30th

Hey, at the very least I know myself. Today marks day… what, four or possible five of me cranking out over 5k words a day. Right now I am totally exhausted and yes, totally and admittedly using this blog entry as a way to both pad my word count and get a little bit of a warm-up before I once more plow back into the story I am working on.

Not the lack of apostrophes, it is a dead giveaway of a NaNoWriMo’er in desperate straights. But hey, look at my little NaNo widget! Look at that little bar getting filled up!

The big question I find myself asking is this:  are my efforts worth it? There are a lot of ways someone can work if they dedicate an entire month to writing. Maybe you could write a single short story and have it edited and ready for submission in thirty days! If you are some one who finds it hard to come up with new premises you can think up a plot hook each day (actually that would be pretty cool because then you would be set with story ideas for a good while). If you are not a writer, you could devote all your spare time to reading new books and adding to your Goodreads lists. Is NaNoWriMo the best use of time?

For me, for 2013, the answer is yes. I went into this year’s crazy merry-go-round of word count chaos with a plan to come out of the other side with an outline and if possible, a first draft of a story. Right now I have a bloated, but complete first act of a story and more importantly a ton-load of world building tucked away. I know the town that my main character starts in and how it functions. I came up with reasons for there to be magic, and why it the main character would have access to it in ways that supporting characters do not. I think I turned most of the background characters from stupid tropes into functioning people that have their own lives other that edifying or harassing the main character. So far I have resisted the urge to include an adorable animal companion.

Although I totally could throw in an adorable animal companion. The main character would absolutely care for an orphaned raccoon or something and it would be awesome. It would wear a collar and everything AND I would even give it a chance at not dying in a cheap ploy to provoke the reader’s emotions.

The benefit of NaNoWriMo for me is the constant press to keep the words appearing on screen. This helps to break my habit of leaning back and spending hours searching Wikipedia or sites that may or may not be relevant to ideas I have for the story.  That constant stream of thought brings out connections and ideas that I would have spend a week mulling over in the course of a single night of frantic writing.

To any one else participating in NaNoWriMo that reads this, I wish you Godspeed and a joyous thrill when you reach 50k. May you feel justified in your purchase of the “winners” t-shirt and may you one day find a purpose for your story, whether it be in a published novel or the simple pleasure of know you had a story and now it is down on paper (digital or otherwise).

Good luck, and keep writing!

How I Feel When I Get Rejected

Rejection letters! They’re a fact and function of submitting stories to various markets. My most recent additions to the “pile of sadness” include a rejection from Podcastle (rad audio podcast for fantasy stories) and my semi-annual rejection from Writers of the Future.

I get rejection letters, do you? How do you feel when you get them? I’m curious to hear from other’s about their experience and in turn, share my own. Usually the process goes like this:

  1. Send off a submission. Immediately re-read the e-mail and fret that I missed some grammatical error or skipped a step in the submission process.
  2. Look at the average reply time, and pretend like I’m not anticipating the e-mail.
  3. Once the average reply time gets close, stop pretending and check e-mail every forty minutes.
  4. Receive an e-mail from the market I submitted to!  Hey! A thrill of excitement and tension in the space between recognizing the e-mail address and reading the actual e-mail.
  5. Thanks to Gmail, immediately see the first line of the e-mail. See something along the lines of “Thanks for your submission, but-” or “Your story did not win” or something equally polite.
  6. Sense of anticipation is now mingled with disappointment. There is a detached sense of embarrassment for offering a sub-standard story to the market and for wasting a slush reader’s time.
  7. Tuck the e-mail into my “rejection letters” folder, and move on to doing something like reading my Tumblr for a while. Possibly use the rejection as a means to justify getting frozen yogurt.

I think that out of all of that, its the embarrassment that bothers me. I hate that feeling, and it bugs me that I react that way. The rational part of me knows that my story was read and then forgotten but the stupid part of me that remains in high school would prefer if I just hid all of the other stories I have in the back of my hard drive rather than put myself through that again. Fortunately that part of me had been outvoted for quite some time now, so it gets shoved into its own little locker and I keep trying.

 

IN OTHER NEWS THAT IS RELATED TO THE MONTH OF NOVEMBER, I finally got a fire in my but about NaNoWriMo and am reaching for that brass ring. Watch my word count jump up in the next few days! Yes I am dumb.

So how do you react? Anger, shame, apathy? Do you keep the rejection letters or delete them? Do you listen to your sad music of choice for a while and then soldier on? I am almost certain this is a straw man that I’ve created but I imagine that there are still writers who have stories that remain un-submitted for fear of rejection. I promise, it doesn’t hurt for long! It’s like…what, getting vaccinated? It hurts for a little, and if it is a tetanus shot then you’ll be sore for a few days, but afterwards you’ll be stronger! Your stories will be stronger! You’ll be… less susceptible to whooping cough?

Okay, I lost that metaphor.   I hope that every writer who reads this has their own rejection story because gosh darn it, it means you’ve tried.