Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why Writing a Novel Is Like Raising a Puppy

When puppies are first born, their eyes aren't open. They can't hear, they can't walk. They pretty much just whimper and shuffle around seeking comfort.
Meet your first draft:
(Photo credit: Canine Companions for Independence®)
With some nurturing, your puppy/manuscript starts to walk and eat solid food. It also trips over its own feet and falls asleep in the middle of playing. But you can't help thinking it might be the most adorable thing you've ever seen.

Soon it gets a little less clumsy. It starts following you around and learns to sit for a treat ... most of the time. It's full of cute shenanigans. But it also eats shoes.

You put in some serious training/revising time, and it learns a few tricks. But just when you think it's almost grown up, it pees on the rug in front of company or destroys your couch. It does the opposite of what you ask.

Some days, you wonder why you ever got into this in the first place.

These things take time. And demand lots of attention. Eventually, your puppy/manuscript is ready for the world. Once it's out there, it'll still occasionally jump on strangers, tug on the leash, act like it's never heard its name before.

But you love it anyway. And you can't help hoping everyone else loves it just as much.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kittens, Cake, and Other Lessons from NaNoWriMo

I managed to finish my first National Novel Writing Month with about 12 hours to spare, leaving me with a deep need to sleep in and a first draft that came a lot faster than it would have if I hadn't WriMoed. I wouldn't say this experience changed me as a writer, but as it goes with personal challenges, I did learn a few things:

If you build it, the words will come.
Ah, Kevin Costner ... we all learn the Field of Dreams lesson one way or another. For me, it was about writing when I don't feel like writing. I've never been a write-every-day kind of person, preferring to let my ideas percolate (a.k.a. the pre-writing stage) before pouring them out in a frenzied, caffeinated rush of words. It works, but it wasn't going to work for 50,000 words in four weeks. So, I went back to the ol' butt-in-chair method, and most days, it paid off. Some days better than others, but that will always be the nature of the creative beast.
Worrying that it sucks is part of the process ... but so is getting over that.
I was on fire for the first two weeks, hammering out words every day, even getting ahead of schedule. Then stuff happened, like being extra busy at work and realizing that I actually need sleep to function now that I'm no longer in college. And that blip in productivity opened the door for Doubt: What if my plot makes no sense? What if no one cares about my characters? What if it sucks? What if I suck?

But I had a goal this month, and time was ticking. Since I'd told too many people about about NaNoWriMo to just give up, that left only one option: Tell Doubt to shut #%&* up, then keep writing. Doubt doesn't shut up easily, but now it's whimpering in the corner, telling me my manuscript might suck, but mostly drowned out by the I-Have-a-First-Draft party and the Almost-Anything-is-Possible-in-Editing after party. Whether you're writing your draft in a month, a year or a decade, you only get to those parties (and the even more exciting ones that come when the book is really done) once Doubt is kicked to the backseat.

There are kittens for everything.
Maybe you've heard of Write or Die? It's a website (now also an app) that works a bit like a shock collar -- you stop working and you get zapped, the virtual voltage ranging from a gentle pop-up reminder, to your writing unwriting itself. It's an entertaining concept, but as a dog trainer, I've always been a positive reinforcement kind of gal. So now I give you Written? Kitten! where you get cute kitten pictures when you meet your word goal. Which only goes to prove the undisputed law of the internet: Cats rule the web.

So, am I a NaNoWriMo die-hard now? Yes and no. Writing a book is an accomplishment, whether it gets published or gets shoved into the bottom of the bottomest drawer in your house. Really, a lot more people talk about writing than actually do it. So I love that there's a month where so many people are all about writing.

But the word frenzy of NaNoWriMo is not a process that will always work for everyone, even for a first draft. I happened to be in the right place with the right book this November. I might not be next year.

And there's the bigger picture: NaNoWriMo is kind of like crash dieting. It may get the job done if you're trying to fit into a bridesmaid dress, but it's not a lifestyle. You can also lose weight eating nothing but Ben & Jerry's but that doesn't mean you'll be healthy, just like this writing thing is about more than just word count. If your goal is to get published, you need to keep your WriMo momentum going and hop on the editing treadmill come December.

Tonight, I'm eating my celebratory 50,000 word cake. Tomorrow, it's back to salads and revisions.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Taking the NaNoWriMo Plunge

Remember that time I said I'd try to be better about blogging? And then I wasn't? No, not that time, I mean the most recent time.

Stuff got in the way. I'm not even talking about normal life stuff -- everyone has that. I'm talking herds of wild burros, lions and tigers on the loose, and egging Harvard.

That's the thing about having a job you love. Sometimes it's hard to stop working, especially when people and animals need help.

But here's the problem: There's this other job I love, too. The one where I make up lives with the hope that I'll see them on a bookshelf someday. 

So when do I work on my novels? Whenever I can steal time. I am not a wake-up-early-to-write kind of person. I'm a little envious of my friends who are dedicated morning writers, but I'm just not that functional before dawn, and saving my writing energy for a couple evenings a week or a weekend afternoon is far more productive for me than a week's worth of battling my morning mental fog.

Still, sometimes it's good to set goals. To refuse to let life (or wild animals) trample my latest manuscript. And that brings us to NaNoWriMo.

For those not inducted into the speed-writing cult, that's National Novel Writing Month.

In just a few days (holy crap, it's already November?), National Novel Writing Month will begin. This is where (crazy) creative people around the world spend a month banging out 50,000 words of fiction. If I can give that kind of attention to either of my current projects, I'll end the month with a first draft* and a shiny feeling of accomplishment.

I can do anything for a month, right? Stop laughing at me, world. It's worth a try. And now that it's posted online, I guess I'm committed.

So, who's in? 

And if you've done it before, I welcome any hints on setting up a caffeine drip, letting yourself write crap, teaching the dogs to feed themselves, and whatever else helped you get through the month.

*Tip: NaNoWriMo should be known as NaNoFirDraMo (National Novel First Draft Month). It's not a good idea to query on December 1st. Take a breather. Revise. Then revise again. Then have someone else read your work. Revise again. Then maybe it's time to query.

Calendar via Surly Muse

Saturday, August 13, 2011

How Talking to Your Pets Can Improve Your Writing

Admit it: You talk to your pets.

Seriously, I don't know anyone with pets who doesn't talk to them. If you're a writer, why not put that one-way* conversation to work?

Libraries and schools across the country already know the value of canine listening skills in Reading to Dogs programs. Having a non-judgmental audience helps kids become more confident readers. Without having to worry about whether they might stumble over words, kids get more practice and start to enjoy reading more.**

What if you could get some of these same benefits as a writer? You can.

At my weekly critique group, we bring copies for people to follow along, but each writer reads his or her own work aloud. It's a great way to catch awkward phrasing, spots where the pacing starts to lag, and other common issues with works-in-progress.

While your pets may not be able to help you identify loose plot threads or character inconsistencies*, reading to Fido can help you spot problems.

It's also a common public speaking tip to practice a speech in front of the mirror, but the benefit of practicing with your pets before you start doing readings is that you're preparing for a live audience. Once you're in that bookstore, you may be faced with people who suddenly have an urge to start chewing on something or decide to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of your scene. Your pet will help you get used to powering through those distractions.

Give reading to your pets a try. It's one more way for them to earn their spot in the acknowledgments. You'll thank them someday ... Out loud.

*If you're having a two-way conversation with your animals, or if they do offer editing tips, we should talk book proposals.

**On a cute footnote: a recent Tufts University study of reading to dogs programs found that kids tended to pick animal-themed books, "seeming to want to choose stories the dogs could relate to." Perhaps it's a lesson in knowing your audience?

Photo credit: Sugar Pond

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Excuses Aren't Always a Battle Between Good and Evil

Top 3 Reasons I Haven't Been Blogging:

1) I was writing.
2) I was swimming a la Scrooge McDuck in a sea of gold coins sent to me by a Nigerian Prince whose email I answered on a whim.
3) The dog ate my blog.

Wait, wrong list. Here are the real reasons:

1) I was paying for my vet's vacation house due to a series of unfortunate events.*
2) I was visiting family, where my time was occupied by necessities such as finally seeing the last Harry Potter movie and celebrating National Ice Cream Month.
3) I was with my amazing and inspiring colleagues at a work retreat, followed by lots of, well, work.

If you're my dog, my mom or my boss, you probably appreciate that second list. If you're a fellow writer prone to self-flagellation and comparing your process/word count/success to others, you may be thinking those are three Not Good Enough Excuses: You weren't eating ice cream with your family for two weeks straight, were you? No, I wasn't.

Maybe I could have sacrificed the few hours of sleep I got most nights to keep up with blogging, or scribbled the next chapter in the vet hospital waiting room. But that's not the way the past couple weeks went down.

Here's the thing: Life Happens.

And I'm choosing to cut myself some slack instead of wasting time fretting over what I should have done. Excuses can be a great exercise in creativity, but dwelling on them doesn't get books (or blogs) written.

You won't always get to the gym, stick to the diet, or eke out the next 1,000 words as planned. The key is to move on. So, here's me putting down the glass of self-flagellation-and-comparison-with-a-twist-of-lemon, and moving on.

Blog post: Check. Next stop: Manuscript.

What are your secrets to getting back on track when life derails you?

*Don't worry, the pack is on the mend!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Recipe for Turning Borders News into Lemonade

By now, you've probably heard that Borders is closing. This isn't welcome news for readers, writers or publishers. And it's definitely not welcome news for those of us in the Ann Arbor area, where Borders is a local business.

It's too late to save Borders. Those lemons are, sadly, already shriveled and rotting on the ground. But that doesn't mean the entire tree is waiting for the axe. There are still lemons to be squeezed with sugar and mixed with iced tea or vodka.

Now, if you know me, or happened to read my previous posts about my well-intentioned attempt at participating in a farm share, then you know any recipe I provide will be an easy one. So, here goes: Go to your local bookstore and buy books.

This recipe can be butchered. If you click over to Amazon, it's like substituting Crystal Light for the fresh lemons and real sugar. You'll still have something to drink, but it's not the same. All of those things you love about bookstores -- the browsing, the community, the random stuff for sale that has nothing to do with books but you can't resist buying anyway, the happily employed people -- you can only get that if you directly support those stores.

If you think about it, lemonade stands are the epitome of small business perseverance. It's something we all associate with the old days -- sepia photos of badly dressed, awkward little kids who would grow up to be our grandparents. Then again, Gwenyth Paltrow and her creatively-named kids just raised money for the RSPCA with a lemonade stand. So, it's still in style.

And so are books.

The bottom line is this: I'm not one of those people who believes the publishing industry is withering and dying.

Sure, things are changing, and we've established that Borders closing is Very Bad News. But I don't see ebooks and small presses and self-publishing, and all the other changes that have people doing their best impressions of either Chicken Little or Madam Cleo, as portents that we're entering an era of illiteracy. They're proof that people still love to read and will find new ways to get their hands on good stories. And they're proof that people still love to write and will find creative ways to get their stories out there.

Still, having places where you can go browse and buy books is important to communities and the industry. It's up to those of us who love books to learn from Borders before more stores go sour. Buying local matters.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Return of the Killer Comment: Tips to Save Your Internet Life

I love the internet. Really, I do. But after a year and a half of working for a website where people let their passions fly, not to mention watching various friends and strangers flail as they learn to swim through Facebook and Twitter, I've seen some pretty cringe-worthy internet behavior.

The things you post online can come back to haunt you like Michael Myers, the Poltergeist, and that creepy girl from The Ring all rolled into one. It's not that one lame comment on a news story or an awkward tweet will doom you. But as a writer, you are your brand. And if you're here from the activist crowd, the other side is just waiting for an excuse to discredit you.

So, here are a handful of tips that should help you avoid falling in open graves, whether you're building an online presence or being chased by zombies:

1) You never know when they're watching you.

Your worst nightmare could be lurking behind the trees of that blog post or peeping at your Twitter at any time. You may post 79 times a day, but that one time you let your crazy show could be the time when an agent or editor pops over to your page. It could be the time when a reporter or council member decides to see if you're worth an interview or a meeting. Don't let that be the moment when you're caught in the port-a-potty with your pants down. (Ten points if you got the Jurassic Park reference.)

2) There's no good way to get rid of a psycho serial killer.

The internet has a short memory. Except, of course, when you want it to forget. That's when your rant gets immortalized in reposts, caches and screenshots. You can bust out your arsenal of chainsaws, hand grenades, holy water and delete buttons, but oftentimes, the damage is done. And just when you start to think it's safe to go out, it will rise again. So, think before you post.

3) Don't go in the basement. Don't check out that noise. Don't swim in the sharktopus*-infested waters.

Usually you can see disaster coming, as long as you don't ignore the warning signs. So, if you find yourself firing off a response to something that made you attempt to throttle your monitor before you've even wiped the foam from your mouth or, say, posting when drunk (in other words, the equivalent of going for a stroll in the graveyard at midnight wearing only your nightie), it's time to rethink your plan. Step away from the keyboard before you do something you might regret.

4) Make it to the sequel.

All of this isn't to say "go forth and be boring." Being an extra in a horror movie never pays off. In general, especially as a writer, you get bonus points for personality. Just be aware of what you're putting out there because anyone could be watching, and you don't want to be defined by your death scene.

*Here's the Sharktopus trailer, just because it makes me laugh every time: