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Why dogs are like writing

My kids once argued that they could never be bored if they had a dog. You can probably guess how that worked out. But I feel the same way about writing. I can never be bored when I have a story to work on.

Writing’s been keeping me engaged for three years now. In fact, if you ignore the complete lack of pay, this is the longest I’ve held one job, um, ever.

I’m not lazy. I just crave constant mental challenge. Once I master my work I’m ready to move on, but writing is the one thing I can never fully master. Even if I were flawless in all aspects of craft—oh, if only!—there would always be a new story to challenge me, new plot points and characters to work through, research to be done.

Writing has held my attention over the last three years, but each year has had a different focus or feel to it. That keeps it interesting.

2009 was all about the joy of writing, happiness at finally finding something to keep my brain engaged, and getting to know other writers. I started learning how the industry worked, and began to see that it was changing rapidly.

2010 was the year of craft. I read as many books, blogs, and articles as I could get my hands on. I took online classes, attended my chapter meetings, worked with a critique partner, and entered contests. I attended my first national conference and volunteered at the national level.

2011 was the year I hit my stride as a writer. I got the Golden Heart nod and placed well in several contests, and I started getting requests for my full manuscript, rejections with feedback (including one revise-and-resubmit from an agent), and requests for my future work.

I took a leap and started teaching my online Scrivener class, getting back to something else I’ve always loved. But the other thing that happened in 2011? I faltered as a writer. I got too caught up in the craft and structure and forgot how to just write for the story first. I focused too much on my process, my stories’ publishability, and other people’s visions for my work. I got too involved in volunteering, email loops, and social media.

I went off track.

So, 2012 is the year I take back my writing. I’m scaling back my commitments to more manageable levels. As for my writing, this is the first year where I feel like I might actually be ready to deal successfully with a publishing offer. I even got my first revise-and-resubmit from an editor.

Now that I have all that craft swimming in my head and know (better) how to layer it in during the revision process, I’m focusing on the writing joy again.

Maybe this won’t be the year of the contract. And that’s okay too.

People who’ve never written before wonder how we can stand to wait three, four, five, or eleven years to get published. Sure, the anxiety and impatience are there, but the longer I’m in this game, the more I realize how ill-prepared I was in the early years, and how much more I still need to learn.

I have to believe that persistence will pay off. So, until I get the call, I’ll be happily working on my future backlist.

Besides, I have a dog, so I can never be bored.

NaNoWriMo Is OvEr

NaNoWriMo is over! And I did it!! Some people wonder why I torture myself, ignore my family, shun the dog, let my house go to hell—well, more than it already is—and s-t-r-e-s-s for 30 days just to get some extra words down.

Why? Because the things I learn about myself are priceless.

  • I can actually write 3500 words in a day, over multiple days, and it’s not all complete doo doo. I can even write 47000 words in 21 days (I got a late start this year). Which all means that someday when I’m getting paid tens of dollars to do this, I will be able to meet my deadline.
  • I can carve out 3-5 hours a day to write if I have a reason to.
  • I have the discipline required to put off email, Twitter, blogging, reading, television, and laundry (oh wait, that I was supposed to do) in order to meet my goal. Now I just need to keep it going.
  • I like writing! Despite the plot struggles and fights with my internal editor, when I sit down and write every day, the story ideas and improvements start flowing even when I’m not writing. My change log is almost 900 words all on its own, mostly from things I thought of while driving, or coming off a nap.
  • I’m competitive. I like to win. So putting the goal out there taps into my sense of pride and helps me make the push to meet it. With that in mind, my new goal is to finish the first draft of the manuscript by January 15th. I expect you to hold me to it.

And, of course, there’s nothing better than finishing out a month with 50,000 new words—half a book—done!

What have you learned about yourself from a tough goal that you met? Or didn’t.

 

The Hauge

Which screenwriting consultant is on retainer to Will Smith’s production company?

Which story expert can spot your novel’s flaw in six seconds flat?

Who can help you take your story to a whole new level?

Michael Hauge.

If you’re not familiar with his Six Stage Plot Structure, check it out here.

I was lucky enough to attend Michael’s workshop last weekend in Bethesda, and it was incredible. On day one, he went through each step of the hero’s inner and outer journey, using popular movies (including video clips) like Shrek, Wedding Crashers, Hitch, Gladiator, and Good Will Hunting to illustrate the concepts.

The second day we spent the morning analyzing Sleepless in Seattle in depth, as well as reviewing key concepts from the day before.

In addition to the lectures, I learned a lot from his advice to others in the audience. Eight of us won the raffle to eat lunch with him where we asked general questions, and each got some one-on-one time where in thirty seconds he nailed my problem with the external story goal: no visible finish line/item that readers could imagine (e.g. a trophy, $20000, a dead terrorist, the deed to that coveted beach cottage).

The event covered a day and a half, so I could write a book on what I learned, but instead, I’ll share with you some of my favorite takeaways.

  • Emotion in a story grows out of conflict, not desire.
  • The arc moves the protagonist from identity to essence.
    • Identity: the emotional armor we wear to protect ourselves; our facade
    • Essence: who we are when you strip away all the emotional armor; our true self
  • In a romance, the love interest should be the protagonist’s destiny because he/she sees beneath the protag’s identity and connects at the level of essence. (Not just chemistry or kismet.)
  • When two characters are in conflict, it’s at the level of identity; when they’re connected, it’s at the level of essence. (This was a huge aha for me. I think this will really help me understand why conflict is lacking in certain scenes.)
  • Instead of the protag having to make a choice as the conflict, have her try to take on both things she wants to do. The conflict can come in trying to make both endeavors work (e.g. caring for an ailing parent and running a business).

Even if you’ve listened to his CD The Hero’s Two Journeys with Christopher Vogler, I highly recommend Michael’s in-person workshop. Not only will you pick up things you didn’t catch before, but having him there to answer questions is priceless. And if you haven’t tried The Hero’s Two Journeys, what are you waiting for? 😉

Not all educational opportunities are worth the time and money, though I’ve found that every workshop, craft book, or online class provides a new way of looking at something I already knew, a deeper understanding, or an outright epiphany.

Michael Hauge’s workshop was worth every minute and every penny. If you get the chance, go.

Helpful Scrivener features for NaNoWriMo

Are you trying out Scrivener for NaNoWriMo this year? Or maybe you’ve been using it for a while, but aren’t sure how to make the best use of it for this one-month sprint. I hope these tips (and links to how to implement them) will help you meet your 50K goal.

  • Set targets: Set up your 50K target with a November 30 deadline, and choose the days of the week you plan to write. Scrivener will calculate how much you need to write each day to stay on track, and adjust as you add words.
  • Keep a change log: I’ve mentioned several times that I shoot for no-edit writing during NaNo by utilizing a change log. How?
    • Add a text document to your Research folder—or create a new folder, maybe one called Ideas with the light bulb icon (right-click to change icon)—and call it Change Log.
    • Every time you think of something you need to go back and fix, add it to the document and get back to writing as if you already made the change. You can edit later, but if you change your mind again, it’s a lot easier to edit the log than the manuscript.
  • Annotate: How many times have you been writing along and realized you don’t know the name, speed, value, location, or color of something? Or maybe you can’t decide on the character’s name or type of car. Mark it, skip it, and get back to writing with these options.
    • Use an annotation or comment to make a note in the manuscript.
    • Don’t like annotations/comments? Mark the spot in your script with a character combo that won’t show up in any normal word (I use ZZZ), and move on. Some people like to differentiate, for example ZZR for research and ZZE for areas that need more work.
    • You can easily search for the marked up spots later.
  • Idea Log/Outline: Got a great idea for something coming later in the story? Create one or both of these files and store them with your Change Log.
    • Jot down notes for upcoming scenes in an Idea Log.
    • Create an outline that you can fill in as ideas come to you. This will be great for keeping you on track when you’re not sure what to write next.
  • Unused Scenes: Writing a scene but don’t know where to put it? Have an old scene that doesn’t belong, but you don’t want to delete it (I never delete anything)? Create an Unused Scenes folder and store the scenes for later.
  • Whatever else you need: You can keep your research materials, photos, character sketches/GMC, prewriting, and anything else that helps you, right inside your Scrivener project. I’ve just scratched the surface here, but hopefully this will get you started.
Even if you don’t make 50K, if you’ve added words, you’re still a winner where it counts.

Good luck!

Need more help? Sign up for an online class, read more Scrivener articles, or schedule a private training session.


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Surviving NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is a marathon for writers. With a super-stretch goal of 50,000 words, what can you do to get in shape now? These are the things that helped me win last year.

  • Prewriting: If you do any prewriting (e.g. Character sketches, exploratory scene writing, outlining), get it done before November 1st.
    • Even if you’re a total pantser, determining GMC and external conflicts now will go a long way toward ensuring you have a story idea that will sustain a novel-length work.
    • If you can outline, do it. I had a very sketchy outline last year, but it saved me when I got stuck and wasn’t sure what to start writing next.
  • Keep moving forward: Don’t go back to edit. Not only will this destroy your forward momentum, you end up wasting time fiddling with scenes that may just end up on the cutting room floor later. This more than anything is how I finished last year.
  • Create a change log: Should the first scene happen at the morgue instead of a bar? Jot down a note in the change log and keep writing as if you made the changes. (I keep such a file right in my Scrivener project for easy access).
  • Get comfortable: Are you planning to try Scrivener—or another writing program—during NaNo? Go for it! But download your free trial now and get used to it. You only need the basics to get started. You can play with all the cool features later.
    • The Scrivener trial is for 30 uses, not 30 days, so don’t close the program every day and it’ll get you through NaNo.
    • NaNo winners get a Scrivener discount coupon, so wait until you win to buy!
  • Time yourself: Use a timer to motivate you to sit in your chair (or stand at your desk) for manageable chunks of time. When it goes off you can decide if you want to keep writing or take a break. Writing is good, but breaks are important too.
  • Track your progress: I keep a log of my daily word count in Scrivener, and use the project targets to make sure I’m on track.
  • Alert friends and family: Get your family on board now. If you still have to make dinner, pick easy, quick meals for this month. Figure out what you need and ask for it now (designated quiet time, someone else to wash dishes, whatever). Make sure non-writing friends and family understand that you won’t be answering the phone or checking email constantly.
  • Be antisocial: Being part of the NaNoWriMo, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ community is great, and can provide support during the long haul, but if it gets in the way of writing, turn it off. Need willpower help? Try MacFreedom or a similar program, unplug your wifi, or go somewhere that doesn’t have Internet access.
  • Reward yourself: Give yourself little rewards when you meet your goals. A bubble bath, a few pieces of chocolate, a chapter of a good book, a movie, time with your family. Pick something that works for you.

Most important of all, just try your best. Why do we torture ourselves? Because even if you don’t win, you’ll learn something about yourself. You’ll likely be amazed at what you accomplished, both in terms of total output and some of your daily totals.

I learned that my writing is better when I don’t stop to censor or analyze it. I kept little sticky notes on my laptop with reminders like “write messy”, “write fast”, and “just write”.

It’s not about winning, it’s about going for it. No matter how many words you have at the end, it’ll be more than you have now.

That’s a win.

Are you a NaNoWriMo veteran? I’d love to see your tips for getting through it.

Kung Fu writer

My yellow sash graduation, October 2010 (yes, last year)

There really are people who can take you down with the flick of a wrist or the twist of a foot. I met a few of them in person over the weekend when I attended the Chi Lin Kung Fu reunion.

My instructor and a dozen or so Kung Fu masters were there. What an impressive bunch! (And a bit intimidating, especially when I had to perform for my purple sash test in front of them!)

With only two years of Tae Kwon Do and a year of Kung Fu under my, uh, sash, it’s humbling to be around men who’ve been studying the martial arts for thirty years or more. Their level of skill is astounding.

It’s a testament to the dedication, training, and practice they’ve put in.

And, like most experiences where I’m surrounded by experts, I got to thinking about the parallels to learning to write.

It’s incredibly easy to look at Nora Roberts or David Baldacci and think you’ll never be that good. And maybe you won’t. But it’s easy to miss the fact that those authors were new once too. They had to write several books—or maybe revise the same one repeatedly—before they got the call.

They spent years honing their craft, and have spent the subsequent years improving it.

If they did it, so can you.

So can I.

We all have things we’re good at. Some of us are athletic, some are musical, some are technical, and some are writers. Or all of those things. But even a natural talent requires focused effort, practice, and training.

Whatever your goal is, writing or otherwise, you can’t jump from beginner to master overnight. Even earning your black belt/sash (getting published) only means you’ve mastered the basics. There’s always more work to do, more to learn.

I may never be as prolific as Nora Roberts, but I’m sure going to try.

I may never be able to kill a man with my pinkie finger either, but someday I might just be able to take him down with my foot. 😉

Conflict breakdown: Sleepless in Seattle

I watched Sleepless in Seattle as homework for my upcoming Michael Hauge seminar, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to evaluate the movie in terms of conflict.

I don’t go into great detail, but beware, I will spoil the ending.

If you’re not familiar with the story, or don’t remember it well, you can find the script here.

This story’s a bit different than a typical romance because the H/H don’t really meet or talk until the end of the movie, so I can’t evaluate the conflict in terms of their relationship, and there’s no external conflict keeping them together in this case.

But, a lot of the elements still apply, especially early on.

The internal conflicts are stated:

–The hero, Sam, who lost his wife to cancer doesn’t believe that true love happens more than once in a lifetime, so plans not to remarry.

–Annie, the heroine, doesn’t believe in destiny or “signs” that someone is right or not right, for you. Her fiancé meets all of her criteria and she thinks she’s happy with him.

Awareness that their beliefs may be incorrect begins to form:

–Annie quickly realizes that she might be wrong about her fiancé Walter. There’s no magic between them, and their relationship lacks excitement.

–When Sam’s son Jonah calls a radio show and tells the host that his dad needs a new wife, Sam initially denies that he needs someone, but later starts to wonder if maybe he should get back “out there”.

Their beliefs are challenged and they start to explore (test) them:

–Annie hears Sam and Jonah on the radio and feels a connection to Sam. She asks her brother how he felt about getting married and figures she’s just getting cold feet. She starts to write a letter to Sam but tears it up.

–Sam talks to a coworker about dating, makes a date with a woman he met through work, and they become an item.

They dump core belief:

–Sam commits to a weekend alone with his new love interest.

–Annie flies to Seattle to meet Sam under the guise of doing a news story.

Okay, normally this is where a vacuum would form, and the characters would start to fill it with new beliefs about the other person, culminating in the realization that this is the person for them.

Then the black moment where one or both revert to the old belief after some kind of misunderstanding or betrayal (he lied to me, I was right not to trust him; after all we’ve been through she still doesn’t believe in me, I’m outta here).

One or both would realize leaving was a mistake (climax, race to the airport, near death experience, etc…) and they’d resolve it=>Happy Ever After.

SIS is a bit different, so the second portion doesn’t follow the pattern in quite the same way, and most of the change happens on Annie’s part. The way I see it, the black moment is when Annie decides she was being an idiot, goes to New York to meet Walter, and puts renewed energy into their relationship.

Quickly, she realizes she made a mistake and she’s still unhappy. She and Walter break up amicably, and she races to the Empire State Building where Sam might be waiting.

After a near miss, they meet for the first time and walk away holding hands (resolution/implied HEA).

The conflict structure I just went through is really geared toward traditional romance, but still works here with a little imagination. I’ll try this again with a better example when I get a chance.

Thoughts?

Photo credit: ADMIT ONE © Dana Rothstein | Dreamstime.com