Five Ways National Novel Writing Month is Improving my Writing, by Pamela Jean Herber

For those of you who are not familiar with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it is an annual event scheduled for the month of November, which is hosted by nanowrimo.org. Hundreds of thousands of people across the globe accept the personal challenge to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in 30 days. This year I succeeded for the eighth time in ten attempts. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about how to work toward quantity and quality simultaneously. These are the first five that come to mind.

1. Maintain Mad Typing Skills

It’s only obvious that typing speed and accuracy will help in pounding out those 50,000 words. However, my ultimate goal is to write a story of value to myself and others. So, I maintain a skill level that renders typing to the instinctual level, where I’m not thrown out of the land of story to search for a key or fix a typo.

2. Exile the Censor

Even with mad typing skills, the words can come haltingly. This is where I tell myself that no one ever has to see anything I write. Even then, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to come face to face with my own raw thoughts and feelings. Allowing my imagination to flow freely through my fingers has taken practice. Writing as fast as possible has proved to be the most effective way for me to get over myself. The benefits are great here, not only in word count but in connecting more fully to my inner storyteller.

3. Set the Timer

Timed writings serve multiple purposes. First, by starting out with short sprints and increasing them, you can build stamina, get your brain into writing shape. Then by setting the timer to the same length for multiple sessions and then switching to another, you will develop a sense of the relationship between word count and speed. Also, by maintaining a habit of timed writings your words will gradually take on shapes that fit the time lengths.

4. Write to Constraints

This is where the fun part begins. By now you are able to write with such velocity that you can dial it back to focus on story. Start by giving yourself random prompts to write to, either to a specific time length, or simply allow the words to determine the length. This is not easy for me. I’m still strengthening my ability to take multiple elements such as character and setting and place, and insert them into the story place in my mind. But it’s getting easier. Once you’ve achieved competence at impromptu story writing, you will be on your way to writing to an outline.

5. Transition from Time Chunks to Story Chunks

Here we are at number five, where the previous four come together. I like to think of this as the place where I inhabit the time-word count-story continuum. Now, instead of focusing on timed writings, write to story chunks. These can be scenes, chapters, whatever. The chunks might be loosely defined or highly specified. They might come directly from the outline to your novel. The timer isn’t off limits here, but may not be necessary.

Use these five practices to remove obstacles to putting words on the page, and to tune your imagination to your inner storyteller. Then go out, or stay in, and write the best shitty first draft of a novel you can.

Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

Which way is up, says the pine marten

Finding Pine Martens, by Eric Witchey

 

This is text. As writers, we manipulate text. We fiddle it. We rearrange it. We edit it. We proofread it. We test it and rearrange it again. We do this until we believe that the text matches the story living in our hearts and minds.

While engaged in this nearly obsessive focus on forcing the text to match up with the story, we sometimes forget why we engage in this insane effort to make the little black squiggles on a contrasting background line up in pleasing orders.

We do it to cause an expansive, revelatory emotional experience in the mind and heart of the reader.

Consequently, I think of myself as a reader advocate. I am not a writer advocate, nor am I an agent advocate, an editor advocate, a market advocate, a sell it to New York advocate, or a hit the Amazon number one slot in my sub-subgenre advocate.

As a reader advocate, I don’t give a rat’s ass if the story matches my vision. I only care whether the story causes the reader to have a vision and an experience that is emotionally powerful and satisfying to them—to that individual reader—to each individual reader.

As a writer and human being, that means that I am willing to give up my vision if I can see a path through the story that will give the reader a better experience. It means that sometimes the patterns of text that interact to allow the reader’s possible extracted or projected meanings can be manipulated in ways that allow the reader to experience something I did not plan but that I can bring to light.

It’s like the moment when we are looking for an eagle high in the canopy of the Northwest rain forest. We peer upward into the tangled canopy and only see the crossing of the branches, the fluttering of leaves, the intermittent release of rays of sunlight through the foliage… Then, as if the entire moment were structured to give us the gift of a vision, our minds resolve a pattern—the voracious elfin face of a pine marten peering down at us from the crook between two branches. Certainly, we weren’t looking for a pine marten. In fact, we hadn’t considered at all that we might see a pine marten because they are so rare and so elusive. However, that moment sweeps away all thought of an eagle because the weasel-cat-squirrel face of the pine marten is so much more immediately interesting and exciting.

Working with the patterns of text and the minds of readers who will interpret those patterns requires more than an understanding of grammar, punctuation, and the linear events of the story we plan to tell. It requires the mental agility to know when the patterns that we are creating can suddenly reveal a pine marten instead of the eagle we planned on. It requires a willingness to look at what is possible and release what is intended. It also requires the ability to reinterpret all of what has been done in favor of new, richer possibilities.

When I was in grade school, I became angry at a girl who often wore dirty clothes to school. She smelled funny. She always seemed dull and stupid. I tried to tell my father how stupid she was and how wrong it was for her to be in my class. My father became quite angry. He took me by the shoulders, knelt, made direct eye contact, and almost whispered these words: “Eric, righteousness is a crutch you use to avoid understanding.”

All thanks to my father for that moment of insight and understanding. My father was a reader advocate. No. Not quite. He wasn’t a writer, but he was a perceiver advocate. He wanted me to see more complex patterns of truth than my imposed judgments and expectations allowed. He wanted me to see facets and reflections and possibilities instead of falling back on small-minded, rigid patterns of righteousness. He was a good man, my father.

I did not understand that I had been looking for an eagle instead of seeing that the girl was a pine marten. I did not understand that she was from a very poor family—poor because their father had been taken from the family livelihood in the steel mill and then from the family by cancer, poor because they had lost their health insurance, because the widowed mother was very sick with what we all now think of as trauma-induced depression. I didn’t understand that the girl’s uncle had come to live with and help them and liked to have his niece sit on his lap a little too much. I didn’t understand that the only clothes the girl had were from their church charity bins. I didn’t want to understand. I wanted the world to fit my desires, expectations, and ideals. More than that, I wanted the girl to be lower in some way than me.

She was certainly not an eagle. Yet, she was the pine marten.

By releasing my righteousness, my desire to have her conform to my desire for simple, easily understood and imposed hierarchy and correctness, I came to understand the much more complex, more powerful story of her family and its universal connection to the struggle of all families.

Our stories are often like that. In our minds, our stories are clean and simple. We fiddle the text. We fix the text in an endless effort to get them to conform to our expectations, our sense of how they should be—of how they must be if we want to sell them. However, when we release our sense of what the story should be, we discover that what could be is much more wonderful and powerful.

Every story is a long line of little black squiggles in a row. That’s all it is. We, as creators, fiddle and fix and rearrange the squiggles. We, as human beings, can sometimes release our righteousness and step back and see what is possible. Sometimes, just every so often, we can stop looking for the eagle just long enough to see the pine marten and realize that our simplistic sense of what should be is the righteous crutch we use to avoid understanding the possible—the deeper, richer, more powerful truths that our readers could pull from our text, could find in our patterns, or could bring from their experiences and project into our words.

End

Let The Light Shine Through

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Let The Light Shine Through by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Throughout history story has spoken. From papyrus pages, to the blue light of the electronic devices of today, story speaks.   And it speaks in many voices.

First there is the actual story. It’s spoken through the words woven together by the author. It will have a protagonist, an antagonist and hopefully an interesting plot.

The second story is spoken within the recesses of the readers mind. It speaks through the many filters of the reader’s own life experiences.

The third story remains silent, waiting for the reader to understand its language. It is the hidden voice, the underlying message, the writer intended the reader to receive beyond the story itself.

In my vision of these three scenarios I first see words dancing on a page. They line up perfectly to create the original story. But as they enter the readers mind, they rearrange and become filtered through that reader’s knowledge creating the second story. I visualize the final story as a bright light shining through each blank space on the page. This bright light is the underlying message the author hoped to convey to his reader.

A very simply analogy for this would be the story most every child has heard “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. The light shining through this story is quite simple. Don’t lie.

What is the bright light shining through your story?

The words written above were to serve as my very simple blog for today. However, I felt compelled to add the following.

Today, many of my writing friends are struggling with creative paralysis.   Said paralysis is due to the aftermath of our Presidential Election of last week. I was also paralyzed for several days. So, I will address this strictly from my perspective.

I had a very visceral reaction to the headline in my local paper on November 9th. I knew when I went to sleep the night before, what the outcome would be. I did not anticipate my severe reaction upon seeing it in huge black lettering splashed across the front page. Such is the power of the written word. I’m not going to go into the “whys” of my reaction. But I do feel my journey to understanding and ultimately breaking through my paralysis bares relevance in regards to having an artistic block of any kind.

After my initial reaction to the newspaper, I attempted to plug ahead. I tried placing words on the page for my current work in progress. But the voices in my head, my muses, my friends, would not speak to me about my WIP. No, they were a mess, confused, angry and yes very depressed. I tried silence them, but they wouldn’t listen. So I sat down and listened to them. They had a lot to say. Then I did what I always do. I wrote what they had to say. What came of it was this poem. Not a great poem, but I hope my message does shine brightly through the words.

I Believe

I believe in equal pay, for an equal workday.

I believe in a woman’s right to choose. It is her body. It is her views.

I believe no one should dictate whom you can, and cannot choose as your life partner. With love there is no compromise, no barter.

I believe Mother Earth needs more tender loving care. Climate change is here. Just look. It is all around us. It is everywhere.

I believe the seeds of hate are sown through fear, and some wield it like a victory spear.

Above all I believe in the innate goodness I see shining from every face. Regardless of its color or its race.

Finally, I believe, it is what we believe that shines through between the blank spaces in our stories.

Once my voices felt heard, they settled back into the rhythm of my current WIP. However, when I started placing words to page, I realized I had a new, hyper sense of being. I recognized my antagonist had become darker, and my protagonist more determined in her quest. My plot had grown more complex and strewn with innumerable obstacles. When I began, I had a vague sense of a positive resolution in my story. While that hasn’t changed, I now know it will be quite a long road before the final victory.

Then there is the flip side of my creative mind. It is my painting world. I can’t wait to start placing color, much color.   You might even say a rainbow of color over large patches of red.

Yes we artists speak in many ways. We have many voices.

What is the first thing a civilization saves when it is threatened? It saves the writings and art created by that civilization, because it is the only way to record for all eternity the diversity of so many.

So dear friends if you’ve found yourself, if not blocked, at least at odds with your current environment, I encourage you to write. I encourage you to paint, draw, and create. Let your voices be heard, let the light shine through speaking loudly.

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“Story Time” Original Art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Trust the Path

By Cynthia Ray

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“As I looked back at the mountains and forest that had just held me in their jaws I realized I’d been given a gift with that phrase, Trust the Path, and I pass it on to you. It means that when you are lost and confused, you can trust the journey that you have chosen, or that has chosen you. It means others have been on the journey before you, the writer’s journey, the storyteller’s journey. You’re not the first; you’re not the last. Your experience of it is unique, your viewpoint has value, but you’re also part of something, a long tradition that stretches back to the very beginnings of our race. The journey has its own wisdom, the story know the way. Trust the journey. Trust the story.   Trust the Path.” Christopher Vogel from the Writers Journey

Vogels story begins with a hike that goes terribly wrong.  He becomes lost and as dusk descends, he panics.  At the point where he was ready to give up, exhausted, hungry and shivering, a voice whispered to him, “Trust the Path.” He looked around, seeking that path, but found nothing. He questioned that voice, but he looked down and noticed a line of ants moving in the grass. He followed the ants path, which eventually led to a narrow deer path, which, in turn, led to another, wider logging trail, which led to a road which led to the highway.

If he had dismissed the voice as foolish, not logical or unrealistic, he would have remained lost in the woods, and possibly died there. How often do we dismiss our own still, small voice of guidance? It whispers, or shouts, or nudges, but we have to be willing to trust ourselves.

The good news is, that no matter how deaf we may have been, or how dismissive in the past, the voice keeps whispering and once we start tuning in to it, it rewards us with even more wisdom. It is a beautiful gift that every single person has access to, if we will only trust it.

Trusting ourselves and listening to that voice, leads to surprising places that we would have never found with our logical, analytic minds. It can be the scariest thing in the world, but it is the only thing that can save us–it leads us out of the mire, or to the heart of our story, or at least to the next step of the journey, one small step at a time.

Trust the Path. Trust YOUR Path.

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It Doesn’t Matter What You Write

by Elizabeth Engstrom

When I was young, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer.  I always knew that some day I’d see my name on the spine of a book, but it wasn’t until I had a little life under my belt, a few gray hairs, a few credits from the school of hard knocks, a little life experience and something to say about the hope for mankind, that I was ready to sit down at the keyboard and pour out my mystifications.  The “message” that burdens every writer had finally floated to the top of my psyche.  My message had gelled.  It was time to write.

But everything I wrote sounded pompous or opinionated or biased.  I couldn’t make good fiction out of my message for mankind.

Then science fiction great Theodore Sturgeon came to town to give a workshop.  I had grown up reading his work; his influence on me as a young reader had been enormous.  I paid my fee, mailed in the manuscript he agreed to read as a part of the workshop curriculum, and I sat down to bite my nails and wait for his judgment.

sturgeon

The incomparable Theodore Sturgeon

During this time of waiting, it occurred to me that over the two-week course of this workshop, he and I could run into each other at the coffee machine or something, and actually speak to each other, one-on-one.  The thought left me star-struck.  What on earth could I possibly say to the great Theodore Sturgeon?

I could ask him a question.  I knew the prospect was not likely; surely there would be thousands of people at the workshop.  Nevertheless, I set out to prepare myself so I wouldn’t be caught flat-footed if the opportunity came to speak with my hero privately.  I wracked my brain and spent sleepless nights, torturing myself over this idea.  What would be The Definitive Question to ask Theodore Sturgeon?  In retrospect, I think this was my way of not dwelling on the fact that he was reading my first attempt at novel writing.

My musings came down to one question that seemed to synthesize all that had been troubling me.  The question was: “What do you do when you want to preach?” I had the urge to write, I had a message to disseminate, I had the time, the space, the knowledge, and a teensie bit of talent for the task.  But everything I wrote sounded preachy.  Every time I reread what I had written, it felt as if I ought to be writing Op-Ed pieces, or essays, or how-to books.  At one point, I even talked with my minister about actually preaching.  His response?  “My collar closes the door to 90% of the people in the world.  You, as a writer, have no such boundaries.”  Wow.  A fiction writer has such opportunity.

Such responsibility.

So what do you do when you want to preach?

Satisfied that I would not only find out the answer to that question, but that I would have something intelligent to talk over with Ted Sturgeon, I set about to wait with calmer heart.

The first night of the seminar, I was astonished that there were only about ten students.  This was going to be an intimate setting.  I would probably get to know him over the course of the two weeks.

And I did.  He and I became friends in the limited time he had left on this planet, but I never had the opportunity to ask him that question, because the first words out of his mouth on the first night of class were these: “It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.”

I was stunned.

I’m not sure I heard anything else Ted said that night, because this was so clearly the answer to many of my questions, and it was so simple, and tasted so strongly of the truth that I was awash with the possibilities for my future career.

Did he mean that I could write a vampire book and my message would come through?  I could write a romance novel?  A western, science fiction, horror, a comedy about dogs?  A blog? And still, that which had been shown to me, that which had been given to me, the life-saving philosophy that I had developed (and that surely would save the world) could still be served?

Of course.  I have only one story to tell, and that’s my story.  I can’t tell yours.  But mine is large and encompasses much, and it can be sliced into myriad tales of truth and fantasy.

I realized that it was the message showing through in the writing of my favorite authors that attracted me to their work.  Singly, a book may not contain impressive spiritual insights; but over the entire body of work of a certain author, a reader cannot help but get to know the writer’s heart.

When I realized the truth of what Ted Sturgeon said to me that night, not only did my career spread before me like a vast playground, but I was filled with confidence and questions.  Before he died, Ted Sturgeon and I spent a lot of time together, and in fact he wrote the introduction to that first book, When Darkness Loves Us, which went on to be well published.  But more importantly, I could relax.  My job as a novelist needn’t be unnecessarily complicated; it is difficult enough to tell the truth within the fiction; I don’t have to consciously worry about what message the reader is receiving.  That isn’t my job.  I don’t have to save the world.  I only have to ensure that the reader enjoys reading what I’ve written.

It has been my fortune to have a challenging career as a writer, teacher, editor and publisher.  Through my relatively brief association with Theodore Sturgeon, I learned that the surest way to make my own dreams come true is to help others achieve theirs.  The fate of empires does not hinge upon my work or upon any one piece of work.  But those of us to whom this gift has been given have a responsibility to be persistent about writing and publishing our work until a sufficient body of work has been assembled.  Our message is important.  The world needs it.   That’s our job.

Never forget: It doesn’t matter what you write.  What you believe will show through.

(Note: An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul.)

In Which I Muddle Through a “Blah” Writing Day … Week … Month …

img_6619By Lisa Alber

I don’t know what’s going on with me. I’ve written 700 words on three different topics for this blog post and nothing’s working.

  • Goddess-y neighborhood coffeehouse anecdote? Yeah … Could have been humorous or thought-provoking. Now, it’s just as dull as my thoughts.
  • Novel development process? Perhaps, but this has been a problem for the past month–whatever process I thought I had doesn’t seem to be working.
  • Novel research topics? <yawn> Feels like you gotta be here in my head to be interested in these topics, and, frankly, I’m not even enthused right this second.

This is a truly strange feeling. Normally, once I get going, I’m OK. Blog posts are *never* an issue. I can always spin a thought into 500 decent words.

So, I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s the same thing that’s hampering my novel development process. A few days ago, on my personal blog, I was certain it was the election cycle clogging up my brain. Could be. Have you read the articles about the anxiety that this cycle is causing? Election anxiety is apparently a thing–and this thing is affecting folks in record numbers. If this is what it is with me (and I won’t know for sure until later in November when I can look back on these weeks), then, holy crap, what kind of toxic environment are we living in at the moment?

And why am I susceptible to this anxiety? (That, my friends, is probably a question for a therapist.)

You’d think I’d be able to shuck off BS and rhetoric and worry and fear … I succeed for a little while then find myself online again, sunk in articles and commentary. My brain’s been taken over by — politics. ACK.

There’s something worrisome going on that’s larger than either of the candidates–don’t you feel it? Something might have to give, to seriously give, at some point … But maybe that’s just my anxiety talking.

So how to muddle through? I’d actually rather not muddle. I’d rather just do–but if muddling is where I’m at, I figure there are a few things I can do:

  1. Show up at the computer at my regular writing times.
  2. Open Scrivener (my writing software) and the last file I was working in.
  3. Engage in one thought related to whatever’s in that file.
  4. Write something in relation to that thought.

That’s about it. Normally one thought leads to the next–but I can’t count on that at the moment, it seems.

One thought does keep going through my head: This too shall pass. I didn’t understand the simple yet sublime wisdom within these four words when I was younger; now I find them a comfort. The election cycle will pass and so will this funky headspace I’m in.

Here’s my contract with you: I just opened Scrivener, and I see that my last brainstorming thought for the next next novel (for 2018, cross fingers!) related to a character named Kevin, and his quest for answers about his birth family. So here’s what I’m going to do right now: his character sheet, which is to say his character arc and motivation for this story.

OK!

How do you muddle through when the going gets sloggy? Are you feeling any election anxiety–how are you coping?

Pain and Productivity

by Christina Lay

I’ve been trying to write about this subject for a long time, but it’s one of those topics that has always been little too personal, a little too close to the bone, to get any objectivity on. I start writing and I get defensive. But tonight as I sit down to write a post due tomorrow, and another due the day after tomorrow, grim reality hits home once again.

Damn, I say. And then I wonder, is there anything helpful to be gained by shining a bit of light on this back-riding monkey of mine? Well, let’s take a look at where I was when I first tried to write about it, nearly two years ago:

I’m here because the voices in my head have driven me write this blog. These are not the ordinary writerly voices of characters whispering dialogue and plot suggestions to my fevered imagination. These are the voices of The Committee. You know, the raging discussions about shoulds, wants, have-to’s and why-the-hell-nots. Some of the voices come from bottles: pill bottles to be exact.

No, I’m not an addict, but I could be. Sometimes painkillers (legally obtained, mind you, NSA internet scanning friends of democracy) are my best friends. At other times, they lurk in the kitchen cabinet like an evil troll under the bridge, luring me to my doom.

The conversation goes somewhat like this:

Me: Damn, my back/neck/hip hurts, but I need to write.

Cyclobenzaprine: If you want to get any sleep tonight, you’d better take me now.

Fairy of Good Intentions: But if you do that you won’t be able to concentrate long enough to finish that novella/blog post/chapter/submission.

Tramadol: Or you can take me and not give a shit.

Troll of Unworthiness: Suck it up, loser! Only the weak and worthless let a little back pain interfere with the relentless pursuit of their dreams! Not only should you not medicate, but you should stay up really late!

Coffee: I’m up for that.

Fairy of Good Intentions: If you’d listened to me, you would’ve finished yesterday instead of watching Veronica Mars on Netflix.

Me: Okay, Cyclob you win, but I’m going to stay up late and write gibberish thanks to you.

Troll: Well, as long as you suffer for your art.

I’ve often wondered how much more productive I’d be without this chronic back pain of mine, but let’s face it, I might not even be a writer if I didn’t have the physical limitations that I do. I might be a ballerina or one of those annoying Globe Trekker people. I might be a different person, in other words, so it’s useless to speculate or write stupid blogs about.

Frieda Kahlo is one of my inspirations. Not because I’m a huge fan of her work but because she overcame great physical challenges to create it. I know my problems pale in comparison, but I’ve set her up as a challenge to myself when the pain and the painkillers conspire to distract me from my goals. And the goal is always to get something done. There is always the next something. The next story. To stand still, to medicate, is to let the story die.

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Whoa. Melodramatic and bit sad. I’m happy to say that overall the intensity of my chronic pain has lessened and I don’t face these kind of nights nearly as often. And with a little perspective, I can now see that what is sad is not that I am tragically afflicted with a bent spine, but that I am so damn hard on myself.  The only thing that dies when I fail to write is my sense of humor.

I’m not sure where I got this fear of stopping. Maybe I was a shark in a previous life. But there, now I’ve done it, I’ve pushed through the pain to write about pain and ask, how important is productivity? How important is making deadlines? We can only face one hurdle at a time and answer the question anew every time, but the important thing to remember is to be easy on ourselves, no matter what we decide to do or not do.

I know I’m not the only one who feels driven to ignore the body’s warnings in order to keep moving, to achieve, push, strive and continue on when really I should just lie down with an ice pack on my neck. The world will not end if my ShadowSpinners post is a day late. The story will not die. The words might be different tomorrow, as I might be different. Less grumpy, more refreshed and ready to write, ready to play in the garden of my imagination.