It’s Okay to Say No

“Today is the first day of November and, so, today, someone will die. –The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

Not to be dramatic, but I always feel a side of fear with my excitement on
November 1st. Yes, you’ve guessed it. This is yet another post about NaNoWriMo, where writers world-wide converge into one collective unconscious creation amoeba and delve into a 50,000 word-writing sprint over the course of November’s 30 fall-flavored days.

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Since I started doing NaNoWriMo in 2013, this will be the first time I will not be participating[1]. Learning to manage expectations is just as much a part of a writer’s growth as learning the mechanics of writing. As I sit beside my writing and critique partner, whom I am also fortunate to have as a best friend, and she clacks away at her brand spanking new novel, I realize, for once, I do not feel envious of her ability to jump into new worlds with such ease. This is how she writes. She enjoys world-building, the excitement and possibility of beginnings, while I fear beginnings and yearn, from the outset, for the delicious center, where all the secrets begin to surface like bodies rising in the Dead Marshes. I’ve also been fortunate enough to view Maggie
Stiefvater’s seminar on writing
(which she’s offering for half off today!), and it has reinforced my instinct to hold off on putting this project down into words; the seminar teaches temperance as I hold my novel baby in the realm of perfect forms in the furnace of my brain and continue weaving it like candy floss in this space, safely hidden away from the imperfect translation of thought-to-word.

I completed an exercise from Stiefvater’s seminar to explore the mood and test which point of view this novel might work best in. As I wrote, I was freshly astounded at how stories are woven: an image that creates a story in your head and takes off on its own if you’re lucky or practiced. It seems like a random image that ignites a random movie that plays on your brain screen. However, both that seed of a story and the resulting array of Power Point slides stem from an infinite combination of stimuli and memories that make your unique map of synapses and the sparks traded between them like paper
fortune-teller predictions in grade school. So don’t discount the experience of just writing to write, without feeling like it has to fit in anywhere or be applied to any tangible Work or Project. Even if it never finds permanence in your body of work, it has done important work in your brain and exercised that story-telling instinct with which humans, in all of our pattern-seeking wiring, are born.

I used to think of myself as a procrastinator, when actually I am afraid to commit something to paper before I have an idea of what I’m setting out to do. Not necessarily an entire outline, but as Stiefvater beautifully puts it in her seminar, it is integral to the writing process to know what kind of book I want to hold in my hands at the end of it all, what kind of emotions I want the reader to feel during and days after reading it, and what I want them to remember, years later, about how they felt when they see it on their shelves. We are, after all, conductors eliciting a mood in our readers; we need to know the mood before we can adequately translate it. This has given me the peace to refrain from writing while I fill out its form in my head, letting the rain build before ripping the cloud apart. This takes less time for some people, like my writing partner who asked me to assign her a genre[2] and had a solid idea, characters, and pages of plot and dialogue in 24 hours. For me, it takes more.

I thought this would be a pep talk so that I didn’t feel some type of way about skipping NaNoWriMo, but it’s more of an affirmation that this is the right decision. And if this speaks to anyone else, then welcome to my kumbaya circle. I’m not a particular fan of Kenny Rogers, but I find myself returning to and adhering to the advice of “The Gambler” again and again. The chorus is as follows:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

All this just to say ‘intuition’ in a quirky, entertaining manner. Intuition isn’t some mystical otherworldly place you can only touch with meditation and burning sage (but our kumbaya circle does meet on Tuesdays to do this). Sometimes it takes practice, like anything else, to listen for its voice and know when to follow it. This little seed of a novel isn’t done germinating, so I do not yet know the shape of this very emotional, personal project. Therefore, I will continue slowly curating my playlist and Pinterest board–which has been overrun with wolves somehow–and cheering you all from the sidelines, whether you’re endeavoring to write 50,000 words this month or saying no to NaNoWriMo.

1Not including 2015, when my twins were 2 months old, but I wasn’t even human then, let alone a writer, so it doesn’t count.

2After reading through this for coherency, aforementioned writing partner/best friend wanted me to mention that I also gave her the idea for her main character and his goal, so as not to downplay my part in her NaNoWriMo project. *smirk*

Hero Meets Nemesis

I am the hero, in case anyone was wondering. My nemesis? The dreaded November 16th during National Novel Writing Month. I am gearing up to face this roguish fiend down. This is my 4th year participating in NaNoWriMo, and I’ve learned that this slump in the middle of the month is a trend for me, as it probably is for many others as well.

Up until this month, I’ve been dabbling with my most recently finished project, Holding, a YA fantasy about two boys, their forbidden magic, and the vampires that want to eat it. I finished the 2nd draft and am preparing to bind it for 3rd draft revisions, an idea I got from Maggie Stiefvater. After NaNoWriMo, I doubt I will have the desire to produce any new words ever, so I will be going through a physical book of my WIP, looking for pacing problems, character consistency, and tightening my theme. As stressed as I get about revisions and making sure every single letter is balanced within the universe, I also enjoy revisions because it’s like solving a problem…a very prolonged problem.

NanoWriMo is a little different for me. I could revise my old work for the rest of my life and probably be mostly content, but creating new, raw words is like squeezing juice from apricot pits for me. Especially creating raw, new words at the speed NaNoWriMo requires. BUT it gets my ideas out of my head and onto the page. And this is exactly why I do it.

Each year that I undertake this task, I dread confronting my old nemesis, the mid-month NaNoWriMo slump. For this year’s novel, I am returning to a long-time work in progress, Wrathmoor, a gothic romance (Annie Neugebauer has a great post on the gothic genre here) about a young lady posing as a housemaid to escape the tragedy of her past. The decaying old house, far from her old life, harbors ghosts that moan at night and an eccentric, brutal lord. I’m writing the novel in a tone appropriate to the time period, or attempting to, anyway. And because I depend so heavily on accuracy and research as I write, my usually slow progress with new novels is even slower with this one. You can see why this project might be a difficult one for NaNoWriMo, I assume?

So, how do I plan to combat my nemesis this year?

Music

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I will be listening to soundtracks (aren’t they pretty?) made by my illustrious best friend.  They probably won’t leave my CD player throughout this month. Also, this song and this entire score.

Art

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Img src: https://www.flickr.com/photos/56238066@N08/8110149754/

My Pinterest page for the novel has taken on new life through October in preparing for this month. I will be revisiting it anytime I feel uninspired. I’ve taken to referring to the above-image as a temporary cover for this project because I am utterly in love with it.

Books that feed me.

Revisiting the greats, like my inspirations for the novel and some of my favorite books: The Great Gatsby. The Fountainhead. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights. Also, I’ll be reading time-relevant works, old and new to catch a feel for the voice I want, like Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker for something new and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill for something older. I also couldn’t resist starting Confessions of an English Opium Eater. 

Writing

As King famously declares in On Writing, the muse doesn’t always just wait around, leaning temptingly against an ivy covered pillar. You have to schedule a standing appointment with that flighty twit. Ergo, at one point–well, many points throughout this month–I will have to just sit down and get the story out. It will be messy and that’s okay. This month is not about producing a perfect final draft.

That, my friends, is how I plan to prepare for this throw down with my nemesis.

Are you participating in National Novel Writing Month this year? How far are you already? How do you keep the words coming when you stall out? (And why are you reading blogs when you should be writing?)

9 Free Expert Sources Every Writer Should Explore

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I am obsessed with procedure and process and understanding others’ processes and methods.  As an aspiring writer, you should be on the up and up with expert advice and examples of successful methods. Fortunately for you, I actually enjoy researching the valuable and not so valuable information out there on the writing process, agent finding process, and publishing process. So, I have taken the time to compile all my finds here. Obviously it’s not everything, but I find these resources useful (to be determined yet as to whether they are successful). Hopefully this blog can be a start for those of you who hate doing the footwork of researching this stuff, or those of you who  just haven’t come across these golden nuggets. Without further ado, what follows are 9 resources you might find useful as an aspiring or established writer, not in any specific order:

1. So, the first one’s kind of obvious: Blogging. I have learned a lot from blogging (I think I am getting a little better about these damned parenthetical asides). It’s an entirely different kind of writing that really does click when you speak to a focused audience—which should, in turn, clarify your writing on your blog. Blog writing is also different than writing fiction, because it forces you to be concise and entertaining with less of the bells and whistles with which novice writers often clog up potentially good fiction writing (I am totally guilty of this). Blogging necessarily teaches you to to cut down on excessive purple prose. I, myself, like purple prose every now and then, but sometimes it is just downright superfluous.

2. Nathan Bransford: I have learned things from this gentleman’s fun, highly accessible blog that I do not think I would have been able to glean from anywhere else. He’s got years in the biz, so he knows what he’s talking about. But he also brings a fresh, modern perspective to this subject of breaking into the publishing world that you do not encounter with other “experts” giving this advice. Bransford’s blog covers everything from “How to Write a Query Letter” to “How the Publishing Process Works” and the hilarious, “The Publishing Process in GIFS”.

3. QueryShark.  I am a big fan of learning and I enjoy laughing. I get both of these needs utterly fulfilled on this website. I haven’t yet submitted to her because I haven’t read her entire archive, which she requires. But honestly, I don’t know if my big girl panties will ever be big enough to prepare me for her ruthless red pen. QueryShark is an invaluable resource for understanding what makes an excellent query letter and how agents respond to the ridiculous number of requests they get from would-be writers seeking representation.

Ah, Escher. So adept at conveying the cyclic nature of life. Like learning your craft, actually writing, then trying to find a way for others to experience it. And…repeat.
Ah, Escher. So adept at conveying the cyclic nature of life. Like learning your craft, actually writing, then trying to find a way for others to experience it. And…repeat.

4. How to Write a Great Query Letter by Noah Lukeman. It’s short, sweet, to the point and chock full of great, easy to follow advice (if you’re willing to sit down for multiple hours or days to beat that query letter draft you already have into submission). He helps the reader to perceive the query letter like a business transaction. In a more methodical and slightly less entertaining approach than Query Shark, Lukeman lets you in on the thoughts an agent cycles through while reading your query letter, effectively laying out exactly what you need to do to ensure, at the very least, that yours is not overlooked. I got this book for free off the kindle store.

5. Journal databases. Somebody has already compiled for you hundreds—nay! Thousands!—of potential platforms for your work to shine! You just have to find the right list of journals, then the right kind of journal. Poets & Writers has a pretty awesome list. From what I’ve read, in this publishing climate and century, you have to expect to get some recognition on the humbler platforms before you make it in the big leagues.


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6. Literary agent databases. As with the literary journals, if you’re of the majority then you’re probably going to need a literary agent to get published (though it seems this majority is being swiftly superseded by successful self-published authors). And don’t let anyone fool you. It’s hard work finding one. Poets & Writers has a pretty cut and dry one.  Literary Agent: Undercover was a nice resource when I was compiling my list of agents to submit to. I used it to supplement my copy of The 2013 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino. Some of the information is outdated though. For instance, I sent a query to an agent who is now the digital director for her agency. Doh! But if you do your homework on the people you find there, the format is really nice and accessible, and it gives you a good, solid start.

7. AnnieNeugebaur.com. Her “Organized Writer” page boasts an impressive list of helpful plotting and submission tracking charts that the web-directress created herself. She posts the fruits of labors for free, but donating for all the hard work she obviously put into these doesn’t hurt! I have used the “Writer’s Bio Template”, the “Agent Query Prep-work Chart” and keep current versions of the short stories and poetry submissions charts. A great source for the resourceful aspiring writer!

8. On Writing by Stephen King

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This one isn’t free, per se, but it was for me. Picked it up off my university’s ‘take a book, leave a book’ shelf (I didn’t leave a book, shhh).  While you could probably find a copy of it for free in a thrift store, just shell out the four or five bucks to buy it used off Ebay or Amazon.

I’m not a big fan of memoirs. Once in a while you read one that just knocks your socks off but I was very pleasantly surprised by this (also, of King’s work, I’d only ever read to the end of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of Three, so I didn’t know what to expect from this. Pretention or some boring, drawn out dusty, old recollection about how he grew into the amazing writer that he is today. But it was none of these things). King gives us an engaging account of how his own writing life developed, his addictions as a writer (he says stimulants do not boost our writing with anything that wasn’t already there before—completely contradicting my post on Writer’s Lot, I might add), and in the ‘Toolbox’ section and ‘On Writing’ second half of the book, he seamlessly moves into an outlining of the tools every writer needs to acquire and hone. Bottom line, it’s a useful read well worth your time while being immensely enjoyable. Especially helpful, which I will certainly refer to many times in the future, is the comparison of his ‘closed door’ version of the beginning pages of his story 1408, and the ‘open door’, heavily marked version, which shows all of his changes and cuts. Most predominantly, his cuts. The lesson from this little exhibit of his has melded itself to my brain, like a barnacle on a ship’s hull.

9. And last, but not least, the sober-minded friend or relative (very important that they are not a writer) that can honestly, and comfortably tell you, ‘no, that’s insane’, when you pitch a whack idea. If this sober-minded third party is another writer, he or she will probably just start trying to figure out how you could work the bloody idea in.

Spock delivering his blue steel because Captain Kirk probably just suggested some outlandish shenanigans
Spock delivering his blue steel because Captain Kirk probably just suggested some outlandish shenanigans

But it is as good to have a (mostly) sober-minded friend who is also a writer. These kind of folks make invaluable critique partners. Writing groups, or even a regular date with one other person, help you focus, engender a bit of a competitive edge sometimes, get us talking ideas until the wee hours of the morning, and aid us in gaining a fresh perspective.

Bottom line, all of this is just the nit and grit that many don’t care to bother with. We want to just get back to our writing, our darling WIP, our current baby. But alas, this is necessary. Sometimes we can get bogged down in all this prep work and research, the fear that we might not be good enough heightening all the while. Or the realization that we don’t actually know what we’re doing steals the breath right out of our lungs, rendering our entire life’s goal/ambition/work null and void. That’s how it is for me anyway. But as the King says,

‘The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.’

Fun extra tidbits

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  • If you get Writer’s Digest magazine (and I hope you do), the themes of February’s edition were awesome! I was just thinking about the pros and cons self publishing versus traditional publishing and lo and behold, I open the magazine to find “What Writers Need to Know About the E-Book Market”, “Best of Both Worlds”, “10 Top Publishing Insiders (& Outsiders) to Follow Online.”  Also, I recently reviewed my query letter for my first novel and have concluded the story must be worked on before the query letter can be improved. So you can imagine my ‘it’s a sign!’ moment when I found some very helpful outlining articles and provocative questions for raising the stakes in one’s novel, like “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, “Mapping Out Your Hero’s Adventure”, and “Outlining and Story Mapping: 7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story.”
  • The musicology of the novel is fun and quite useful for a multitude of POVs. I like being able to see a visual diagram or my characters’ point of views in my fantasy. I need to keep track of how often they switch, and it helps me to feel the beats of the novel’s temporal progression. Especially with as many character point of view changes I’m utilizing in Blood of the Realm, I need to keep track of who we haven’t heard from in a while or who we’re getting a heaping helping of.

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Mmmhmmm. I love me a good villain.
Mmmhmmm. I love me a good villain.

I’ve been considering the idea of rewriting my first novel to introduce the villain sooner and involve him more to heighten the stakes. I’ve always wrote these exercises off with a ‘meh’. But once I actually did it, not only did I know my villain better—their motives, their dreams, their infatuations and nervous and/or psychotic ticks—I also knew a better direction to take my story in, having gleaned ideas for major plot points from this exercise. It was amazing and eye-opening. I suggest everyone do it. Even if all it amounts to is just a fun freewrite, it’s worth it, because you still probably benefit, even if you don’t consciously realize it.

Know of any fun prewriting exercises or imperative writers’ resources? Please share them in the comments.