Friday, April 29, 2011

Ticky Boxes for Motivation

When I was a wee child of 4, I didn't like to brush my teeth. Or have my hair brushed. Or any number of other chores and hygiene habits that you'd want a 4 year old to adopt. So my mother created a grid with the items running down the left side and the dates across the top. Every time I completed a chore to my mother's satisfaction she'd place a gold star in the appropriate box. If I got enough gold stars in a week, I got a treat at the end of the week. Usually a small box of Lemonheads or Rootbeer Barrels from the food truck (I lived in a tool & dye shop for a year or so when I was a child... but that's another story). Oh, how I wanted those gold stars!

Apparently, I still do. I am currently reading James Scott Bell's excellent Plot & Structure  and when I came to the part where he suggests setting a word count quota and mentions that he tracks his on a spreadsheet, I knew I'd want to do it on graph paper instead, with ticky boxes that I get to X out as I progress. For those of you not up on the web-lingo:

Tick box. —n. (on a form, questionnaire, or test) a square in which one places a tick to show agreement with the accompanying statement 

A grown-up equivalent of my treasured gold stars!

Now, I'll be honest, when I first saw people on Twitter using the #amwriting hashtag and talking about their word count for the day I rolled my eyes a bit. It reminded me of NaNoWriMo, I guess, and that struck me as amateurish. I thought, "Just write until it's done! Don't hold yourself to some arbitrary number!" Please forgive me, dear readers, I was horribly wrong.

What I didn't realize is that the combination of word quota and ticky boxes would have two effects on my writing. The first one was obvious: having ticky boxes to check off would push me beyond the point where I thought I was done for the day. It was like a personal trainer for writing. But the second one took me by surprise: it curbed my tendency to go back and edit a page right after I'd written it. Oh, I know there are sentences that are too wordy, or awkward, but there they stand, waiting for my red pen. No more taking two steps forward and one step back. All my writing is marching forward.

To find my personal quota of 2,200 words/day, I wrote non-stop for 30 minutes. I took no breaks to brew a fresh cup of coffee, or research some bit of trivia or even glance at my beloved Twitter feed. I took that number and multiplied it by 6, thinking I would like to write for 3 hours each day. I figured with all the interruptions put back into my day, this was a reasonable number to start with. My first day I didn't hit that number, but the drive to keep writing took my manuscript to new places. I'm excited about my new writing motivation system.  I think I'll go buy myself a box of Lemonheads.

But here's a question: do I only count fiction writing, or can I count this blog entry? Hmm, I don't know.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

5 Reasons Not to Get Married to a Writer

So you've fallen in love with a writer, and you're wondering if you ought to tie the knot. Consider whether  you can live with the following five things for the rest of your life:

1) Altered States
You saunter up to his office chair, trail your hand along his shoulder and place a few meaningful kisses in the fine hairs on the back of his neck. He pulls away from you and mumbles "What do you want?" What the heck just happened? He loved you madly a few hours ago. You have caught your lover in an altered state - the state of writing. When you read a book - a good book - you are transported to another time and place. If your lover were to walk in the room naked while you were reading, say, the penultimate chapter of Mockingjay, you might not notice. Not right away. Similarly, the writer is transported to another time and place when he writes. In fact, the writer might even be temporarily wearing the skin of a twelve year old boy who's having an intense argument with his mortal enemy.

2) Long Hours
Workaholic, schmeraholic. A writer's work is never done. Not ever. There's no nice, convenient 9-5 hours. The writer is always noticing small details to weave into her next scene, or thinking about the revising she did that morning and wondering if that one line is really strong enough for the end of a chapter. You might be having a romantic dinner, or watching reality TV or even getting frisky, but your writer is still writing. Always. And she might dart away from the dinner table (or worse, jump out of bed in the middle of the night) because she just figured out how to get those two characters into the same room at the same time.

3) Conversations With Thin Air
Both writers and psychotics hear voices. The difference is the writer responds to them. Wait, so does the psychotic. Okay, so the difference between writers and psychotics is.... Oh, I know! The writer gets paid to hear voices. And talk back to them. And then type all of it up.

4) Secrets & Lies
Your writer-spouse lies. Professionally. And she can be incredibly secretive about those lies. You might be walking past the office and hear her saying something conversationally (see #3, above). So you say, "What's going on with your characters now?" You might even add a small, patient smile. "Oh, it's complicated," she'll reply and click the power button on her monitor so you can't read what she's been writing. And getting to read a first draft? Forget about it. She'll show her motley crew of critique partners, but she won't show you, her beloved. No way. You'll be lucky if she lets you read the ARC.

5) Sharing  
You think that wedding ceremony means your writer is now all yours? Think again. Writers belong to a whole host of other people, both real and imagined. There are the characters, of course. He's madly in love with them. He has to be, considering how many hours he spends with them. And then there's the agent who really, really gets him. And then there's the editor who makes him feel like he's one in a million. Oh, and don't forget his adoring fans! The ones who tweet him and leave earnest messages on his Facebook page.

The truth is, it will all be worth it. It really will. Your writer will charm and entertain you. Your writer will be empathetic to your struggles and strife like it was an Olympic sport. Your writer will gladly listen when you want to whine, will laugh when she finds out the puppy has shredded her favorite bathrobe and will happily go on that ill-advised camping trip in the pouring rain because it will all be good fodder for the novel.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

She's a Real Character

Sometimes you create a character from the ground up. You have a vague idea that you want a sidekick or a foil and you start trying on different bits and pieces until you find the mix that feels right - sorta like those board books where you can flip a third of the page at a time and mix and match different foreheads, eyes and chins until you make up some silly face.

Sometimes a character surprises you by jumping from your head onto the page, fully formed and full of attitude. Those are the ones that wake me up in the morning and tell me, "Come on, it's time to write more about my encounter with that character I loathe! Don't leave me with her. You gotta write me out of that scene!"

But then there are other characters. Ones that accost you on the street. Yesterday I ran to the store for lunch and, as usual when I go to the store hungry, ended up with four large bags of food. My trunk is full with stuff I'm donating to charity, so I went to put my groceries into my back seat. The space I had between me and the minivan next to me was cramped and I was trying very hard to get my groceries in without my door hitting their door. Then I heard the passenger window roll down and a raspy voice say "Excuse me!"

I thought, oh no, I've accidentally bumped their car. I turned around slowly, planting a grin on my face. "Yes?"

"I see you bought the green grapes. Are they any good?" Her accent was from the Old World, maybe a Mediterranean country. Her fingers were curled up like Autumn leaves.

"I dunno, I haven't had any."

"I like them when they are firm, you know? When they burst in your mouth."

I nodded.

"Can I try one of yours? If they're any good I'll ask my daughter to get me some."

"Sure," I said, wondering how often this woman scams snacks off unwary strangers. I fumbled to open the ziplocked bag, my own hands full of car keys and a cell phone.

Her daughter approached the car. "What are you doing, mom? Are you bugging this lady?"

"Nah, I'm just giving her a grape," I said, still struggling with the bag.

"Help her!" the woman demanded of her daughter, impatience driving her voice higher.

"I think this is kind of a one person job, Mom," her daughter said, shifting back and forth on her feet.

Finally I opened the bag and held it out to the woman. She plucked a grape and said "firm!" approvingly. Then she bit into it. And spit it back into her hand.

"Any good?" her daughter asked.

"Eh, so-so," the woman replied, clearly lying.

"Oh well," I said, and proceeded to put the bags in the car, and put the cart away.

As I climbed into my car to leave, I heard the woman cry out, "I hope you like sour grapes!"

Sour grapes were a small price to pay for the gift of this character.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What's in The Box?

My main character, Rose, has a cigar box - one of the larger ones - in which she keeps mementos. Mementos both of her mom and for her mom.

You see, this kid is not 100% convinced that mom is dead, even though that's what her father presumes. She disappeared on the same day that Rose was turned into a werewolf.

So some of what's in the box are things like Rose's own plastic hospital wristband from that day and the blood-stained stuffed animal she'd been holding. But some are things that Rose wishes she could have shown her mom over the years, or things she is saving to give her mom when she returns. Like the first tooth she lost -- the one she left under the pillow that the Tooth Fairy forgot to exchange for a shiny silver dollar.

I'm filling the box, bit by bit. But I thought it would be fun to hear your ideas. If I like it, it might end up in my manuscript. If I get published, I'll be sure to include you in my thank yous. So, tell me, what's in The Box?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Places to Write

I'm beginning to realize I'm a finicky writer. I love writing in coffee shops. The ambient hum of conversations, the high pitched whistle of the milk steamer, the jingle of coins into the tip jar all combine to create a song which calls my characters out from their hiding places in my brain. I don't love the jittery feeling I get after drinking two espresso drinks and eating a scone, though, so I limit these writing sessions to once a month.

Writing outside seems like such a romantic idea, but it almost never works. The sun will be too bright creating glare off the notebook. Or the breeze will keep blowing my notes in every direction. I can do it in short bursts, but it always leaves me feeling vaguely disappointed and tired.

I love writing at home in my office, or in our library/guest room. A few words trickle out with effort in most of the other rooms (save the master bathroom -- all my best ideas are born there, I just can't shower and type at the same time). But I can't seem to get a lick of work done in the family room with the siren call of the TiVo and HDTV.

Unfortunately, I absolutely can't work when anyone else is in the house, even the lovely house-cleaners who visit for a couple of hours twice a month and keep me from going completely insane surrounded by piles of cat hair and empty yogurt containers. I sit in my office chair, rock-rigid, listening to their happy chatter as they dust and mop (and, let's be honest, put things away in the weirdest places), staring at my computer screen, the voices in my head completely silent. I've been able to write with my spouse in the house, but it takes an unusual amount of effort to get started and I can get pulled out of the writing headspace with "what's for dinner?", or "did we TiVo the latest episode of Top Chef Masters?" (Duh, of course we did!)

What about you? Where do you love to write? Where can't you write one word?

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Art of Reading Aloud

My spouse and I really enjoy reading aloud to one another. It started with cheesy romance novels. The cheesier the better. It was a great way to spend the time when we had a long, late night drive home from a dinner party. And we could read them off our phones in the dark.

The vast majority of free, self-pubbed ebooks in the romance genre are horrendous, so that's where we shopped for them (if someone is charging for the books, they are generally of a higher caliber, though sometimes not by much). We'd giggle over every ridiculous run-on sentence, every heavy-handed metaphor, every stereotyped character.

And we'd do voices... badly. The English-born professor of Occult Studies would sometimes sound like he spent his teen years in Sydney. Or he'd suddenly have a cockney accent. The ranch owner of Mexican decent would roll her r's... when we'd remember to do it.

It was good for a laugh, and a nice way to pass time when we were both talked-out for the night. Sometimes we'd even read aloud to one another when we were grumpy or when one of us had their feathers ruffled by the other and suddenly the mood would lift and everything would be better.

But then we discovered something even better. Whenever one of us isn't feeling well, the other can read a children's book out loud and it is the most soothing thing in the world. Oh, we're probably regressing a bit, but we both believe we are 12 year-olds at heart anyway. We, as a society, read out loud to our children when they are tired or ill. Why don't we read to each other?

And the voices! This week my spouse has been ill, so I've been reading Jennifer Murdley's Toad out loud.  It is so much fun to act out the lines of the gravely-voiced, celebrity-imitating toad. But I have even more fun reading Jennifer's terrific, slightly-snarky voice. I relish every "oh, shut up!" in Bruce Coville's book.

Now I'm starting to look at the dialogue in my own manuscript a little differently. I can instantly spot the lines that will be fun to read out loud. And those that don't jump out I am re-thinking. Not that every line has to be a joy to read aloud, but if it's not, why isn't it? And should it be?

Jennifer Murdley's adventures will be over soon.  Any suggestions as to what to read aloud next?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Donde Esta Preston?

I need help. I keep checking to see if this blog has been picked up by Google's webcrawlers. It hasn't, despite me following all their advice. So every day I drive myself a bit closer to insane by googling my name.

I can't recommend the practice, although I admit today it was rather rewarding. I found a review of The Paranormals that I'd never seen before. In Spanish. It wasn't the most glowing review, but it was fair. They gave me props for putting a fresh spin on the paranormal hunter theme. Even though I don't think The Paranormals fits that category, it was nice to hear that they thought my voice was fresh. They weren't as kind to the artist, but that was a theme we'd seen in other reviews. His art is great, don't get me wrong, but he wasn't quite up to the task of 32 pages of amazing art every month.

As an added bonus, I now know that the Spanish word for geek is "friki." Happy Friki Friday, everyone!

Oh, and if anyone has advice for getting this blog to come up in Google searches, please let me know!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Similes for Writing: Writing is like making coffee with a Keurig?

This morning, still bleary-eyed, I made myself breakfast and handed out treats to our six cats. During this process, I thought of a brilliant simile for the writing process.  But now, frustratingly, I can't recall what it was.

A few things to note: 1) Breakfast is a rather simple affair of two slices of wheat toast, buttered, a container of yogurt and a large cup of coffee -- a blend amusingly called Dark Magic -- that I make with my Keurig. 2) Our two youngest are skittish ex-feral cats that were abandoned by their mother and one of our cats is an old grumpy-lumpy that prefers to live in our library where she pretends she is an only cat.  So feeding all six at once is a rarity. 3) While making breakfast I noted that I need to do the dishes and take out the trash today.

I've tried to finish each of these sentences:

  • Writing is like making toast...
  • Writing is like giving treats to six cats...
  • Writing is like yogurt...
  • Writing is like doing dishes...
  • Writing is like taking out the trash...
  • Writing is like making coffee with a Keurig...

Okay, I'm really hoping it's not the last one.  I love my Keurig like no woman should love something that plugs into the wall, but it would hardly be a universal statement of truth, would it?

None of my sentences went anywhere particularly brilliant.  So then I went searching on the interwebs for other writing similes.  And there are some doozies!  Please allow me to share:
  1. Writing is Like Lemons. "You might just think writing is like broccoli. Actually, if you think about it, writing is just like lemons." (Note: Reading the article, I think she's actually arguing that writing is like lemonade.)
  2. How Writing is Like Yoga. "You will feel more confident and flexible if you incorporate it as a daily practice."
  3. The staff at the Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill each including a writing simile in their bios.  Bob says, "Writing is like a first kiss. The prospect creates a palpable anxiety that tightens the chest and inspires impatience." 
  4. Chang-rae Lee posits that writing a novel is like spelunking in this interview with The Atlantic. "You kind of create the right path for yourself. But, boy, are there so many points at which you think, absolutely, I'm going down the wrong hole here. And I can't get back to the right hole."
  5. I've seen Moliere and Virginia Wolff both credited with saying, "Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.”
  6. Writing is like volleyball. (Note: or maybe any team sport with a coach?) "Sometimes you do something brilliant. Other times, you suck eggs. If you don’t have someone who will be brutally honest and tell you these things, both the good and the bad, then you’ll never really grow as a writer."
  7. Stephen King says writing is like sex. "...the best advice is to relax and let nature take her course."
  8. How writing is like knitting -- and why that matters. "Knitters can get weepy or homicidal if they realize they've been doing a project wrong since the beginning and it must be frogged and started over; the same is true of writers (and they are both dangerous, since both crafts involve pointy implements)." 
  9. How Writing is Like Running. "I rarely look forward to either.  But I’m always happy once I’ve started, and even happier when I’ve finished. "
  10. Writing is like breathing, but not in a good way. "Somehow, becoming acutely aware of the intricate details of breathing has made me over-think it to the point that I am frozen. The same thing happens with my writing all the time."
Come to think of it, maybe my writing is like making coffee with a Keurig.  I can put my delicious little Dark Magic K-cup in and press the glowing blue buttons all I want, but nothing will happen if I don't first invest the time to fill the reservoir with water.  I better go fill it up and stop messing around with my blog....

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ass Glue and Other Helpful Tools of the Writing Trade

The YA author Kathleen Duey had a rather famous elevator encounter with Ray Bradbury in which she asked him for advice for a fledgling author. He replied, "ass glue." As in, park your ass in the chair and write!

He wouldn't have said it if it weren't a problem, actually putting in the time to get the work done. Most writers have full time jobs, whether that means some cubicle they park themselves in all day to earn a paycheck or a house full of kids, pets and a spouse to take care of. And maybe because we each possess an active imagination and a mind that craves stimulation, when we do sit down to write it's easy for us to get sucked into things that aren't writing. You may be innocently researching whether or not your character's native American culture contains a wolf in their origin myths, for instance, and next thing be reading origin stories from all over the globe.


I've recently started using a one-two punch of a task sheet and a 15 minute timer that's really been helping me stay on task and keep an eye on where my time goes. The first tool is one from the amazing David Seah.  David designs productivity tools and then gives them away on his website. There are lots of forms to choose from and you may want to print out a few to see what works for you.  I personally like the Emergent Task Timer. This tool is to help you see where your time is going and to help you stay focused.  It is comprised of lots of little ovals on the page which you fill in (#2 pencil completely optional) across from the correct category to represent a 15 minute chunk of time.  You write in the categories.  So mine says things like: Research, Twitter/Email/Blog, Writing, Reading YA/MG, Chores, Faffing About Online.

I combine this with the iPhone app Alarmed by Yoctoville. The app is free, and a great one for all sorts of alarms and reminders, but if you upgrade it for a mere $0.99 you can set a reminder go off every 15 minutes to remind you to fill in a bubble on the Task Timer sheet. There are other ways to do this, of course.  You could use a kitchen timer, or a sports watch.  But Yoctoville's app is a rather elegant and handy thing.  I use it to help remind me to drink water throughout the day. I use it to fall asleep to my favorite podcast and wake up to my favorite "let's get up and attack that keyboard" tunes (currently a mix of Katy Perry, Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire).

So if, like me, you get to the end of the day, only have one more scene finished and wonder where all your time went, give these tools a try.  Or, you know, you could always just try this:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Heart of a Warrior

I met a new friend at last weekend's Spring Spirit Conference.  Like me, she is 40 years old.  Unlike me, she has a 14 year old child in the house (I was envious of the built-in audience testing, I have to be honest). And, well, she kind of reminded me of myself at 19.  Now, wait, hear me out.

See, my new friend has a completed manuscript.  Oh, she knows it's too long.  And she knows she has too many protagonists.  But she can't bear the idea of hacking her words to bits.  She wants to create, not destroy.  She is in love with her characters and doesn't want to tell one of them that she loves them less than another. Who amongst us can't relate to those sentiments?

But she also conveyed to me a feeling of betrayal, of jadedness at the entire publishing process. And that's where I found my 19-year-old self starring back at me across the aisle of our Fantasy breakout session (led by the incredibly charming and dynamic, Bruce Coville).  The 19 year-old who'd had her heart crushed by her first love and was certain that "this whole love thing isn't for me."  Because, you see, my new friend's face lit up whenever she talked about her characters and the world they inhabit.  But then she'd utter the words "I dunno, maybe writing for children is not for me" and I'd watch as the fire in her eyes was doused by a flood of self-doubt.

This writing thing is hard.  Not the writing itself, that's a joy.  But putting it in front of people, being told it's not right, tearing your hair out trying to solve the issues your critiques have pointed out (or get your characters out of the corners you've painted them into), then starting all over again.  That's war.  That's being in the trenches -- hand-to-hand combat. But if you really, truly love your characters, you do it.  You give them the chance to do what they were meant to do: touch the hearts of children everywhere and give them hope, comfort, joy.

I think my new friend can do this. I think she has the heart of a warrior.  The heart of a writer.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Writer's Crush

Now, I am married (rather newly - 9/25/10) and madly in love with my spouse, but I'll let you in on a secret: I sorta met someone at SCBWI North Cal's Spring Spirit Conference that I have a crush on. A mad, dizzying, can't-stop-thinking-about-their-smile type crush. Only, it's not a romantic crush. It's an agent crush. And if I'm honest, it's not my first. And it may not be my last. But for right now I have an agent crush on Quinlan Lee.

Quinlan Lee works for Adams Literary, a boutique literary agency that specializes in children's and young adult authors headquartered in Charlotte, NC. She critiqued the first page of my novel adaptation at the conference. She used the sandwich method (I like how Meghan Ward covers this in her article "How to Critique Other Writers' Work") so despite the fact that it was my first semi-public critique in fifteen years, it wasn't too hard to take. In fact, it was inspiring and I know my manuscript is already better from it.

The thing is, Quinlan did this for somewhere between 20 and 30 people just like me all in the space of an hour. She picked up each page, read it aloud with a spirited voice, and then critiqued it instantly-- her passion for her work showing in every nuance she extracted from the words. It was an impressive feat and I can't really blame myself for being smitten. Now I'm nearly obsessed with the charming idea of someday being represented by a boutique agency.