What I learned from NaNoWriMo

For some crazy reason, my first attempt to pub this blog failed; guess WordPress is having their issues…

Anyway, I wanted to share what I learned from my introductory nano experience==2016 is my first year at this. I hesitated in past years because I either missed the start of the month or had more pressing things to attend to (I conduct bible studies and sometimes I do it in sprints of 30 days). So since my crit partner was doing nano for a ‘real’ project (she has an agent) and I had a story idea, I decided to try it.

One thing about me, I hate to fail. I am also a trained and certified project manager so I hate disorganization, too. Those two things helped me get to 50K in 19 days. But that wasn’t the main impetus. Let me explain…

I had been reading two books before nano: 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron and an article I found by Cheryl Klein. Rachel’s book helped me learn to do a lot of upfront work so that there was no question about where I was going in the story. Cheryl’s article showed me how to set up a matrix for each scene; an action/reaction approach.

Both of these were instrumental in easing my anxiety going into the challenge.

I also made sure I knew all my characters – names, background, motivation, role  – and wrote those down. I found my theme, story point, and even determined the ending. These also helped me create a manuscript ‘shell’ that I could fill in at will. I ‘d basically built the house and now I was ready to add the furniture and decorate.

I also used Scrivener for the first time. The scenes I created fit well into the tool and it helped me avoid frustration since I didn’t have to look at an entire ms at once. I could write each scene as a self-contained story and combined with Cheryl’s goal/obstacle>But>Therefore approach I was able to weave them all together.

The next thing I did was create a map of my world so that I knew where everyone would be and how they would get there (I am revising now to make sure I did that correctly and that I did not overwrite my descriptions of the scenery. I had fun with that part).

Last, I created a schedule I could maintain: I work full time so I had to write 30 min. in the morning, during my lunch, and after dinner. My goal was 2,000 a day but I ended up around 3200 because I knew my story and where it was going.

So there you have it. Now I’m off to work. Have a great one and keep on writing!

 

Why Keep Going?

I’m sure that some of you authors-in-training are out there asking yourself this question and it is a legitimate one; especially if you have been chiseling away at your craft, learning the business, reading in your genre, watching Twitter posts and participating in a myriad of workshops, pitch wars and all that is the writing life. And after saying all of this I say, yes, keep going. Why? Well for one I am and here are the reasons.

Because all that information you have been gathering is going to culminate into your ‘ah ha’ moment and then it will all come together. I say that because that is what is beginning to happen to me after plugging away for years. You begin to see a pattern forming. You start to make connections between things. You notice a trend and then you say ‘Oh, so that’s what they meant.’

Now I am going to tell you something that everyone has told you: accept rejection and keep moving. I wrote an earlier post Why I Love My Rejection Letter that may help you get over the sting. At this point I take them in stride and look forward to getting them so that I can take that agent off my Excel spreadsheet and add another one. If you get feedback which unfortunately is rare, cherish that. I save those and try to apply what little morsels they dole out. I always try to thank those agents/editors in particular for taking the time to do that since they are very busy people.

But a pubbed writer and critique partner gave me the best advice: READ, READ, READ. Since I have a full time job and other responsibilites reading is very hard to fit into my schedule so I go to the Overdrive app for my local library and am reading a lot more. Believe me when I say it makes a H-U-G-E difference because you start to notice trends in structure, language and content that you can use in your own work.

Make your book the best you can make it before you send. At first I had issues with that but have learned I really have to take it as far as I can even if I end up being asked to revise it several more times. Be willing to do that work for the sake of the work and the reader. If you value what you do you won’t have any issues with revisions. It’s a win for all involved so be grateful for the suggestions and apply them.

I also suggest you not allow yourself to get discouraged until you have sent out at least 80 queries (and yes there are 80 agents/editors out there for your genre). It’s almost like job hunting – its a numbers game. I use the CWIM and also make sure I check the agency/publisher website in case something has changed. In the latest version Chuck has included some examples of first pages that several different agents critiqued and they all had differing reactions to the books. That was a big eye opener as to how subjective it is; all agents won’t view your book the same way and that is a good thing. It gives you hope that maybe there is one out there that will love it.

I try to research the agent to find out something about them personally and what they tweet, blog about so that I can get to know them before I submit. If I don’t find much I just approach them with the same respect and courtesy I would any new person I meet in business.

If you participate in online pitch wars make sure you work on the pitch in advance and use the most descriptive words you can; don’t be vague – you only get one shot at it (well maybe two in the 8 hr period but you know what I mean). It’s nice to get agent likes and that feels good so consider that a win as well even if you don’t get repped.

Well, I’ve got a conference to attend shortly so hope this advice helped and happy writing!

Voice is Everything

So today I want to talk about voice. We hear it so much as authors. Voice. The book ‘just has to have it’, the agents say. But you might ask, ‘what is it exactly? Don’t all characters have a voice, after all, they are talking?’ True, but just having a character talk is not voice. It’s what the character demonstrates his or her self to be. Let me explain.

When you sit down to lunch or drinks with your friends and you all start talking, you know that no matter the subject each of you will reveal their voice in the conversation. One friend may shy away from certain topics and you can tell by the way she participates, what she says or does not say. Another friend always has a definite opinion and she expresses it in a defiant way. And yet another makes light of just about everything. Study your friends and then translate that to your character. That is voice.

How do you do this? Examine each of your characters and ask yourself. ‘Who is Johnny? How does he feel about certain things?’ Then give Johnny the mannerisms, words and attitude he needs to pull it off. You need to make Johnny real, like your friends. And he needs to maintain that ‘voice’ throughout the book.

Readers need to be able to get together in book clubs and say ‘Johnny just hates xyz,’ or ‘Johnny is just a joker, he never takes anything seriously.’

How will they know this? VOICE!

How Far We’ve Come

Do you remember the day you discovered the Internet? I do. I was working for a graphic designer and he had a computer. A computer I had access to use. In those days, you had to load 10-20 square disks to install a program, such as Ami Pro, WordPerfect, or Quickbooks. Now it all happens with the click of a link. I remember only a few (counting on one hand) websites back then: AOL, CompuServe and NetNoir. These were places I frequented to ‘meet’ people online. That excitement led me to change careers from TV news reporting to web producing.

But I don’t want to talk about technology as much as I want to wax rhapsodic about the world technology has literally expanded for us, both good and bad. True there is a lot of junk online. No I take that back — a lot of disgusting, filth and trash. But for those of us who avoid that kind of thing, the Internet has been a time-saver, an educator and an accelerator.

As a time-saver, the Internet allows me to find things I need to buy or investigate. I don’t have to go to the actual store and browse. Granted I still like to window shop and the Internet cannot really help me touch the clothes or smell the fruit. And even though it can save me time in my search  for books at the library (I can search Dekalb County locations and reserve my books) I still go to the actual LIBRARY to borrow them.

As an educator, the Internet has exposed me to resources I need in order to understand my field better — be it project management or writing. I can find lots of blogs and other sites hosted by folks like myself who share vital information.

And finally as an accelerator, the Internet brings me in touch with the organizations I want to join in order to meet the people I want to know and a very short period of time. I find it amazing that if I did not have this resource, I would never have met my book illustrator in Duluth, Minnesota or my critique partner in New Brunswick, Canada, or my book cover designer in India. In addition, I wouldn’t have become aware of organizations like the Society for Children s Book Writers and Illustrators or the Georgia Writers Association, and everybody they know. So I guess I’m saying that the Internet has been a wealth of useful information in my life these past 20 years and I am grateful to have the help, and to see how far we’ve come.

Are You A Passive Writer?

I’m not referring to your demeanor, I’m referring to your word choices. I was reading a blog about improving your scenes the other day and one thing it said was ‘did you notice the author didn’t use any passive verbs?’ Then I thought: “Hmm. Did I use any in my book?” So I hit my trusty Ctrl-F and searched for a few. One I used way too much is ‘looked’ or ‘looked like.’ So I cut them all out and found better ways to describe what something looked like or someone’s reaction. 

It made the passages a whole lot better! If you are getting passive (and now I do mean your demeanor) about using passive verbs. Go forth and annihilate them!

Characters v. Stories

Everyone who reads has certain pleasure points when it comes to a good book. Some like to curl up with a romance novel while in their stocking feet holding a big box of tissues. Others like to sit out on the screened-in porch with a tall glass of ice tea and a good mystery novel. But what is it about that book that the person loves? Is it the story or the characters? Maybe it’s both. But for me, it matters not the genre I choose but whether i can visualize the characters. I don’t mean see them as in what they look like or what they wear. I don’t need those details because I am going to fill them in with my own image. What I want is for them to be a near to real as possible so I can like them, laugh at them, and even scold them! I LOVE characters.

So that is a big goal of mine as I write for kids and teens. I want to build characters that people just want to follow and get to know, regardless of the storyline. Of course that has to be good, but when I think of shows, movies and books that I’ve liked, it always comes down to the character. When I was a child and watched Bette Davis on our black and white TV, it didn’t matter what the story was about. I was there for HER. Same today. I love the Madagascar movies (which are not for kids in my opinion) not for the plot but for the characters — especially how they interact with each other. I’d watch those animated animals no matter what they did or where they did it. They have great personalities and that is what makes me watch. As many know, Bette Davis was larger than life on the screen — the way she walked and talked. Her attitude about things. I have to admit as an adult I’ve purchased all her DVDs on TCM and anywhere else I could find them.

Another character that I would read no matter what is Lamar in Crystal Allen’s MG book. “How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba Sized Trophy.” From the very first page that kid is hilarious. And he thinks he’s so cool. I could not put the book down. He had a unique voice that carried the story and would have whether he was a bowler (and he was believe it or not) or a brigadier general.

I truly believe that with well-developed characters, books can be so much better. I am still learning how to make mine sing so that when anyone reads about them, they want to know them too.

Manuscripts: Focus, focus, focus

One thing I have learned, and continue to learn, about putting together a manuscript is that it is not like writing a letter about something that happened to you or someone else. It is structured — whether you intend to do so or not. It has a beginning, middle and end of course, but there is so much more to it.

I’ve read lots of writing books (i.e., Writer’s Digest Great Fiction series, which I highly recommend, and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks) and from what I have ascertained, once the structure is in place, I can relax and just enjoy the writing part.

I was listening to an interview on Twitter with author Jill Santopolo and was happy to hear her co-sign the same approach I have added to my arsenal after reading the aforementioned references: to create the shell, and then fill it in. What does that mean? Well she didn’t say it that way exactly, but in a nutshell, you create an outline of each chapter so you know where you are going. It does not have to explain every little detail, just a basic sentence or two about what needs to happen. Then you can craft the direction you need to take so that you do not forget. Granted, I am a project manager so I am especially fond of clarity, direction and getting there properly — so sue me.

Anyway, here is an example: in James Scott Bell’s book Plot & Structure, he explains the ‘doors of no return.’ These doors are major events that thrust the protagonist forward in the story. Events that cause them to act — whether they want to or not. It’s fascinating reading and it really works! So putting this into practice I can ensure the story has direction, as well as conflict and excitement in all the right places. It’s not easy and I am still a novice at it, but the more I do it, the better my writing becomes.

You must admit, keeping kids’ attention these days is tough, so if you are going to write a kidlit book, it is crucial to use a methodology (uh oh, my PM hat again) that will keep them focusing on your book, not the XBox. 🙂

Middle Grade on a Mission!

Well I’m back after being VE-R-R-R-Y busy the last 30 days. As you know, I completed Susanna Leonard Hill’s PB class and now I am in Dashka Slater’s PB class! (yes I am a glutton for PB punishment!). But get this, I am also writing an MG novel! Yep, it’s a series called Halle Harris & The Truth Seekers — about 4 would-be sleuths who help classmates solve their problems. Want to hear my elevator pitch for the first one? OK here goes: Four sleuths-in-training trying to save a classmate from a bully could end up ruining her life. 

I don’t have a completion date…taking my time to get to know my characters and delve into the world of 11-year olds. More on that later.

I also won an award a few weeks ago — that’s one reason I’ve been MIA. It was for a cookbook I wrote, called The Real Book on How to Cook: Secrets mother never told you (amazon and b&n). It won ‘Best Cook Book’ at the African American Literary Awards in NYC. How cool is that? Readers nominate and vote so that makes it extra special.

Well, gotta go! 

Off and Writing!

Ok I must admit I’ve been pretty lame bringing you tidbits from the 30 day PB quest. I did get the book written and tweaking it now. In the meantime, I won an award for my cookbook I released in June! More on that in another blog! Anyway, I am working on a middle grade novel about 4 would-be sleuths who try to help a girl being bullied but end up nearly ruining her life! More on that later too. Well, I am attending Dashka Slater’s PB class in two weeks so will try to do better!