Weekly Musing: How May I Help You?

Writing, like any other career, has lots of information and resources designed to help. Information about the mechanics of writing, quotes from famous writers to help motivate and inspire, writing prompts for when creativity is low, etc. Various types of software, books (a gazillion it seems), websites (gazillions raised to the 10th power), and people are available for writers at any level. Since I consider myself a green writer, I’ll only list those resources I’ve found helpful so far for someone at my experience level.

People – One of the biggest sources of help for me has been other writers. Being part of my local writer’s group has helped my writing tremendously in the few months I’ve been attending. It’s a great mixture of published authors, those close to making the leap into publishing, people writing for fun, and optimistic beginners. The group works because of the supportive but honest environment. It’s also been a great information hub for informative books on all aspects of writing from The 10% Solution to character motivation and goals. And then there are the wonderful discussions about books read, favorite authors, and just life in general.

Another group that has been extremely helpful to me has been the local chapter of the PNWA. Each month we meet to discuss a variety of topics from character archetypes to upcoming conferences and to celebrate our successes. This group has provided me a much more formal type of education set in an informal atmosphere and also gives a glimpse into the career of a published author.

Websites – This is a tricky one for me. About 2 years ago when I more heavily considering becomes a writer I went overboard, I think, with bookmarking every website related to writing. But this year I’ve noticed I’ve become pickier about which websites I find useful.

The websites I keep going back to are Writer’s Digest (which I also subscribe to their magazine), Author Magazine , GoodReads, CritiqueCircle(I submitted work here first before joining my local writers group), and WritingForums. GoodReads I go to log what books I’m reading, write a review after I’ve finished reading one, and to see what other people are reading. I enjoy CritiqueCircle because of the daily quote they have as well weekly polls. The other websites I go to because of great information and that connection to other writers.

I’m also using a variety of websites like the local library, Amazon, foreign libraries, and museums for my research. Too numerous to list but as a beginning writer, these have been great tools for me.

Books – Oh boy, where to start on this one. There are the basics every piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten have recommended: On Writing by Stephen King, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, The 10% Solution, a good dictionary, thesaurus, and recently, a good synonym/antonym book.

In addition I’ve started a small collection of books on plotting, writing a novel, character development, a thesaurus filled with unusual words, books to help describe emotions and character traits, and a book to help flesh out descriptions in general. I plan to add more books as I pinpoint deficiencies in my own writing.

Software– This is one area I don’t use a lot of specially designed for writers software. I’ve heard of Scrivener, StoryCraft, MasterWriter, and others but those seem be above my current level of experience and goals. At this point, I’m content to use Word but I’m open to trying software that will make my life better.

What I’ve been using the last few weeks that is fun and helpful is EverNote. I’ve tried using OneNote and found it cumbersome. EverNote is great for me because I can ‘clip’ pictures from websites, individual webpages, as well as search terms I’ve entered in. Although I haven’t needed this function yet, I can also search everything I’ve already got saved. EverNote stores this information into different workbooks.

Another neat feature is I can insert notes into these notebooks. EverNote has been awesome to get a visual of whatever research I’ve collected and allows me to brainstorm. With saving search terms I’ve entered into Bing or Google, it makes it so much easier for me to go back to something. Personally it is beneficial to me to have a visual of a place or article of clothing so I can describe it as best I can. In the past, if I’ve found a picture, I could never remember the correct phrase to bring up the picture again. Thus the visual is gone.

Finally, a piece of software I’ve discovered recently is Google Earth. I stumbled upon this via an article I read by a historical fiction author who mentioned using Google Earth. He used it to get an overall view of an area he was writing about. He could zoom onto streets, jot down street names, and compare the current streets with historical documents to see if they were around in the time period he was interested in. If they were, then he could see exactly how streets intersected thus lending more authenticity.

What’s really slick about Google Earth is you can click on a city and get directed to Wikipedia with info about the city. What’s also nice for me since I need visual points of reference is I can map out the distance between two towns and see what the terrain looks like. This is valuable when terrain and weather will play a significant part of your story.

These are just a few of the resources I’ve found helpful so far and I’m constantly discovering more. When I first started writing, I had no clue how much information was out there. It’s still quite a bit to take in and I suffer frequently from information overload. While I’m getting better at weeding out what is useful the biggest challenge for me is getting my hands on those resources which are valuable for a historical fiction writer.

Weekly Musing: You’re My Inspiration

I’ve touched briefly upon what spurred me to become a writer but I haven’t talked about who my inspirations are, both good and bad. What I mean by that is, which authors do I admire, who in my wildest dreams would I love to be like, and which authors have I read that made me roll my eyes, sigh, and think ‘God, I hope I can do better than that.’ So today I’d like to wax a bit on those writers who have inspired me.

My absolute favorite author is Ken Follett. When I started reading his works, I think it was the first time I realized how much historical fiction I actually read and was the genre I loved the most. I was introduced to him by my spouse, who lent me a copy of The Pillars of the Earth. I loved the book. I loved the time setting, the story, and all the characters even that scumbag William Hamleigh. I started reading other Follett books, haven’t gotten through all of them yet, and my absolute favorite of his books is A Dangerous Fortune. Besides the tremendous amount of research that goes into each Follett book, the biggest thing I admire the most is the depth and complexity of his characters. He can juggle several major characters creating wonderfully entangled relationships. The characters feel like real people. They act like real people. His female main characters are always strong and complex. They are women with brains who buck the social constraints of their time period yet never come across as being out of place or too ‘modern’. Their motivations maybe for love and family, tropes most writers go to, but it never feels trite.

Follett’s characterizations and ways of seamlessly weaving in historical facts and details are a model for me. If I can achieve even an eighth of that, it would be a huge accomplishment in my mind. In A Dangerous Fortune, the book is set in the late Victorian era and Pilaster family’s wealth is centered in the banking industry. This is something most people aren’t familiar with so Follett has to educate the reader but not get the reader bogged down in all the boring financial terms. Instead of taking several arduous paragraphs to explain this, like some authors who shall remain nameless, he sprinkles it throughout the narrative in short, easy to digest paragraphs. He gives it the probiotic treatment. Just long enough to explain why it is germane to the story but not enough to glaze over the reader’s eyes. This approach is something I hope I can do in my own narratives because it is too easy for me to get caught up in the nerdy details I find interesting.

Another one of my favorite authors is George R.R. Martin. Like a lot of readers, I became aware of him via the show Game of Thrones based upon the excellent series A Song of Ice and Fire. His writing style is very different from Follett’s and modern writers I’ve read so far. He has this wonderfully dense, sensitive, lyrical quality to his prose. Sure some lament this but I find it refreshing; it makes his work and voice stand out. I’ve read some of his earlier short stories and am completely jealous of his early works because you can see his uniqueness even when he was a teenager. If I could put together prose a fraction of a fraction as beautiful as Martin does, I’d be exhilarated.

Besides the beauty of Martin’s words, the other thing he does that inspires me is, again, his characters. If you want to know what real, honest characters that quickly become people, then read George R.R. Martin. A Song of Ice and Fire is full of morally gray characters. It is full of characters you may love or hate at the beginning of the series but you wind up switching allegiance to by the end. But it’s not just this series where the characters are like that. His short stories are full of characters with indescribable depth. I admit I haven’t read any of his other novels yet but I look forward to them because I trust the quality will be there.

And for all my fangirling with regards to at least 2 of the authors whom I aspire to be like, there are those that I aspire to NOT be like. I won’t be specific with names or titles because that would be rude but suffice it say, when I attempted to read a certain book with sparkly vampires, I had to stop. Thinking ‘Um, is this what passes for a best-seller?’ is either inspiring or depressing. Inspiring as in well, I don’t think my writing can be any worse than that. Depressing as in I could be going at this for decades, producing well-written work (I hope) and yet not get published. What bugs me about books I’ve read that I don’t finish or like is because those authors have not created complex characters, interesting settings, or have strong prose skills. What gets published isn’t an accurate reflection of quality; it’s just what a publisher thinks they can sell.

But that’s when I realized I just need to concentrate on doing the best I can. I can be inspired without aping anyone else’s style or voice. It is incredibly easy for me to look at what my idols write and get down on myself. Is it realistic to aspire to be the next Ken Follett or George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling? Perhaps but I doubt any of them started out thinking they would be huge authors with millions of fans around the world and thousands of people admiring them.

Weekly Musing: I’ve Got a Secret

I’ve got a secret to share: I think I suffer from Writer’s ADD. I know it’s only a writer’s affliction because I can focus quite well in the outside world. It’s when I’m lost in my writer’s world that the symptoms become apparent.

For reasons I have yet to figure out, when I sit down for the day to work on research or brainstorm ideas or to write, I get ADD. I’m not referring to daydreaming or staring off into space to help me think. Or the actual ADD my spouse has. No, I’m talking about getting massively distracted by outside stimuli like the Internet.

Damn you almost unlimited knowledge resource and high-speed connection! A random thought will pop into my brain like say, ‘Oh, I wonder whatever happened to…?’ Let’s jet off to Wikipedia to look this person up. Oh, and here’s a link to someone else they worked with; let’s see what they are up to! Wait, that person was in that movie or TV show that I loved? Let’s click on that link and read about it. Fast forward and somehow I’ve lost an hour or more of my life. All in order to obtain worthless knowledge that only my spouse will be subjected to yet be utterly unimpressed that I know.

I refer to this phenomenon as the Wikipedia black hole. All those links, all those sources cited, it’s just way too easy to click and explore.

Another black hole I get into at times, and this one truly shames me to admit, is the dribble Yahoo passes off as ‘news.’ The IQ of my whole house goes down a few points when I click on a Yahoo article. Even though I know the article is going to be poorly written and about some idiot no one should ever read about. And yet, my index finger clicks on the mouse button. I am a git. And from the comments, usually the best part of any Yahoo article, I’m not the only one that regrets the decision.

Oddly enough, neither the TV nor the Xbox factor into my ADD. Although I haven’t beaten Bioshock Infinite yet…

But as of late, I am trying to deal with my Writer’s ADD. It isn’t beneficial to me whatsoever. Why waste my precious time with web-based junk food? In order to treat my Writer’s ADD, I’ve decided to set an alarm limiting myself. So far it is working because if I know I have 30 minutes to mess around the Internet, it actually sparks me to spend time on websites that are worthwhile. Like writingforums.org, writersdigest.com, or authormagazine.org to name just a few. Or to listen to interviews of my favorite authors.

I guess I have a fear of getting down to the daunting task of writing and research. I love and enjoy both of these activities but they can also be the ones that inspire the most anxiety in me. Looking up dumb stuff on the Internet is, unfortunately, a good way to not deal with that fear. With the timer system, though, I think it will be a great way to allow me time to soften up my brain before diving into work. Another benefit of setting a timer is I’m using it for research and writing time allotments. It focuses my brain on the one task I should be doing and quiets down the urges to multitask. And multitasking one’s mind rarely works for productivity something this writer is very much interested increasing.