Weekly Musing: NaNo Here I Come

Next Friday, November 1st, is the start of NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month (NaNo for short.) It’s been around since 1999 when only 21 people participated but this year, over 140,000 writers have signed up. The purpose of NaNo is to write at least 50,000 words during the month of November.

I’ve never participated in NaNo and felt this year was a good time to start. I’ve got a novel I’ve wanted to write for over 2 years and have been doing lots of research for it. While the research is crucial for my understanding of the history of the time period I’m setting the book in, I have hidden behind it. I’ve been too afraid to actually tackle writing it. I have good excuses I tell myself. I’m a new writer so I need to practice more with short stories before I write a novel, right? Oh, my research has turned up something that I think might be good to explore but I’ll need to do even more research. I don’t want to make a mistake since I do have a degree in history.

What also hasn’t helped is I’ve changed the plot a gazillion times. Officially I’ve done 4 outlines. The last one I did was sometime summer of 2012. Since then, though, I’ve added a lot of notes about plot. Snippets of color-coded paper. Notes stored in EverNote. Notes stored in a Word file. I’m organized but not despite a tri-fold board filled with slips of paper listing historical people, events, and places to help keep me straight on the facts.

Now that I have less than a week before the start of NaNo, I am starting to panic. The time has flown since I made the decision back in the summer to do NaNo. I thought I was giving myself plenty of time to do as much research as possible, work on developing characters sheets, and quasi-finalizing an outline. Ahhh but life got in the way. In the midst of all of the prep work, my spouse was interviewing for a new job which he got. The catch: it’s across the country. Now we are in the midst of selling our house so who knows when it will sell (quickly I hope!) so time has been lost dealing with a huge life change. Then all of a sudden it was mid-October and I had yet to do any real prep work for NaNo.

But from what I’ve been reading on the forums on NaNo’s website, that’s okay. Lots of people are first time NaNo participants. Some are working on outlines, some aren’t, and some aren’t even sure yet what they are going to write. Reading words of wisdom from veteran participants has put my mind at ease. Just a little. The closer the calendar gets to November 1st, the more the realization of what I’m about to embark upon gets larger.

I’m not alone, though, as NaNo encourages people to join a home region within their state or country as a means of connecting writers. Ideally each region will have a leader, ML they are called, whose job is to organize the kick-off party on November 1st and subsequent write-in sessions. Write-in sessions are in person gatherings where writers get together and well, write. Writing is a solitary sport but sometimes a group of writers just need to get together. I’m guessing that creative energy gives a writer a needed boost. So while I don’t know any of the other people in my region, I’m looking forward to meeting them.

Throughout the month of November, I’ll be providing updates on my progress towards that 50,000 word goal as well as what it feels like to be a first-time participant. Scary but I am hopeful it will be a great learning experience and yes, even a bit fun.

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Weekly Musing: Don’t Do That!

The following pieces of writerly advice are sayings I can’t stand. I understand the good intent behind these. It’s to encourage writers to be as strong of a writer as possible. To get beginning writers away from being tentative and instill confidence in their abilities. In a way its like telling the writer if you do any of these, the rocket is going to blow up! The world will end! We’re not dividing by zero people; the world will be okay. Some very famous writers have violated these rules and the world still spins.

Your first sentence really needs to grab the reader. How many of us honestly remember the first sentence to any story we read? There are the ones that are famous first lines like ‘Call me Ishmael’ or ‘It was the best of times, it was the worse of times…’ but those are stuck in people’s minds because they have been repeated often as a couple of the most famous lines in literature. If you pressed a lot of people they wouldn’t be able to identify which books those are from (Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities). So is the first line really that important to the average reader? Does the first line of a story really turn on or turn off readers? Are readers that judgmental that if a story’s first line isn’t intriguing, the rest of the story must be rubbish? For me, I fall into the group of readers who don’t remember and don’t care what the first line of a story is. I couldn’t tell you what the first line is of my favorite books. It’s not how I determine what I’ll read and to base my entire opinion of if I should read a story or not upon the first line seems incredibly limiting and illogical.

Don’t use big words. If a reader has to stop reading to look a word up in the dictionary, you’ve lost the reader. This seems incredibly insulting to the reader. This piece of advice seems to advocate authors restrict their word choices to average, common words. But the beauty of language is its complexity and evolution. More complex, longer, or even less common words serve a purpose when a simple word just can’t fully convey what the piece requires. I can understand shying away from using strings of complex or archaic words; too many of those come across as pompous unless that is what the author’s goal is. But to advise writers from staying away from uncommon words is silly. Heaven forbid the reader learns a new word! In school I was taught if you come across a word you don’t know, first try to glean the definition from the context it is used in the sentence. If that doesn’t work, look it up in the dictionary. Even the Harry Potter series has words I didn’t know at first and it’s aimed at young adult readers. If a reader gives up on a piece because an unfamiliar word sends their fingers running for a dictionary then that is a symptom the story has a problem. A good story will stand up to occasional dictionary consulting.

Shorter sentences are easier for the reader. This one I can understand more why it is advised because if you read a lot of the classics or literature, it’s not unusual for a sentence to take up several lines on the page and yes, it can be taxing on the eyes and mind to keep track of everything going on in said sentence, however, with the proper placement of punctuation and the right training, you can keep up with the action in the sentence. Shorter sentences have their appeal. I suppose. Easier to read. Easier to digest. Take small bites. Chew your food thoroughly. The beauty of longer sentences is they can communicate a rush of emotion or thought. To capture stream of consciousness. Shorter sentences are great for building tension, to describe action, and for short bursts of emotion.

Your characters shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ to each other. Huh? Why? When I read that piece of advice in a writing book, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the author’s reasoning. Essentially what the author was arguing was you as the writer should be showing the characters are in love. Okay, I get that part, show don’t tell but if the characters on a page are to be as real as possible, to act as real people, they need to speak as real people speak. Real people say ‘I love you’ to each other. I can’t imagine a story with the relationship between a parent and child, two people in love, or the bond between a pet and its owner with those three little words never being uttered. Words are how people express how they feel. In the real world we show and tell each other every day how much we love someone.

If you want to shift POV, end the current scene and start another. Can’t have multiple POVs in a scene. I think this piece of advice comes from how most modern books have gotten away from being written in the third person omniscient a lot of literature used to be written in. Reading books written in that POV can be frustrating and confusing for the reader yet many of the classics are written from this POV. It is possible, and sometimes necessary, to have multiple POVs within a scene without having to use *** to denote a POV change. Sometimes it is important to the story for the POV to shift to a different character briefly. The trick is to be subtle about it. As a reader I don’t pick up when POV shifts so I wonder how often the average reader does and it throws them off?

Adverbs weaken the writing. Again, does the average reader notice the number of adverbs used on a page? In a chapter? In a book? I don’t think they do and believe this is something only other writers pick up on. Adverbs are looked down upon as weakening writing because they are viewed as indicators of passive writing rather than active writing. Instead of the character being the one doing the actions, adverbs give off the impression the action is happening to the character. I agree with the character being active rather than passive. I also agree writers should aim for strong prose but for some reason reading ‘she said in a soft voice’ grates on me more than ‘she said softly’. Less words to explain the same feeling.

Weekly Musing: Tickle My Funny Bone

We all like to laugh. Sometimes we just need to laugh; whether it’s a bad day, bad week, bad month, whatever is dragging us down, laughter can pick us up.

Humor in writing, I think, is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. Humor and sarcasm often don’t translate well onto paper. Sarcasm especially unless the author denotes it with ‘He said sarcastically.’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people and been personally involved with bickering online because someone said something sarcastic but other people got offended because they failed to see it the statement. Again, unless someone flags it, sarcasm doesn’t translate well on the page or computer screen.

Humor is a different animal. The intent is to make the reader laugh but how does one accomplish that? And how does one do that well? I am struggling to come up with the names of authors that write humor well. The first ones that come pop into my mind are comedians like Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey. They have an advantage because they have a ready-made audience with their TV shows. It’s easy to hear their voice when reading a book of theirs. A certain amount of hilarity is expected.

When brainstorming fiction writers, I struggle more to come up with funny authors. A large portion of this failure is on me for not discovering enough authors have humor in their books. I’m not referring to ones that always write funny stories but who have humor in their books that work. A. Lee Martinez’s Emperor Mollusk vs. the Sinister Brain is quite humorous because of its absurd premise of Earth ruled by a highly intelligent mollusk that creates all kinds of exoskeletons and weapons, amongst other things, for him to go out in the world. For goodness sakes, the book starts off with him leaving the grocery store and ordinary citizens saying ‘Hi’ to him. It is that premise which allows the author to get weird and funny.

What makes writing humor difficult, in my opinion, is everyone has a different sense of humor. I think that is why some authors use slapstick characters or crude dialogue. Most people recognize that character and potty humor is fairly universal. To take humor to a higher level is difficult. The author must be comfortable and trust his character to be naturally funny. The author must also be okay with the fact not every reader will get the jokes.

It is the concept of trusting the character to be the jester that I have a hard time wrapping my brain around. Personally I am a horrible joke teller. I’m also horrible telling stories orally; more comfortable with the words in front of me. Yet I still consider myself funny because my japes are more off the cuff and a reaction to what’s going on around me. I couldn’t write that stuff down to save my life.

The thought of writing jokes or funny dialogue worries me. I recently wrote a story told entirely through dialogue. The challenge for me wasn’t telling a story through dialogue but the considerable amount of humor it contained. I went with an absurd concept thinking it would make it easier for me. Weird = funny. I kept my fingers crossed hoping writing a humorous piece would work. Surprisingly enough, it did or so my writers group told me. But that was probably one of the most difficult yet the most fun piece of writing I’ve done to date.

Would I want to do that again? Not so sure yet I want to, and look forward to, having funny characters who fire off smart dialogue. Just hope I can keep up with them.