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Archive for October, 2013

Friday, November 1st begins the fourteenth annual creative frenzy known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Founded in 1999 by a couple crazy kids in San Francisco, it has grown to be a world wide phenomenon, with over 166,000 aspiring novelists already signed up to participate in this year’s marathon. If you’ve been a writer of any kind for any length of time, you probably already know what it’s about, so I won’t bore you with any more details. Or you could go visit their site, which is infinitely more giving of their time and attention than I am.

At any rate, many of you will be nose-to-keyboard come Friday, so I thought I’d offer you some hopefully helpful tips to get you through. Many of these are gleamed from a series of articles I did for Examiner.com in November 2010. No, that’s not cheating – it’s retreading an old wheel instead of inventing a new one. Writers do it all the time. You’ll see for yourself soon enough.

I wrote a little bit last week about characters (“It’s Made of People”) and how I try to develop them. Chuck Wendig (a seriously deranged, yet amazingly talented individual), lent his take on it with “The Zero-Fuckery Quick-Create Guide To Kick-Ass Characters,” a much better explanation (but not at all suitable for work, children, the Amish, or people with weak hearts) of what you need to do for your characters. Without decent characters, you might as well be adrift at sea in a bathtub, so if you do nothing else to prepare for the Great American Write-athon, at least write some notes on who will be dancing across your pages.

The other thing you’ll be sweating over is the plot. You want a slick, interesting, page-turning story to keep your reader hooked until the very end, but sometimes what you want and what you get are two very different things. NaNoWriMo writing isn’t slick – it’s guerrilla warfare writing. It’s slamming words on the page as fast as you can so you can get something, ANYTHING in writing toward your goal. Write now, edit later. But you’ll get stuck. You’ll find you’ve written yourself into a hole, or that your characters are wandering aimlessly without a purpose. Time to shake things up. Try some random plot points from The Future is Fiction, and see just what your characters can do.

There will be plenty of other reasons you get stuck, too. Mainly because you’ve allowed yourself to get caught up in what you perceive to be a negative aspect of your ability. Don’t just circle the drain on the way to giving up. Take your excuses head-on and find a work around.

(1)                   Story line is lame: We don’t need War and Peace here. One of the writing teachers at the American Film Institute said that all stories can be distilled down to one of three main themes: man vs. himself, man vs. nature and man vs. man. Pick one and go for it. Details can come later.

(2)                   Dialogue is lousy: go watch a few science fiction films from the 1950’s, and then we’ll talk about lousy dialogue. Dialogue exists to allow the characters to connect to each other and to give the reader information or descriptions. Listen to the people around you in the real world, watch how they interact and converse, and write what you hear. Keep the speech of your characters as natural as possible, and even the simplest of dialogue will keep the pages turning.

(3)                   Can’t describe things: not everybody needs to be Steinbeck. It’s okay to write, “It was a beautiful sunset” and move on, instead of lapsing rhapsodic for three pages about every nuance of the sunset. Sometimes simpler is better, because now your reader can remember their own beautiful sunset, putting their own personal touch on your story, and thereby being more invested.

You can also substitute one of your strengths for a weakness. If you just can’t get your dialogue to work, but you’re great at descriptions, put it into prose. Describe what your characters are doing and saying, give the reader the feelings behind the scene, and let the dialogue be imagined. If you’re still struggling with your descriptions, but you have strong dialogue, go ahead and let your characters fill in the blanks with their conversations. In the strict confines of NaNoWriMo, you don’t have time to angst about what “should” be on the page. Just get it there in whatever form works best for you.

But even after all that, you may still find yourself struggling to meet that 1,667 words a day output. Stressing about it only makes it worse.

(1)                   Walk away: sometimes you just need to take a break, whether it be just getting something to drink, or walking the dog, or taking a weekend at the beach. Focus on giving yourself a few minutes every hour to get away from your writing, stretch out, have a cup of tea, read the paper, or look at the flowers. Getting your mind off the task at hand, even for a few minutes, may be just enough to snap you back into your story. And ergonomic specialists everywhere will be pleased.

(2)                   Write anything: jot a note to your mother, pen an editorial, scribe an outline for your blog, whatever. Just the mere act of writing outside of the confines of your novel can get the creative juices flowing. A variation on this theme is to write what you already know about your novel and your characters, even if it isn’t in what you think will be the final order. The point is to get your ideas on the page, even if only in their most raw forms. Dressing them up can come later.

(3)                   Write with others: meet up with a friend or group of fellow writers and bounce ideas of each other. Often a writer’s block comes about because we’re stuck on something in particular and our brain gets trapped in a Mobius loop. Trading off with other novelists can often bring you a solution you would never have imagined. Many NaNoWriMo participants are part of a regional group that offers “write ins” through out the month. Hook up with your local group and see what happens.

Since I’m already hip deep in my current novel, I’m not officially participating this year. But I have decided to play along the side lines, so if my entries over the next few weeks are short, lame or just plain stupid, it’ll be because I’m trying to stay coherent long enough to cross that 50,000 word goal line myself. I don’t think I’ve ever written that much in a month, so it’ll be an interesting challenge in self-discipline. Whatever that is.

Writers, start your keyboards…

© 2013  Cheri K. Endsley  All Rights Reserved.

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I recently tried to read a critically acclaimed, multi-award nominated novel by the latest wiz kid in science fiction. The operative word being “tried.” Twice, in fact. I just couldn’t get past eighty pages either time. It made me wonder if maybe I’m just too out of touch with what’s happening in the genre, that being middle-aged and a long time away from my dream has left me bereft of the edge needed to play in that field. The other thought that occurred to me is maybe it really is bullshit, and it comes down to who is putting on who.

It’s not that the book wasn’t beautifully written. The words were put together well, the descriptions vivid and evocative. I just couldn’t get emotionally invested in it. There was nothing there that reached out and grabbed me and made me keep reading. The setting wasn’t anyplace I could be interested in, the story – while pertinent social commentary – didn’t offer me any thrills, and I couldn’t identify with the characters. My intellect could see why the critics might bestow their praise upon such a creation, but my soul was bored stiff and wishing for the next Die Hard movie. Even if only to cringe at how many expensive vehicles were blown up at one time.

I’ve had this happen before with critically adored novels. Most of the time I get why the critics are so slap-happy about a particular book, but occasionally I just come away from a reading session with my brain scrambled and wondering if I should go see a doctor about that big empty in my head. I’ve often thought that those books are only critics’ darlings because NO ONE understands what’s going on in the thing, but they don’t want anyone to know that so they sing its praises and hope none of the rest of us notice just how useless they really are.

One of the continuing problems I see in science fiction, and genre fiction in general, is the writer getting caught up in his or her own shtick. They gloat in the gadgetry, swoon over the science, masturbate to the magic and forget all about what I consider to be the single most important part of fiction: the characters. If there aren’t people there I can identify with, that I can like or hate or worry about, then I’m not going to keep reading.

And don’t just offer up some basic stick figures, either. I’m on to that. I want real people. People with naiveté, quirks, fears, prejudices, anger, unrequited love, learning disabilities, and all the other varieties that real people have. Give me a badass soldier who’s allergic to chocolate and hates spiders. Or a hotshot pilot who’s gay and plays backgammon. Or a famous scientist who’s afraid of crowds and collects cat figurines. I’m tired of the vampire with the smoldering good looks and the heart of gold, or the magician’s apprentice who discovers she’s the Chosen One. Give me something different, something real, something raw.

I know there are two schools of thought when it comes to crafting fiction. One would have writers outlining their story from start to finish before thinking of anything else. As in hard science fiction, it’s all about the ideas. The characters are almost after thoughts. But I’ve never understood how that works. It becomes an intellectual thought experiment instead of entertainment, and I read because I want to escape, not be given a lecture.

The second school is all about developing the characters first, and then letting them tell you the story. That’s the path I tread, the way I’ve always done it. I can’t even say it’s a method because I never really studied it until I went to the American Film Institute. And there it was more a realization of technique than an education. It was also one of the things that got me into AFI in the first place. Part of the application process was an interview, during which the writing teacher asked me where I came up with my stories. When I told him I have people inhabiting my head clamoring to tell me their adventures, he just seemed to smile knowingly. It was the first time in my life I began to think that maybe I wasn’t crazy after all.

The first thing I do when I’m starting a new novel is to sketch out the major characters. I describe them physically and psychologically. I give them talents and abilities, assign them jobs, ferret out their quirks and secret desires, offer up motivations and goals. It could be as little as a few lines to as many as several pages, but I get their bones down in my notes. As I’m working my way through them, I’ll learn about different connections they each may have to another, their prejudices, their fears, their backgrounds. By the time I actually start writing the novel, I have a community of people ready to tell me what’s going on: all I have to do is listen. Sometimes it’s a cacophony that takes some sorting through, and sometimes they’re all pouting silently in their own corners, but eventually I get the tale.

No, I don’t always know where they’re going to take me, but that’s part of the fun of writing. I get to live the adventure along with my characters. And not everything I put down in their bios ends up in the fiction. Much of it is just foundation, something the character can stand upon and from which offer up their own unique voice. I’ve written many a scene for a particular character, trying to force him or her into the path I think is right for the story, only to have the character stubbornly refuse to cooperate, based not on anything already written, but on some obscure character trait that will never see the light of day beyond my own fastidious notes. When that happens, you know you’ve done it right.

             Think about the stories that have kept your attention, the books you keep going back to year after year. I’d venture it’s not the beautiful prose or the taut story line or the social commentary that haunts you, but the characters, the people.

             Make real people, and the story will write itself.

© 2013   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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            “I don’t feel like it.”

            “I don’t have time.”

            “The muse hasn’t struck yet.”

            “The dog ate my notes.”

We writers are notorious for avoiding the one thing we claim to live for. It’s such a struggle to get started, but, once we do, it can be almost impossible to stop. It’s a lot like an exercise program in that regard: we feel so much better when we do it, but that first step is a doozy.

You might have noticed I didn’t make an entry last week, and this week’s is running late. I have all sorts of excuses. My husband and I were prepping (and then gone) for a weeklong camping event. Lots of planning, packing, swearing, naps and all the other things that go along with making sure we have everything we need to live as merchants in the Middle Ages. I just ran out of time and energy to get something reasonably intelligent on the page.

Translation: I didn’t plan well.

That’s the real reason behind all the excuses. Everything boils down to planning, budgeting your time carefully enough so you always have time to write. Now that I have followers over and above just family and friends, I’m feeling more pressure to keep a regular schedule with my musings. I’m feeling a responsibility to my readers. It’s kind of scary, knowing that there are people out there who actually want to read what I have to say. That kind of motivation makes me want to be better, to actually have something interesting to say, instead of just meandering along those blind alleys in my head.

And that’s when I finally understood what it was to be a REAL writer.

This isn’t just about me anymore. It’s about touching others in a way only I can. The first order of writing is to write what you love, to write what you want to read, to write for yourself, but that is only the first step. To truly be a writer, you have to write what you love in such a way that others love it, too.

Because, let’s face it: none of us are writing just for the sake of writing. We have ideas and philosophies and opinions we want to share. We have answers to age-old questions and rebuttals to timeless arguments. We think we can make a difference. Even if it’s just a few minutes of fantasy escape to a land where dragons talk, or robots are sentient, or space ships are the size of worlds, we want to give something to the reader they can’t get anywhere else.

But the demand on readers is fierce. Leave them alone for just a moment, and there are a million other writers demanding their attention. Leave them alone long enough, and they go away entirely, following someone else’s blog, reading someone else’s stories, buying someone else’s novels. Readers are fickle: I should know, because I’m a reader, too. I have preferred authors I follow, whose books are high on my list when I have the funds. But if one of them goes too long (a relative term, since it all depends on my mood) between offerings, I’m looking for the next fix from someone else.

And today’s instant-gratification society doesn’t make it any easier. The demand for content is insatiable. It used to be the norm for writers to not be heard from for years between books. Now there’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, etc. Daily updates on just about anything from book signings to reading lists to what’s for dinner seem to be required of that once-elusive creature known as a writer. We have to “build our brand,” and communicate with our “community.” We can’t just sit quietly (read: sullenly) in our own little world and spit out our masterpieces at random intervals depending on our muse. We have to be part of the greater experience.

As a reader, I see their point. I’m more interested in those writers who care about their readers than those authors who come across as disdainfully thumbing their noses at the collective unwashed masses. I suspect that’s pretty true of just about any human relation, though. We all want to be liked. Don’t like me? Well, just fuck off, then. That’s human nature.

But writers don’t exist without readers. I work for myself, but I work for you, too. Getting paid to write means the reader is the boss. Treat them with respect, give them what they want on a timely basis and don’t insult their intelligence in the process. Within those parameters you can play quite a bit: tease them with tidbits of storyline, torment them with cryptic character messages, lead them on with promises of love and chocolate cream pie. But never, ever disappoint them.

That’s why you have to stop making excuses and write. Writing isn’t just an art, it’s a skill. And like all skills, you have to exercise it to keep it in top shape. Write every day. Write a poem, write a scene description, write your grocery list, write your mother. Write with grace and passion and ferocity and dedication. Write in that ten minutes in the morning before the kids get up, or on your lunch break, or during commercials or hiding in the bathroom just before bed. Write with keyboard on computer, pen on paper, pencil on desktop, crayon on toilet paper or chalk on sidewalk. Just write.

Someday, somewhere, someone will read what you’ve written. Make it worth their time.

© 2013   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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Passages

I’ve lost two more friends in this last week. One was an older lady, long since retired from teaching, but I saw her just a few weeks ago at one of our historical events, smiling as usual. Now, gone, bam, just like that.

The second was a guy my age. He and his wife had just bought a new house with horse facilities for their equine children. Complained of a headache one day and was in the hospital the next with a brain aneurism. His most amazing final act was to be an organ donor.

Go hug your friends and family and be thankful you still have them close. Then go make arrangements for that inevitable journey we all must take. Do it now while you can, on your own terms. Yes, it’s scary and hard. But it’s the ultimate act of love you can offer.

Advance Directives:

1)   Definitions at FamilyDoctor.org.

2)   Download forms by state at Caring Connections.

Organ Donation:

1)   Why donate, at the US Department of Health and Human Services.

2)   See just how much is needed at UNOS.

3)   How to sign up in California.

Blessed BeStitched pentagram

© 2013  Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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