NaNoWriMo and Word Choice in Characterization

HPIM1437

NaNoWriMo and Word Choice in Characterization

As I sit here, we are anticipating some winter weather tonight and I am looking forward to it.  There is nothing like sitting inside on a snowy day with a fire in the wood stove and a warm mug in hand to write.

I must confess that I am well behind in my NaNoWriMo word count. The goal is 50,000 by the end of the month and I am just around 25,000. Yes, I am well behind but there is still a chance I can catch up, though it is a small one.

Basically, I would need 25,000 words in eight days. That works out to over 3,000 words per day. Granted, this is the weekend, so I will intersperse writing with everything I do. However, the 3 year old may have some different ideas of how we should spend the day and Daddy will be off hunting a good bit of the time.

Another confession, I have been going off on some mighty big tangents, working on short stories, and just plunking the thoughts down inside my NaNoWriMo document at the end.  It’s not my novel but it is adding to my word count. With my limited writing time, I just can’t afford to ignore the short stories when they show up.

Anyway, I picked up an interesting book on Southern writers and artists yesterday at the library for inspiration. Of course the thing that caught my attention was a well known picture of Eudora Welty on the cover. I leafed through it then listened to the first part of the CD interviews on the way home.  I’ve always enjoyed southern writing, the characters are so vivid, and I love listening to writers and other creative types talk about their craft and world view.  If you’re interested, the book is The Storied South .

Characterization keeps coming up for me this week. Characterization through word choice was a major topic in writer’s group last night. Afterward, as I was sitting down to work on my novel, I wrote the line “I don’t know, but I kinda doubt it.” for my Professor character. As soon as I was close to done typing it, my brain had already edited to read, “I don’t know, but I rather doubt it.” (Yes, contrary to all admonitions to keep writing, I do edit little things like that as I go.) Just a simple word choice can make such a difference in a character and I think I was aware of what I was doing because of the discussion in group.

Then today, I had a library patron ask me what the most commonly used silent letter in English was. He amended that to be British English. Hmmm. That sent me researching only to find out that there is Received Pronunciation, also known as The Queen’s English, and Estuary Pronunciation, which is all the dialects that change every 20 kilometers and is how most people speak. That really gave me some insight on how hard it is to right proper dialect. Having an ear for that must be very difficult. (It also makes me think of the Car Talk guys on PBS radio who could guess where people were calling from a large percentage of the time after just a sentence or two. )

So, the answer?  I didn’t come up with a definitive one. My best guess was that it was e.  I said they’d have to consult a linguist.

What do you think?  Do you have any tricks for bringing your characters to life?  I could use some tips to keep me thinking.

Advertisements

Building a Better, Smarter, Faster NaNoWriMo

Biohazard_orange

I’ve done NaNoWriMo a number of times over the years, under a few different names.  For the past few I’ve done it under MeloraJohnson. (Feel free to add me as a friend!) My novel is Biomalware.

“In the near future a new line of disease and pest resistant genetically modified crops is being aggressively marketed, claiming to bring an end to world hunger.  As biodiversity dwindles, menacing secrets lurk beneath the perfectly red tomatoes and ultra-sweet corn. But for many, these crops aren’t food at all.  They are… Biomalware.

As I mentally prepared for this November, I started thinking about the past few attempts.  What have I learned from the numerous runs at NaNoWriMo?  A few things.

Four years ago I started writing a novel about a girl who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and NaNo got interrupted when I found myself unexpectedly pregnant around the seventh or so of the month.  (Yeah, one of these days I’m going to write a novel about a woman who wins a giant lottery jackpot.)

That time I learned that life can get in the way, if you let it.  There was really no reason for me to stop writing other than the fact that I was tired.  I could have kept writing, maybe not with a view to winning, but to get the most out of it that I could.  As Garrison Keillor says, “Nothing bad happens to a writer, it’s all material.” I let life get in the way. Now, I really wish I’d at least kept a journal of that time.

Last year I tried picking a different prompt every single day to see how far I could get on any particular day and if I could generate some solid short stories or story ideas.  I found myself focusing on one particular idea for about a quarter of the time.  What have I done with that idea since? Forgot about it, until this very paragraph. (It was actually a decent idea about time travel that I may have to dig out.  Strangely enough, our writer’s group prompt for this coming week is time travel.  Maybe I can turn it into a short story. Now, where did I put it?) I may do this again in the future, but with a plan, the prompts chosen and a filing system so I don’t just lose track of what I did.

Just over a year ago I wrote my first draft of Biomalware for Camp Nanowrimo in August of 2012.  I tried to edit it but I just felt like it wasn’t up to my usual strong vision of a story. It seemed more like a giant outline. I’ve resolved to plan ahead this time so I can really bring every scrap of talent and skill I have to bear on this project. I want this to be a book people will buy, enjoy and think about. (Not to mention talk about.)

Right now I’m trying to tie up a few loose ends before NaNoWriMo starts.  I have three short stories that I want to finish. The first is for the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Contest and is on it’s very final edit before I send it off. The second is a rough draft for a Christmas competition that will benefit from being set aside for a while.  The third is a short story that I wrote as part of my writer’s group weekly challenge, which I’m editing to post here on Halloween.  This will all happen this weekend because, come Monday, I plan to delve into preparing for NaNoWriMo. 

I have job applications to fill out for all of my characters and the story arch to fill out for the overall plot. I want to spend the next couple weeks watching movies that tell their stories the way I want to tell this story and reading everything I can get my hands on, pro and con, for genetically modified organisms.  I’ve been doing this right along but now I’m going for an intensive preparation.  (Wish I’d started at the beginning of the month.)

It’s true, there’s no telling how real life may get in the way but, to my mind, the idea is to prepare and plan so that you can dive in and immerse yourself in the pure creative process for November.  Really have fun and enjoy it.  I think that’s what keeps me coming back to NaNoWriMo time after time.  It’s not really because I think I’m going to suddenly write the Great American Novel.  It’s because there’s nothing like being given a license to immerse yourself in the creative process. I love to write, not just to have written. 

If anyone gives you a hard time you can tell them that, well, it’s only for a month.

The Glimmer of Hope

It’s been a long week and I’m so frazzled from the process of trying to rewrite, revise and edit the summary and first fifty pages of Biomalware before tonight’s deadline that I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this anymore. I want chocolate… and a nap.

After I submit Biomalware to the James Jones Fellowship contest tonight, I’m going to take the weekend away from it. I have some reading and commenting to do for others and the house is in a state of disgrace that only some heavy duty cleaning and elbow grease will elevate it from.

I’ll need to get back into it fairly soon and revise then edit the next fifty pages so that if the Fellowship competition should call for them, they will be ready.

I’m seriously thinking about creating just an outline for the book and going back to reimagine each scene and write it fresh with all the details then combine the best of the two versions I have. I think I probably will. That would allow me to come at it from two different writing directions. It will also give me time to research the GMO question and take Sam through the research process more in the book.

Oh, and to cap off my wonderful mood yesterday, I got my rejection e-mail from the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Contest. Guess I’ll be submitting that story to Yahoo! Voices this weekend. I doubt it will get much interest because they aren’t really featuring new stuff these days but at least it will be out there. I really liked it though it’s a bit unusual, a bit of magical realism, so hopefully someone else will enjoy it too.

I write because I like to write and to connect with others. I would really like to be writing novels and short stories for a living. I often refer to it as living the dream.

New York State came up with an ad campaign a few years back for their lottery tickets that said “you can’t win if you don’t play.” Now they more often go with “Hey, you never know.” Both sum up how I feel about submitting my work to contests and for publication. It’s a long shot but there’s that glimmer of hope that keeps me persevering. I know I want to write for a living and I know it’s a long shot but I know it’s certainly not going to happen if I don’t submit what I’ve written. I’d write even if no one ever read it but it’s so much more fun to share what I’ve written.

So, I have my lunch hour today and what time my 2 year old will allow me after work to continue revising and editing the excerpt from Biomalware before I submit it competition. On the one hand, I know there is so much more I could do to it, and will in the future. On the other hand, I promised myself that I was going to submit to this contest and I really feel compelled to at least put it out there. Maybe I could get an honorable mention for the ideas, if not the execution.

Hey, you never know.

Hey! Who wrote this book?

Open Book

 

Hey! Who wrote this book?

It all started earlier this week when I was preparing a talk on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. There was an intro by Edwidge Danticat and I decided to look her up. I’d known of her writing for years and always thought of her as an older woman.

She’s only FIVE years older than me!

AND she’s been wining awards and recognition for her writing since I went off to college.

Argh!

I posted about that on Facebook, questioning what the heck I’d been doing all this time with my writing, and an old friend suggested we share works in progress to help move things along. Being as he is a really good editor, I pulled out my Biomalware manuscript from last August that I wrote during Camp NaNoWriMo.

Now, what I want to know is, who wrote this book when I wasn’t looking? Because there’s 149 pages and it’s not nearly as bad as I remember. I guess what they say about giving it time in a drawer is true.

So, yesterday I took the afternoon off to work on it. Of course, I got a stomach virus but that’s a story you don’t want to hear and I STILL managed to get the novel outlined and rearranged some pieces of it – after a nap.

(I’m sure I’ve mentioned Biomalware before but to bring everyone up to speed, the novel is set in the near future where a new strain of genetic modification to crops has created food which isn’t food for everyone, some people cannot derive nutrition from it. Now it is infiltrating even the organic crops through pollen contamination, and that’s not all it’s doing.  The short story that started it is here, in case you’re interested.)

My next step is to use the information on Scenes and Sequels that I learned from Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal to focus the action in each chapter. (If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it. He hasn’t written much lately but the information on how he writes is really useful.)

Then I’ll go back through and tighten up things using the rest of the info in his posts on things like characterization and THEN I’m going to look back at it and make sure I’ve done everything I learned from Donald Maass in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel.

Luckily, after posting on Facebook, I have several more interested readers to give me feedback once I’m ready, as well as my writer’s group.

Now, the problem is that I want to apply for the James Jones Fellowship Contest because I think my book fits in AND because the first prize is TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS.

It’s awarded to “an American author of a first fiction novel-in-progress” and “is intended to honor the spirit of unblinking honesty, determination, and insight into modern culture exemplified by the late James Jones.”

What’s the problem there, you ask? Well, the deadline is March 1st. Luckily they just want the summary and first fifty pages so I will send that out to my readers at the end of the weekend.

Of course, we also plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day on Saturday and we have a family gathering on Sunday.

*slump*

Maybe I can get some rest next week.

Give Yourself Some Writing Credit

Taken by Bohringer Friedrich

So often, we think about all that we have yet to do or that we should be doing, but I’d like to take a moment to focus on all we do get done as writers, usually with schedules that are already full of living.

 Last week a coworker sent me a link to Pen Parentis (http://www.penparentis.org) an organization set up specifically for writers who are also parents.  There are dues to pay but you receive certain benefits by being a member, like being part of a community of writers who understand your challenges as a writing parent, savings on application fees for certain contest and fellowship application fees from Pen Parentis partners, an author profile, marketing space, promotion of your literary events on the events calendar and a Pen Parentis logo that you can use on your web site or e-stationary.

 Anyway, it got me thinking that, you know, I’m doing pretty darn good at this writing thing. I am a parent of a small child, I commute an hour each way and work a full-time job. I still write, even participating in National Novel Writing Month where I wrote over 50,000 words in August during Camp NaNoWriMo and hope to do so again this month. I’ve published things on Yahoo! Voices and earned actual money from it, as well as entering various contests.

 Of course, all this writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. My job is a tremendous help. Not only am I librarian, surrounded by books in a moderately large library, but I run an adult writing group there, sanctioned and originally requested by the library. My director is tremendously supportive of my writing endeavors too. When I had two pieces featured on Yahoo! Voices, she celebrated by giving me a ticket to a local charity fashion event.

 Then there is my family, friends and past school teachers. I’ve never been laughed at or scoffed at but rather supported in my writing. I remember each of my English teachers in high school being supportive in some way.  I remember going to a reading with some students from one of my English classes in high school. I thoroughly enjoyed it and when we left I said that I really liked one particular story and wished I could write like that. My English teacher looked at me and said, “You write better than that.” I never forgot that.

 Last, and perhaps most importantly, my husband is very supportive of my writing – verbally, actively and financially. He listens to me talk about stories that I’m writing with interest and when he knows I’m working hard on a piece he will do extra chores around the house, like emptying the dishwasher when it’s not his turn. The laptop that I’m writing on right now, plus the voice activated digital recorder and the Dragon NaturallySpeaking software that I use were all bought for me by him.

 No, all the roadblocks in my way have been of my own creating which creates a little bit of guilt. I love to write and hope to one day write for a living. Now I have to prove that is what I want by writing and submitting finished pieces. I could kick myself for not moving toward my goals faster, but as the song by Jason Mraz says, “I’m letting myself off the hook for the things I’ve done/ I let my past go past/ and now I’m having more fun.”  We need to start giving ourselves credit for all we do accomplish and enjoy writing. Who’s with me?

Back into the Book

Once again, post NaNoWriMo letdown has cut down my writing output.  It’s been nearly a month and I’ve written nary a word. 

This seems to happen every time I write a huge amount every day for a month.  My brain blanks out on writing and I delve into more visual and tactile creative pursuits, only coming back to the writing after a month or more. 

What have I been doing in the meantime?  Well, mostly crocheting a baby blanket, going to work and taking care of my daughter.  Oh, and watching some really enjoyable episodes of the newer Doctor Who.  (Pssst, Netflix is evil.)

We had a great writer’s group meeting Thursday night and I was all revved up to edit and get back to work on my manuscript but yesterday came and went without me so much as opening the document.  Instead we got groceries, I cooked, sorted baby clothes and did a bunch of other things. 

So, I am publically stating my goal.  I will, by October 25th, have a finished manuscript to hand out to my writer’s group.  It may not be perfect but it will be as good as I can get it in that time. 

Today is September 22nd but I’m working this weekend and probably won’t get a chance to work on it until Monday so that gives me almost exactly a month.  Monday will be about excising the bits I don’t feel fit and making a map of what I have yet to do.  Then I will get down to work. 

To mis-quote Edison, success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Giving and Receiving Feedback or Critiques

I facilitate a writer’s group as part of my job as a librarian, a very enjoyable part that I’m grateful to have.  It has helped keep me thinking about my writing when other things in life were intent on distracting me.  The wonderful, and difficult thing, about writing groups is the ability to share your writing with others and receive feedback.

It is immensely helpful to a writer trying to improve their work to hear what other people think and heard about a piece of writing.  (It’s also wonderful for the author to get to hear someone else read it out loud.  Is that really what I wrote?)  It can also be terribly difficult to hear the suggestions for improvement for something you’ve already put so much time and effort into.  The most important thing that I think people giving or receiving feedback/critiques need to remember is that it is the writer’s story.

For the writer receiving feedback, it can be disheartening to have people tear apart your writing.  I think it’s a good idea not to share a piece of writing until you have a clear vision of what you want it to be.  Then you can listen to the feedback, decide what applies and discard the rest.

This past week at our writer’s group I was both the person giving feedback to another and on the receiving end of feedback.

I admit I was slightly annoyed by the feedback I received.  It was based on a short free write that I had done a couple weeks before and shared, something we do at the beginning of every group to put us in the right frame of mind.  The person giving me feedback knew that it was part of a novel I was working on and proceeded to tell me how I should develop the story, in detail.  He forgot that it was my story.  He was developing a different story in his mind based on my initial free write but it wasn’t my story.  He was trying to help but it wasn’t help I had asked for, wanted or that was useful.  I politely said that the work had developed far beyond what I had done in the free write, by about 40,000 words, and that I would be sharing it with the group soon.   I could tell he wasn’t happy with that but I remembered that it was my story and held firm.

Another author shared a short story that we gave feedback on.  We tried to be specific and helpful but it seemed to me that she was feeling a little overwhelmed by what we gave her.  Afterward I reminded her of the caveat to take what is useful and discard the rest because it is her story, but it also reminded me of a technique for writer’s workshop that I learned when I was taking my English degree.

The idea is simply to tell the author two things you liked about the work and give them two things that you think could be improved upon.  Because we often only give feedback once in our group, due to time constraints and deadlines, the second half of the advice, which is predicated on the writer working on their story and bringing it back to the group, often doesn’t quite work.  We need to give all our notes in one sitting.  But the first part of the advice is still applicable.

No matter how problematic a piece of writing is, you can almost always find two things to complement the author on.  This helps cushion the blows they are about to receive with the critique.  It gives them something to cling to before you throw the other comments at them.  It’s a good practice, a kind one, that helps make it easier for the author to really hear the critical comments instead of curling up into a defensive ball.

I intend to remind the group, and myself, of it before the next meeting.

The Writing Future is Becoming Clearer

I spent a large part of my free time in August (which is minimal at best ) drafting my novel, Biomalware, for Camp NaNoWriMo.  It was a challenge, painful at times, depressing and exhilarating.  I suffered from a bit of writer’s block in the “great swampy middle” as Jim Butcher calls it, and had to rush toward the end.  I didn’t really think I’d complete the story arc but somehow it came together.  It’s exciting to be this far along with it after only a month. 

I started with a short story about a man, a widowed single dad, who takes his two year old daughter to the doctor’s because she seems to get sick most of the time after eating.  The doctor diagnoses a new form of IBS but the nurse slips him a note suggesting that something else is happening.  It turns out that a new line of genetically modified food is making her sick.  As I worked on the book, unexpected events suggested themselves.  We had a natural gas explosion that destroyed a house in town and it fit into my story perfectly.  It also turned out that making people sick was not all the food was doing.

There’s a lot to do yet though.  I’ve completed the story arc but it’s pretty skimpy in a lot of places.  Before I started, I was planning to add another 50,000 words to the novel in September to finish it but now I think I’ll focus on editing and rewriting to add material.  (I still have a little research to do in order to make sure it all makes sense.)  I hope to end up closer to 80,000 words. 

In October, I’ll hand the novel off to my writer’s group for feedback, hoping they’ll have time.  That should help me focus it a little better, and maybe expand more.  I’ll also recruit some other beta readers from family and friends to give me feedback.

November gets a little tricky.  I’ll still have a editing to do but I’d like to finish Devolution for National Novel Writing Month in November.  I started that some time ago and have released two parts of it on Yahoo! Voices.  Planning for that will also fill some of my writing time in October.

I have the first agent picked out to submit Biomalware to and I plan to submit in December.  It was kind of funny, I knew what agency I wanted to submit to and the latest Writer’s Digest had a list of twenty-five agents accepting new work.  Two of them were from this agency and one listed science fiction. 

Today I’m hoping to take out all the portions of the manuscript that I knew I didn’t want to keep but left in to reach my word count for Camp NaNoWriMo.  I’ll take them out and put them in a separate document so that I still have them to refer to, and in case I decide I do want some portion of them.

It’s turning into an exciting year for writing.  The future I envision, of writing for a living, just seems to become more clear as I work.

 

Advancing Confidently Into a Novel

Last week I attended a talk and poetry reading by Michael Czarnecki, a poet and publisher in upstate New York.  He mentioned a quote that had always affected him deeply and it made a deep impression on me as well.

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

I’ve taken that quote and put it on a photo I took of giant hay bales in a field, ready to be taken to the barn, then made that my desktop background so that it encourages me every time I open my laptoop.  I think it’s a good principle to labor under when trying to write a novel for publication.  An early American version of “If you build it, they will come.” (Field of Dreams

I write for the joy of creating the story, but that joy is multiplied when it’s shared with other people who appreciate it.

(Incidentally, Michael’s house burned down about a month ago.  There’s an Indigogo fundraiser to help them re-build. They lived very simply, with no running water or grid electricity, so the house wasn’t insured. They really need help rebuilding. Any contribution would be very appreciated. More info via the link Raise the Roof for the Czarnecki’s.  Of course, there are writerly perks for contributing.)

Less than a week away from the end of Camp NaNoWriMo and August, writing has slowed down significantly.  I can see an end in sight, I’ve actually written the last few lines of the book already, but getting there has shifted into slow motion.  There’s going to be a whole lot of re-writing and adding to this book in September.  My writer’s group helped this past Thursday night with ideas and letting me talk through my plot.  (I can’t recommend joining a writer’s group enough.  The right one can absolutely tap you into a well of creative energy.)

I also have a plan that’s helping to keep me going.  I’ll get the first 50,000 words of Biomalware done in August with CampNaNoWriMo, then in September I’ll re-write and add to the novel.  Then a quick edit and pass it out to my writer’s group.  Put it away in October and wait for the group to give me feedback.  Edit again at the end of October, and start submitting.  Ideally, I’d like to have my first rejection by the end of the year.

Okay, that’s a fib, I’d REALLY like to have an acceptance from the first agent I submit it to but that seems so much like reaching for the stars that I’m scared to hope for it.  I’m willing to go the distance for this book.  I’ll keep submitting until I run out of agents that I want to submit to, then I’ll submit to editors and when I run out of those, I’ll self-publish.  One way or another, this book will be available for people to purchase.  I’d rather for it to be sooner rather than later.  (I’d also like a movie deal because I think it’s that type of book, just to to put that out there to the Universe.  *winkwink*)

In the meantime, I’ll write another piece, or two or three, of the book I started serializing on Yahoo!, Devolution.  I’d love to finish writing that one in November with NaNoWriMo.  I think it has a lot of potential too.

There’s always something more that I want to write and I can’t help believing that if I keep plugging away I’ll eventually reach my goal of writing for a living.  Of course, working smart can help make that path a little smoother but when I can’t do that, I’ll just stop the hell out of the weeds.

Camp NaNoWriMo and getting started –

Well, I wasn’t sure I was ready to start this novel.  I wrote the short story, Biomalware, months ago and my writer’s group proclaimed it “the one.”  They felt I should turn it into a novel.  I thought about it for a while and decided they were right so I started mulling over how to do that.  I got some character sheets, setting sheets and scene sheets from The Writer’s Craft web site and… they sat there.  I made up my mind to start writing the novel as part of Camp NaNoWriMo in June, and I got about six hundred words, give or take.  That was as far as I got.  Don’t ask me why.

Then, recently, I had a dream.  In my dream, I was sitting at a computer at work, doing something.  I realized that if I just started writing the novel, it would come and it would sell.  So, in my dream, I took out a tissue and blew my nose.  Then I opened a blank document and wrote, “She took out a tissue and blew her nose.”  (Thankfully, what I’m writing is not a chronicle of my life right now.) 

When I woke up, I decided to start writing with Camp NaNoWriMo in August.  “This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.” (Douglas Adams)  I prepared a little bit but on August 1st, I opened up a blank document, brought over the first three sentences of what I had previously written and just started. 

It was grueling at first.  I didn’t feel inspired.  I worried the whole venture would have to go this way, slogging my way through bit by bit.  But then I reminded myself about what Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, had said about how the novel takes on a life of it’s own.  So I stuck with it hoping that, after a week, the novel would take off and things would get a bit easier. 

I made it through day one, then day two.  I tried to keep going over what I’d written so far and the story as I knew it so my mind would work on it when I had nothing else to think about.  And a funny thing happened at the end of day two.  I had more story to tell.  I couldn’t go to sleep until I scribbled a few paragraphs down.  Then I woke up this morning and my brain had more to say about it.  Something is happening here, folks.  I’m beginning to live in my story, and it feels wonderful.

(By the way, synchronicity is a strange thing.  I just went to the NaNoWriMo web site to look for Chris Baty’s name because I couldn’t remember it and found there was a post Nano pep talk from Audrey Niffenegger that I had never read last year.  Since I just started listening to Her Fearful Symmetry in the car last night, I read it.  Quite nice.  But I won’t tell you what it said because you should have signed up for NaNoWriMo last year so you could get the pep talk and read it for yourself!)

Anyway, looking forward to lunch so I can write some more.  I’m hoping that one of these days my characters are going to surprise me and do something really interesting.  If not, I’ll just have to add it in the re-write.

« Older entries