Sunday, December 1, 2013

I'm a Loser, Baby

When it comes to NaNoWriMo, at least. At the rest of life, I'm #winning like Charlie Sheen, just without the tabloid shenanigans and drug-aided psychoses.

I didn't get to 50,000 words this year. This marked the eighth year I've done NaNo. I've won four times (most recently, 2012). I suppose I should be happy with a .500 batting average.

On some level, I am. I realize that the stated goal of NaNo might be penning 50K words in 30 days. The real goal, however, is up to each person who attempts it. Some people just want to see if they have the discipline to sit down everyday (or almost everyday) for a month and bang out a bunch of words. Others might want to finish a novel for the first time, or use NaNo as a springboard to finish something they had started and put aside. Some writers may be even more ambitious and set a goal of 100K words, or more.

If you set a goal and hit it, you're a winner. It doesn't matter what the word-count bar on the site tells you.

If you set a goal and didn't hit it, then you need to come away with some lessons learned. Was your goal too ambitious? Do you need to improve your time management and find more time to write? Do you try to edit as you type and slow yourself down? These questions (and many more) are all things you can ask yourself if you didn't reach your writing goal. The next time you try to write a book, set a realistic goal and apply those lessons learned. See if your experience is different.

My boss told me that you have to write your goals down. Otherwise, they're just ideas in your head. I agree with him. I'll go one step further: you have to set deadlines for yourself. Want to finish that book you started on November 1? Give yourself a deadline. Maybe January 31 is realistic. Write it down. Set periodic reminders on your Google calendar (or online calendar or choice). Check your progress. Most importantly, stick to it.

This year, I learned a few things about my own goal setting and time management. What did you learn?

Monday, November 11, 2013

NaNoWriMo: Week 1

"Wait, wait," I can hear you say. "This is the 11th. Week one of National Novel Writing Month passed a few days ago."

Indeed it did, Dear Reader. You are as perceptive as ever.

However, your humble scrivener didn't start putting pen to pape... um, digital letters to screen until the 4th. So I've been at it a week. In that week, I've written 10,404 words, with about half of that total coming in the last two days. My productivity, you might say, is on the uptick.

You might also say I'm behind the curve (I should be over 16,000 by the end of day 10) and unlikely to finish. That would be uncharitable of you.

This is where NaNoWriMo shows its value, in my opinion: shaming me into writing more. I missed the first few days. Now I have to do a higher average per day to hit the goal of 50,000 words in 30 days. Despite the occasional hairy eyeball from my wife (happy anniversary, baby! <3), I'm determined to get this book finished. NaNoWriMo had compelled me to write, and write in volume, when I might have otherwise slacked off. That's valuable. That's worth something. It's one of the reasons I donate every year.

When finished, this will be the seventh mystery in my series. Yes, I need to look into publishing them, either thru a publisher or by myself. I resolve to do that when I've finished the first draft of this book. There's something else NaNoWriMo has pushed me to do.

If you're doing NaNo this year, for the first time or the tenth, good luck. If you're not, look into it. It's good for getting you on a routine.

"Tom, you just wrote a few hundred words here," you might be saying. "They could have gone toward your book's word count." You are correct again, Dear Reader.

This time, however, I won't reply. That would be uncharitable.

Happy writing.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Five Weekends in August IV

Let's talk about reading.

We're all writers, so it stands to reason that we're all readers, too.

Is it possible to be a good writer without being a voracious reader?

For 2012, I set a goal of reading 35 books. I stopped counting at 40 with two months to go. This year, I'm ahead of that pace, and that doesn't even count the dry IT books I've read for my job.

Maybe you don't need to devour books, but I think you need to be a reader to have a real future as a writer.

It's like getting better at baseball by watching other people play it. It sounds weird, doesn't it? But think about it. We have baseball games in HD now, with a zillion different slow-motion replays from every angle. Never before have we been able to see grown men spit and scratch themselves with such clarity! But in terms of useful skills, you can still pick up quite a bit by watching.

Say you're a baseball player who wants to work on your swing. You can go to the batting cage or hit off a tee. It'll probably help. You can also watch some professionals play. Watch how different hitters hold their hands at the plate -- high, low, loaded back, etc. Watch their strides as the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. Watch the hitter's hips turn, forcing his arms to zoom through the hitting zone.

At some point, you have to get out there and swing the bat yourself if you ever want to improve. But there's value in watching the pros do it. The same is true for writing. If you take your craft seriously and want to get better, you have to sit down and bang out the words. However, there's value in reading what others have written. What POV do they write in? How does the setting factor into the stories? What action verbs propel the story forward? These are things you can learn while curled up with a good book. Just make sure you get out there and practice them.

Happy writing.

Five Frida... uh, Weekends in August III

I'm close to finishing another first draft. There are probably two more chapters to go. This will make six books in my mystery series, and eight overall.

Yes, at some point, I'm going to have to get around to doing something with them.

I just wonder whether I should go with the mysteries (which I've written more recently) or the spy adventures (which are older). Part of me wants to lead off with the spy adventures. They were the first books I stuck it out and finished, after all, and dammit, I want to see them in print (or e-print) someday.

But then I think that the mysteries are probably better because I wrote them more recently. At least, I hope they're better. I'd like to think I've improved at this thing we call writing over the years.

The key is to do something with something. If that makes sense. I just hope the publishing landscape makes sense to me.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Five Fridays in August II

"Ripped from the Headlines~!"

While I everything with "2" or "II" in the title really should have the subtitle "Electric Boogaloo," I wanted to be (semi-)serious about this.

This post was going to be about writing while on vacation, then we ended up not going away for a long weekend. Instead, I'm going to make it a follow-up to last week's post about our visit to the superhero exhibit currently at the Baltimore Jewish Museum.

The exhibit was great. (One of these days, I'll get an Instagram account to share them. Until then, all you kids get off my lawn.) We saw a lot of old and cool comic covers, sketches of internal pages, bios of the creators, and even some interactive exhibits. 

One really caught my eye and inspired this post. It showed a newspaper from around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. Comics had shown a desire for the US to enter World War II even before Pearl Harbor. The caption under the paper read, in part, "During the Golden Age, many comic book stories were ripped from the headlines."

"Ripped from the headlines." I think I heard that about several Law & Order episodes over the years. "Based on a true story" is similar. But what do they really mean? How closely based?

For ages, fiction writers have been inspired by true stories. We change the names, fudge the details a bit, tweak the setting to fit our particular genre and locale, and voila! We have a story. I've done it too. A currently unpublished novel of mine was based on a news report of gang killings in my hometown of Baltimore. Another was based on a news report of a man who confessed to a murder (spoiler alert!) he didn't commit.

Here's what I'm wondering. We don't read the paper anymore, in general. Newspaper circulation is declining faster than the number of people who don't know J.K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling. (Brief aside: I really wish "Rowling" rhymed with "calling." That sentence would sound awesome if it did.) Today, we get our news from the Internet and cable TV. Local newspapers are online and many charge a subscription fee. How many of you read your local paper online? The thing is, websites and channels like CNN tend to have a national focus. If you're writing thrillers where the fate of the country is at stake, that can be a fertile ground for you. If your stories are more homespun, you have to search deeper.

With the decline of newspapers, is it harder to "rip things from the headlines" these days? Do the Big Three cable news channels and websites still stoke your creative fires?

Things to think about. Happy writing.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Five Fridays in August, Part I

Five Fridays in August I:
The Superhero Exhibit

This weekend, we're going to the superhero exhibit at the Baltimore Jewish Museum. It's a traveling exhibit that's in town thru August 18.

The exhibit celebrates the early comic creators, many of whom were Jewish. This concludes the unpaid advertising part of this blog post.

My daughter loves superheroes. Most girls love dolls and princesses. (She does, too. If Superman got the princess instead of Lois Lane, it would be much cooler for Isabel.) She loves the big splashy colors, the flying, the strength, the quips, and the action scenes that unfold in the movies.

How does all of this relate to a writing blog? Well, comic books are a creative medium. In addition to the artwork, they obviously require a lot of writing and editing. Not every author writes on pages devoid of illustration.

But more than that, old comics had a simplicity about them. The bad guys were bastards whose motives, while nefarious, were easy to understand. The heroes were colorful and virtuous. Sometimes, the entire story was an exercise just to get Captain America to sock Hitler in the jaw. And that's OK. Not every plot needs to be made for a two-and-a-half-hour Bond movie. In this post-Matrix world, we've come to expect our heroes to wear black and not have qualms about killing the bad guys. There's nothing wrong with a simpler hero of more old-fashioned principles. This is doubly true if you're writing a period piece.

I don't know if the superhero exhibit will inspire my creativity or not. I'll probably just think it's really cool. But you never know. Sometimes, a glimpse at the past can give you a spark for the future.

Happy writing.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Screen Print(ing)

Recently, I watched Jack Reacher on a plane. Up until that point, I had not ready any of Lee Child's novels.

A few days after watching the movie, I looked for and saw the first Reacher book (Killing Floor) at a bookstore. I picked it up. I'm currently reading the fifth one. My brother, whose reading pace would shame Evelyn Wood, started after I did and has bought and read them all.

It's a cliche (and a nearly universal truth) that the book is better than the movie. But can't the movie inspire us to read the book? Maybe I would have gotten around to the Reacher series eventually. However, I enjoyed the movie and sought out the books.

How many people who had never read Tolkien did so because they saw a Lord of the Rings movie (or The Hobbit)? What about the Harry Potter series? I saw all the movies before I read any of the books. Granted, Ms. Rowling doesn't need my money to buy her next vacation mansion, but a popular movie or TV show can ring more sales for the author. Stephen King has sold a zillion books (note: this is the actual number). A lot of them have also been made into movies and TV miniseries. While those have helped keep King's pockets lined with green, how many sales did he get because people experienced one of his stories on the big (or small) screen for the first time?

Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are already rich, to the point they probably won't notice if someone gets into their books because they saw a movie. For a lot of authors, though, the sales boost that can come from a movie or TV show could be huge.

My questions to you: do you write with an eye toward getting your stories turned into TV shows or movies? Do you see the scenes unfold as if you were watching them on a screen? Does this manifest itself in your word choices, action scenes, etc? How do you think that affects your writing?

When I finished my first novel, a friend told me it would make a good action movie. I didn't think that was a compliment at the time. It may not be. But it certainly couldn't hurt.

Happy writing.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

'Cept on My Big Ten-Inch

How long is it?

No, not THAT. This is a (mostly) family blog.

What I mean is, how long is your novel?

It's a simple question but not necessarily a simple answer. Sure, you can use the word count feature in your favorite work processing program to tell you. I think that's just part of the answer, though. The other part is genre expectations.

Let's say you want to write a sweeping epic. That's probably going to be something in the fantasy genre. Think Robert Jordan, just with things actually happening on the pages. A book like this could be 150,000 to 200,000 words, and that's OK because readers have become conditioned to expect that. 

If you're writing a mystery novel, however, and your word count is encroaching on 200,000, you'll need to do some serious editing. I'm not saying you can't write a super-long mystery; it's just exceedingly rare to see. Readers expect to enjoy a book where the protagonist gets sucked into events that unfold at an appropriate pace. 

My own current work in progress got me thinking about this. My past mysteries have checked in around 72,000-75,000 words. That's not by design. I don't see the word count odometer roll over to 72,000 and think, "whoa, I'd better wrap this up!" It just works out that way. The current WIP just went over 72,000 and I still have three chapters (and a few important events) to go. My guess is the first draft will check in around 80,000, then get trimmed in editing.

It sounds like I'm obsessed with word counts. I'm not. I'm more concerned with pacing. The word count is a sign post, a mile marker. Keep your eyes on it as you write, and understand its significance, but don't be a slave to it. Don't shorten or lengthen your story just because you think it needs to be within a certain word count range. Genre expectations are one thing. Good pacing is another.

Happy writing. Smile at the mile markers as you zoom past them.

* The title of this post is a line from "Big Ten-Inch Record," originally recorded by Bull Moose Jackson, and most popularly covered by Aerosmith.

Monday, May 27, 2013

This Dream I Had II

I write mysteries. Sometimes, I write other things, but over the past few years, it's mostly been mysteries. Recently, I've been focusing on professional development, so I haven't been writing--or blogging, as a handful of you may have noticed--as much recently. A few days ago, I started reading over some things I wrote, and I've done some more writing. I guess that served as the backdrop for a long, involved, and rather strange dream.

The dream felt like it happened in several parts, yet I somehow knew all of them were related.

I was investigating a missing child. Pretty standard fare in the mystery genre, right? I ended up talking to someone in a hospital and figured out the person had a block of time they couldn't account for. I took that info to the police (whose precinct was either connected to or right next to the hospital) who didn't seem interested in it. When I hinted someone there might be involved and may have taken the missing kid to a safehouse, I got a reaction. Then I left.

When I left, I had to wait to cross the street. I remembered thinking of interesting phrases to describe the traffic, making this kind of a meta dream.

Next, I was in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, presumably at my client's house. I went out for something and a random ruffian tried to hold me up as I walked back. I got his gun away from him, shot him in the foot, and tossed the gun down a sewer. Pretty hard-boiled of me, eh? Well, that served to remind me that a crime boss of some sort also lived in the area, and I discovered he was two doors up from my client.

After that, an older man came into the house with what I think was a broken phone. We had three computers on the table, crunching whatever info we needed crunched about the case. Someone in the house decided to help the man with his phone and ended up connecting it to the house line. I got suspicious and unplugged one of the computers from the network. Sure enough, the man with the "broken" phone worked for the crime boss and had uploaded a rootkit to the network. The other two computers were compromised (and helpfully told us that someone else had connected). We had to shut them down.

At some point after that, I narrowed down the suspects to two brothers who owned rival juice businesses. I read billboards of info about them to a friend from grade school who had no previous involvement with the dream or the dream-case.

That was the last thing that happened. I don't know which juice czar, if either, ended up as the guilty party.

Things that may have spurred aspects of this dream:

-I've gotten back to reading and writing my own mysteries more recently.
-Those stories are set in Baltimore and feature a protagonist based in Federal Hill.
-The stories also feature the local crime boss as a minor character.
-My wife and I were talking about going into Baltimore today and lunching at a place we like in Federal Hill.
-I've been reading about information security (the professional development I mentioned earlier). Yesterday, I read a lot about trojans and rootkits.
-For the brothers and rival juicers... yeah, I got nothin'.

Maybe this all means I need to work in a way to write regularly again. Professional development is great and all, but I love writing and have to find a way to take the time and do it. So thank you, strange and rambling dream, for helping me realize that.

Now I just need a strange and rambling dream to get me back to my regular gym routine...

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Enemy of the Good

There’s an old saying out there. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Basically, it means that you shouldn't vainly strive for perfection when you already have something good.

I think this is very important for writers, and especially for me.

I’m a perfectionist. I don’t like to half-ass anything. If I’m passionate about something, I dive headlong into it and immerse myself in it. The thought of churning out something less than perfect is anathema, even though I know perfection is unattainable. So I revise, work on something else, revise again, start something else, revise two things, etc. Do you see the vicious circle at work?

The perfect has become the enemy of the good for me. I want to put out a book that will not only leave my readers’ mouths agape, but also satisfy my own desire to produce the best work I can. The thing is, we all have to let go at some point. After you revise a few times, you get to the point where you've made something as good as you can make it. Maybe you bring in an outside editor when that happens. Maybe you send it to your publisher and let them take their knives to it. The key is to do something with it.

I need to get better at that, and I know it.

Other things at which I need to get better: updating this blog more regularly, and allowing myself to end introductory phrases with prepositions.

Happy writing. Happy good writing.