Friday, November 30, 2012

Where Did November Go?

Another November is in the books.

Did you remember, remember the fifth of November?

Did you remember to write a lot? I did! I hope you did, too. For those of you who push a rock off yourselves in the morning, November is National Novel Writing Month. Each November, trillions of writers write decadozillions of words, post about it on Facebook, and anguish over things their characters do and say.

Doesn't that sound like fun? Well, it is. I've done it for the last eight years. The goal is write 50,000 words in 30 days, which works out to about 1667 per day. This is the fourth year I've win but I count last November (2011) as an unofficial win. You see, I was getting married that month. My now-wife and I were planning our wedding (read: my wife was doing a lot of wedding planning), and between all the prep we did, the wedding itself, and the honeymoon... well, I ran a bit short of free time. In the days leading up to the wedding, I couldn't sit down and work on non-wedding-related things for more than a couple minutes without getting the hairy eyeball from my wife. To keep her from divorcing me the morning after we married, I set a modified goal of 30,000 words and managed to hit it.

This year, I went over 50K on the last day. A win is a win, right? The Ravens win ugly; I can too.

If you participated in NaNoWriMo, regardless whether you won, congratulations. You engaged in a creative exercise for 30 days. That's something good right there. If you didn't participate, what's stopping you? Write-ins are a great way to meet your fellow writers and get some quality time with your characters.

November is in the books. Don't let it pass without adding one of your books to the ledger.

Happy writing.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Good Problems?

The baseball playoffs are over for the Orioles, so I get to reclaim the evenings I spent in front of the TV. It was a great run, watching the team duke it out for AL East title, then lose a tough series to the Yankees. While I’m sure I’ll still put on some playoff games here and there, I’m getting a swath of time back.

November is around the corner. I’ll be putting that time to good use.

I’m still editing a previous work (baseball distracted me) and I need to figure out what I’m going to do for NaNoWriMo once November is here. I have a few ideas to kick around and flesh out. It’s always good to have choices, right?


Here’s the problem: I can (and almost always do) read multiple books at a time without a problem. I’m positive I can’t do that with writing. One of these ideas has to emerge as the best. Do I continue with the same character in the mystery series I favor? Do I go back to my world-traveling secret agent and chronicle his third grand adventure? Do I develop the YA idea that I had and try a genre I’ve never written and have only infrequently read? (Does the Harry Potter series count as YA?)

November looms, and a decision looms. But this is a good problem to have. Right?

(For the record, I think it is a good problem to have. And if the Orioles were still playing and complicating my writing schedule, that would be a good problem, too.)

Happy writing.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Writers' Muscle Confusion

Writers write. We know that. Hopefully, we all do it.

At some point, though, you can't keep writing. Your story comes to an end. At that point, you have to transition to another part of the process (usually editing or plotting/outlining).

I am here to admit that I don't always make that transition smoothly.

The writing part is easy enough. At the risk of sounding immodest, I think I'm pretty good at it. However, between the times I write "The End" for one story and "Chapter 1" for another, I think I use my time inefficiently.

Usually, when I finish writing a book, I put it aside for about a month. That way, when I come back to edit it, it's not fresh in my mind and I have a better perspective on what needs to be cut. During that month of downtime, however, I need to get better at doing more things that help me improve as a writer. I've come up with a list of things I could (should) be doing during that time:

  • gathering ideas (including my rough version of outlining) for a future book
  • writing a short story
  • looking at an older story and seeing how I could update/revise it today
  • editing something else I had consigned to the e-dustbin
  • continuing work on a project I had put aside
  •  reading a book (or books) on the craft of writing

I'm sure this isn't an exhaustive list. The key, I think, is to keep doing something that engages me as a writer so that those "muscles" stay strong. It's like a real workout routine in that you have to change it up every now and again so that your body keeps responding well. Trainers call it "muscle confusion." Maybe we as writers need our own version of that, and what better time than the downtime between projects?

Is there anything else I could add to my list? Do you have a writing downtime activity that works for you? Let me know.

Happy writing.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Walk That Walk

Maybe you'll do some more editing on that novel tomorrow.

Maybe you'll tackle e-reader formatting after a long weekend.

Maybe you'll sit down and finish your book outline after the Bond movie marathon.

Maybe you're just procrastinating.

There's a maxim out there that goes, "if you do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten." While it obviously applies to writing, this also applies to life. If you want to lose weight and/or get in better shape, for example, eat better and work out. Thinking and hoping don't get you anywhere. If you want to develop better social skills, go out and talk to people.

And if you want to be a writer, you have to write.

I'm not trying to pull off a Knute Rockne speech here. You don't need to win one for the Gipper; you just need to win one for yourself. In this age of global connectivity, instant gratification, and a zillion entertainment options, it's easy to get sidetracked and distracted. Carve out some time for writing, editing, plotting, or whatever it is you need to do. Use a calendar (or a day planner, if you're still living in the Jurassic Era) to mark it down and remind you. Your characters and your readers (current or future) will thank you for it.

Years ago, I came across another maxim: "Writers write. Everyone else just talks about it."

Let's not just talk about it.

Happy writing.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


If you aren't suffering for your art, your protagonist should.

In the end, the protagonist should save the day, solve the mystery, rescue the princess, slay the evil wizard, or whatever other heroic resolution ties up your story. Along the way, however, the road should be full of potholes (but not plot holes!), detours, and crumbling bridges.

The worse you can make life for your protagonist, the better. The more he/she has to overcome, the more heroic he will look in the end. For example, in my current work in progress (a mystery novel), my protagonist (a private investigator) got ambushed and beaten, which sent him to the hospital. Right when he thought he was being discharged, the police came and arrested him. As if that weren't bad enough, the painkillers prescribed for his cracked ribs stayed behind in the hospital pharmacy. And it might get worse for him before it gets better.

It *does* have to get better. At some point, the protagonist must overcome the obstacles (this is an active process--it should never happen via luck or someone else's direct actions) and fulfill his/her quest. You should throw other obstacles in the way as the story dictates. The protagonist should be challenged, bloodied, abused, etc because it makes the denouement that much more meaningful.

The important thing is not to have a "Mary Sue" protagonist. Someone who skates by every challenge is not a compelling character. Perfect characters are boring and easy to hate. Put sharks in the water and make sure the protagonist doesn't have any "shark repellent Bat-spray" in his/her utility belt.

Happy writing, and I hope you enjoy making your protagonist suffer.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

This Old Thing?

How often do you read things you wrote a few years ago?

I think it's a good way to chart your progress as a writer. You can look at an older work and see how much you've grown in terms of voice, style, character development, word choices, etc. You may be tempted to look at an older work and cringe. That's OK -- I've done my share of cringing. Just make sure you uncover your eyes long enough to notice that you've progressed as a writer since you wrote that cringe-inducing passage.

Sometimes, though, you might surprise yourself and uncover something you really like. This happened to me the other day. I was reading an older work and, yes, cringing at some of the things I wrote. Right after a passage that made me want to gouge out my eyes, however, was a bief dialogue exchange I would have been proud to write today. In addition to charting your progress as a writer, older works can show you that you had the talent years ago and have just spent the intervening time honing your craft.

At least that's what you can tell yourself when you're not cringing. . . .

Happy writing, and make sure you uncover your eyes and read the good parts of your old works, too.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

I Say/Exclaim/Pronounce!

"Let's talk about dialogue tags," he said.

"Let's talk about dialogue tags," he instructed.

Which sounds better? (Hint: it's the first one.)

I had a conversation with someone about dialogue tags recently. He favored tags like "asked," "exclaimed," and the like; I said that "said" was almost always the right choice. Look at these and see which one makes more sense and reads better:

"What do you think about dialogue tags?" he said.

"What do you think about dialogue tags?" he asked.

I think the first one sounds better and eliminates redundancy. Readers will know that the person asked something because there's a question mark at the end of the sentence. The writer doesn't need to reinforce that idea. The same is true for exclamation marks. "I love dialogue tags!" he exclaimed. That's just as redundant.

A few months ago, I downloaded a mystery/thriller for my Kindle and had to stop reading less than a quarter of the way in. Among the novel's distracting faults was that people hardly ever said anything. They "asked," "interjected," "opined," "interrrupted," etc. Sprinkling in a different dialogue tag is understandable. Using them all the time is terrible.

The worst dialogue tag in history, however, was one even the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used often. In Conan Doyle's more innocent times, writers could get away with it. The tag was "ejaculated," used as a synonym for "exclaimed." Dialogue between Watson and Holmes would go something like . . .

"Extraordinary!" I ejaculated.
"Elementary," said he.

I dare say that, in our less innocent age, the use of "ejaculated" as a dialogue tag certainly makes the scenes read differently. Of course, if Watson had to indulge Holmes his surliness and cocaine use, perhaps Holmes had to deal with Watson's peccadilloes as well.

"Happy writing," I said.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Celebration Day

My sister graduated from Dickinson over the weekend. Even though I'm pretty sure she doesn't read my little writing blog, let me say that I'm very proud of her. She graduated summa cum laude and got accepted into Phi Beta Kappa. On June 4, she starts a real job that pays a real wage. She has her life a lot more together than I did at her age.

Because I'm a wirter, the pomp and circumstance of graduation made me ponder some things. How would yuor favorite protagonists or characters (villains included) describe the ceremony? What would differ in their accounts? What details would one harp on while the other overlooked entirely? Would one snore thru the speeches while another sat in rapt attention? Which character would point out the perks of being in a college town during a warm weekend in May?

It's easy for us to go to something like a graduation and describe it to others after the fact. We're doing that thru our own filters. An interesting writing exercise is to take an event and describe it as one of your characters would. I have one protagonist who would no doubt focus on the plethora of pretty girls in short summer dresses. Another would think the whole thing a dog and pony show meant more for the school to pat itself on the back than for the graduates. Each of them would notice a lot (the second character would notice more) but report on different things in scenes written from their viewpoints.

What significant events (let's stick to positive ones) have taken place in your life recently? I'm sure you described them to your family and friends. Now go back and figure out how your favorite character would describe that same scene. The results might surprise you, but regardless, doing it is good practice for writing in that character's voice.

Congratulations and love to my sister, and happy writing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Confessions of a Pantser

Apparently, I am the worst when it comes to updating my blog. That's something I'm going to need to get in the habit of doing more regularly.

I figured this would be a good time to check in on one of my writing goals for the year. As writers, it's important to set goals for a great many things. Whether you write full-time or in the stolen moments between the intrusions of life, setting goals and measuring your progress is vital. For reference, all the goals I listed earlier this year can be found in this post. Today, I want to talk about this one in particular:

"-Try to write a book, or at least most of a book, using an outline."

As I said when writing that goal, I've been a "pantser" up to this point. I get ideas, do research on them if necessary, jot down a couple notes about where I expect the story to go, and then write. Basically, I have an idea, a beginning, a desired ending, and then I make up everything in-between as I go along. It's worked for me so far. "The dark side" was doing an outline and I read other writers' blogs in which they extoled the virtues of outlining. "Oh, the creativity!" said I. "Surely you cannot be creative and spontaneous when you're committed to following an outline!"

"Au contraire," the outliners said. "This does not stifle creativity. And stop calling us Shirley."

Chastised, I sat down and did an outline. It's probably not the most super-detailed outline in the history of outlining, but it works for me. Basically, I laid out what I expected would happen in each chapter and dedicated 4-5 sentences to those events. That's my outline. It's a lot more than I used to do but manages not to feel rigid. I still have room to be creative and let the characters do the storytelling -- I've already written two scenes I didn't plan on initially. Those scenes integrated themselves into the outline and the story easily. As a pantser, that was my main concern going into the outline process.

One of my hobbies is playing and judging the Magic: the Gathering card game. The head designer of Magic, Mark Rosewater, writes a weekly column for the game's official site. In one of his columns, he mentioned that limitations actually made creativity easier. I read that and thought it was a silly idea. Now that I'm writing with an outline, I see his point. I don't think the outline is a limitation; it's more of a framework that keeps me from coloring too far outside the lines. So far, it's working great and I think I'm going to use it for future books.
Getting a lot of ideas and walking thru the story up front benefits me as a writer. Maybe it could benefit you too.

Next time, I'll probably look back at some other 2012 goals, and I may finagle some ideas to write a new blog post each day for a week.

Happy writing.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

First and Third

No, I'm not writing about baseball. Today, I'm going to look at first-person vs. third-person viewpoint.

I've written in each and I don't think I have a clear preference. Each has its perks and drawbacks. With third person, I like being able to shift the POV around. If the protagonist is in a tight spot, it's easy to build suspense by writing a few scenes from other characters' viewpoints, allow some more action to happen, and then come back to the protagonist. With first person, I like the limitation that my POV character has to be present in every scene, so the readers (and the protagonist) don't see anything happening "off camera." There are occasions I think it would be easier to mix in the occasional scene from another character's POV. I've read first-person novels that have used such a technique, usually italicizing the other character's segments. To me, it feels like a cop-out. Maybe if your novel involves a first-person narrator ending up in a coma and you want to fill that story time by using other perspectives, OK. It still feels kind of cheap to me, though.

I got to thinking about first-person vs. third-person because of something I started writing late last year. We were deep in crunch time for the wedding and I had a character pounding at the inside of my head, demanding to be put onto the screen. I got a few chapters finished, realized I had to do a lot of planning and plotting, and moved on to something else. I had sated that new character jones and could go back to it later. When I wrote those few chapters, I wrote them in the first-person POV. Looking back on it, I think third-person would be better. The nature of the character and the story means a lot can happen "off-screen" and I want to be able to write about that. Besides, I've been writing a lot of mysteries lately and they're first-person (as mysteries tend to be). Writing something in another perspective is good practice.

At some point this year, I think I'll sit down, do some planning and plotting for that new character's novel, and revise it to be in the third person (or just start it over). As writers, I think we have to flex these muscles from time to time. We have to step away from what we know or what we do frequently to try something different. It's all part of the process and the evolution.

Happy writing.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


We made it to 2012. Between you and me, I think we're making it to 2013 and beyond. The Mayans (and misinterpretations of their calendars) be damned.

Last year was a big year for me, writing-wise and otherwise. The biggest (and best) life change was my wedding in November. That followed moving several counties closer to DC, transferring my job to another location, renting out my condo, and a lot of packing, unpacking, moving, and assembling. I had a lot of upheaval this year but it was all the good kind. Having the ground shift beneath your feet, even on a tectonic level, can be a very good thing.

In the writing department, I finished a couple short stories and two mystery novels, and started a spy novel that I will revisit and finish later. (It would be the third in a series, and I did the same thing with the second.) I also started this blog.

What does 2012 hold? I haven't a clue. While I'm not the type to make New Year's resolutions, here are some things I'd like to accomplish in the coming year:

-Have at least one book published, conventionally or otherwise. (Having a contract for a book will count as a victory here, too.)

-Try to write a book, or at least most of a book, using an outline. Right now, I'm a "pantser." I write based off ideas, a little research, some notes about what I think will happen next, and the flow of the story (and the characters' roles in it). It's worked for me so far, but I want to see how the other half lives, so to speak.

-Publish (probably self-publish) a collection of short stories.

-Start and finish writing at least three novels of any genre.

-Sit down and do some work on the kids' book idea I had. Maybe I need to read a few kids' books to discover the best way of going about it.

-Explore the editing epiphany I had (more on that in a bit).

-Keep reading. I read a lot of books last year. No idea how many. I want to read at least 35 this year. Dry and boring IT books that I'll need to read for certification tests will, unfortunately, count toward this total.

-Update this blog more regularly. This will be easier to do if the rest of my goals and expectations fall into place.

-Non-writing related: run a half-marathon.

Recently, I had an editing epiphany of sorts. If you watch House, you're used to the "epiphany face," where a random conversation with Wilson or Chase about the pooping habits of Saharan space donkeys gives House the clue to the Patient of the Week's illness. I had no such random conversation (thank goodness), and I don't yet know the conclusion, if you will, to this little epiphany. Here's how my editing process works: I finish a novel (yay!), then I put it away for about a month so that I can have a more detached perspective on it. It sits on the back e-burner, collecting e-dust on my hard drive. During that time, I read a lot, work on some smaller projects, do a little research, etc. Then, after that month is up, I print out the novel, sit down with a red pen, and go thru it line by line. When that's finished, I go back into the file and input my changes. It doesn't take too long (two weeks or so), though it sounds more time-consuming than it is. The problem is, it means I'm spending at least six weeks not doing anything on a new book. I might write a story, but I'm not making meaningful progress on a new novel. I've been loath to start one, knowing I'd be interrupting it for a couple weeks of editing. And if I plowed ahead with writing that next novel, I'd be effectively editing two books behind. That doesn't sound like a good solution.

This year, I might try a quicker turnaround on the editing. I like the added perspective that taking a month off gives me -- it's hard to murder your darlings if you're still invested in them, after all -- but perhaps my writing process will be better if I start sooner. And the process is, after all, a big part of what we do.

How quickly do you start your editing? Do you work on it while writing something new?

Happy writing, and happy 2012.