Writing the Olympics

Hello little writers!

Between my my fiverr.com gig and the August’s Camp Nanowrimo, I’ve been so busy lately! And on top of everything else, BCITW (Best Cat in the World) and I have been mesmerized by the Olympics. It’s been a very dramatic two weeks, hasn’t it?

But, the coverage got me thinking. They spend quite a lot of time talking about the athletes, telling us who they are, where they live, what their successes and failures have been in the past, and how they came to be on the world stage we see them on now. If medal counts and rankings and the events themselves were all that mattered, why would they spend so much time on biographical information?

Because, even in a sporting event, characters matter.

Victories have no thrill and defeat is robbed of its agony if we do not know and care about the people involved.
It got me thinking, even if it’s not fiction, even if it’s sports journalism, the audience has to care about the characters involved. Otherwise, they do not care about the events that happen to them. Sometimes the events motivate the plot, sometimes the characters do. That’s just the way fiction goes. But, at the end of the day, nothing is more important than getting your readers to care about your characters.

Here are some quick tips:

1. We’ve all heard “Show, don’t tell.” This goes double for your characters. Don’t tell us how your character feels. Describe their reactions, their posture, and their body language. Then we’ll feel your characters’ emotions with them. Images of the Olympic athlete’s emotional responses are what we remember. Create those images with your words!

2. Allow your characters to make mistakes. Watching your character fall and get back up again is so much more beautiful and moving than a perfect score.

3. The road to gold is never smooth. The obstacles and setbacks that your characters have to overcome are as important as the victory. They make the victory that much sweeter.

It’s been an amazing couple of weeks. Keep reaching for the writing gold!


Happy Fourth of July

To my American readers, have a happy Fourth of July!

Everyone else… you have a happy Fourth of July too!

Have a wonderful day. The weather is lovely here, and I’m looking forward to seeing friends and family.


The First Draft

I remember the first time I finished “Nanowrimo.” My big moment, when I knew that I was going to complete my first novel-length project was when I was able to tell myself that I was only writing a first draft.

Loudly I proclaimed: “This is not my novel! It’s just a first of my draft! It’s not my novel!” A feeling of freedom set in. It was all right if something wasn’t the way I wanted it to be in the finished product, because it wasn’t the finished product. It was all right if I didn’t like that particular line of dialogue. It was all right if I knew that I was going to have to go back and change everything, because my original plotting ideas were not panning out.

Everything was all right, because what I was writing was not my novel.

It was the first draft of a novel!

There is no such thing as a novel that is written in one draft. Everything needs editing. And, when you give yourself permission to make mistakes and carry on, knowing that you’ll come back and clean up your literary mess later, writing feels a very different task. I realized that I was free to make mistakes. Not only that, but some of those mistakes I thought I made, turned out to yield wonderful things.

So, you’re going to re-write it. You can fix it later. Just keep writing.

If you wait until chapter 1 is perfect before you start writing chapter 2, chapter 2 will never get written.

I tend to speed through first drafts these days. If you read one of my first drafts, you’d find it hilarious, I think. They’re always full of lines like “And then I noticed the man I was talking to was actually a woman!” when I decided I had too many male characters and wanted to change a character’s gender. That’s just the way I write first drafts. It isn’t until the second draft that I start editing… anything really.

If you’re more meticulous than I am, and I’m sure most of you are, and think you might have difficulty letting yourself do this, here’s a tip: color code first drafts. If I know for a fact I’ve written something I need to go back and look at, I change the font color to red. If I’ve written something that I need to go back and research to make sure is right, I color it blue.

The color coding system is personal and best tailored to your own needs. Believe me, I know. But, if you find yourself having difficulty giving yourself permission to leave something you don’t like for the second draft, I find this very useful.

So many of my writer friends struggle with finishing long projects. They run out of steam or enthusiasm, become disenchanted, or run out of time.

But, I think once you get the first draft out, no matter how bad it is, it’s always easier to go back and edit. So remember:

You’re always allowed to be terrible on your first draft.

Happy Writing! Now, I’m back to my Camp Nanowrimo project!

I’ll write more about that when I’ve reached 50,000 words!

A New Project and Camp Nanowrimo

Badge courtesy of CampNanowrimo.org

Fifty thousand words in thirty days.

That feels like a lot to write in a short time.

Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month, is something that I throw myself into every November. It’s always such an insane and wonderful month. It’s always full of creativity, joy, stress, character love, character hate, friends, competition, alcohol, and randomly deciding to write sex scenes until I figure out where I want my story to go next, because I used up all my plotting notes in the first twenty thousand words.

Yeah, it happens.

But, I really do love it. So, this month I have decided to embark on “Camp Nanowrimo.” For those of you who don’t know, it’s when they do the regular November insanity in the summer months.
This decision was made rather suddenly. My current project is one I’ve had in mind for some time, but it was the concept behind the novel that I’ve been thinking about. The plot and characters are much less solidified in my mind than they usually are when I start writing. So, this project has taken me from being a “Plotter” (someone who plots everything out before they write) to a “Pantser” (someone who flies by the seat of their pants.)

When it comes to the “Plotter” vs. “Pantser” debate, I don’t believe that there is a right or wrong way to write. It’s merely a matter of personal preference. The only advantage I think “Plotters” have is that “Pantsers” have to do more re-writes to make the finished project more cohesive. Although I’ve never had a “plotted” project where I didn’t deviate from the planned plot. So, maybe that’s not even true.

As I said, we’re all different.

But, be that as it may, “Pantsing” is a very different experience for me. And, maybe writing in a way that I’m not used to is good for me. I think I’m writing a lot of things that will get scrapped in the very next draft. But, that doesn’t matter. I feel like I’m stretching myself, and going outside of my comfort zone.

It’s stressing me out terribly, but I’m enjoying it. I’ll write more about my new project in the next blog entry.

Now, I wonder if I can count this entry towards my Camp Nanowrimo word count…

Using Your Senses to Start Writing

No one knows when the practice of burning incense began. It dates back to before the time of the Pharaohs, and exists as an enhancement to spiritual and religious ceremonies in both eastern and western cultures. For many modern users, it’s simply a way to mask undesirable odors or to fill a room with its fragrance. Many others use it while practicing meditation, yoga, or as a light mood enhancer when trying to relax.

The use of incense in spiritual and religious practices is well known. However, how many of you have burned incense as part of your creative practice?

There are people who claim that certain incense fragrances can bring about greater mental clarity and creativity. I will not speak to that, but rather leave that up to the individual to decide. I do, however, have a strange little trick involving incense and writing that I thought I would like to share.

What I do is fairly simple. I have special “writing” incense. I always burn it when I’m writing, and not at any other time. Lighting it is always the last thing I do before I sit down to work on a project. Filling up my coffee mug, going to the toilet, finding that page in my notebook that has that one special idea I had on my way to my day job… all of that comes first. So, I light the incense and begin. I don’t want to waste it, so I have to stay on task while it’s burning. The
slow progression of the stick to ash works as a reminder not to submit to distractions.

Now, here’s the fun part. Since I only burn it when I’m writing, I’ve developed a very strong association. When I smell my writing incense, I write. Even if I’m not in the mood to write, even if I’m blocked, I know it’s time to put hands to keyboard and get it done. There’s nothing metaphysical about it; it’s just a simple sense association. Yet, I’m frequently surprised at how strong it is.

Using our senses to trigger mental states is nothing new. Doctors will tell insomniacs to set an evening routine before they go to bed, in order to tell their minds and bodies that it is time to sleep. Ivan Pavlov did a powerful study where he got dogs to associate food with the sound of a bell, so much so that they salivated. Creating these triggers can be powerful in overcoming procrastination, writer’s block, and simply taking the chore out of writing.

If you choose to try this for yourself, whatever scent you pick is up to you. I don’t endorse any brand or fragrance. If you have any kind of breathing or lung problems, incense can be an irritant and this technique is not for you. A scented candle can easily be substituted. For music lovers, you may also use a piece of music. I recommend something extended and without lyrics, like a complete symphony. You don’t want to play the same song on a loop and drive yourself batty, and lyrics tend to be distracting, at least for me anyway. Remember, incense and candles should never be left unattended, and always use proper holders. Kids should always ask their parents for help.

Seriously, be safe. Only you can prevent house fires and all that stuff. If you use a similar sense-association to trigger the mood to write, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear about it.

Procrastinate Later

My cat is the best cat in the world, except when I’m writing. When I’m writing, he suddenly insists upon being petted, claims the warmth of my laptop as his own, or feels the need to vomit all over the carpet. The thing about BCITW is that he makes himself something of a distraction.

We all have distractions and things that will make us want to put our writing off until later. I don’t know about you, but I can tell myself “I’ll write after I do this one thing” for hours, or even days on end. This can be hugely detrimental, especially if you’re freelance and don’t have any deadlines but the ones you set yourself. This is one of my biggest hurdles to overcome. In fact, it’s a miracle you’re reading this blog post at all. I can be “working on” something for ages without actually getting anything done.

I think the main reason I procrastinate, and I hope others can identify with this, is that I’m afraid to write badly. Moreover, when I do start writing, I become disillusioned and stop, because the actual product I’m producing is not living up to the expectations I built around it. So, things get abandoned, or it just becomes easier to check Facebook or read a blog (thank you, by the way). I mean to do it, but the idea and the possibility of it was better than the actual experience
If this sounds like something you’ve experienced, or you’re just having trouble getting motivated to write, there are things you can do to help!

First: Don’t worry about quality on early drafts. There will be multiple drafts. There will be re-writes. The first time, just get the story down. I always say, when I’m writing my first draft: “This is not my novel. This is the primordial ooze that my novel will eventually evolve from.” It’s amazingly liberating. “This is not the finished product! This is not what it will be. I will come back and change this. But, for now, I’m just going to keep on writing and keep the story moving.” It’s the most freeing mental state I’ve found for writing first drafts. And, once you have the first draft down, editing is a lot easier than staring at a blank page. I even use my word processor to color-code things that need re-writing, more research, and so on. That makes it easy to come back to, and eases any pangs of conscious I may have about leaving it less than what I want it to be.
Most of the time, when you go back and read what you wrote it’s not as bad as you thought it was anyway.
If you draw, think of it this way: your first draft will be your sketch, roughly blocking out subjects, background, and primary focus. Shading, textures, depth, and nuances will all come later.

Second: Get involved with others. Nothing inspires quite as much as being part of a group of writers, most of whom are… amazingly enough… writing. Having something to share with people is a good motivator to write. The boost that made me finally finish my first short story was a local writers’ group. I was going to my first meeting there, and did not want to turn up to the meeting empty-handed, lest there be critiques. Turns out there were none, but I still got a solid polished draft done.
That short story turned out to be my first sell.

Even if a group is not available to you, simply telling your friends that you’re doing it and asking them to proofread for you when you get it done can help. Give them a date you’ll have it for them to proofread, even! If they’re anything like my friends, they’ll be constantly teasing you that you haven’t finished that story you told them you were going to have them look at. Nagging serves a purpose sometimes.

Third: Reward yourself. That book you’re dying to read? That new outfit you want? That new restaurant you want to try? Sorry! You can’t have it until you’ve reached your writing goal. Reach a writing goal? Celebrate! It’s an occasion! Make sure you treat it like one. Giving writing goals a sense of celebration and occasion can bring a lot to your writing life. This goes very well with the second suggestion, also. Your writing widows, the people who suffer in your absence when you’re writing, should be very glad to see you, too.

None of this is stuff you haven’t heard before. But, it’s like losing weight. We all have a basic understanding of how to do it, yet the process of actually doing it can be very difficult for a lot of people. Freeing yourself up to write badly, getting friends involved in communities, and setting goals for yourself and celebrating them are ultimately so helpful in bringing ideas into reality that I feel that we all need to be reminded of these things.
Now, stop reading blogs and go write! Just make sure the cat is fed first. He’ll bother you in the middle of your best scene if you don’t. That’s what mine does.