[Guest Post] A Keyboard is Mightier…

Back in the old days, you were a tough guy if you knew how to hold a sword. This illusion of sword being the best tool for world conquest only started to shatter when tough guys started to notice that their ladies were fawning over the pale, fragile and sickly type of people who were more likely to pick up a quill and scribble down some sweet little nothings. The proverb of pen and sword was most likely invented by those fawning ladies when they were trying to comfort the poets who had gotten beaten down by jealous boyfriends.

Not many tough guys know how to wield a sword nowadays – and, sadly, many of them don’t know how to wield a pen either. Keyboard comes to our rescue, but even when it has made writing a whole lot easier, it hasn’t made it more popular. I wonder why that is? Haven’t people yet realized that writing is the optimal tool for life, made of win?

Maybe not. I mean, that’s why I’m here, writing for you about writing. Maybe some of these things come off as a surprise, but I hope that you take them to your heart and start wondering if you could pick up that keyboard for something else than good old game of Frets On Fire.

Out of all the forms of art, writing is the one that can has the greatest effect. I’m not going to mention how writing as an art form is the best way to reach out to people, their minds and their hearts – that should be an obvious fact. Instead I’m going to talk about how writing doesn’t only have an effect on the world around you. It can have a great effect on you.

From a biologist’s point of view, writing when you are stressed is most useful. Writing consecutively for 20 minutes exchanges all hormones in your brains, including the ones that stress you out and make you feel like a puddle of vomit on the floor. Later you can read the piece of text you wrote – no matter how long or how short – as an expressionistic form of art.

From a psychologist’s point of view, writing is a way to organize your thoughts. You ever have one of those moments when all your thoughts are racing back and forth and you can’t make out what exactly is going on in your mind? Writing thoughts down, one by one, especially if you include the emotions related to each one, gives you a peace of mind. Even if you don’t know how to write a whole essay about your feelings, it’s scientifically proven that simply making lists about your thoughts has proven useful.

From a social scientist’s point of view, writing is a way of expressing yourself to the politicians. Even when it might sound utopistic, politicians work for you and your life. If they don’t know what you want, they’re going to do what they want. If you’re unhappy for that and you never spoke out, you can only blame yourself.

And, finally, from an author’s point of view: writing is a way to solve your inner conflicts. Try writing yourself in a story. Let the main character solve the problems you have. You might be surprised – maybe the similar methods could work in your own life. And since they originate from your own imagination, maybe that’s exactly what you want to do.

All you need to have is some faith in your own imagination and the fact that there is a difference you can make in yourself. Just write it out.

Serafima is a 21-year-old theater instructor, musician and performing artist. She is currently graduating from a double degree, and her thoughts of life, politics, music, art and internet can be read on her blog in Finnish and English.

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[Guest Post] Frankenstein and the Private Eye

My eleventh grade English class read Frankenstein, and it started a debate with my teacher.  There is a scene in the book where the monster meets a blind girl.  The girl, not able to see the monster’s deformities, befriends him, and for the first time, someone treats him with compassion.  My teacher told us that this was Mary Shelly’s commentary on mankind’s tendency to judge based on appearance.  I questioned her.

Wasn’t it possible, I wondered, that Mary Shelly simply wanted to create believable characters that the reader could care about?  Didn’t showing a range of emotion in the monster make him more relatable and help draw the reader into the story?  Aren’t the best stories really about characters and how they deal with their situation?

I probably didn’t put it quite in those words, but that was the gist of my argument.  The teacher agreed to open the floor for discussion (which made me feel pretty good for a short, introverted geek with oversized glasses and a mullet).

I’ve been thinking about that discussion recently because I finished a book where I felt the author could’ve benefited from what had been said.  In this book, a female investigator is coerced into helping a drug lord determine who killed his beloved wife.  Our heroine’s policeman boyfriend follows her to South America, is shot and then nursed back to health in the drug lord’s compound.  While her boyfriend is near death in the next room, the investigator considers accepting the drug lord’s sexual advances (he’s just sooo powerful, and that’s hot!).

And… I lost interest.  I no longer cared what happened to the characters.  They’d stopped being real.  Would this investigator really develop those feelings?  Not the way she’d been previously portrayed.  How much did the drug lord really care about his dead wife?  Very little, apparently, so why was he going through all this trouble?

Love triangles and plot twists are fine, and I would’ve had no issue with these characters’ thoughts and actions if they’d somehow been established as people who would entertain such thoughts and perform such actions.  But the opposite was the case, and as a reader, I simply stopped caring.

If a character’s actions exist only to propel the plot, then you’ve done a disservice to the character and your readers.  While writing Good Deeds, I realized that one of my characters had acted against the personality I’d given him.  He’d left someone behind in the midst of horrific creatures only because I felt it made for better suspense and conflict.

But it didn’t ring true, and I knew it, so I scrapped about 30 pages and changed the action to match the character.  That change took the story in a different direction than I’d planned.  The result, I think, is a better story and actually has more suspense than the original writing.

Not only should actions follow a character’s mold, but descriptions and internal monologues should also ring true.  For example, let’s say you’re writing a scene where your protagonist (we’ll call him Jim) is wandering through a crumbling urban landscape, a once thriving city that has seen better days.  If Jim is an architect, you might describe the chipped stonework and compare early 1900’s warm craftsmanship to the 2000’s cold steel and glass.  Or, if Jim is a hypochondriac with OCD, he’ll only notice the filth in the wet gutters and the mixing scents of asphalt grease and rotting garbage in the alleyways.

And if Jim is a gang leader… well, you get the idea.  Either way, you’ve described a city in despair, but you’ve also made your character more real and relatable for the reader.  The reader will become emotionally invested in Jim, care more about what happens to Jim, and find Jim’s story more engaging.

So, please, take a lesson from Mary Shelly.  Create a confused monster instead of an apathetic private eye.  Jim—and your readers—will  thank you for it.

D. Miles Martin is a former English teacher and author of the dark novel Good Deeds (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords) and the novella The Evolution of Mortality (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords).  Hell Bent, the first in a new series of horror-mysteries, is scheduled for release in the spring of 2012.  You can find D. Miles Martin on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Site Updates for December 2011

You may have noticed a few new changes around the site – or, if you’re new, maybe you’re just getting used to it.  I’ll give you a rundown  of what I’m doing differently these days.

  • New Theme: I change themes once in a while, and I felt it was time to move to a new one.  I like this pink floral layout very much.
  • Added Guest Post page – since I’ve started writing and accepting guest posts, I figured it might be nice to have a place to organize all of them!  Check out links to old guest posts on other pages and find out how you can guest post here, as well.
  • The widgets in the sidebar are gradually changing…
  • More links added to the Links section!  Like my page on Facebook, add me to your circles in Google+, follow me on Twitter and Goodreads, and much more!  As time goes on, I’ll be adding more of my friends and guest bloggers.

That’s in for now – more to come as school gradually finishes.

[Guest Post] Hit Fast Forward

It’s now December 1st and you’ve got a spanking new 50,000 word novel (or at least a substantial part of a novel).  What are you doing to do?

If the novel’s not complete, finish it.  You’ve got momentum coming out of NaNo, really good writing habits, and the ideas are still sunshiny fresh.  Besides, your friends haven’t seen you for a whole month.  They won’t miss you if you’re absent for several more days.

Then when the novel’s done, toss it into the bottom of your literal or figurative drawer and ignore it for at least a month.  Call your parents, remind your friends you’re still alive, apologize to your significant other for ignoring him/her/it for so long, and wrangle up a date for the Christmas party.

And then what?  What can you really do with that tangle of words conjured up in a single heady, highly-caffeinated month?

First, read it (and yes, it’s perfectly normal to cringe.)  In spite of all the tricks you used to inflate the word count, do you see in it the glimmer of a great story?  Do you want to go further with it?

Of course you do!

Last year, I took part in NaNoWriMo for the first time.  My 70,000-word partially complete NaNo novel hit 120,000 words by the time the first draft was done.  Seven major revisions later, it has 91,000 words.  The novel recently placed second in the Royal Palm Literary Awards for Science Fiction (unpublished), and the full manuscript is currently sitting on the desks of several literary agents, where I’m hopeful it will go further.

The key to getting your NaNo out of that bottom drawer is to edit, edit, edit.  Compared to writing, editing is slow and laborious.  The rewards aren’t immediately obvious; instead of seeing that word count climb, you’re likely to see it fall.  But it’s the only way that NaNo novel is going to go anywhere.

Join a critique group and find the guts to read your novel in front of other people.  (I’ll confess, I’m still trying to work up the nerve for this one.)  Beg your friends to read your novel.  Score double points if that friend is also a writer – they provide better feedback.  Take part in NaNoEdMo and commit to 50 hours of editing.  Invest in yourself.  ‘Writing the breakout novel’, by Maass, provides fantastic tips on creating a story that’s worth telling.   ‘Self-editing for fiction writers: How to edit yourself into print’ by Brown and King teaches you how to identify and correct stylistic problems.

Don’t be afraid to substantially edit your novel.  It’s not a baby (really, truly). Think of it as a bonsai.  Regular pruning is absolutely required for growth.  My writer friend told me that the last third of my novel sucked (yes, that is a technical term).  So, I ripped out about 40,000 words, and eventually replaced it with something much better.

Are you done editing?

Do it again.

Do it until it’s the absolute best you are sure you can do on your own.  And then, if you’re not the archetypal poor college student and can find $1,000 – $3,000 to spare, seek out a good professional editor (the key word here is ‘good’, not just ‘professional’), and get them to look over your work.  (Full disclosure: I didn’t even consider going down this path until after my novel won the award.  I figured a winner was probably worth a larger financial investment.)

Finding an agent and getting published is a whole other story, and it’s a path I’m just embarking on.  But you’ll never get there unless you edit that NaNo novel.  Good luck, happy writing and merry editing!

Jade Kerrion is a Science Fiction author.  GENESIS, the first book in her DOUBLE HELIX series, placed second in the Royal Palm Literary Awards, Science Fiction (unpublished) category.  Find her online at JadeKerrion.com.

[Guest Post] A NaNo Strategy to Help You Win NaNoWriMo

Hi Feliza, thanks for having me! Now that NaNoWriMo is over for another year, it’s time to start planning for next year. (Tongue in cheek.)

I first heard about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) through Chris Baty’s book No Plot, No Problem and I was hooked. I did my first NaNoWriMo in 2007 – and won. I did it again in 2008 – and I won. 2009 & 2010? Won/Won. My strategy, if you will, for winning NaNoWriMo every year (knock on wood) is that I stick with the same series. No matter what I write throughout the rest of the year, come November, I’m writing the next Westin book in the Masked Rider series.

This technique helps so much, I keep believing I’ll meet the 50,000 word goal in November each year and am waiting for the inevitable downfall of someone who gets a little too cocky! But I work hard and I plan a bit and focus my energies.

I’ve built the world my characters live in and I know how everyone fits in. I know how my characters think, what they believe and why they act the way they do. I also have a clear idea of the theme of the book and its unique flow. Year after 50,000-word year I know all of this going in.

If you adopt this strategy, or already use it to your advantage, then you know how much deeper you get to work. If it sounds like it’s boring, trust me, it’s not. Since the groundwork is laid out, you get to delve into other areas; dialogue, background, character motives, red herrings and so on. You can make non-regulars fully fleshed out. Instead of being stuck developing and learning about your main characters, you can do that work with the one-offs. It’s especially useful with mysteries – I get to have a whole new set of suspects with each book and I round them out with great care.

(It worked so well for me that I fully fleshed out my characters’ unknown grandparents and came up with the Ella Westin Mysteries, which I started publishing in January. I just got Masked Rider: Origins back from my editor and am hoping to have it done and published this upcoming January!)

Another fun thing you can do with a series is introduce a character briefly in one book and have him be a suspect in a later one. Sharp-eyed readers get a kick out of it and those that don’t see it will still enjoy the depth and richness you provide.

Thorough work shows.

It’s win-win-win: author, reader, NaNoWriMo’er.

I know there are a load of NaNo-strategies out there, and I’d love to hear yours and I thank you for reading mine.

Thank you, Feliza, for inviting me to your blog and being such a wonderful host.

Jennifer Oberth is the author of the Ella Westin Mysteries and has published Married To Murder (Smashwords, Amazon, Barnes & Noble) & Honeymoon Homicide (Smashwords, Amazon, Barnes & Noble). You can reach her at NaNoWriMo, her blog, Twitter, and her Facebook Page.

*Editor’s Note: As of the date of this posting, Jennifer has become a NaNoWriMo Winner for 2011! Congrats, Jennifer!

[Guest Post] Romancing the Tome – or “You and Me Could Write a Bad Romance”

This is my fifth NaNoWriMo. Twice, I finished over 50K.  Both times it was with mystery novels. Once, I changed ideas around mid-November.

I advise against this. Okay, sure, I could have kept everything I wrote the first half of the month and uploaded some kind of Frankenstein manuscript for the final count, but I wanted to be honest in my attempt. So I started from scratch.  Needless to say, it didn’t go anywhere. On the other two attempts, the stories were contemporary romance.

One went out with a bored sigh. Don’t get me wrong – I liked the characters and I thought the concept was decent. But it just didn’t have any zest. Sorry, honey, but I don’t think we should see each other anymore. It’s not you – it’s me.

The other one is in progress… as of this writing, 9,000 words behind the curve. But NaNo love is worth fighting for.

I enjoy romance novels – from Silhouette Love-inspired to Taming the Highlander-type bodice rippers. The first contemporary romance I ever read was Susan Andersen’s Baby, Don’t Go. It had spark. It was feisty. I wrote a fan letter to the author. And I decided I wanted to write contemporary romances too. I even bought Romance Writing for Dummies (don’t laugh – it’s a great reference for writers of any genre).

Writing romance that isn’t page after page of clichés is hard, and I’m developing new respect for the writers who do it all the time and make it engaging. My concerns may just stem from my own insecurities about writing in general. Maybe you can relate.  But here’s what I’ve confronted so far.

  • “Overexposure”:  Once the main characters have had their roll in the hay, or quickie in the broom closet, or whatever…I reread it and think, “Sweet biscuits, if anyone finds out I wrote this, I’ll never be able to show my face in public!”  Is it too much? Is it too goofy? Is it even doable? Maybe I need more research. I don’t seem to have a problem writing it; publishing it might be another story (so to speak). Well, this is NaNoWriMo. It’s about first drafts. On rewrite, I might opt for a more controlled burn… or a good pen name.
  • Fantasy versus Real World: I can’t relate to being swept off my feet by the chiseled rancher next door, and Alpha Males irritate me. But I like the self-employed guy with the nice smile who lives down the street. And I like the courage of the woman reinventing herself after a debilitating accident. My NaNo hero has a disability. The heroine is about to get everything she ever wanted, but runs away because she’s afraid she’s wrong. Things happen. Choices are made. Every day. Sometimes our responses are truly heroic.
  • Too much romance, not enough challenge: granted, I’m less than halfway through the word count – and I’m skipping around, not writing chronologically – but I feel like these two haven’t struggled enough. Hang on, kids. I’m about to make your lives miserable – and you’ll love me for it. No ninja pirates, but… well, you’ll have to wait and see.

Conundrums aside, I’m happy with the mechanics of the story; I believe there’s a good balance of dialogue and narrative. It’s all about the word play, as Jason Mraz would say, and getting fifty-thousand words closer to a romance novel I can love.

Elizabeth Irwin is an independent word contractor, which is a fancy way of saying freelance editor and writer, living in Sylvania, Ohio. She coordinates the Write Brain Workshop for the Northwest Ohio Writers Forum, teaches writing-related classes at Owens Community College, and writes everything from articles to flash fiction to memoir. You can find her blog “I Face the Sun” here.

[Guest Post] Keeping Writing Interesting

One of the major reasons I have done NaNoWriMo for the past three years is that it keeps my life interesting. NaNoWriMo is a time to focus on writing, push through those slogging difficult days, and keep searching for those magical days. Which is why, when I say ‘keeping writing interesting’, I am not talking about tips to make your writing interesting to your readers, but rather how to keep the act of writing interesting for you as the writer.

For my first NaNoWriMo, there was enough excitement, as it was my first time attempting to write a novel, to help push me through. There were a number of other things that I found worked for me, that are still helping me through November my third time doing NaNoWriMo, and could possibly help you as well.

  1. Word Sprints: I find that if I write in short quick bursts I get more done than sitting at the computer all day with no breaks. That’s why I have a kitchen timer sitting next to me now, keeping me focused and typing.
  2. Accountability: I tell friends that I am doing NaNoWriMo, so they will ask about my progress. Having writing buddies on the NaNoWriMo website works as well. Outside of November, I use the same tactic with other projects so that the constant reminder of friends asking about my project reminds me to get working. It also adds a bit of guilt if I haven’t really been working on it.
  3. Talking to other writers: I used to be afraid of other writers stealing my ideas. I’ve found that the opposite has been true of my writing friends. What they want most are my ideas to help improve their story, and in return they give ideas for mine. Just talking about a story out loud helps me start to put pieces together and realize elements of my story that typing just doesn’t.
  4. Taking risks: This is especially true during the rough draft. I enjoy having the ability to tell a dream sequence, overly describe a setting, or add ninjas if I want at any given moment. I do this knowing that if the ninjas kill off too many characters, in the revision they don’t need to reappear. If the writing feels boring, it’s because I don’t know where I’m going, and I won’t find out without a bit of risk.

It is for that reason that I’ve added a couple extra challenges to myself this year for NaNoWriMo. I’ve written the 50,000 the last 2 years, so I wanted to make my writing experience more interesting this year.

I decided to blog about the project daily. This allows my friends that agreed to try writing this year, and those that didn’t, to know about all the joys and disappointments that I go through this month.

The second challenge is that I decided to take a dare a day from a rotation of genre forums on the NaNoWriMo website. I would take the most recent dare in a thread, despite the ridiculousness or difficulty, and add it to my novel. I’ve had to add a character obsessed with rubber ducks, an artificially intelligent gun, a murder involving twins, and a person paralyzed but unaware of it. It has been challenging, frustrating, and incredibly entertaining all at the same time.

The dares have led to a risk that I had not planned for. I normally write a story from beginning to end, and learn about the characters and a lot of the plot as time goes on. To get all the varied dares in, I’ve started skipping ahead to the good parts this year. This means that I will likely have many plot holes, multiple scenes thrown together without logic, a bit of deus ex machina, and moods swinging wildly from comedy to great depression. Writing in this way is scary. However, this could turn out to be the best thing I could’ve done to improve my writing. It is a risk. It is what keeps my writing interesting for me. 

Justin McKibben has an undergraduate degree in English from the Ohio State University and a Master’s in Educational Leadership from Antioch-McGregor University. This is his third time participating in NaNoWriMo. Having won the previous two years, he hopes to keep the streak going. You can follow his blog at: nanowrimodarenovel.blogspot.com.