[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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The Importance of Snappy Copy

When I was younger and first starting to take creative writing seriously, I thought being “a good writer” meant constructing lengthy, flowy passages of elaborate text with the longest, most complex words possible.  I thought I should aim to write something with the highest reading level possible, use words understandable only by people who had PhD’s, and write as pretentiously as possible to ensure that other people would think I was “a good writer.”

I also thought Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century was the best show on television.

Nine years later, I’d be the first to say lengthy and elaborate passages are a hallmark of uninformed writing.  This is largely a product of my time as a journalism major in college – I’ll graduate with a Communication degree with a journalism concentration in May – but it’s also something I’ve learned while taking classes towards a creative writing degree I am no longer pursuing.

Where’s the proof, you ask?  Allow me to demonstrate my point.

A single punchy word does more damage than a long, floppy phrase.  A common misconception among new writers – which I’ve observed several times at student workshops and am also guilty of – is that long sentences equal good writing.  This is not true, and over-use of adverbs and adjectives make a piece look sloppy.

Now that I have more workshop experience and critical reading experience, it’s frustrating to read sentences with more than one or two adjectives or adverbs when I’m reading fiction.  Reading poetry brings out even more of a critic in me.  There are more effective ways to say things – and don’t even get me started on the word “that”!

When you write blogs or articles, shorter is almost always better.  While many bloggers can write posts into the thousands, it’s much easier for readers to consume posts between 500 and 700 words, which is the goal for a standard news article.  It’s easier to read pieces of that length.

It’s also easier to read shorter paragraphs, which is easier to do when the piece is not as long.  It’s much more difficult for me to read dense writing because I am now very accustomed to reading short, snappy blogs and news articles.

And my final point: this video by OkaySamurai on YouTube.

If that doesn’t convince you that snappy writing is important, I don’t know what else will!

[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.

[Guest Post] Writing Utter Crap

We writers tend to tie ourselves up in knots. We know that the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, but we still manage to act like it does. We have a hard time giving ourselves permission to write utter crap. We forget how freeing it is to not be perfect. An icon I found on LiveJournal years ago sums this up succinctly: Writing was so much easier when I sucked at it.

I don’t know about you, but when I was young and unaware of all the rules about writing and what makes good writing, it came easy. There was no stifling self-criticism. There was no paralyzing need for perfection. There was nothing but me and the words. I could immerse myself in story for hours at a time, without a single thought about grammar, plot, characterization, or any of the other trappings of good writing. I’ve looked back at some of the stories I had written back in my school years, and the poems — oh, the dreadful poems! It is all utterly unpublishable crap.

But I enjoyed every minute of writing it. I never entertained a single critical thought about any of it. And the words flowed with abandon.

That is what we need. Permission to write with the abandon of youth. Permission to suck. Permission to write utter crap.

Break the Rules

If you’re feeling stuck with your NaNoWriMo novel, or with anything else you’re writing, don’t just give yourself permission to write crap — demand it.

Sit down and write the most imperfect prose you can imagine. Break every rule in the Turkey City Lexicon. Fill your word count with adverbs and Tom Swifties. Don’t bother plotting or organizing your thoughts. While you’re busy telling (and not showing) your story, something amazing can happen. You may find the story suddenly coming to life in wonderful and unexpected ways.

Keep Moving Forward

The trick to winning NaNoWriMo all comes down to this: Keep writing forward. Don’t stop for anything. Here are a few tricks to help you keep the momentum moving forward if you feel stuck:

1) Summarize. Summarzing my get you through a rough spot, or a boring spot, or a creative block. After a few hundred words of summary, you may be surprised to find yourself struck with inspiration again. Keep the pen moving across the paper. Keep your fingers moving across the keyboard. Don’t wait for inspiration — make yourself an environment conducive for inspiration instead.

2) Complain. If you can’t even come up with a summary, write anyway. Even if the first words you write are “I don’t know what to write.” Be careful not to focus on that thought too much though. Think your way around the problem on paper or on-screen. The act of writing itself while you’re thinking about the problem may shake some inspiration loose for you.

3) Skip around. If you feel stuck on what comes next, skip it. If you know what the final battle needs to look like, but you don’t know how to get there, write the final battle anyway. Take Jonathan Lethem‘s advice and skip the transitions. Don’t even bother with writing a linear story. Write what inspires and excites you. The act of writing those scenes may even jostle out some ideas for how to get there. I wrote an entire short story consisting only of the good parts. No transitions. No summary. Nothing but the scenes that inspired me. It inspired an editor enough that she paid me for it and published it.

4) Shoot it all. Wakefield Mahon said it perfectly on Twitter: Shoot it all, edit later. Ignore Jonathan Lethem’s advice and write every opening door and every cup of tea if that’s what it takes to keep the creative momentum moving.

5) Make notes. If you decide that something needs to be changed do not go back and edit. I learned this trick from Holly Lisle. Any time you feel the urge to go back and edit, make a note instead, then keep moving forward as if you had already made the changes. I make notes in my writing by using brackets [like this]. Don’t waste time looking for the perfect word or going back to change anything you’ve already written. Note it, then move forward. You can go back and edit when you’re done.

Once you get the steam going — don’t stop. Don’t look back. Don’t become the literary equivalent of Lot’s Wife. If you look back, you risk turning your creative momentum into a self-critical pillar of salt. Keep your creative momentum moving forward.

Kimberly lives in a rural village near Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, two daughters, and a cat. She is a freelance copyeditor and proofreader and enjoys making money by reading books. Every now and then she even reads one just for fun. Her NaNoWriMo novel is The Hunter’s Daughters, a story about mothers, daughters, magic, rebellion, lovers, lost dreams, and … zombies.

[Guest Post] Writing as an Endurance Sport

“You’re doing WHAT?”

That’s the typical response when you tell someone you’re participating in an event to write 50,000 words in 30 days. The second response is “What do you get if you win?” For most people the idea of writing a novel in a month is, at best, a foolish waste of time. After all, don’t you know how few people actually manage to get published? The world of writing is a mysterious world indeed, and one that seems crazy to outsiders.

So what do we get out of it? Well, for some it is an endurance sport. Some people choose to test their boundaries by running marathons, or climbing mountains. And to these people the same questions could be asked. “You’re running 25k? Why? What do you get if you win?” The knowledge that you’ve won. It doesn’t seem like much, but humans thrive on competition. The act of winning is enough to spur us on towards greater heights.

But there’s more to it. You see, we’re not just in competition – we’re in community. There’s something about the experience of shared hardship that brings people together. Nobody runs a marathon by themselves, you run it with other people. Those other people give you competition (I’m ahead of two thirds of the other runners!) and they give you community (we’re in this together!) Both are necessary to reach your goals.

But why do we do this? Surely writing a novel in a year is the same outcome as writing a novel in a month? Why push ourselves? Because we have to. You see, there’s a vicious and evil monster that plagues writers worldwide. It’s called the inner editor. It’s that voice that says “That sentence sucks.” It’s a useful tool, in some settings, but in novel writing it is crippling. Such a high word count in such a low amount of time allows you to force the inner editor into a closet and lock it away. it means you don’t have time to spend three hours agonizing whether that comma sound be a comma, a semi-colon or a new sentence. You just don’t have the time.

So you write, and you write, and you write. And of course that first draft is rubbish. It’s ok. That is the most important thing that NaNoWriMo teaches. That it’s OK to write rubbish. You have a whole community of people, writing rubbish alongside you. And so you press on, desperate to get to that word count. And you finish the story. And yes, it’s crap. But that’s OK. it’s easy to edit something into shape once it’s written. But editing it before you even have it on paper is novelist suicide.

And so at the end of the month, if you have the dedication and the ambition, you have a novel. A crappy, un-edited novel. A crappy, un-edited novel you can then take your time the rest of the year and shape into the story you actually wanted to tell. You can polish it, and make it actually make sense.

But not in November. November is for the writing. At about 10,000 words, your inner editor comes screaming out of whatever hole you’ve buried it in and begins picking your novel apart. This is normal, and it’s funny to watch the NaNowriMo forums at this time. Everyone goes from “this is the best novel ever!’ to “I suck as a writer and am going to go be a fry cook now, that’s all I’m good for!”

But the people who have done NaNo for a few years come in and assure everyone that this too shall pass. And we all keep writing. Because it’s what we do. We’re writers. Even if you’ve only ever written school assignments, or fan fiction. You’re a writer. And writers keep on writing.

So if you’re thinking of doing NaNoWriMo, be prepared. It’s hard. You will curse the decision to join. But you will find companionship, support, and sympathy. A whole bunch of people crazy enough to take on the challenge with you.

Ki Vick is a freelance ghostwriter and novel writer. She is halfway through her first NaNoWriMo novel and is hoping to polish it up in time for publication early next year. She has been a writer for 6 years and lives with her husband in a tiny apartment in Dayton, Ohio.