Thursday, April 29, 2010


The Intern had a hilars guest post the other day about how writers used to have more depth and suffering and had to spend hours hunched over a typewriter, which somehow all meant that they more accurately and timelessly captured the sufferings and longings of the human spirit. Paraphrasing here, obviously.

I admit, I'm a victim of the times. My handy dandy netbook is with me at all times (not that I wouldn't have carried around a full size typewriter back in the day, especially if it came with a trendy messenger bag), I've got several computers at home, and I've pretty much eschewed using my hand to "write" things all together. It cramps when I try to write a grocery list. And now I've stepped into the ultimate (nothing will ever be more ultimate!) frontier: I bought a smart phone. Well, the P-i-C nicked it for me (or should have, at least, who pays for things nowadays?)

I had a Blackberry before, but that was more like an idiot savant phone. It could do some things brilliantly - texting was a dream - but acted like a total dunce for most other things. As in, "what? You want to look at a webpage? What's a webpage? We no wanna look at webpage, blah. More cookies!" And then it would get mad when I had to explain that webpage cookies didn't come with chocolate chips.

But my new phone, oh, my new phone is a glory. It's got a touchscreen, a slide out QWERTY keyboard, Windows Mobile (don't look at me like that, I use Windows all day, I understand it), and lots of other cool shiny yum yums. Best of all? Word. Mobile. Bitches. I've already got two WIPs on the phone and I'm thinking of starting an Ideas folder so I can slap those babies down no matter where I am. It's glorious, kiddies, simply glorious.

Does this make me a more craptastic writer? Would I have given up if I'd had to write these words out by hand, or throw away an entire page if I typed a letter wrong? Would I have pulled a Nicholson in The Shining and killed my entire family by now (pretty sure he went crazy after running out of white out)? It's hard to say what makes a writer great, or how the ease of writing affects that greatness. Like maybe if Salinger had a laptop he wouldn't have been so, to borrow a phrase, batshit crazy (my crazyometer says no). Or maybe he wouldn't have written such a classic novel that has spanned generations and still speaks to today's youth.

To step on a soapbox for a moment, technology has greatly enhanced the baseline knowledge of the world and brought opportunities to cultures and communities that never would have existed without it. It's also helped us cause a buttload more destruction to a lot of people in a much more concentrated timeline. World War I was so particularly devastating because of advancing technology in weaponry. So, a little bit of column good, a little bit of column bad.

But what has it done to writers? In a way, it's made even the worst of us better by creating a community (hi!) where writers of all levels can come together and share their knowledge. I've said it before and I'll say it again, my writing has vastly improved just by perusing blogs that offer good, solid advice on common novice mistakes. It's also brought us closer to the elusive elite of agents and editors, and given us insight into their decision-making process and their preferences. And it's given us a deeper understanding of all cultures by bringing them right into our homes even when we can't go out there to see them for ourselves.

So maybe we're not drinking ourselves into a suicidal stupor while penning the next great American novel, but the world has changed. The sufferings of our predecessors are not our sufferings. Writers have adapted to the world around them, crawled out of their shells a little into the overly bright light of day, and we're all better for it. Or we can at least join a Facebook group about it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Getting schooled in writing

So I'm debating taking a creative writing class at the local community college here in town. I don't know much about the prof's (getting back into my cool college lingo here) qualifications, but I can't imagine the class wouldn't do me some good. I know I've learned a lot already from all the bloggers around the hinterwebs (I'm just making words up now), but putting it into a classroom format and testing it in writing exercises will really help me solidify the knowledge in my admittedly mushy brain. In fact, I want to start the class now, but it doesn't actually start until the fall. So...bootastic.

Sierra wrote a good post about attending conferences and seminars to build up experience, and another blog (which I can't remember, see: mushy brain) made the very good point that if you take yourself seriously and are truly aiming for a career as a writer, you should attend workshops that will strengthen and hone your abilities. Like work training sessions or continuing legal education for lawyers or watching Secret Diary of a Call Girl for call girls. The obvious hurdle to jump in these situations is the cost of attending said workshops. The class I'm contemplating here isn't prohibitively expensive, and it's an entire semester, so I feel pretty good about the investment. I'd also guess that some conferences and workshops are better than others depending on your skill level and manuscript preparedness. For me, right now, I'm just trying to get the durn thing done, so smooching up to an agent isn't a good idea for me right now. That's all tease, no follow through.

This is a bit of a wandering post as I've now gone two days without coffee (what the hell was I thinking?!), but I'd love some weigh in on this one. What are your recommendations for conferences, workshops, etc.? Which ones have you gotten the most mileage out of for your writing? What tips would you have for a newbie (a la pens, paper, business cards, chocolate bars, etc.) on what to bring and how to prepare?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Monday's usually suck but this one's my birthday!

Happy Birthday to me (are you supposed to capitalize the birthday?) I am mumble mumble years old now, gentle readers. It's been a wild mumble mumble years full of reform schools, bank heists, procuring of illegal goods, and other fun stuff. I'm taking today off (sadly not from real world work), but I'll be back and a day older tomorrow to share more adventures in writing.

Pour a little out for me, homies.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A brief list of things I will do today

1) Spend 3 minutes longer than necessary in the bathroom to practice poses in the mirror for my inevitable People magazine cover story.

2) Make a silent screaming face when I hit my hand/arm/knee/hip on my desk/car door/bed post (I tend to be clutzy).

3) Meet some writer-type friends at 11:59 p.m. (it's really midnight, but then that wouldn't be today, would it?) for a midnight writer's work session.

4) Drink too much coffee and end up leaping into rooms with jazz hands. At work.

5) Use the word "awesome" and/or "awesomesauce" 56.2% too much

6) Be very. Very. Glad. It's Friday.

Happy Friday, fellow lovers of the word.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Step four: hey outline, it's not me, it's you

First of all: welcome new followers! This site comes with a money-back guarantee (not valid in any countries on the planet Earth), so enjoy with ease.

Okay, here's the big bad. Color coordinated post-its: fun. Acting out scenes in the car: fun. Board of Great Importance: fun.

Outlining and outline revision: super not fun.

I mentioned this in the comments section over at Elana's blog, but I came to this way of life the hard way. Like, scrapping 40K words hard way. Sometimes (read: yesterday) I still fight against my natural urge to throw words down on the page and see where they lead me. A simple recreation:

Angel JEM: Hmm, the middle of our story is sagging a little, I think we need to go back to the outline and brainstorm.
Devil JEM (rubs devil hands together): No, let's just keep writing and see what happens.
Angel JEM: Remember when we did that last time and we had to rewrite this story like five times? Haven't you learned your lesson, Devil JEM?
Devil JEM: Lessons are for whimps and lesser losers. Let us shirk the shackles of responsibility and sail ahead!
Angel JEM: Did you just say shirk?
Devil JEM: Focus, Angel JEM.

Then the conversation devolved into whether or not to eat a cupcake, and no one needs to be subjected to that recreation. However, Angel JEM won eventually (not on the cupcake, sadly) and I've since returned to the outline to do a diagnostic.

So technique number four, gentle readers, is not just to outline but to periodically revisit the outline at strategic points in the writing process to make sure it still makes sense. Even after carefully outlining the first time I have since moved scenes around, added and deleted scenes, and changed characters. As annoying as it is to make those changes in the outline (they're already written, right?), it helps when going back through the story to figure out what's happened and when it happened. It's kept the pacing tight and helped me track subplots even when other scenes intervene.

Outlines are like cars: they need tune-ups, too. At a natural stopping point in your story (after a major scene, 20K words in, whatever suits your fancy), check on the outline and make sure it still makes sense. A good indication that you need to do some outline revising is when you get to the end of a scene or chapter and you don't immediately know where to go from there. Not that that's what happened to me...

Tonight, chitlins, I'm off to Book Club for the first time in months. Why I waited so long to talk about books with other people, I don't know.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

This coffee shop is ruining my coffee shop dream

I think all writers share a similar dream: midday, temperature is just right, the sun is perfectly shining, and there we (you/I) are (are/am) curled up on a comfy couch in a cozy coffee shop sipping delicious concoctions out of large and cutely crafted mugs. It's quiet and serene, just the occasional clicking of laptop keys to signal any kind of activity around us (you/me). We're (okay, dropping it now) relaxed because we're already super successful and awesome writers and Time Magazine just named us most awesomest person EVER in the history of TIME (take that, Einstein and Gandhi) and we come to our little coffee shop hideaway to avoid the paparazzi and adoring fans (I SAID it was a dream). Awesomesauce, right?

Today, Local Coffee Shop has proved me wrong. Internet went down at our office this morning, and since we're an internet-based company, it puts us in a bit of a bind. Our solution was to step out to Local Coffee Shop and borrow their internet for an indefinite period of time until ours came back up. This scenario = me excited. I thought, "I can finally start working on my writer-dream! Fun will be had at Local Coffee Shop!"

Reality check number one: Coffee shops that mainly cater to college students play bad music. BAD music. Not just "oh, this really isn't my style but this artist is still clearly talented." No. much more along the lines of "why is PETA not all over this band for torturing cats with rusty implements to create their music?"

Reality check number two: Tables and chairs at coffee shops are actually not more comfortable than anything you have at home. I'm pretty sure I've sat on tree stumps more comfortable than some of these chairs. Also I'm pretty sure hobos have slept on some of these donated couches and while I love eau de hobo as much as the next fashionable girl, I don't get my hobo scent from just anywhere.

Reality check number three: some people don't know how to act in public. Besides some people (obviously intentionally) visually assaulting me with their "fashion," I've seen a guy pick his nose and then PLAY WITH IT; the barista looks like he lives in a commune where they don't believe in diluting the purity of their bodies with showers; gaggles of people have come to have PERSONAL conversations in a PUBLIC PLACE. We don't need to get into it, but suffice it to say that's one more thing urban dictionary doesn't have to educate me on.

Another dream dashed by retched reality.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Step three: the board of great importance

Guten Munday! I've not yet had my coffee, so if I start to devolve into a philosophical discussion of the merits of Street Fighter 2 versus the original Street Fighter, please feel free to stop by later.

I have a tendency to forget things. Not things like birthdays or anniversaries - those are a given - but things like "put pants on this morning" and "drive on the right side of the road." Thankfully the P-i-C usually catches the first one and my fellow drivers catch the second one. However, there are plenty of things I forget on a daily basis that I have no one to remind me to do. Among those things are good writing habits.

You know the kind - don't use passive voice, show don't tell, remove sense tags for a deeper POV - after awhile they become ingrained in a seasoned writer. I, however, much like a new dutch oven, still need some seasoning. But when you're trying to juggle plot, character development, pacing, and word count, some of these more basic rules fall by the wayside. And while I could go clean them up later, it would be a lot easier to keep them top of mind while writing to reduce the amount of editing I'll have to do down the road.

Enter the Board of Great Importance. I keep a white board next to my character development post-it note-a-rama with basic writing tips listed out. In addition to the ones listed above, I also have tips like "only tell me what's important" and "don't forget to eat lunch." Because sometimes writing does that to you. But it sits in my direct line of vision in the writing room and every time I glance up to imagine a scene, my most important writing rules are there to remind me. There are lots of arrows and asterisks and underlining, but it helps me pull my thoughts together and keep the rules top of mind.

I also bought myself a pack of multi-colored dry erase pens to write with to make it fun. Mostly I've just been drawing dragons, but I think it will prove useful later on.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

This is hands down the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life

EVER. And I've been to Burning Man.*

Read the whole thing. All of it. I dare you not to laugh. DARE.


* I have never actually been to Burning Man but it makes for great jokes. I have seen old people fall before, though. But I didn't laugh. Promise.

Catchy: how I noticed a trend in book titles by browsing Amazon

While surfing the top 100 books on Amazon's list the other day, I stumbled upon an interesting book called The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. A mouthful, I know, but it looked like an interesting concept. After reading a few pages from Amazon Inside the Book, I scrolled through recommended titles and noticed a blatant trend in non-fiction titles.

Want to play detective? Here are a selection of titles from the list:

Life is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally
The Awe-manac: A Daily Dose of Wonder
Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage
The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving
Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less

Starting to notice a trend? I checked out the business section, too, an area I am very familiar with because of the publisher I used to work for:

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation
Outliers: The Story of Success

I could go on, but I think you get the point. I know at one point this was considered a revolutionary formula: short, catchy title with a more descriptive and to the point subtitle (in fact, a book with this same formula was written to address the stickiness of certain concepts/products). When I worked at the publisher that was the approach we took to all of our business books. However, it occurs to me that perhaps this approach has now oversaturated the market? And maybe now seems trite and overdone? And perhaps a revolution will be to break with this habit?

Just a thought.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Shamelessly stealing from Sierra Godfrey...

Hey, I'm a professional thief, what did you expect?

I saw this link on Sierra Godfrey's blog (I'm a new follower, if you haven't seen her site go check it out!) and knew I had to do my own top 5 known writing problems. Here they are, in all their glory:

Problema Numero Uno
Transitions. I'll know I've progressed as a writer when I can seamlessly cross fictional time and space without it feeling awkward or too sudden. It's proven especially difficult when I need to pass large gaps of time - several days or weeks - in a paragraph or less. I'm an impatient writer and I don't spend much time on the details, so trying to find a way to adequately bridge even a transition from morning to night has proven blechy (technical term).

Problema Numero Dos
Letting the plot overwhelm me. It's like trying to braid Rapunzel's hair. You know you've got a lot to work with, and the braid has to stay smooth and consistent throughout, which means you can't have bumps or loose sections or dropped hairs or random new hairs in the middle, and you can't just forget about a whole strand of the braid because it's grown too inconvenient to juggle. It's easy to feel like a story has overtaken me 20K plus words in. I get so caught up in one plot that I'll realize I've dropped a whole subplot, or I've forgotten to keep my character's attitudes and directions in mind, or I'll look back at my outline and go "oops."

Problema Numero Tres
 Keeping up good pacing. The WIP I'm currently whipping has a (hopefully) scary and suspenseful plot, which means I've got to be especially mindful of pacing and impact. At the outset I assumed this would be easy, mainly because I'm so easy to scare, but it's proven much more difficult. I understand how to make things scary using noise and visuals, but translating that fear to the written word is a lot harder than you'd think. Try writing a scary short story and see if it doesn't come out sounding contrived or comical. I have the P-i-C, who is an expert in all things horror, spot check me from time to time to make sure I'm not veering off in either C direction.

Problema Numero Cuatro
 "Looking" and "smiling." Sierra mentions this as one of her writing faux paus, but I definitely recognize the tendency in my own writing. I think there's a compulsion in most unseasoned writers to fill out dialogue with physical actions and dialogue tags. While I do think it's necessary to set a scene, I tend toward overinforming the reader. The nice thing about books is that you as the reader get to imagine a lot of what is going on, so sometimes less is more.

Problema Numero Cinco
Predictability. I didn't realize this was a problem until the P-i-C was reviewing this weekend and said "looks good, but I knew that was going to happen." It hadn't occurred to me to think that the reader might know it would happen. From the writer's perspective I needed it to happen, so I didn't dwell on it. But his comment gave me pause. What else was I doing that he could see coming? One of my biggest pet peeves as a reader is when an author will purposefully make their character stupid to an event just to drag out the plot reveal when I've already figured it out the first time it's mentioned. Stephanie Meyers did it in New Moon when Bella is trying to remember her conversation with Jacob about werewolves and it drove me CRAZY. I wanted to call Bella on her fictional telephone and say "he's a werewolf! You know it, I know it, get on with it already!" So to hear that I might be doing the same thing caused me some serious concern, gentle readers.

That's all the self-flagellation I can take in one day. What about you? What are you working on working out of your writing?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

(My first ever) Tell the truth Tuesday

I can't promise this will be a regular thing (well, I can, but I'll be lying), but I love this meme.

1) I don't share food. I have future pity on my unborn children because Mommy doesn't share food. Mommy will take your food and nibble on it absently while hoarding her own meal, but Mommy will not reciprocate. Such are the ways of the Mommy.

2) I have Compulsive Dance Disorder (CDD). Meaning my body starts dancing to a good song before my dignity can stop it. I've been caught in many an awkward work predicament as a direct result of CDD.

3) I push on bruises to see if they still hurt.

4) I have no problem letting other people pay for my meals. I'll feign protest because that's what everyone expects, I'll sometimes even pull out my card like I want to pay, but I don't. And I'm cool with that.

5) In keeping with 4 above, I'm a maniacal saver of dinero. The P-i-C calls it codo (tightwad), but I call it "how do you think I got out of college without student loans and where do you think the down payment for the secret lair came from besides all those banks we tipped over?"

Phew. Good to get those off my chest. What's your truth today?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Step two: act it out to get it out

In continuation of my new writing habits...

When I am in the planning stages of a story I tend to act out certain scenes that strike my fancy. And as anyone who's ever driven next to me can tell, I find any private moment to myself to do so. This usually involves my drive to and from work, a few moments alone in the kitchen, in my writing room with the door firmly secured, etc. I may be alone in this one, but I do it for several reasons:

1) It helps me figure out how dialogue sounds out loud. Reading to yourself out loud is an age old technique for writers, so this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Things that look debonair and charming on paper sound stilted and out of character when read out loud. It also sometimes helps me better describe a character's physical reaction when saying something, which helps flesh out the scene.

2) It helps me figure out the other character's response. Determining the first half of the conversation - the inflection, the mood, the hand gestures - helps me decide how another character will react, which helps me decide the next bit of dialogue, and so on.

3) It puts me back in the storyline. I usually only find time to write in one or two (if I'm lucky) hour chunks, so acting out a scene puts my head back in that story space and keeps the scene flowing.

4) It's fun. Admit it, when you're reading a novel you think of yourself in terms of the MC. Well, maybe YOU don't, but I do. So why not do the same with your own work? It's even more fun and exciting when it's your own story because then it's like choose your own adventure: you get to tell your character what to do.

So while I'm outlining I will frequently stop and act a scene out if it grabs me (that's usually when I know it will be a pivotal scene). And then I outline what I've come up with. Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don't, but it always helps me deepen my understanding of each scene, and by the time I get to it in the writing phase I have a pretty good handle on what's going to happen, which makes the writing smoother.

Admit it, you kind of want to secret yourself away now and take a turn for the dramatic.

What I did yesterday

Six. Point. Two. Miles.

Also known as the Capitol 10K.

The legs and I are not currently on speaking terms, but I think the Starbucks Dark Cherry Mocha I bought them this morning will woo them over.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tempering expectations

I've always been a dreamer. Even as an adult I frequently make up excuses to go to the kitchen to stare aimlessly out the window at the trees like I'd imagine a squirrel would do if trapped inside a glass cage. My waistline doesn't appreciate it, but it's the kind of mental escape I need to make it through the day. As a kid I was the absolute worst; while some children were content to have one imaginary friend, I had to go big or go home. I had an entire imaginary family (that I'm pretty sure my mom is still jealous of), and whenever I didn't like something my family did (or tried to feed me), I went to my blue house with my blue family. I thought of this way before Avatar, by the way.
But I've noticed a trend in my attitude about dreams lately. They're smaller and more practical and come with a heaping side of "well it probably won't happen anyway so I won't get my hopes up." The burning passion I felt for everything as a teenager and even through college - boys, music, writing, life - has now petered into smoldering coals. You might singe your hand if you stick it directly in the middle of the coals, but it's not setting anything on fire.

As adults, life teaches us to temper expectations. Despite what we tell our children, very few adults reach for the stars. Instead we keep our heads down and get the safe degree so we can get the safe job and live our safe lives. Maybe it's because we've suffered one too many heartbreaks, one too many letdowns, and we're scared to dream anymore. If you ask most adults they'll tell you they don't have the time/money/energy to pursue what they really want in life, yours truly included.

But today, when the sun is shining and good books still exist and there are still songs that can move me to tears, I'm giving myself the permission to dream. To hope, pine for what I want, pour my heart and soul into something even if I'm the only one who ever sees it in the light of day.

If you need it, I give you permission, too. Go play in the sandbox, fly a kite, write the next great American novel.

My snarky self will be back shortly.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Step one: the joy of post-it noting

Everyone's writing process, like their shower routine, is different. Some people shampoo first, some people use washcloths, some people shave...wait, I'm talking about writing. Right. Back on track.
So, I thought I'd share my latest writing approach in a series of posts. This WIP is the first time I've approached writing with any semblance of order, so I'd like to share what I've done and see how it compares across the board.
Step one of my rewrite consisted of stronger character building. Most characters are built out of their dialogue and to a limited extent from their actions. You can’t just tell the reader “hey, this guy is smart but guarded, but really he just wants someone to love him.” The irony is that you need to always be aware of these details yourself in order to craft a believable character.
My resolution for this, most likely lifted from other blogs, was to build a post-it note wall of character descriptions. I color coordinated the notes to fall in a few categories:
•    Character names
•    Emotional attributes
•    Physical attributes
•    Plot points tied to characters to remember
And I’ve posted all the notes on my closet door in the Joffice (JEM office), also known as the writing room. So now when I’m sitting in my comfortable chaise lounge typing up a storm and I stop and go, “wait, what was that character’s last name?” or “how should this character react?” I’ve got the answer right there in front of me, in color coded glory.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Busy, not dead

Woah, has it been two weeks? Surely I've stepped through a wormhole or something, because there's no way I would have let that many days go by...

Well, rest assured, gentle readers, I am not gone without cause. Mostly I've been using all of my spare time to revise and rewrite the current WIP. Starting from (almost) square one sucks, but writing a crappy WIP sucks even harder. So I went back to the drawing board (literally) and started storyboarding. It was not fun, but it was productive.

What did I get out of it? Stronger character development and a solid story outline that leaves me enough room for creativity.

What did I learn? Seat of the pantsing really only works if you are going to sit down and write the whole thing in one go (which we all have time for, of course). But I've developed a new concept of pantsing: safety pantsing. That means building yourself a structure (like an outline) that you have the freedom to play around in when actually writing. It helps keep transitions smooth and moves the plot along without getting mired in unnecessary scenes.

My only time for writing comes in short bursts - a lunch break at work, a ride on the new metrorail, or a few captured moments at the end of the day before I pass out, exhausted, in my writing chair. When I didn't have an outline to guide me this writing method resulted in fragmented narrative and odd transitions. Now whenever I feel lost in the middle of an abandoned scene I can just refer to my outline to get me back on track. It's annoyingly helpful.

Look for more in depth posts in the coming weeks as I continue to wax enthusiastic about my new writing technique. Thanks for the patience!