Author Toolbox: To NaNo or not to NaNo?


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After a month’s absence, I’m happy to be back in #AuthorToolboxBlogHop! As always, check out the main link for lots of other fantastic authors (who wrote awesome things in September as well)!

National Novel-Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo (or just NaNo if you’re me and lazy) is an event that was started 18 years ago by Chris Baty as a way of getting aspiring writers together and helping them actually get some writing done.

The basic concept simple: write 50,000 words in the month of November, and don’t go back and edit anything until you’re done. If you do that, you win. If you don’t, you try again next year.

Ideally, those 50k words should be the beginning of a new project, and that project should be a novel, and you should get to the end of the story by the time you’ve gotten to the end of your words. I always end up breaking at least one of those ideals – usually the one about writing a 50,000-word story instead of writing 50,000 words of a much longer potential story – but it’s useful to keep them in mind. If nothing else, they can give you a sense of what the other WriMos are trying to achieve.

I joined my first NaNoWriMo back in 2007 and failed spectacularly. I didn’t make my next attempt until 2011, but since then I’ve won five out of the six years I’ve participated. (We shall not speak of 2015.) The end results have ranged from pretty decent to absolutely horrible, but I’ve always had fun and I’ve always felt like I learned something from the experience. There’s a sort of a thrill at the end, looking back and seeing what I’ve accomplished – even if that accomplishment is a lot of bad writing.

That having been said, NaNoWriMo is definitely not for everybody. It’s kind of grueling, it eats giant chunks of time out of a month that’s already busy with an American national holiday, and if you don’t know too many other people it can feel sort of isolating. Some people find the commandment against editing freeing, and other people find it distracting and prohibitive.

The way that I’ve found I can enjoy this mammoth undertaking year after year is by remembering to just have fun with it and take every rule and bit of advice with a grain of salt. For anyone who’s a little more curious, though, here’s my take on NaNoWriMo.

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Preptober Week 1 – Foundations


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So it’s October, and I’m already seeing people around me start getting excited about pumpkins and candy and costumes. I’ve never really been all that into Halloween, though, so for me October is all about NaNoWriMo prep!

This year I’m going to be working on a project that I started and then dropped about five years ago. It’s been simmering ever since then, and last week a bunch of things clicked in the shower, and I’m now super excited to see what I can do with two months of hard work. Of course, the writing doesn’t start until November, but that means I’ve got a month to get my foundation laid.

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Author Toolbox: Nevermind “Necessary”.


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A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about the idea of “writing what you know”. In that post, I mostly argued that trying to write speculative fiction while drawing too heavily from personal experience often results in characters who feel like they’ve been recently transplanted to their surroundings, and in a narrative that ignores opportunities simply because those opportunities aren’t available in the author’s own experiences.

It’s not that the axiom is a bad one, exactly. I fully agree that a story benefits when an author has a connection to what they’re writing. An author who’s never been on a boat probably won’t write a particularly compelling maritime epic, after all. It’s just that I feel like too many writers limit themselves and their stories by never straying outside of the bounds of their own imaginings.

I also frequently get in fights with the idea that an author should try to tell an “original” story – actually, I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about that, so I think I know what I’m going to be writing about next month.

This month, though, I’m lacing up my gloves and having it out with those esteemed titans, Strunk and White, and their commandment to “omit needless words”.

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Author Toolbox: Let it Go


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Welcome to the July edition of #AuthorToolboxBlogHop! As always, check out the main link for lots of other fantastic authors with lots of other fantastic advice. Neither I nor the blog hop are in any way affiliated with Disney, Frozen, Elsa, or Idina Menzel.

I’m writing this from Martha’s Vineyard, where I’m participating in the second week of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. For the last week and a half I’ve been here on the island, learning from authors whose skill and patience are equally admirable. If I sound more lyrical than usual, you can blame Alexander Weinstein or Kea Wilson or Sequoia Nagamatsu or Jennifer Tseng or Allegra Hyde or Christopher Citro, who are encouraging me to take chances and challenge myself and push my limits as a writer. I’ll be back to normal next month! 😉

I’m learning a lot here, and I suspect that several of the lessons will become the backbones of future Author Toolbox Bloghop posts, once I’ve had a chance to sift through them. This month, though, is devoted to a notion that I’ve held for a long time, one that has been reinforced in one or another by almost every coach I’ve had here. That is: the novel that you write will not be the novel that you intended to write.

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Author Toolbox: Reading is Fundamental


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Another Wednesday, another #AuthorToolboxBlogHop! Even though I’m actually posting on Tuesday for once – take that, procrastination! Check out the main link for lots of other fantastic authors with lots of other fantastic advice.

I don’t have anything particularly mindblowing this month, just a truism that I apparently have a lot of trouble holding on to: it’s really hard to be a good writer if you’re not a good reader.

There’s a difference between being a reader and being a good reader, and it’s a distinction I often lose track of when it comes to my own life. It’s important for an aspiring author to have books nearby. Reading helps you keep up-to-date with the things that are happening in your genre so that you don’t accidentally invest hundreds of hours writing a book that’s already sitting on top of the NYT Best Sellers list. (I discovered three days ago that N. K. Jemisin has already written the book I was planning on starting after I finish my current project, so … back to the drawing board there.) It helps you understand what’s selling, what other people like, what’s been done poorly or done to death.

Not to mention, reading is fun! It challenges your sense of the norm, opens you up to new ideas, teaches you while it entertains.

And that’s great, for someone who just wants to understand the market and meet their Goodreads goal for the year.

For writers, though, other people’s books are pretty much the best resource we’re going to find. Each of the rules we’re trying to understand has been executed perfectly by hundreds and hundreds of authors – and broken by thousands upon thousands more. All we have to do is figure out which books can teach us what lessons and open ourselves up to the experience.

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Author Toolbox: Find Your “First Draft” Voices


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This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, which I’m thrilled to be participating in, and which I totally forgot to actually mention last month. Whoops! Check out the main link for lots of other fantastic authors with lots of other fantastic advice.

We talk a lot as writers about “finding your voice”, telling your story the way only you can tell it. Some authors (like Elmore Leonard, in an article that my podcast discussed some weeks back) think that a writer should keep their voice as far back from the story as they can, and let the reader and the story have their adventure without interference.

On the other hand, there are any number of authors whose success comes in large part because of the strength of their writing voices. Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Jim Butcher, and Peter S. Beagle all come immediately to mind. My personal list also includes David Eddings and Guy Gavriel Kay, both of whom wrote stories that I don’t think would have engaged me if someone else had tried to tell exactly the same tale in a different voice.

This blog post has nothing to do with that. Continue reading

Author Toolbox, April Edition: We’re All In This Together


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I just did a Google image search for the word ‘writer’, and the results were exactly what I expected: a lot of pictures of typewriters, or notebooks with fancy pens on them, some laptops, a handful of cups of tea or coffee and a dozen pairs of glasses. Most of the pictures don’t have people in them. Some have parts of people: hands on keys, an arm holding a pen. When you do get to see a whole person – or at least, enough of one to be recognizable – they’re almost always sitting alone in a room, staring either absently out into space as they plan their next bestseller, or directly at their screen or page with a look of furious concentration. The backgrounds are nondescript. The writers themselves are often nondescript as well; some of them are just silhouettes, some are blown out by filters until the models probably wouldn’t recognize themselves.

Writers are solitary folk. Continue reading

Writing the Unknown


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Note: this piece was first published at The First Rule of Write Club, which is a podcast I highly recommend (and not only because it’s mine).

There’s one particular piece of advice that I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been an aspiring author: “Write what you know”. The premise being that an author needs to have an honest connection with what they’re writing, or else the entire thing rings hollow.

It seems eminently sensible, from an academic point of view, and it’s also been something that I’ve struggled with since I was about 13 years old.

The problem is that I want to write fantasy, and that’s always seemed to make ‘writing what you know’ sort of impossible. I don’t live in a preindustrial society, for one thing (although I am working on a modern-era epic fantasy series) and I haven’t been in a massive battle. I don’t think the authors I liked to read have either, and they seemed to get along just fine. “Write what you researched a lot” seemed to be a reasonable substitution.

As I got older, I started thinking about it a different way. I really value characters and relationships in books, regardless of genre. It doesn’t matter if someone’s a college student or a pirate, they still have wants and needs and friends and enemies, and that’s something I can understand. “Write what you know” started becoming about figuring out how people worked, went where they did, doing what they were doing with the people they were with. The writers I admired had characters who felt like they really existed.

And it still felt wrong. Continue reading

Up Close and Personal


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I’ve been having some trouble lately, and I’ve had a hard time pinning down exactly why. I’ve gotten some pretty good (I hope!) advice on what I should be trying to do, and it sounds sensible and reasonable, and yet I keep finding myself running up against a wall.

Funnily enough, quitting most sugars has actually been the easiest thing I’ve done lately. I’ve had one serious misstep (there was a leftover Reese’s Christmas tree that I couldn’t bear to throw away) and other than that I’m pleased with myself. My wife’s been great about not eating the sweet things I love right in front of me, and it’s gotten a lot easier to sigh regretfully and move on when she has a sweet snack.

No, the harder parts have been the weird little things that I would have expected to be easy.

I’ve wanted to get into a decent skin-care regimen for a long time, and since I’m radically changing everything around in my life anyway, I figured why not add this to the mess as well? Surely washing my face in the morning is going to be an easy little add-on, right?

Apparently not. Continue reading

Ghosts of Writing Past


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You’d expect this to be about looking back at old work and cringing at how bad I used to be, right?

You’d be wrong.

We’ve all got our learning pieces, the stuff we wrote while we were trying to figure out the very basics of how to string ideas and characters together, and of course those pieces are terrible. I cringe at them when I find them, and try to pretend that they don’t exist as soon as they’re out of sight again, but that’s to be expected.

You don’t normally get to be good at something without being terrible at it first, unless you’re Harry Potter and the “something” in question is Quidditch.

No, the ghost I’m talking about is the ghost of brilliant writing. When you pick up something you wrote two, five, ten years ago, and it holds up. Not only holds up, but actually outshines a lot of what I’m writing right now.

I skimmed through an old WIP about a week ago, and I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. And then I went back and actually read it, and I wanted to cry.

“Why can’t I write like that anymore?”

I felt the shadow of that four-year-old piece of writing falling over me for the next few days. I’d start to write something, and then I would remember the old piece and think “what’s the point, since what I write today won’t match up?”

And then I’d write it anyway, and it wouldn’t match up, and I’d feel grumpy and also vindicated, but mostly grumpy.

The piece in question was the beginning of a fanfic that I’d been planning on writing, and I’ve poked at it since then and discovered that I’m still interested in the idea. I also discovered that I’m not the worthless inept failure that I sort of felt like I was; once I got into the flow, I found that writing voice again, and I’m quite pleased with what I’ve been able to get out.

But I still haven’t quite gotten over that feeling of crushing disappointment, like I’d reached my peak without knowing it and it was all downhill from there.

Has anyone else been unpleasantly surprised by past brilliance? Were you able to make something useful out of it? How did you get past it? WILL I EVER BE GOOD ENOUGH?