NaNoWriMo: “I did it!” Post

28 11 2009

NaNoWriMo Winner Badge

 

I just verified my status as a NaNoWriMo winner, and I feel like running around the house, my arms waving madly around my head while my heels kick together in mid-air.  My family would just shake their heads and say, “Oh, she’s lost it again.”

 

Apparently, I’m not a great mathematician, as my final word count is significantly higher than what I had thought it was (as in, I was about 8,000 words off from the actual total, but at least that 8,000 made it a higher number than what I had calculated…).  Oops.  Ah, well.  I take it as a good sign that I was so into writing that I forgot to update my word counts when I should have.

 

My inability to count is not the purpose of this post.  I wanted to take a moment to celebrate authors everywhere, whether they are participating in NaNoWriMo or not.  For all you writers out there who take the plunge and put pieces of yourself on a page for others to read, take a moment to pat yourself on the back and realize just how brave and amazing you are.

 

The adrenaline rush is only going up from here, and I can’t stay seated much longer, so this post will be cut short.  I literally need to run around to burn some of this energy.  I wish all you who are working on your NaNoWriMo novels the best and hope that either you are already celebrating with me or you will be celebrating with me within the next couple days.  You can do it!

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NaNoWriMo Update: Day 20

20 11 2009

I am exactly 2/3 of the way through NaNoWriMo, and I’ve managed to stay on target to finish the 50,000 words by the end of the month.  I want to do a happy dance for myself, but I’m disappointed that my progress has stalled lately.  The only reason I’m still on target is that I had worked ahead earlier on in the month.  I haven’t made my daily writing goals for the past few days, and I’m in need of a pick-me-up.  I am at that point that is supposed to be “magical” where you are so close to being finished that making 50k-goal should feel so much easier.  Yet, it doesn’t.

 

Parts of writing have become easier–I’m more familiar with my story and my characters, so when I sit to write, the words tend to come a bit more easily.  And since I had outlined so much in advance, writing the scenes goes smoothly.  My problem is getting the motivation to sit and write when I’m sick, when the semester is getting more hectic the closer it gets to the end, when there are so many good shows on TV, when there are so many blogs to read…  Okay, so once I start making excuses, they tend to get lame pretty quickly, which means I need to stop making excuses and start writing again.

 

My goal is to make it to 36,000 words by the end of the day tomorrow; as a different way of looking at it, my goal is to make it through the next chapter of my novel by the end of tomorrow.  If anyone has any encouraging words for writing to send my way, I sure wouldn’t mind hearing them. 🙂





On Characters #2: Showing, Not Telling

18 11 2009

As I am working my way through my rough draft for NaNoWriMo (which, believe it or not, is already close to being over), I know that my next two (or three) months should be dubbed “National Novel Revising Months.”  I still have “National” in the title because the majority of writers do not write a final draft in their first shot through the material.  One of my strengths as a writer is that I already know my biggest weaknesses, so when I revise, I know what to look for: flat characters, forced dialogue (goes hand-in-hand with the flat characters), and instances where I tell instead of show.  In today’s post, I am focusing on the showing-not-telling angle while looking at characters, but the same principle can be applied to any aspect of the story: plot, setting, etc.  I will explore the dialogue and flat character issues in other posts; the “On Getting to Know My Characters” post is what I am considering to be my “On Characters #1” post and focuses on taking a new angle for using questionnaires to get to know your characters better.

 

In my non-writing life, I teach college students; as a member of the English department, I teach freshmen composition along with my specialty (linguistics).  When I grade compositions, I notice one problem over and over again: students tell their readers what is happening rather than showing them.  For example, I see a lot of essays where an idea is introduced but never explored in sentences like, “My dad has always been there for me.”  The student then assumes that is all that needs to be said and moves on.  In cases like this one, the writer is choosing to tell the reader about her dad’s continual support without showing examples or providing details about the support.  It is difficult for my students to get over this habit (and sometimes difficult for them to even see that they’re doing it), and I can understand why: It’s a bad habit many writers have, even writers who have been working on their craft for a long time.  I know when I go back to read through my NaNoWriMo work, I will cringe when I see how many times I summed up what could have been a really descriptive paragraph into one sentence.

 

In the case of developing characters, using full descriptions can be so much more telling than simply summing up what the character is feeling.  For example, let’s say I have a character who is nervous while a conversation is taking place around her.  I could just write, “She was nervous,” and move on from there.  But that would be telling my readers the character is nervous and not showing them she is nervous.  You may be asking yourself why I would want to show the details of being nervous; my answer is that by showing the details, I can better build my characters into round characters (thus touching on one of my other weaknesses).  We all have our own bad habits when we’re nervous–it is up to me to build those habits into my character.  Compare the following two excerpts and judge for yourself what sounds better:

 

Excerpt 1

She was so nervous that she couldn’t concentrate on the interview.

 

Excerpt 2

She tapped her foot.  The sharp click from the tip of her new pointy-toe heels meeting the concrete floor beat out notes with staccato precision.  She tried to focus on the words coming at her, but cotton filled her ears; she instead watched his mouth move around the words she couldn’t hear.  When he glanced down at his notes on the table in front of him, she quickly turned her wrist to see her watch.  She raised an eyebrow in surprise and flicked her eyes to the clock on the wall to her left to confirm the time.  Something is wrong, she thought as she looked at her interrogator and realized his mouth had stopped moving.  It was her turn to talk, and she had no idea what she was supposed to say.

 

Which one would you rather read in a story?  Excerpt 1 tells while Excerpt 2 shows.  Notice that Excerpt 2 doesn’t even contain the word “nervous” but still portrays the feeling of nervousness.  When I read through my rough draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo, I already know I will find many instances of excerpts like Excerpt 1; my job then is to figure out how to take those excerpts and turn them into something more informative and interesting.  If you, too, share that weakness of mine, one thing you might consider is asking yourself the age-old journalistic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?  Decide which question(s) best fit the scene you’re trying to better describe and then answer them.  In the case of the examples above, I already had the who and what, but I was missing the how.  How did her nerves affect her?  Once I answered that question, I could fill out the excerpt to make it more appealing.  If I wanted to add a bit more of a back story to the excerpt, I might explore the “why” angle.  Why is it that she was so nervous about this interview?  Had she been out of work for ages?  Was it going badly?

 

How would you work the “why” into Excerpt 2?  I’d love to read what you come up with; if you feel inclined, leave your version in a comment to the post so we can all share in on the fun of revisions.





Plot Tip #1: Woman-in-Labor Scene

16 11 2009

If you have a woman-in-labor scene in your writing and need to make it funny (you know, to lighten the mood of the too serious hospital delivery room), you might consider taking some lessons from Hollywood.  From my vast experience of watching movies and TV shows and my personal experience in knowing that the hospital delivery room is the most unfunny of situations, I have gathered 5 salient tips for anyone desperate to make a woman-in-labor scene less of a serious or spiritual event and more of a humorous one.

 

rachelbaby

 

  1. I’ll start with the obvious: Take the delivery out of the hospital.  By making the scene take place outside the hospital, you get the freedom of deciding who gets to deliver the baby in the end.  In the case of Fools Rush In, the delivery is on the Hoover Dam, but the paramedics arrive in time to be the ones to deliver the baby.  If that isn’t far enough away from medical personnel for your tastes, you could rely on the more tried-and-true method of putting the woman in an elevator that inevitably stops just before the contractions begin.  In Saved By the Bell, Mr. Belding’s wife goes into labor in a stopped elevator, and voila! Zack gets to deliver the baby.  During the delivery process, there is a lot of yelling between the people outside the elevator and those on the inside, as Zack and Tory (the two with Mrs. Belding) have no idea what they are doing.  To top off the humor, Zack uses Slater’s varsity jersey to wrap up the baby once he is born.  Naturally, as soon as the baby is born and opens his mouth to let out a wail, the elevator magically kicks back into motion, letting the doors open and the three (now four) passengers get out.  The elevator is left in pristine condition, by the way.
  2. Have the woman surrounded by frantic/stupid people.  When Lucy said it was time to go to the hospital in I Love Lucy, the audience burst out laughing.  Why?  Because all her friends jumped into action at once, doing all the wrong things.  They ran around, not knowing where they were going or what was going on, and they ended up leaving Lucy behind as they rushed out the door to get to the hospital.  When Phoebe started having contractions in Friends, Monica yells to Rachel, “Get the book!”  Rachel comes back with a Bible in her hands.  Rachel ends up getting so frantic that she tries to boil water and tear up some sheets, not once thinking to call the doctor and get Phoebe to the hospital.  You may also remember an episode of The Cosby Show where a woman’s whistle-blowing-coach of a husband goes crazy when his wife goes into labor, and he has to be pushed in a wheelchair into the hospital as he hyperventilates into a brown paper bag with his in-labor wife walking behind him.  Frantic is funny when it’s not the mother-to-be who is frantic.  Furthermore, I think every humorous attempt at a woman-in-labor scene has someone (especially a man) asking, “How do you feel?”  The woman need not say anything–a glower will do.
  3. The woman in your story made it to the hospital.  Now what?  The next thing to consider is to have someone faint.  The obvious choice is to have the father-to-be as the one fainting.  The less obvious (and funnier) choice is to have the doctor fainting.  In Nine Months, Robin Williams plays a zany doctor who faints when he sees how large the epidural needle is.
  4. Another sure-fire method to make people laugh is to have a man tell the woman in labor, “You have no idea how this feels.”  When Rachel is having her baby, the father, Ross, is holding her hand.  She squeezes it so hard he falls, hitting his head on the way down.  When he stands back up, he tells Rachel, “You have no idea how bad that hurts.”  Rachel glared; the audience laughed hysterically.  In Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Ellie is in labor while Diego fights off little demonic dinosaurs.  He turns to her and says, “You have no idea how this feels.”  Again, the woman just needed to glare as a response to get viewers to laugh.
  5. And finally, now that you’ve made it through the labor, there is one more trick you can pull out of Hollywood’s bag.  Make the baby a different race from either of his/her parents.  When Joy gives birth to her and Earl’s baby in My Name is Earl, the baby is black; both Joy and Earl are white.  Oops.

 

So if you’re writing a woman-in-labor scene and need to lighten it up, consider using one of those five methods.  Oh, and be sure to write me when you do and let me know how it goes, or leave me a comment here to tell me your method for adding humor to a woman-in-labor scene.





On Getting to Know My Characters

12 11 2009

Secretly, I love those surveys that are circulated, usually via e-mail, that ask questions about yourself.  I’m not sure if I like answering questions in general or if the thrill for it is getting to answer questions about myself.  Sometimes the questions are silly, bordering on ridiculously shallow, but sometimes the questions probe at something deeper.  I tend to answer the questions but only send the survey back to the original sender.  I figure if they wanted me to know all that information about them, surely they would want to know it about me, too.

 

Thinking about questionnaires and surveys got me thinking about what questions I could ask to better get to know my characters.  One of the first impulses I had was to ask how my characters would answer the questions James Lipton asks all his guests on Inside the Actors Studio.  At the end of each of his interviews, he poses a set of 10 questions to his guest; those 10 questions are based on the Proust Questionnaire.  Here are James Lipton’s questions:

 

  1. What is your favorite word?
  2. What is your least favorite word?
  3. What turns you on?
  4. What turns you off?
  5. What sound or noise do you love?
  6. What sound or noise do you hate?
  7. What is your favorite curse word?
  8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
  9. What profession would you not like to do?
  10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

 

The questions are short and quite simple, but if you take your time in answering them, a lot of interesting information can be gathered based on your answers.  For that alone, it would be helpful for any author to ask their characters these questions.  And yet, I know that my own answers would change for these questions frequently–my favorite word today may not be my favorite word tomorrow.  Maybe later on today I’ll hear the most annoying sound in the world, which will take the place of what sound I currently hate the most.  Experience changes these answers.  Perhaps it would be more useful if authors asked their characters these questions after major events in the novel to find out what changed and what didn’t change.

 

As I tried to get all my main characters in my novel to answer these questions, I found something else rather helpful about the questionnaire.  For me, it didn’t matter as much what my characters answered but how.  I found out that one character resented having to answer the questions and really had to be pushed.  When she did answer, her answers were all one-word answers thrown out there, just to get it over with.  Another character wouldn’t answer right away, telling me she’d get back to me later.  For her, pushing off answering wasn’t an act of “I don’t want to do this” but an act of “I want to do this right.”  I learned just how deeply she cares about the language she uses and why she is so reluctant to speak aloud in conversations: She wants to think through her words first to foresee any possibly consequences of saying what she’s thinking.  Her words reflect her inner self.  Yet another character thought the questionnaire was great fun and came up with answers that were semi-truthful but hilarious.  I learned more from how my characters approached the questions than from what they actually ended up providing as answers.

 

If you feel your characters need a bit of rounding out, perhaps you, too, could benefit from posing the short questionnaire to your characters.  How do they react when you tell them you want them to answer the questions?  Once they do answer, how do they answer the questions?

 

And then, of course, if you’re anything like me, you’ll reserve a separate document for yourself so that you can provide your own answers to the questions.  You know, just in case James Lipton ever comes knocking on your door to interview you.





On Making Myself Write a Difficult Chapter

10 11 2009

Yesterday the inevitable happened.  I hit a chapter where the majority of what happens is more emotionally motivated than action-driven, which for me means it was a difficult chapter to write.  I’ve heard some authors say that they skip right over the more difficult parts and then go back through later and write those sections during the revision process.  I can’t do that.  Why?  Because I’d never get back around to writing those scenes.  I’d skip them for the same reasons every time–I find it difficult to have a dialogue-driven, emotional scene.  I work better with thoughts, movement, and setting than I do dialogue and interaction, and I know I’m not alone in saying that.

 

When I get into a tough spot like that, I have the same two problems pop up: I lose motivation to continue writing (even though I know the next chapter will be an easier one to write), and I start getting ideas for new projects.  I opened up the first scene of the chapter in Scrivener yesterday morning, and it took me all day to get 352 words in that scene.  And yet I was able to complete a first draft of the entire chapter last night (all seven scenes of it).  How did I finally make it through?

 

First, I opened up a document and typed out the notes floating around in my head about the other project I came up with.  It will be a fun project for me (writing a book as a gift for my niece), and thinking about it was proving to be a huge distraction from my novel writing.  So I got it out of my system.   Once I had the notes down, I was able to let that part of my brain rest and more fully focus on the chapter I wanted to finish before I went to sleep.

 

Second, I didn’t push myself to be perfect in the scenes or even to have high word counts in them.  Some scenes only ended up with 180-250 words (as opposed to the 400-500-word range in the majority of the other scenes).  The chapter isn’t perfect and will require special attention during the revision process, but I know that once it is revised, it will be one of the chapters with the most impact in the novel.  Those chapters that offer the most impact are often those that are the most difficult to write–nothing sounds good when it gets put on paper, my internal editor screams at me, and more information is needed to really tie the chapter’s material to the other chapters around it.  But for now, it’s done.  When I typed the last word in the last scene of the chapter, I felt like I had accomplished more than when I had finished the previous seven chapters put together.

 

Another thing that helped me is that I shared with my writing community that I was having troubles getting through that particular chapter.  I reached out, and people responded with encouraging words.  Sometimes knowing others are out there rooting for you is all you need to get back to trying.

 

And so to celebrate, I’m moving on to the next chapter today, rejoicing in the fact that not all chapters are that difficult to write.  To sum all that up, my three tips for you while writing a difficult scene/chapter/section are these:

 

  1. Remove distractions.  If you need to disconnect your wireless, disconnect it.  Several people swear by Write or Die to keep them writing, so you might want to try it and see if it works for you.  If you need to get the dishes done before you can concentrate, then get the dishes done.  If you’ve got ideas for a new story floating around in your head, then write them down and get them out of your head so you have more room for your current story to move around and take shape.
  2. Once you start writing, don’t hold yourself to a particular set of standards, whether they are language, plot, or word-count standards.  Remember that the revision process will help you smooth out the rough spots.  Give yourself a break and celebrate that you are sitting down and challenging yourself to write what you know will be a difficult scene/chapter/section.
  3. When you are having difficulties, let other people know about them–reach out to people, and you will be surprised at all the directions the encouragement starts rolling in from.  It’s nice to not feel alone.

 

Now that I’ve removed the distraction of the blog post that had been taking some of my mental energy, I’m ready to turn to my novel.





Guest Post: What yWriter Offers Writers

8 11 2009

I have mentioned the power of online social tools previously, and this post is a testimony to a budding friendship that was a result of getting more involved in Twitter.  This post is a guest post, written by Nicole, whose blog It’s All About Writing has been an inspiration to getting me writing again (instead of just thinking about it).  As her alter ego, you can find her on Twitter under the username simplywriting.  When I mentioned how much I loved Scrivener, she told me about a writing program she used for PCs.  I asked if she would be willing to write a guest post about it, and, voila, here it is.

 

What yWriter Offers Writers

by Nicole Humphrey

 

The best things in life are free, or so the old adage goes. As far as Writing Program software, that old saying actually holds true. For months, I resisted all of the comments and praise for yWriter. I had gone and looked at it, and discovered it was free. I decided against downloading it, because I already had one great writing program I paid for, and have tried a few others. I was content with what I was using. How could free be better than what I had purchased or tried from other writing programs?

 

Finally after some time, more out of curiosity when people kept talking about it, I thought “okay fine, I’ll try it”. Since it was free, I really didn’t intend to keep it, and figured I’d just remove it when I was done and go back to what I was using.

 

Guess what? I’m still using it, and will probably never go back. It is by far the best program I have ever found for writers and it’s free. There is no trial use, no limited capabilities: it is 100% free forever.

 

When I downloaded it, I got a little freaked out when it first loaded because it looked so confusing; of course, so did the other program I had been using. I noticed on the website that there was a Quick Start Guide for yWriter that you could download, and I recommend downloading it for anyone trying it out. It gives you step by step directions to setting up your book, and explains how to use the program to get the most out of it. There is also a Project Wizard included with the program you can utilize to get started as well.

 

I had already started a book using the other program, so I had to get it imported into the program to begin working on it. It imported nicely, but I was able to see I needed to move a few things around once I got it imported. That was a good thing, because suddenly I could see a “story” truly developing.

 

Jessie asked me to tell you three things about yWriter that I love. I have to start from setting the whole yWriter program up to explain exactly why I love this Writing Program software.

 

In most of my previous works in progress, I haven’t been very good about outlining. I plan them out, but I don’t really do it in a chapter by chapter, or scene by scene outline format. I really think I should have. They probably wouldn’t be works in progress anymore, and would be finished novels. With my current novel, I did do a really light outline detailing what I wanted to happen in each chapter.

 

Screen Shot 1

Screen shot of full synopsis was generated by using the reports function

 

With yWriter, when you open a new project you immediately start with a determined number of chapters that you input. You choose whatever you want, and you have the option of deleting or adding chapters later. You do have the option of starting with just one chapter and adding as you go too. The default is set for 25, so I just went with the 25 chapters.

 

It creates those 25 chapters for you, and then you begin working inside the chapters on your scenes. I love that you can move chapters around, move scenes around, move one scene from one chapter to another chapter, and all of this without cutting and pasting a thing.

 

Screen Shot 2

Screen shot of my outlined scenes so far

 

The first column shows the chapter the scene falls in. You have the option of giving your chapters titles, or just leaving them as ‘Chapter 1’ and so on. The second column shows what status the scene is in (options are outline, draft, 1st edit, 2nd edit and Done), and these will change later when I go back and make edits to the scenes. The third column shows whether the scene is set to an action scene or reaction scene (I still need to edit this a little – right now everything is set to action). The fourth column indicates the word count for each scene, which is really helpful to figure out if an entire scene could be cut, added somewhere else or if more needs to be written on the scene. The fifth, sixth and seventh column shows how long the scene took place, which is really great when you are working on a time line project, where things fall at certain times, etc. This also keep you from accidentally writing a 30 hour day into a chapter. I will be utilizing this function to keep my time line straight. The eighth column is for the VP of the chapter, or the person who’s viewpoint the chapter is being told from. My novel is based on a true story, so the entire novel is in first person. Finally, the ninth column is a brief description of the scene.

 

Oh, and another perk that I know many people would benefit from, is that because it allows you to separate scenes in the program, it eliminates the need to add “****” breaks to keep chapters and/or scenes separate in a word document or certain other programs. It’s actually a lot easier to see what your scenes are, and where you might want them to go.

 

On one particular writing day, I was having a super moment of writer’s block and getting annoyed because I wanted to write, but couldn’t seem to get the next scene down. With yWriter, I was able to go several chapters ahead and write two different scenes I wanted in the book that I was really eager to write. Keeping me writing, it also gave me the ability to easily go back later and begin where I had originally left off and start working to connect the scenes together. So much easier than your typical word processor where a lot of time is wasted scanning, cutting and pasting scenes if you want to jump ahead or go back and work on another part of the book.

 

yWriter also allows you to print out a variety of scene reports and summaries, which might be one of my favorite features yet.  They are really helpful if you are feeling as if your story isn’t really going anywhere, or you are having a bit of writer’s block. The way this works, is to make sure you title each chapter and each scene, and also include an overall description of the chapter, and then a brief description of each scene. I limit most of my descriptions to one sentence that pretty much summarizes what is happening there. One of the reports in particular, generates a full synopsis of your story (see first screen shot) and enables you to print that. I liked this feature because I was able to print it, and take it with me. I made some notes in the margins, changed some things around and when I came back, I was able to add more scenes to a few chapters I thought were lacking.

 

The last screen shot I want to share with you is the character set up.

 

Screen Shot 3

Character set-up

 

Having used several other writing programs in the past, I was really happy with the character set up on yWriter. Many other programs don’t have a designated place to keep characters, or they are limited in what information you can include. I like this one because it allows you to define whether the character is a main character or a minor character, to include a short description, all the names the character goes by, a bio, notes, goals for the character over the course of the book and a photograph if you have something in mind of what the character will look like. Loved these features.

 

There are two other minor editing tools I love using in yWriter and I have to just briefly mention them before wrapping this post up.

 

There is a Word Usage Chart you can use to see what words you are using too much. I love this because it allows you to go back and change things during the editing phase so you aren’t using certain words too often.

 

There is also a search function for ‘Problem Words’ which will go through your book looking for predefined instances of words: words with ‘ly’, words with ‘ing’, the word ‘said’, starting a sentence with ‘As’, and several others. This will be awesome during the editing phase. You can also user define your own things to look for and it will scan for those too.

 

It always amazes me when I can find the features I need in a free program when there are programs available to purchase and they are limited in their features and functionality. At this point, yWriter is the program for me, and I am looking forward to working on the editing phases of my novel (once I actually complete it) with this program as well.