What Do You Want From Your Writing?

I was emailing back and forth with a friend earlier this month, and as frequently happens, our discussion turned to writing.  She teaches writing at a University and we both have aspirations to write mystery novels.  We’d talked about NaNoWriMo and she asked if she could see what I had for my project so far, so I sent off the first couple chapters.  She responded that my chapters seemed pretty polished, especially for a first draft, and wanted to know my secret.  Did I outline?  Had I planned out the story in great detail before I started writing?  I answered that no, there was not usually a great deal of advance planning for me.  I am a pantser.  I generally go in with an idea of who these people are, what the big problem is, and I have an idea (sometimes a fairly vague one) what the conclusion will be.  My secret, if I have one, is practice, and what I practiced on for several years was fanfiction.

Yes, I said fanfiction.  I spent several years writing fanfiction.  It was actually what got me back in to writing after several years hiatus.  I learned a lot doing it too.  Before I wrote fanfic, I didn’t know how to make chapters.  I just wrote one huge long narrative.  I learned how to put out a polished chapter in a short period of time (whether all those chapters always added up to a good story is another matter).  I got my first real feedback as a writer from my fanfic.  I made several online friends as well, and did my first NaNoWriMo with them.  Most of us are still in touch. Some of them are still writing fanfic.  One is a published author who continues to write fanfic on the side.  Another has pretty much stopped writing altogether.  A third blasted through NaNoWriMo this year, finishing an original fiction project in 20 days.

After I emailed my friend back, I started talking to my husband about my fanfic.  It’s still out there, and I still get reviews on it from time to time.  Reviews are generally something to enjoy, as most times readers who don’t care for the story just stop reading rather than commenting, but when I get these kinds words, I don’t feel happy.  I feel guilty.  My husband asked me why and the only answer I could come up with was that I felt that I should be focusing on my original fiction.  Fanfiction was fun, but it doesn’t help me pursue my ultimate goal of having an original novel published.  My husband, astute man that he is, asked me what I wanted to get out of my writing.  What am I trying to create when I write?  The answer, for me, is to write a story that will entertain a reader, something he or she can get lost in and enjoy.  Saying that out loud made me stop to think.  I did do that with my fanfiction.  I created a story which entertained, and people enjoyed reading it.  They enjoyed it enough to tell me so, which says something.  At least, I like to think it does.

The upshot of all this is that I think it’s time I stopped feeling guilty about having written fanfiction.  It was a wonderful learning experience.  I made new friends.  And I put out stories which entertained and gave enjoyment.  None of that is something to feel ashamed about.

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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I love the month of October.  It means fall – changing leaves, bonfires, football games, Halloween, and Magna Cum Murder!  I am happy we’re here, though I am wondering where the heck the month of September went.

I had a lot of hats to wear in September.  There was the runner hat, as I prepared for and ran my first half-marathon.  There was my historian hat as I gave a talk on Muncie in the Civil War at a local senior center.  And there was my writer hat as I registered for the Midwest Writers Workshop manuscript makeover session on October 10th (and needed to decide on, or create, 10 pages of a manuscript for making over).  It was a busy month, but I’m happy to say I survived it all!  The half was quite the experience, especially since it rained for almost the entire time I was running.  The talk would have been more fun with a larger audience (note to people running/volunteering at senior centers – don’t schedule a talk at the same time as euchre club if you want anyone to attend it), but it was fun to go back through all the research I’d done in preparation.

The worst part of the month was agonizing over the manuscript makeover.  I had a great idea to work with when I registered for the session, but nothing on the page, and I didn’t like any of my other manuscripts.  After weeks of staring at a blank screen and going um as all the words disappeared from my brain I finally managed to get a good start to the manuscript and thus the 10 pages needed for the makeover.  Part of the torture was that I didn’t want to tell my husband anything about the story up front.  He has always been the person I spit-balled ideas with, who helped me to figure out what I was struggling with, but that means he always knows what I’m trying to say before he starts to read.  I wanted to know if I was setting a good hook with my start and if he already knew where the story was going, he couldn’t evaluate that.  I had to keep quiet and fight on my own when all I wanted to do was talk to someone about my idea!  But I persisted and, when he did read my pages, he reacted exactly the way I wanted!  Success!

My October will be busy too, but more fun!  In addition to attending the Manuscript Makeover session on October 10th, I plan on going to a couple Ball State home football games, I’ll be running a 5k, attending a Halloween party, and then – the best comes last – attending Magna Cum Murder October 30th-November 1st!  Somewhere in all of that I’ll keep working on the current manuscript, hopefully armed with some helpful advice from the makeover session.

Voices in My Head

I left Midwest Writers Workshop feeling, as always, eager and excited to write write write.  And then… I didn’t.  I got back to my running and biking (and even did some strength-training – owie).  But the writing thing didn’t happen for that whole week after.  In fact, it wasn’t until yesterday that I even opened my manuscript.  I wanted to write, but I cringed at the thought of opening the manuscript file.  There were so many things running through my head from MWW15 – changes to make, revision ideas, thoughts on theme and characters.  It was overwhelming.  Then I remembered one of the great panels from MWW15.  Julie Hyzy talked to us about the voices in our heads.

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As writers, part of our job is to listen to the voices.  However, that doesn’t mean we want to listen to every voice.  We don’t, for instance, need to listen to the nagging voice of the inner critic when we’re working on that first draft (and this goes double if, like mine, your inner critic sounds like your mother).  We don’t need to hear the voice of our critique partner, because as much as that person might intend to help, she doesn’t necessarily share the vision for your story that you have (Julie recommended not sharing your work with a CP until that first draft is finished).  We don’t need to listen to our inner procrastinator, nagging us to wash the dishes or mop the floors or do the laundry.

not listening

We do need to listen to our characters.  We’ve got to let them talk to us, tell us what it is that they want to do and, sometimes more importantly, what they won’t do.  We need to hear them and if we can’t, it could be a sign that we’re trying to force them into something that doesn’t fit them.

writers

The point here (yes, I do have one) is this.  I heard a lot of advice at MWW15.  It was great.  It gave me a lot to think about.  It also gave me a lot of voices in my head.  I mean, A LOT.  All those voices were drowning out my characters.  They were drowning out my voice.

don't panic

I heard a lot of tips and tricks at the conference.  Julie Hyzy talked about locking yourself away from everyone with a timer and giving yourself 30 minutes to just write.  Finding that 30 minutes wasn’t working for me this time.  What did work was letting those voices shout themselves out.  I didn’t fuss about not writing (much).  I went on my runs and my bike rides.  I started reading a new book.  I gave myself some space and finally I am back to a place where I can listen to my characters and move forward again.  And this is, I think, the ultimate lesson of Midwest Writers Workshop.  You can (and will) hear a lot of writing advice but in the end, you have to do what works for you.  If you don’t know where to start then yes, by all means, give someone else’s method a try and see if it works for you.  But don’t be surprised or upset if it doesn’t.  We’re all wired differently and there’s no one-size-fits-all writing process.

Writing New Things

I’m working on a new writing project.  My Camp NaNoWriMo manuscript crashed and burned as I grew super distracted by other things (like whether or not I had a stress fracture in my shin which would need surgery if I was to run again).  I got answers on the stress fracture issue and got my groove back at the same time.  Happy happy!

Now I’m stepping back into running, working hard on my patience so that I continue to build mileage gradually and don’t wind up hurt again.  At the same time, I’ve stepped back in to writing.  I’m leaving the Camp ms alone for now because, quite honestly, it was boring me to write so I can only imagine how it would be to read.  My new project is different (for me) and kind of exciting.  I think I have just the right mix of writing what I know (there’s a ghost in the story) and playing what-if (my main character is my imagining of what my daughter might be like if I had one).  I’m having a lot of fun getting to know this character and can’t wait to see how she handles the situation I’ve thrown her into!  I’d like it if this was all coming together a bit faster but, just as with the running, I’m being patient and letting my word-count grow gradually.

The genre on this one is hard to categorize.  18-year old protagonist in her second semester of college.  With a ghost.  And a mystery.  Paranormal YA?  Paranormal NA?  A big hot mess?  I guess we’ll see as it goes what best seems to fit it.

I debated on putting this out here.  It seems like as soon as I talk about a ms it hits a big snag.  At the same time, I hope that by going ahead with this post, I will be kicking myself in the butt to keep going.  It’s public now.  That should add some pressure to keep working at it, right?  I think I need a dose (smallish) of such pressure.  So if you’re so inclined, feel free to poke me from time to time and ask, how’s the ms going?

Road Maps

Would you start a journey without a road map?  Well, in this day and age you might, because you’d rely on a GPS or the mapping software on your smart phone.  But I’m old enough to remember using road maps to find my way to places, and I still have a bunch of them in one of my cars.  Many of my road maps are tattered and worn.  They got quite a lot of work during the many years I spent traveling to Civil War reenactments.  I hold on to them, partly out of sentiment and partly because paper maps never need recharging or lose signal.

The other week our cabin leader for Camp NaNoWriMo asked everyone to share their synopsis for their story.  Many of my bunk-mates did, and I was really impressed with what they shared!  Then I was really upset, because I don’t have a synopsis for my current project.  I’m sure I had something in mind when I started, some key ideas and some plot points I knew I’d want to hit, but I had nothing in writing.  That’s usually how I operate.  I am a pantser, not a plotter.  But I forget – when you have a road map you are not limited to taking one route to your destination.  A good map shows you multiple routes.  You can figure out your own detour or, if you make a wrong turn, you can find a way to get back on track.  I went into this writing journey with no road map, relying on the GPS of my brain, but it seems like my brain has lost signal.  I’m feeling a bit lost and I really could use that road map right now.

So I’m creating the road map now, even though I’m a bit late.  I’m hoping it will help me get back on course so I can finish this first draft AND complete Camp NaNoWriMo successfully.  And stop being the slacker in my cabin.  So here we go – here’s my synopsis:

After an investigation at a local community theater, ghost-hunters Kate and Alex must work with their team to determine if the threats directed at them have a paranormal source, or if the danger they are facing comes from someone living. 

There we are.  It’s written down now.  And typed on a blog.  Now to see if I can get myself back on course.

Finding Time for Nothing

Last week I jotted down some notes about what I wanted to write about today. I had a long litany of all the things I do: half-marathon training, running a ghost-hunting group with my husband, mommying two mini dachshunds, working full-time, the recent development of an actual social life… It was a long litany of why it’s so hard to find time to write. But I realized as I spent a couple of hours in my home office/gym yesterday trying to get words to come that the issue isn’t finding writing time. I can and I do find time to write. No, the issue is something else. I have a copy of a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon by my desk at work which says “There’s never time to do all the nothing you want.” I thought of that quote as I pulled out my notes for this blog and it hit me: THAT is the issue.

I love running. It gives me a sense of accomplishment like nothing else when I complete a tough workout, run a new distance, or set a personal best. I love the ghost-hunting team my husband and I have put together. They are just the right mix of serious and goofy, and they manage to make even the tedious parts of the hobby a lot of fun. They’re also the reason why I have a social life now. Whether we’re playing Cards Against Humanity till the wee hours or hanging out in a bar watching one of our team sing, we’re enjoying one another’s company. My job is, on bad days, a necessary evil, but there are also good days when I get to enjoy my co-workers, talk with some of our students, and feel like I did something worthwhile. None of this is the problem.

The problem is I am missing my nothing time. As a writer, nothing time is important. Our brains need that down time to wander, to discover the solution to plot problems, hear a new character’s voice, or find a new idea. My challenge is to figure out how to balance all these excellent somethings in my life with nothing time. I don’t think I’m alone in that challenge. We’re all juggling work, hobbies, spouses, kids, pets, friends… We wouldn’t trade any of it away (well, maybe the jobs, at least on bad days). But are we giving ourselves our much-needed nothing time? If not, how can we work some of it in? I believe if I can ease off the schedule a bit, give myself some more nothing time, I’ll have more productive writing times. I’m going to try it, and we’ll see how it works.

Fighting Fear

I am training for my first half-marathon (the official training plan start is today). I am a bit nervous about the race, but only a bit. After all, I have trained for races before and I have a training plan to guide me. After years of competitive swimming (ages 8-17) and a few years of running behind me, I know I can do this.

Thinking about my running has me wondering what’s different about my running? Because while I’m confident I will conquer my first half-marathon (and the one I signed up for later in the year as well), I am NOT confident about my ability to write at the moment. I hoped to have something to pitch at Midwest Writers this summer but I don’t think that’s going to happen after all. I’ve been feeling blocked for some time now. I’ve finally got an idea for something to work on but my inner-editor is trying hard to shut me down. She wants to find plot holes, character flaws, and other reasons why this idea won’t work. I think it boils down to fear, pure and simple. I had another idea I was working on shot down by other people and it’s been hard going to bounce back from that.

What I need to do right now is pick a “training plan” for my writing and let it guide me. I have a few to choose from. There’s the NaNoWriMo method of no plot, no problem; there’s the inverted pyramid method Jess Lourey shared with us at last year’s MWW; there’s a weekend novelist idea. I need to pick one and run with it, see where it takes me. But most of all, I have to trust that, like the running, I can do this. I can get past the block and start creating again.

Right?

Magna Cum Murder XX

The twentieth Magna Cum Murder conference took place this past weekend, October 24-26th.  I was fortunate enough to be there, and I had a great time.  If you’re a fan of crime fiction or think you want to write your own, I can’t recommend this conference highly enough.  It is a wonderful gathering of authors, fans, and writers.

On Friday my husband and I gave a panel on ghost hunting in real life.  We had a great turn-out for what was the first panel of the conference and we had some great questions at the end.  We were approached by people all weekend who wanted to share their own ghost stories with us, which was great fun.  This was my thirteenth year volunteering at Magna and my fourth or fifth year doing a panel.  I still get geeked out when an author comes up to tell me he or she enjoyed our panel!

There were many great panels to attend at Magna, as there are every year.  I can’t do them justice in a re-cap here, but there was one comment made by one of the authors which really stuck with me and that I want to share.  He was on a panel called “The Clark Kents” and each of the writers had a “day job.”  They were discussing how they balanced that day job with their writing.  Several authors were early morning writers, another tries to use his lunch hour (but can’t get his boss to leave him alone – oh how I can relate!), and others worked later in the day.  One of the authors, a morning person, jumped in to point out that there is no magical formula for a writing schedule – we each need to pick out what works for us. That really struck me.  So often it feels like we are asking authors about their writing schedule because we are hoping to find a magic formula for writing.  This author I admire works on this schedule so if I imitate him, I’ll be able to succeed too.  But the fact is, there is no magic formula.  Morning work might work great for several of the authors I admire, but that doesn’t mean it will for me.  I am not a morning person and I never have been (from birth, folks – I was born at 3 in the afternoon).  Instead of trying to imitate someone else’s writing schedule, I need to find one which works for me.  We all do.  So by all means, ask the authors you admire about the schedule you use, maybe even give it a try, but don’t feel like you’ll never make it if you don’t follow their schedule.  In the end the goal of your asking and experimenting should be to find what works best for you.

Writing Chapter 2, Magna Cum Murder, and to NaNo or not to NaNo

Got a lot on my mind, if the title of this post doesn’t give that away!

First, after my lovely chapter 1 of my current ms, I’ve sputtered and faltered and am still struggling with chapter 2.  I was feeling uber-frustrated about it all, until it just hit me that chapter 1 was kind of that way too.  I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-wrote that thing, trying to make it awesome before turning it in for critiquing.  And guess what then?  I re-re-re-wrote the blasted thing, using the critique information to make it better.  I’m really pleased with it now, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I had a similar experience with that first chapter.  Lots of reworking of things, lots of re-writing, lots of stuff moved to the scratch pad file.  I have a couple of options here.  I can charge forward with stuff I’m less than pleased about or I can accept that there may be a good deal of struggle with this particular manuscript.  I think a good deal of the struggle comes from the fact that I’ve had this story in my head and heart for so many years, waiting for me to be “ready” to write it out.  I’m hugely psyched out about wanting to do it justice and about finally getting it written.  I need to learn to take a deep breath, let off the pressure, and just see where the writing goes (and silence the history major in me who says “but events have to be in sequence because one impacts the next”).

Magna Cum Murder begins on Friday, October 24th, in Indianapolis.  It has been my privilege to volunteer at this conference for the past 12 years or so.  A few years ago my husband joined me as a volunteer, and not long after that we started giving a panel each year.  Our first was discussing local haunts.  After that year we evolved to giving one on ghost-hunting in real life.  We’ve had a good reception for that each year.  I’m very excited about doing the panel again this year because we have some new stuff to share with people from some recent investigations.  It’s exciting stuff and it opens up good avenues for discussion and education as well.

I am also anticipating November and NaNoWriMo.  I don’t have a solid idea for a NaNo project yet, but that’s one thing I’m not worrying over.  If no new project idea springs forth, I can be a NaNo rebel and use the month to get 50,000 words down on an existing project.  In fact, I’m strongly inclined in that direction.  Maybe it will be the kick in the pants I need to stop sweating every word in the current project and just get something down.  After all, you can’t do a second draft until you’ve completed a first draft.

On the subject of NaNo, a snarky piece from a website I won’t name (because they disgust me and I won’t drive traffic to them) was going around last week.  I’d seen it before but it still made me angry.  Basically the writer felt that we NaNoers should skip attempting to write a novel and spend our time reading because a) we’d only wind up creating crap anyway and b) apparently anyone ambitious enough to attempt to write a novel is not someone who reads.  I really wanted to go slap this sour grapes person.  Clearly she’s never been brave enough to attempt NaNoWriMo.  She doesn’t create – she criticizes.  So here’s what I say to anyone who’s thinking of trying NaNoWriMo:
Maybe your manuscript will suck.  Maybe you’ll hate it and chuck it in the bin as soon as the month is over.  But you will gain something from the experience of creating it.  You will learn something about yourself (even if it’s only how much caffeine you can handle at one time) and that will be valuable to you, whether you continue writing or not.  Don’t let the negative Nancys of the world (even those in your head) chase you off.  Give it a chance, give yourself a chance.  It is worth it and so are you.

Proactive versus Reactive Language

I started reading the Stephen Covey classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a few days ago.  Today I was reading about the differences between what Covey calls proactive language and reactive language.  It was eye-opening, not just for how I view my life but also for how I might illustrate the nature of my characters.  Are they proactive people, taking charge of their lives, or are they reactive people, blaming everything outside themselves for the situations they find themselves in?

I want to take this idea and look at my NaNo manuscript with it in mind.  I think my narrator should start out reactive, and at some point when she realizes she can cope with the challenges she faces, she’ll turn more proactive in her language.  I’m kind of excited about playing with this idea, and seeing how it will translate to fiction writing.

It’s interesting to me that there’s at least one common goal between my writing and my reading of “self-help.”  I am fascinated by figuring out what makes people tick.  Sometimes I explore that through writing, and other times through reading.  The two processes definitely inform each other, making both experiences richer and more interesting.