Monthly Archives: February 2014

Who Doesn’t Love a Good Author Event?

Last night I had the pleasure of listening to author, Stewart O’Nan, speak. I had never actually heard of this particular author before, but some of his book titles were familiar to me. (And I’ll be familiarizing myself with him soon. I think I’ll start with Snow Angels, but don’t be surprised if my book search leads me in a different direction.) The excerpts he read sparked my interest, especially when he read from his upcoming work.

The best part of an author event, though, is the Q&A portion (READ: the chance to get a window into the author’s process), and his was enlightening.

Some of the most helpful advice I heard was:

ON BEING STUCK: When you’re lost for where to go with your MS, it’s tempting to go to your nightstand reading for inspiration, but O’Nan says, “Stay there” in front of “your machine”. He illustrated this by telling us that he goes so far as to tie a piece of yarn around his leg and attach it to his chair so he can’t get up, but I have my doubts. I just don’t think something as sinewy as yarn could hold him. Rope, or a strong twine, but you get the idea. I’m thinking of investing in Velcro.

ON INSPIRATION: O’Nan says he’s inspired by curiosity. The question he repeated was “How do you do that?” – “How does love turn to hate?” “How does a parent kill their child?” It made a lot of sense to me, since that’s where most of my stories come from. Let’s face it, the greater question that we are always asking is, “What is the human condition, and how would it present in these set of circumstances?”

ON RESEARCH: When describing something unfamiliar, O’Nan says you have to “know [what you’re writing] at least as well as your character”. From this I gathered that if your character has lived in New York City all his/her life you’re probably goIng to have to be pretty familiar with it – at least talk to someone who has lived there. If s/he takes summer trips to Charleston each year, you might want to check out a few local hangouts in the tourist district – the kind of place you wouldn’t try on a first visit, but by the third or fourth would switch to for a change. Here again, I agree. Sure you don’t necessarily have to follow the old “write what you know” adage, but you should know what you write. So look it up, talk to people, go there if you can. It will help make your story that much more real.

I’d like to thank Stewart O’Nan for speaking and UNC for hosting the event. I hope you will look him up, and I hope that some of these notes will help you. I think they are going to help me.

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The Talk We Talk

I’ve recently discovered a great website for writers, which I highly recommend – The Write Life.  The articles posted apply to all kinds of writers out there – the freelancers, the bloggers, the novelist, the short story writer, and the journalist.  I recently saw a great article by a blogger called Joel Runyon about the excuses, or “lies” we tell ourselves that can keep us from writing.  They made me think, and I have to admit that I am guilty of every one.  But the good news is, I know exactly why!  [Translation: I can back up the excuse with more excuses!]

1.  “I have nothing to say.”  Okay, I get what Runyon’s saying here.  “When you’re out with people, you’re able to have a conversation,” but let’s face it, it’s easier to talk through the interplay of conversation than it is to simply put your thoughts out there in essay form.  Besides, often what we talk about with friends depends on the circumstances at the time, and is usually pretty innocuous or extremely personalized.  Of course, Runyon goes on to ask, about having an “opinion on anything”, and “domain knowledge on anything”.  Well, yes.  I, like most of the world, have an opinion on most things, but focusing too much on my own opinion leads me to thinking, really who cares?  Well, I guess anyone reading this does, so fine.   Got me there Runyon!  But domain knowledge – No, I don’t have complete domain knowledge about anything.  I know a lot about some things, but probably less than others.  I feel like I have to be accurate and informative, and that requires research.  Case in point – How often have I referenced outside sources just in these past four posts?  Then there is his question: “You don’t get excited about anything?” And for me, that’s probably the biggest problem.  I get excited about lots of things.  I have so many interests that I don’t know what to write about.

2.  “No one will listen to me.” Sure, they can’t listen to something that’s never said.  And you never know who is going to listen until you put something out there.  But it’s hard not to get discouraged when you realize your mom and dad are the only ones that ever read your posts.  That discouragement has led me to abandon other “blogging attempts”.

3.  “I’m not interesting.”  I have the benefit of being fairly self-centered, so I don’t think I’ve ever said this.  I worry more about my subject being interesting, and my being able to write about it provocatively.  Because I feel that if I can’t write about it provocatively, than I’m not a very good writer.

4. “I can’t make money writing.”  Sure this idea has popped into my head, and I do sometimes feel guilty because I’m writing instead of looking for a job.  And sure, I would love to make money writing.  Wouldn’t we all?  But that’s not why I do it.  Especially here.  This is more about exposure, than money.

5.  “I can’t compete with CNN.”  This one threw me for a loop.  I’m not a journalist, so why would I compete with CNN.  But the more I thought about it the more I realized, of course, if I write about world news, I’m competing with CNN.  And the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, MSNBC, FoxNews, and anyone else who writes about world news.  We are competing with everyone who writes what we do.  Here, I’m competing with other bloggers.  As a novelist, I’m competing with other novelists.  And when I feel comfortable enough with the format to begin writing my screenplay, I’ll be competing with other screenwriters.  This is always true.  You just have to believe that you’re good enough to be read alongside them.

I have, at one time or another, said all of these things, as I’m sure some of you have.  And I have abandoned other blogs, articles, essay contests, and open submission requests because of it.  For 10 years, I let these excuses talk me out of doing something I love to do.  But I am realizing now that I have to overcome my fears and doubts, if I truly want to accomplish my goals.  The only thing that matters, is that I can take pride in my work.

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Procrastination, or Jenn Is Distracted By Pretty White Stuff

So, it snowed today. 

For the first 23 years of my life, I lived in Eastern Tennessee.  For the last 10, I’ve been in Eastern NC.  Apparently, both areas of the country have a similar reaction to snow of any kind.  

“HOLY $#^!  It’s a blizzard!  We’re all gonna die!  Milk, bread, eggs, milk, bread, eggs – Worried about the power?! Why would I be?!  Get home, and fast!  Why is this jerk only going 45mph?!?  Doesn’t he see it’s snowing?!  Does he not know it’s turning to freezing rain in, like, an hour?!  Thank God I’ll be home before that happens.”

(Turn on CNN, and you will see this happening in my backyard.)

Nice thing about snow? – can’t go anywhere so might as well stay in, and use the time to write and read. Bad thing about snow? – It’s cold in my office and I have cable. Well, okay. I guess technically, those are the bad things about winter and having cable respectively, but the fact remains that I have gotten very little writing (or reading) done today. I did do some thinking, though. I did a lot of thinking. I thought, “It is extremely cold out here, and the snow is making the fur lining of my Candian goose down coat’s hood wet. Why am I walking to the store? Is food really that important? I could be writing right now.” And I thought, “The local news keeps telling me the same thing over and over. ‘Gridlock traffic; conditions worsening; if you don’t have to be out, stay home.’ Why am I watching this? I could be writing right now.” And I thought, “What do you mean no Jeopardy!? I waited to cook dinner, so that I could time it just perfectly to sit down and eat with Jeopardy! I could have been writing by now!” So here I am, ceasing the interminable cycle of procrastination by sucking it up, battling the cold (my desk is right in front of a large window – great for sunlight, bad for drafts), turning off the TV, radio, and the phone, and actually writing.

Let’s face it. As writers, procrastination is the biggest battle we fight, and we fight it – not just everyday – but at multiple times of everyday. Sure, any person in any job can procrastinate. But it’s different for writers. The truth is, for the most part, we don’t have deadlines. The majority of us are writing because we love it, not because we are making a great income or the boss tells us to. But that means that the motivation, the drive, and the incentive has to come from within. And on a cold day, or a tiring day, or a day that you just feel meh it’s hard to be your own boss – especially since you are making you be a mean boss. Everyone who writes – scratch that – everyone who is successful in writing, has their own way of dealing with procrastination. What works for me is self-talk, specifically telling myself what I could be writing if I weren’t sitting here watching television. It begins with a legitimate question; “If I go write, what am I going to write about?” But then, I start trying to come up with an answer, and eventually something so good comes along that I have to go write it down.

Of course, personal goals help too, especially if there is some sort of tracking system that helps you hold yourself accountable. For me, it has been a great little website, 750words.com. I assure you there is no double meaning in the domain name. You write 750 words a day, and you get points, which are really arbitrary, but become meaningful because of your reminder/congratulatory daily email which is sent to you at a time of your choosing. It really is very motivating, and I highly recommend it to any writer.

Another thing that helps me is that when I’m really in the zone and I share with my friends progress I’m making on whatever WIP I have, they start bugging me. “Is it done yet?” “How far along are you?” “Are you going to publish it?” “Have you ever thought of self-publishing?” “What about publishing an e-book?” Some days, they seem more excited about my writing than I am, but it encourages me to keep up so that I have an answer when they ask.

In the spirit of camaraderie and encouraging dialog – What do you do to fight procrastination?

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A little exercise to get you started

Okay, so I’m a bit weird.  Sometimes, when I’m suffering a little block, I try to find a good challenge or exercise to get the “juices flowing” so to speak, but so often the “writing prompts” that I find online can be stodgy.  Most of them consist of “Write a story beginning…”  Sure, that’s fine and all, but it forces the writer into subscribing to a ready-made story to which s/he has no real connection.  So, every now and then, I get an idea of my own, and sometimes they are more successful then I could have hoped.  This one, I came up with on my own, and had a lot of fun with.

Set aside a little over an hour, and grab a kitchen timer.  Come up with 12 story ideas – they can be simple, vague ideas like a guy and girl meet on a beach.  Set your timer and free-write for five minutes on each idea.  You can start anywhere in the story.  My easiest writing came when I started in the middle, with a climactic or turning point event in the idea I had come up with.  Truth be told, when I did this exercise, I didn’t find it very hard to write any of them – it is just five minutes, after all – but you’ll probably have a favorite among them when you finish.  Whatever seems most fleshed out, easiest to write, or, in my case, the one I didn’t want to stop writing when the timer stopped, could be your next big WIP.  My current WIP came from this exercise.

Good luck, and happy writing!

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Why I Write

I’m currently reading a book by Hal Ackerman, a screenwriter, author, and professor of screenwriting at UCLA.  The book is excellent so far, not only for it’s “how-to” qualities, but also for the “writing gym exercises” that Ackerman includes throughout.  I have spent much of my time using these exercises to get me back into the habit and headspace of writing, and have found it very helpful.  I’m never without something to say, even when I’m without something to say.  Recently, one of his exercises asked, “Why do you write?  What are your goals, professionally and personally?  What do you hope to get from the process?”

Well, I write because I’ve always wanted to.  I think stories are fascinating.  They can elicit a range of emotion.  They can make you fall in love with their characters.  They help you imagine new worlds, or more accurately, they make you believe in new worlds and people and things and events that do not now, nor ever have existed.  And I think language is fascinating, especially the English language.  We have over 47 possible replacements for the different connotations and parts of speech of the word “love”.  Over 47 synonyms for one word.  And the only thing that makes a writer choose one word over another is considering what kind of love is needing to be conveyed.  That amazes me.  And that’s just the strictest denotations and connotations.  Then you string them into sentences and paragraphs, and give them meaning.  Then you string those sentences and paragraphs into events and characters and you can make something happen.  You can explore a whole span of time, with people you’ve never met, and make them do and say things that you might have wanted to do and say your whole life.  As the author, you have complete power over whether or not he gets the girl, she finds the treasure, or they win the war.  Maybe I write because I’m secretly a power-hungry, control freak.

But it’s more than just the language, and feelings of creator.  I’ve had stories in my head all my life – so many stories over the years, that I’ve forgotten more than I could possibly have the time to write.  As an exercise for myself, I once free-wrote for five minutes each on 12 story ideas.  And it wasn’t even hard.  It seems every week – and when I’m really on my game, every day – I can come up with a new one.  Most of them are bad, of course.  Not fleshed out, just passing fancies.  But they are constantly popping up, such that I sometimes think my head will explode if I don’t get them out.  So, professionally, sure I’d like to be a published author someday.  I’d love for a story I write to be printed and sold commercially for me to discuss and sign.  But personally, I just want to explore what these stories and characters might do; how they might grow.  I want to play with language, metaphor, irony, allusion, and philosophy.  I want to make someone smile, rant, and cry in a matter of 200 to 500 pages.  I write because if I don’t, I’ll be so distracted by living the stories in my head, I’ll forget to live my own.

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