Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Move Over Shakespeare

DAY 55

Word Count: 34,451

Sentence of the Day: Darkness bathed his body as he stalked down the corridor until he was submerged, leaving behind nothing but a shiver.

A writer buddy of mine (waving at Yvonne Anderson) introduced me to an interesting web site. It's called I Write Like. All you do is enter a chunk of your writing and wham-o! It analyzes your style and compares you to a well known author.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has long been on my TBR pile but I suppose I'll really have to flip open the cover now. Apparently I write like Douglas Adams.

The first time I tried it, that is.

I never can leave well enough alone. So I revisited and entered a different sample--from the same manuscript--and this time it came up with William Shakespeare. Seriously? Not that I mind being compared to the bard, but really...whoda thunk?

Obviously this site isn't rocket science, but it sure is fun. Give it a whirl and see who you write like.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Procrastinators Anonymous

DAY 54

Word Count: 34,122

Sentence of the Day: Nicholas Brentwood's sudden stillness spread from the hallway, wound through the gap in the door, and wrapped around her shoulders.

Hi. I'm Michelle. And I'm a procrastinator. It's mind boggling the amount of time I can waste. Sometimes I wonder if there's some kind of space/time dimension known only to procrastinators that hasn't yet been discovered by scientists.

Can anyone relate to this... Grab a cup o' joe and/or Irish Breakfast Tea, fire up the ol' computer, cozy into your nook of choice with the intention of writing an entire new chapter and then -- somehow you get sucked into Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, Drudge, surfing for new character pictures, checking the weather forecast, scoping out a new CD that you heard a clip from on Pandora...anything BUT writing.

What's up with that?

I want to write. I love to write. I have a block of time to write. So why in the world don't I write?

I suspect it's a bad combination of fear and laziness. I'm afraid that I won't be able to pick up where I left off, that words won't flow magically off my fingertips. Or worse. The words that do flow will be a steaming pile of hee-haw.

And then there's the laziness factor. It's easier to mindlessly flit from site to site instead of turning off the net and buckling down to create new material.

So what's a girl to do? There are several options.

- find a daily accountability partner

- turn off your browser before you go to bed at night, and when you wake up in the morning, refuse to turn it back on until you've accomplished your writing goal for the day

- hard core: forfeit the computer altogether and whip out a pen and paper...if your computer's not in reach, you won't use it

- give in to the urge to surf but set a timer...when the dinger dings, shut down the browser (note: this one is for the uber disciplined)

Those are a few ideas. I tried the daily accountability partner thingee back during NANOWRIMO and that worked great. This month, though, I think I'll give the ol' shut the browser off at night and write immediately in the morning before turning it on a try.

How about you? What's your plan to stop procrastinating? Remember: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why Writers Write

There's a gazillion reasons people choose to write...and generally it's not for the money. Leastwise, not in the long run. Those kinds of "writers" quickly learn the moolah's not so great and/or nonexistent then move on to other hobbies that require less blood, sweat and blubbering tears.

So if it's not for the cash, why do writers write?

- To explain something near and dear to their heart.
- To tell a story
- To imagine what they would do in a given situation
- To express their inner self
- To exercise an overactive imagination
- To escape
- To impart some nugget of truth

All great reasons, but the number one reason I write can be summed up in one of my favorite quotes:

"Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you've made sense of one small area."
~ Nadine Gordimer

Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout. That's exactly why I write. What about you? Why do you write?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Authors That Leave a Mark

DAY 53

Word Count: 33,852

Sentence of the Day: A single wall sconce flickered behind him, the resulting shadow a monster against her door.

Who doesn't love a great quote? There's a gazillion of them out there, but there's one in particular that speaks to me every time I read it...

"For books are not absolutely dead things,
but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was
whose progeny they are;
nay, they do preserve as in a vial
the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them."

~ John Milton, Areopagitica

When I read a really great story, I feel like I've gotten a glimpse into that author's life. Not in a creepy stalker kind of way. More like a connection to their spirit. No author can write a book and not leave behind some kind of residue from their soul. Because of that, readers are drawn toward certain writers.

Authors that have left a mark on me (in no particular order):
Charlotte Bronte
Charles Dickens
Carl Sandburg
Lisa Mangum
Robin Hardy
Francine Rivers
MaryLu Tyndall
Julie Klassen
Jill Williamson
Nancy Leigh DeMoss
Doug Wilson
Travis Thrasher

Most--but not all--are fiction writers. These are the people that I feel like I could sit down and have a heart-to-heart with because they left behind some of themselves in their books...someone I connect with on a deep level.

Think about it for a minute. What authors have left a mark on you?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Writer's Life...Really

Yeah...a writer's life isn't really all that and a bag of chips.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Questions You Shouldn't Ask a Writer

DAY 52

Word Count: 33,424

Sentence of the Day: The words were ashes in his mouth.

When people ask me what I do and I tell them I'm a writer, one of two things generally happens. Either they look at me like they're passing a particularly nasty bit of roadkill, or the floodgates open and I'm bombarded with questions. As a courtesy to the next writer you may come across, here's a list of questions you might want to keep dammed up.

How much money do you make?
Seriously? Do you ask the Wal-Mart greeter how much he makes? How about your proctologist? Ever ask him?

I didn't get around to buying your book yet...don't you have a complimentary copy?
No, I don't. I buy my books just like the rest of the general public. Granted, I get a hefty discount, but still...if I don't buy you a Christmas or birthday present, what makes you think I'll gift you with a book?

When they make a movie of your book, do you think you could get me a part?
Right. Like that's going to happen. And if it did, I'm the one who'll be playing leading lady across from Jim Caviezel, not you (sorry MaryLu).

My life is a story. Will you ghost write it?
Unless your story involves Vikings, knights, castles or perhaps a strapping young nobleman, the answer is no.

Does mental illness run in your family?
Why...does it show?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Lessons from Downton Abbey: Plot

From Pamuk's death to...well, I suppose I shouldn't give any spoilers in case you've not seen the second season yet. Let's just say from start to finish, Downton Abbey keeps the action moving right along.

Here are 5 plotting tidbits I've gleaned from the series that can be used for writing in any genre.

Start out with a bang.
Downton Abbey begins with the sinking of the Titanic and takes off from there. Where does your story start? More often than not, think of your first few chapters as a warm-up and be willing to toss them aside. Your opening scenes have to grab the reader by the throat and/or the heart.

Do the unexpected.
Who'd have known Bates was married? Not me. That was a great surprise. Predictability is a deal breaker for most readers. As you're writing, try throwing in a completely random line of dialogue from a secondary character. Or have your hero find a brow-raising object in a drawer. Mix it up a bit. If you don't surprise yourself as the author, how do you think your reader will feel?

End each chapter with a cliffhanger.
Who didn't wonder which family members would die from the flu epidemic? That was a for sure gotta-see-the-next-episode kind of season ending. Do that with each of your chapters and your reader will have no choice but to finish your book. And remember, cliffhangers don't always have to be physical danger. Emotional works just as well.

Subplots rock.
I'll admit it...I care every bit as much about Bates and Anna as I do for Matthew & Mary. Why? Because the writers of Downton Abbey wove their story in throughout the main Crawley saga. And they did it by leap-frogging...tossing out an enticing scene focusing on Lady Mary, cut to something about Bates & Anna, then went back to Mary. Great technique.

Create extra tension with consequences.
So yeah, having a Turk die in Mary's bed was pretty intense, but when her sister found out and wrote to the Turkish embassy, that certainly upped the potential ruination for Mary. Don't just keep cranking out tense situation after tense situation. Use the scenes you've already created to increase the drama by playing out their logical consequences to the Nth degree.

There you have it. Give these tips a whirl, and you just might have a Downton Abbey blockbuster on your hands.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lessons from Downton Abbey: Characterization

Everyone's got their favorite characters in Downton Abbey...but why? What makes us so attracted to these fictional people?

After giving this some thought, I've come up with a few ideas that would be easy to incorporate into any story, historical or not.

Great characters have lots of layers. Lady Mary is a prime example. Every now and then we get a peek at the great insecurity she feels, which is often made up for in careless arrogance. Interesting combo.

A character's outside appearance hints at their insides. O'Brien looks like a shrew on the outside and guess what...she is.

Characters that aren't overly serious all the time, such as Mr. Carson, make them three-dimensional--and wholly relatable.

I know. Seems like you'd want your hero to be all that and a bag of chips, but guess what? Those are the kind of characters we usually want to slap. Matthew Crawley is a great guy, but he's a little too slow to take charge in some situations.

Memorable characters are surprising. I never know what's going to come out of Violet Crawley's mouth. Oh, I like to think I know, but often it's not what I expect.

A hidden past is a great idea. But don't tell it all at once. Toss out tidbits every now and then. Hint at it, even. Who honestly didn't wonder about Mr. Bates' past?

A compelling character often has a cause which they are passionate about, usually one that involves justice. Lady Sybil Crawley cares about politics, women's rights specifically, which pretty much endears her to every female on the planet.

That seems like quite a laundry list, and I'm not advocating a spreadsheet to check off each trait for each character. Good news: these qualities can be summed up.

The bottom line is a great character has to be relatable... or the reader is going to shut the book and never return. And that's what Downton Abbey has going for it. At times, everyone is as despicable as Thomas or sweet as Anna. Consider that when crafting your next set of characters.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lessons From Downton Abbey: Setting

DAY 51

Word Count: 33,187

Sentence of the Day: He focused on the remaining daylight pooling on the floor in the magistrate's office, preferring the cold wooden planks to the fire in Ford's eyes.

Is anyone here as hooked as I am on Downton Abbey? I know. Stupid question. Everyone's talking about it. From the gowns, to the despicable Thomas, to the will-he-or-won't-she's, this is one show that's got something for everyone. Downton Abbey nails stunning settings, memorable characters and pivotal plots.

So...what lessons can we glean from this blockbuster to boost our own writing skills?

Over the next few days, I'll examine setting, character and plot in light of Downton Abbey and list a trick or two we can apply to our own writing. Today's spotlight will shine on setting.

There's 2 simple words that describe the setting of Downton Abbey: eye candy. Who wouldn't want to live in that mansion? Or hang out with gals in gorgeous dresses and men who don't have their pants sagging to their knees so that you wonder how they can walk? And even below stairs, the servants are well put-together. Their quarters, while spare, are every bit as much intriguing.

I think the main thing Downton Abbey nails is detail, from the sculptures on the pedestals in the upper rooms, down to Matthew's pocket watch. When you watch an episode of the show, it's like a time warp. It pulls you from your couch and plops you into a different dimension. How can we, as authors, do that with our writing?

In each scene, make it a point to highlight an object, but tie it in directly to the action or emotion of the characters.

For example, Matthew's pocket watch. When he pulls it out and stares at it intently, you just know something's going to happen soon. The object is used as foreshadowing. This detail ups the tension in the scene.

Discretion is the better part of valor...choose with intent what your reader sees, but don't overdo it.

Of course there were piles of dirty dishes whenever Mrs. Patmore and Daisy finished preparing a meal, but did we ever see the disaster? Mostly we just saw a bit of flour on the table or a smudge on cook's face. Getting too bogged down with detail slows the action. You know what's coming, right? Yep. Balance, my friends. It's always about balance.

Use lighting to your advantage.

Think about it. It wouldn't have been nearly as creepy or desperate had Mr. Pamuk's body been toted off to his own bedroom in broad daylight.

Downton Abbey is simply a stage, just like your setting is the stage for your story. Treat it with as much care and respect as you would one of your characters...which is what I'll tackle tomorrow.

For the Love of Writing

DAY 50

Word Count:

Sentence of the Day: The idea lodged in his mind, like a stone in a stream.

In honor of Valentine's Day, here's a list of some of the things I love about writing.

1. I love escaping to a story world where I can take out my aggressions by killing off a character or two...and there's no felony involved.

2. I love that I get paid to slap down words on a page. Granted, that payment comes out to being about $.000002 per word, but hey...better than nothing.

3. I love the networking. It's a comfort to rub elbows with other freaks who also hear voices in their heads.

4. I love the dress code. I'll take pj's over panty hose any day.

5. I love hours. I can even write while dozing off. It doesn't make much sense, but at the time it seems brilliant.

So, what about you? What's one of the things you love about writing?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Hearing Heaven

DAY 49

Word Count:

Sentence of the Day: Snuff colored laundry hung overhead, laced from window to window.

I had a speaking gig this weekend, and believe me, there's a reason why I write instead of speak. I'm not cut-out for the spotlight. Good thing I was wearing Depends. Even so, God was/is faithful, and here's one little example.

When I prepared what I was going to say, I thought why not do what I do best and write a story? I took the account of Jesus in the Garden (Matthew 26) and fictionalized it. As part of one of my sessions, I read it aloud.

It's interesting that of all the things I said, I got the most comments on the story. One lady came to me later and told me that she'd come to the conference empty, asking God for some kind of encouragement. She got it--in story form.

Which is amazing, but not surprising. Jesus used story often as a way to teach truth. Hearing heaven doesn't always come through sermons on Sunday morning. Sometimes it comes packaged in a tale.

One of the best pieces of fiction that I heard heaven through is Streiker's Bride by Robin Hardy. It's a beautiful picture of how Jesus pursues us set in modern day Dallas.

What about you? What's a piece of fiction that made you hear heaven?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Writing Disorders

DAY 48

Word Count:

Sentence of the Day: On each side of the narrow lane, buildings stooped like rheumy old men, hunched at the shoulders.

There are a couple of little known writing disorders that I'd like to shed some light on today. Sufferers of these chronic ailments need not be ashamed. Simply identifying which disease your writing suffers from is the first step to recovery.

In the overall economy of words, there are 2 extremes that should be avoided.

Literary Anorexia

We've all heard it. Write tight. Kill your darlings. Keep it lean and mean. All great advice, but if taken to the extreme, the ambiance of your story can be lost. Keeping your character's emotions too spare or descriptions too sparse leaves the bones of your tale languishing.

Prose Bulimia

Vomiting words onto a page will make your reader want to gag. In this day and age, readers don't have time to wander in your literary garden, admiring each and every flower, dragonfly and fern. Grand scenes with an overabundance of detail will make your reader slam shut your book and reach for the remote instead.

One bulimic disclaimer: for first drafts, it's okay to veer over on the wordy side of the long as you know you'll have to cut the excess when you edit.

My point is balance is key. I know...I've said that before. But in ALL things, writing related or life related, it really is crucial to keep your balance.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Romance Shmromance

DAY 47

Word Count: 30,040

Sentence of the Day: God should so bless everyone with a visit to the dead house.

Sniff, sniff. Smell that? is in the air. Valentine's Day is just around the corner, so today I'm talkin' romance. Not the tender endearments whispered into the ear of your soul mate kind, unless, of couse, that's what inspires you to write your next scene. Actually, I'm thinking more like anti-romance because:

The idea of story is so much more romantic
than actually writing the dang thing down.

Who doesn't have a great idea for a bestseller lurking in the corners of their mind? Pretty much everyone has a tale to tell, one that's heart-wrenching, epic in scope, and sure to connect with readers in 'To Kill A Mockingbird' fashion.

So why doesn't everyone have a WIP?

Because writing is hard work. Yes, you can quote me on that.

Capturing the images in your brain and the accompanying emotions rarely turns out how you want it to. It's more than frustrating to try to bring a reader into the land of your mind. There just aren't enough words, and even if there were, putting them in the correct order takes a whole lot of brain power.

It is romantic to think of an author as sitting down to write each morning in a sunny nook, cutesie coffee cup steaming to one side of the computer, a golden retriever lying serenely on the hooked rug at her feet. Reality is, that author has dog hair on her sweater, her cup is cracked and coffee cold, and that sunny nook? Huh. It's a corner of the dining room table that isn't stacked with dishes or leftover mail.

So go ahead, indulge your fantasy of penning an Oprah Book Club winner, then sit your little fanny down. Start plugging away like the rest of us one word at a time, and though your dream might not be romantic anymore, at least it will be a reality.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Camp Yippee

DAY 46

Word Count: 29,654

Sentence of the Day: "We may be a dead house, but we ain't no fleetin' fly-by-night kind of joint."

FACT: Only 10% of writers make a living solely by writing books. That figure includes every title sold in every category, not just Christian.

What's your gut reaction to that? Horrified or relieved? Let's visit each of these campgrounds and see where you pitched your tent.

Camp You've-Got-To-Be-Kidding-Me

This is the doom and gloom kind of reaction. Discovering that only 1 out of 10 writers actually make enough moolah to survive is a kidney punch to your dream. You wonder if it's seriously true, and if it is, then you're taking your ball and going home, never to write again. You feel it's a waste of time to pound out thousands of words if their monetary value is less than a pack of gum. Writing is stupid. You're done.

Camp Yippee! I'm not alone!

If after reading that 9 out of 10 authors slapped a smile on your face and added a bounce to your step, then you are a writer at heart. Writing is more than a paycheck. It's air. And it's a comfort to know that there are many, many others out there who write for peanuts just like you. This fact doesn't deter you in the least from typing your fingers to the bone day after day.

So...which camp are you in? Personally, my orange nylon shelter is staked at Camp Yippee.

Monday, February 6, 2012

TSMIES Syndrome - The Bane of All Writers

DAY 45

Word Count: 29,050

Sentence of the Day: The lone sunbeam slid along her skin-wrapped bones like a knife, cutting and severe.

"I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better."
~ Annie Dillard
The Writing Life's one of those days. Ever feel like your WIP is languishing? For me, that slump usually hits around the 30-50k neighborhood. It's known as the mid-point doldrums, or what I affectionally like to call This-Stupid-Manuscript-Isn't-Even-Salvageable syndrome.

The first thing I want to point out is that TSMIES syndrome is normal. Every writer, even the biggest names, suffer from it. It's nothing new or unique, so rest assured you are not a freak (but don't quote me on that).

Think about it for a minute. The beginning of a story is fresh, the ending is exciting, the middle...well, I yawned just typing the word. And if you're bored writing it, just think of how your reader will feel.

If you're currently suffering from TSMIES syndrome, here's a little Rx to keep you moving while slogging through that center section:

- add in a new character to spice things up a bit, someone eccentric or sassy or hilarious

- give yourself permission to sway from your original outline and/or synopsis...if it's not working as you originally planned, then change it

- master your emotions...acknowledge that even though you feel like this is the worst thing you've ever written, reality is that it's probably not

- share your slump with your writing one knows how to comfort like those who've suffered with this syndrome before

- put on your big girl pants (or boy, as the case may be) and just write...bemoaning the fact that you think what you've got is a steaming pile of doo-doo doesn't get you any closer to your word count goal

The good news is that this syndrome isn't fatal. There is life beyond the middle, and the sooner you get past it, the better you'll feel.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Patience is a Virtue

DAY 44

Word Count: 28,244

Sentence of the Day: The lone sunbeam slid along her skin-wrapped bones like a knife, cutting and severe.

The publishing industry is one of the slowest I've ever encountered. Submit a query. Wait an additional two. If they like it, send off a proposal. Wait a few more months. Lucky enough that they want to see a full manuscript? Guess what. Wait up to three or four more. By the time they reject you ( my cynical slip showing?), you could've been waiting for 6-9 months.

When I tell my non-writer friends this scenario, their eyes generally bug out, followed by the proverbial, "Are you crazy? Why don't you just self-publish?"

And therein a can of worms is opened.

Disclaimer: having never self published, I don't proclaim to be an expert. However, for the past ten years I have rubbed elbows with authors, agents, and publishers. Because of this, I've picked up a certain attitude about self publishing...and it's not a good one. Leastwise not for fiction.

The general public (aka my non-writer friends) don't seem to have this look-down-their-nose-and-sniff kind of presupposition about self publishing. Which begs the question...why?

My best guess is that it has do to with one of two things, which are really two sides of the same coin: ignorance and profitability. It's hard work to peddle a book, especially if you're on your own without the help of an established publisher. It's easy enough to download your novel to Smashwords then wait until the moolah rolls in, but that's probably not going to happen.

Consider these facts:

- over a million books are published each year in the U.S.
- no other industry has so many new product introductions
- the digital revolution is expanding those products at exponential rates, yet sales are not increasing
- the average pod (print-on-demand) book sells only 200 copies whereas with a major publisher that bumps up to 10,000 on average
(info taken from Out:think)

As you can see, that's quite a crap shoot. And I'm not one to gamble. So I choose to continue plodding along the traditional publishing path one step at a time.

But hey, I hear patience is a virtue.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I'll Take the Cushioned Windowseat

DAY 43

Word Count: 27,911

Sentence of the Day: His black greatcoat shrouded his length like a shadow, an eerie image of the grim reaper.

Agree or disagree...

"Appealing workplaces are to be avoided."

~ Annie Dillard (The Writing Life)

Far be it from me to discount the sage advice of famous author Annie Dillard. This chick knows what she's doing. I shudder to even stand in her literary shadow.

BUT (and I've always got a big but)...

I happen to disagree. Messiness makes me crazy. I can't think creatively if there's a pile of paperwork strewn over my desk. Or a pile of dirty dishes winking at me from the kitchen counter. Or knowing the laundry pile is the size of Mount Crumpet.

I need an appealing workplace, or at least one that's tidy. That's why my writing haunt of choice is a coffee shop. If there are scone crumbs on the table, I don't feel the least bit responsible to clean them up before I sit down to write a scene. Naturally, I choose a different tabletop to set up shop, but I think you get the point.

So, how about you? Does your muse work best in an appealing or unappealing work space?
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