Saturday, November 14, 2009

Day Fourteen: Updates and Announcements

Sunday marks the mid-way point in this year's National Novel Writing Month challenge. I thought you might like a progress report of how well we're all doing. Also, I have some guests appearing on my blog next week. I hope you'll join us on Monday and Tuesday for the discussions. You may also post questions and comments. Please note that comments are moderated to avoid spam and make sure legitimate comments can get through.


Those participating in NaNoWriMo, all 161,870 of us, are just about at the half-way point. If we have stayed on track, we will have written a little over 25,000 words each by the end of the day Sunday. This should mean that we have reached the middle of our story and are busy developing the "meat" of it. At present, 92,369 people have posted their word counts, and the collective total words for participants stands at 1,040,165,647! Participants have also contributed $201,587 to help fund NaNo and the Young Writers Program.

As for my own progress, I'm right on target. My story has taken some twists and turns that I hadn't anticipated, but which, I think, have made it better. For example, in the original legend, my heroine's parents refused to allow her to marry the young man she fell in love with because he was socially beneath her and they didn't like him. However, in my story, as the characters developed, it became clear that her parents were softening toward the young man and beginning to feel like he was almost a part of their family. Problem: What could happen that would suddenly turn them against him? Also, the heroine's parents are very protective of her, isolating her from social contact. So, another problem: How can the young couple fall in love if they never spend any time alone? I needed to come up with a plausible situation that would force her parents to allow their daughter and the young man to spend some time together apart from their watchful eyes. Writing isn't just about creating setting, characters, and telling a story. It's about problem solving, too. And, as I've mentioned before, it's about doing research and being willing to expand your knowledge and creativity beyond the limits of your preconceived ideas about your work, and to give it a sense of reality. Although my story is fiction, I want readers to think, "Yes, this could have happened." The characters, their words and actions, and how they solve their problems have to seem believable.


From time to time I hope to bring some guests on the blog, and I welcome your suggestions and questions.

Next week, some of my fellow NaNoers will be responding to the question: "Why Do You Write?" Please drop in on Monday to read their interesting and clever responses.

Also next week, I'll be talking with a first time NaNoer to get her perspective on the challenge of writing a novel in a month, and asking such questions as why she decided to participate, what have some of the challenges been, what has she learned from this experience, and more. I hope you'll join me for what I am sure will be an interesting discussion.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Day Thirteen: Why Join a Writers' Group?

Writing is generally considered a solitary profession. Armed with a typewriter (yes, some still prefer them) or computer, a stash of snacks, perhaps a favorite knick-knack or two, music, and a steady supply of coffee (or another beverage of choice), tools of the trade (dictionary, thesaurus, books on writing, etc.), the intrepid writer goes into cave mode to become one with the Muse, emerging only to deal with bodily functions and a few hours of sleep. When the writing project is completed, the writer rejoins the human race with a sense of accomplishment, and perhaps a few dark circles under the eyes.

If writing is a journey into isolation for months at a time, then what about writers' groups? What purpose do they serve? Why should you consider joining one? Here are several reasons you might want to become part of such a group.

Because writing is done alone (unless you have a writing partner), joining a writers' group offers an opportunity to socialize with people who will understand what a writer's life is like. Many make lasting friendships in these groups, and get together apart from the group setting. Writers' groups provide the opportunity to network with other writers, from the beginner to those with years of experience. Sometimes groups also include people who are industry professionals and experts in many fields. A group can offer mutual support, and help you through some writing issues such as plot problems, writer's block, or setting up a schedule. They can cheer you on when you succeed, and cheer you up when you don't.

Being part of a group can stimulate your thinking and generate new ideas. It can help you to hone your craft by learning new skills, improving your English, and learning new words and expressions. Many groups provide time during their meetings for both writing and critiquing. In one group I belonged to, we met for an hour. After taking a few minutes to say hello and order snacks and beverages (we met in a small dining room in a restaurant), someone would share a writing prompt, and we would spend the next twenty minutes writing based on that prompt. Then, volunteers would read what they'd written, and the group would critique it. This had several benefits: it gave practice in writing, practice in reading before a group, and practice in how to give and receive constructive criticism. The last ten minutes or so were used for anyone who wanted to, to share a current project. Some groups host guest speakers on various topics related to writing; some host events like readings, book signings, or retreats. The groups are as varied as their members.

Where can you find writing groups? There are professional groups for writers in all genres and genders, as well as freelance writers, and writers of magazine articles, etc. There are regional and local groups that may have monthly or quarterly meetings and sponsor events and retreats. And there are online writers' groups for all ages, levels of expertise, genres, etc. Look in your local newspaper or arts paper for a list of meetings or events. Check the phone book to see if there are writing groups listed there. Do a Google search for online writers' groups. If you want to join a group, there are a bounty from which to choose. Some charge rather hefty membership fees, while other are less expensive or even free. There really is something for everyone. You just need to do a little research to see what will be the best fit for you.

During NaNoWriMo, there are myriad forums on every topic imaginable, and many you probably wouldn't have thought of. Whether you're having plot problems (Plot Doctoring), need some laugh relief (NaNoisms, anyone?), help with character names, settings--anything--you'll find support in the forums. In addition, you can connect with others and become writing buddies. Buddies communicate through email throughout the month for mutual inspiration, celebration, and commiseration. And, for those who feel they need to see real people in real time, there are local and regional "write-ins" at coffee shops, in college libraries, or in homes.

Writing may be a solitary profession, but it needn't be a lonely one. If you seek interaction, all you have to do is look for it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Day Twelve: Stop...Look...Listen

Stop...look...listen. As children, we were taught to do this before crossing a street. But it is also a good reminder for writers.

Our lives seem to be busier than ever, and the pace of life is often in overdrive. Especially, as we get older, time seems to fly by at warp speed. Our "To Do" lists get filled with so many things that need doing, that our "wants" get relegated to the bottom of the list--if they make the list at all. There is too much happening, too much information "out there," and too little time. As a result, we tend to narrow our focus to those things that directly affect us and ignore the rest.

Writers, though, need periods of time in which to slow down in order to refill the creative tank. Physically, this might mean getting away for a period of personal refreshing of body, mind, and spirit. Creatively, it might mean opening our mind's intake valve for an infusion of fresh ideas. For water to be fresh, there must be an inflow as well as an outflow. No inflow, and the stream dries up. No outflow, and it stagnates. It's the same with creative ideas. We must keep ourselves open to new ideas and engaged in life, or we may suddenly find ourselves unable to continue writing--otherwise known as "writer's block." If nothing fresh is flowing in, nothing can flow out as stories, articles, or essays. I have a friend who is constantly observing, listening (eavesdropping, if you will) to those around him. I recall one time when we were walking down the street and he pointed out a young couple ahead of us. He began telling me all about them: why they were there, what they were doing, what was going on in their lives. When I asked if he'd known them long, he replied that he didn't know them at all--he'd just spun a story about them from the things he observed as they walked ahead of us: their gestures, how they looked at each other, whether or not they were holding hands, the tone of their voices. This is the creative mind in action. You can learn a lot, and get fresh ideas for your writing, simply by observing people around you. So, S-T-O-P: Stop To Observe People.

As I said, because our lives are so hectic, we tend to narrow our focus. We limit ourselves to what's familiar, to what touches us personally: our interests, our family, our friends, our community. But to keep fresh ideas coming, we need to look beyond the familiar, to see what's going on in the lives of those around us and around the world. In our modern age, what happens in other countries affects what happens in our own. Rising energy costs and the global recession are just two examples. Likewise, we need to understand how our actions affect others both at home and abroad. We also need to be lifelong learners. While working on this year's NaNo novel, so far I've learned about mucking out stalls, milking cows, and gained a rudimentary knowledge about mid-19th century barns and the modifications their construction went through in the early 20th century. I'm also learning about the history of Stowe, Vermont, where my story is set. Will I ever really muck out a stall? Probably not. Nor do I see milking cows and building barns in my immediate future. But learning stimulates the mind, gets those synapses firing, and the creative wheels turning. It keeps our brains from stagnating. So, we need to L-O-O-K: Look Outward, Optimize Knowledge.

And then we need to listen, not just with our ears but with our minds and hearts. Learn to hear what's NOT being said. Learn to "hear" body language: facial expressions, gestures, posture. Listen to people's hearts, not just their words. As you're going about your day-to-day business, listen to what people are talking about. Carry a pen and pad with you and jot down snatches of conversation that are interesting or that stimulate creative thinking. Did you hear something your characters might discuss? Is that woman's body language saying something other than what her words are saying? How could you use that in a story? While sitting in a coffee shop or in a park, waiting in the checkout line at the store, or dining in a restaurant, spend time observing and listening to those around you. Do you just hear an indistinguishable buzz, or do bits of conversation stand out from the background noise? If something does stand out, allow your creative mind to speculate "what if?" So, L-I-S-T-E-N: Listen Intently, Sift Through External Noise.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Day Eleven: Remembering Writers Who Served

On Veterans Day we take time out from our normal activities to pay homage to those who have performed military service for our country. Some have been career soldiers, some have served one or more tours of duty before returning to civilian life, and others have been "citizen soldiers"--those who take one weekend a month and two weeks a year away from their families and jobs, to train and serve in the National Guard. These men and women are doctors, lawyers, technicians, engineers, teachers, laborers...and authors. Those who are authors have sometimes used their military experiences as material for their writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Today, I would like to recognize some of them and share how they served.

Ambrose Bierce served during the American Civil War as a member of the Union Army's 9th Indiana Infantry Division, later as a topographical engineer, and fought at the battle of Shiloh. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was one of several stories he wrote based on what he had witnessed during the war.

Ernest Hemingway served as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. He used autobiographical elements from wartime experiences in his novel, "A Farewell to Arms."

Edward L. Beach, Jr. served in various positions as a Navy Submarine officer during World War II, and earned many medals and citations. Drawing on his own experiences, he wrote the novel "Run Silent, Run Deep" which was later adapted to the big screen in 1958.

Joseph Heller served in the 12th Air Force during World War II. He later wrote about the insanity of war in "Catch-22."

Norman Mailer was drafted by the U.S. Army and served in the South Pacific with the 112th Cavalry during World War II. He drew on his military experiences when writing "The Naked and the Dead."

Leon Uris joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age seventeen and served as a radioman in the South Pacific during World War II. He wrote "Battle Cry" as a result, but is probably best known for his novel "Exodus."

Kurt Vonnegut was a U.S. infantry soldier in World War II who was captured in Germany and held as a prisoner of war, with several other soldiers, in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse in Dresden. Because of their location, they survived when Dresden was bombed. His used his experiences as a POW, and the horrors he witnessed in the aftermath of the bombing, to provide material for his novel "Slaughterhouse Five," as well as several of his other books.

Richard Hooker (the pen name of H. Richard Hornberger) was a physician who served with the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. In collaboration with W. C. Heinz, he wrote "M.A.S.H." and based one of the main characters, Hawkeye Pierce, on himself.

Ron Kovic served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the Marine Corps before being shot in combat. He sustained multiple injuries and was partially paralyzed. His book "Born on the Fourth of July" was made into a movie starring Tom Cruise as Kovic, and inspired Bruce Springsteen's song "Shut Out the Light" and Tom Paxton's song which was titled the same as Kovic's novel.

There are others, but these are representative of men who either became writers after their war experiences, or whose writing was influenced by them. They have shared their stories with us, and given their lives for us. The least we can do, on this Veterans Day, for them and all those who serve to protect our freedom, is to let them know we appreciate their sacrifices .

[Source for some of this information was:]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day Ten: NaNoWriMo--the Short Version

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) began in July 1999 with twenty-one people, including founder Chris Baty, each setting out to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. Now, in its eleventh year, that small number has grown to 158,716 people registered, who have adopted that goal as their own. In the official history on the NaNoWriMo website, Chris refers to that first year of "noveling" as "half literary marathon and half block party."

By the second year, they had a website, moved the event to November, and had 140 people sign up, including some from Canada. A Yahoo group was added, along with a set of guidelines to govern the NaNo process. These included the minimum total word count, the deadline, the statement that the writing had to be the original work of a single author, and it had to be a novel. Of the 140 who had begun on November 1, twenty-one reached the 50,000 word goal by midnight on November 30. In celebration, two more components were added: a star by the name of each person who reached the goal, and a "Thank God It's Over" party for those who lived close enough to attend.

Anticipating modest growth for year three, the NaNo website and those in charge were totally unprepared for the 5000 who registered. Bloggers had discovered NaNo, and their readers were enthusiastic about the project. Then the newspapers got wind of it. With help from several friends, Chris managed to get everyone registered before the figurative starting gun sounded. However, other problems surfaced ranging from the physical (painful wrists for those trying to get everyone registered) to the technical (overwhelming the small web-host's ability to host the rapidly growing site, hackers, and an overcrowded Yahoo club). Some of the problems were resolved when participants created regional boards, volunteered to validate each other's word counts, and one of the key elements of NaNo was born--mutual support and encouragement among those taking part. The one area lacking was financial support to keep the organization going.

Over the next two years, a new computer program made reinstatement of official word counts possible, colorful graphics were added, new forums created, t-shirt sales helped raise revenue along with donations, and the number of participants jumped from 5000 to 14,000. NanoWriMo received the attention of NPR's "All Things Considered," CBS News, and even the BBC in Scotland! The position of Municipal Liaison was created. These volunteers served locally, offering encouragement and support to participants in their own regions. In addition, two staff members were added to help answer e-mails and deal with technical issues, respectively. There were still glitches from time to time but, by 2003, there were 25,000 people participating, including a monk from India.

Year six brought a new site design, new logo (the running man with pen), additional staff, and 42,000 adult participants. In addition, school teachers were promoting NaNo among their students. In 2004, NaNo partnered with the children's literacy program "Room to Read" and the Cambodian Libraries program was born. Chris was also busy with a book tour for his book "No Plot, No Problem," which he referred to as "a NaNo survival guide." While on the book tour, he discovered that NaNo had spread to colleges and even "real" writers were taking part.

The following year, server problems caused the site to crash repeatedly on opening day. By making some adjustments, the month progressed without further serious malfunctions. In 2005, they sublet a warehouse space which not only accommodated the NaNo t-shirts that had been ordered, but gave them a base of operations. New author pages were added for participants, and the "Young Writers Program," which involved 4000 children in 150 schools, began on another site. Those in the youth program set their own word count goals. It was also in 2005 that WriMoRadio began, with podcasts of participants' stories about their experiences with NaNo, as well as readings of excerpts from some NaNo-novels. The year was also a financial success.

While in Scotland for several weeks, Chris heard an announcement on the radio for Scotland's "Write Here, Right Now" contest. BBC Scotland had interviewed him years before. Apparently, they'd come up with their own variation of NaNoWriMo in which people tried to write 28,000 words during the month of February, and sent participants daily pep talk e-mails. This encouraged Chris to begin the process of turning NaNoWriMo into a non-profit entity complete with a board of directors, an official name--"The Office of Letters and Light"--and an office. Non-profit status was confirmed the night before NaNoWriMo 2006 began. With the website sluggish, not uncommon on the first few days, Chris accidentally discovered that NaNoWriMo was featured on Yahoo's front page. Overnight, an additional 7000 people registered. Likewise, the Young Writers Program jumped from 4000 to 15,000 students, and several colleges added NaNo as part of their course offerings. By this time, thirteen manuscripts by NaNoWriMo writers had been published, including Sara Gruen's bestseller, Water for Elephants.

At the close of NaNo in 2007, to keep the momentum going, Chris started "The Year of Big, Fun, Scary Adventures" during which people would do something they had wanted to do but had kept putting off--anything from learning another language to starting a business. You won't find this next tidbit in the official NaNoWriMo history, but 2007 was also my first year doing NaNo.

There had been many requests from people for additional NaNo-type events so, in 2007, "Script-Frenzy" was born, and a new staff person hired to run it. Eight thousand people participated that first April, with two websites: one for adults, another for children and teens.

When November rolled around, the number of people enrolled in NaNoWriMo crossed the 100,000 mark and the youth program had 366 schools participating from such diverse places as Pakistan, Indonesia, and Sweden. In addition, The Office of Letters and Light received their first foundation grant, held their first major fund-raiser, and had celebrity authors write pep talks. While these were exciting, there were also problems. Site issues that had been resolved in the past, along with the other pressures, threatened to overwhelm the staff. One thing that helped to lift spirits was a December Young Writers Program at a local bookstore, where children and youth who had written books during NaNo in November, got to read them and were rewarded with enthusiastic applause.

November 2008 was the tenth anniversary of NaNoWriMo, but Chris was so busy getting things ready for this year, he hasn't had time to update the history, yet. I've tried to give you a brief summary of the bare bones of NaNo from its inception to the present. The official history, written by Chris Baty, is far more complete and was my source for this post. You can read it for yourself on the NaNo website at However, it might be best to wait until December, though, so as not to crash the site for those who are engaged in writing their novels this month. And perhaps next year, you'd like to try NaNoWriMo for yourself.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Day Nine: What's the "Write" Time for You?

For many people their most productive time of the day is the morning. They jump out of bed at first light, throw on their clothes, bound down the stairs, grab breakfast, and are raring to go. These are the "Good morning, Lord" type of people.

Then there are those, like myself, who are the "Good Lord, it's morning" type. I have never been a morning person. I think it was programmed from birth since I made my "debut" late at night. Having begun life as a night owl, it set the pattern for life.

Although as a child I had to get up early for school, and as an adult for work, when left to my own devices (ahh, those blessed weekends) my body wouldn't rouse from slumber until around ten o'clock and would be ready for sleep sometime around 1:00 a.m. In college, however, I remember actually having to take NoDoz (the caffeine equivalent to several strong cups of coffee) in order to stay up past one o'clock to study for an exam the next day or to finish a term paper. Later in life, I developed chronic insomnia and my day shifted to the equivalent of a third-shift schedule which means I'm up most, if not all, of the night and sleep through the morning and sometimes into the early to mid afternoon.

This means that, for me, the most productive hours are between midnight and 3:00 a.m. It's not unusual to find me busy folding laundry, making out grocery lists, paying bills, etc., all during the hours when "normal" people are lost in slumber. It's also the best time for me to write. During NaNoWriMo, those hours often extend to between six and seven in the morning.

A few years ago, Neil Diamond wrote a song called "Thank the Lord for the Night Time." It should be my theme song. During the day there are too many distractions and interruptions for me to be able to concentrate on writing: the phone rings, the dog needs to go out, the cat wants attention, my husband needs to ask me something or wants to show me something, there are noises outside from cars, people and their kids. But after midnight, all of that stops. The phone is silent; the dog, cat, and spouse are asleep; the cars are quietly parked; people and their kids are snoozing. Yes, Neil, thank the Lord for the night time, indeed.

When it's dark, and the world is quiet, that's when I can concentrate and the creative juices seem to flow. Perhaps for you, it's the early morning hours before anyone else is up. Or it might be the afternoon after lunch and before the kids come home from school. The important thing is to find a time that works for you, then block off that time for writing. Morning, noon, or night time--whatever is right for you is the "write" time.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Day Eight: School is Now in Session

If you're not willing to learn, don't become a writer. It's a given that if someone is writing a non-fiction book, they will have to do research in order to write intelligently about their subject and be able to convey that information to the reader in a clear, understandable manner. But what about the writers of fiction? If you're making up a story, doesn't all of it come from your own imagination? Can't you just create things the way you want them to be? Why would a writer of fiction need to do research?

When I sat down to work on my NaNo novel today, it didn't take long before I knew I was going to have to stop and gather some additional information. A large section of my story takes place in the second half of the 19th century in rural Vermont. As I began to write a scene set inside a barn, I wondered: What kind of clothing would these people have worn? What tools and implements would they have had available to use in doing their work? How would their lives have been different from ours in terms of opportunities and attitudes? What names were common at the time? So, I began combing the internet for the answers to these questions, sifted through the material, and decided what and how much applied to my particular characters and their situation. Due to the time constraints of NaNo, I couldn't spend a great deal of time on this, so there will be more to delve into when I begin the revisions after the holidays.

Attention to detail helps to ground your story in time and place, and makes it more authentic. A farmer from 1870 would not be listening to music on a boom box while hitching his cows up to electric milking machines. Boom boxes did not exist, and while attempts were made earlier in the century to develop a milking machine, the first successful one didn't appear until 1870. Therefore, it would be highly unlikely for a poor rural farmer in Vermont to have one in the first year of its existence. Nor can I have people wearing fabrics and styles that didn't exist in the 1800s. If my character is a farmer, I need to know what kind of farming was done at that time. For example, Vermont is known as a dairy state; but prior to 1850, Vermont was known nationally for its sheep farming. It wasn't until the middle of the century that sheep farming began to decline, and dairy farming took over. Public libraries and public education didn't come into being until the late 19th/early 20th century, so my characters can't go trotting off to the public library to check out a book, because such an institution didn't exist.

In addition to time, place, culture, and customs, it's surprising what your characters themselves will teach you. Tonight, one of my characters had to teach another the proper way to muck out a stall. Since I'm not an authority on stall mucking, it appeared I would also have to learn this skill. After doing another search, I can now state that I know the proper steps to take in cleaning out a stall, the order in which to take them, and the proper tools to use. I also learned what happens if you overfill a wheel barrow with horse manure and try to move it--unfortunately, so did my character.

Writing requires imagination, observation, discipline, and a willingness to be a lifelong learner. It's not enough to have a good plot and an interesting story. As the saying goes, "the devil is in the details," and an astute reader will quickly know whether or not you've done your homework.