Tools of the Trade

Writing used to be so simple. Grab a pen or pencil, some paper, and off you went. These days, more often than not, writers use a slew of tools for their work that don’t require paper.

When I first tried my hand at NaNoWriMo, I used our iPad with the onscreen keyboard. I got to about 12,000 words with that set-up before I finally petered out. It wasn’t my work station that did me in, but my lack of planning for success.

I often go back to my NaNoWriMo experiences as the times when I can refer to myself as a writer because that’s when I started taking this entire process with some seriousness.

After that failure, Google released the Chromebook computers. They were cheap and came with a ton of storage in the Drive, so I bought one. It was a poor man’s MacBook Air. I loved the size of it. It lacked a light up keyboard which I wanted, but it worked. I tried winning NaNoWriMo the following year, failing at around 20,000 words. I followed it up the next year with my first “win” using the same Chromebook.

Not long after, I wanted something more. The Chromebook wasn’t cutting it. I wrote in the evenings back then and the dark keyboard was an issue. I’d sit in the living room with my wife. She watched television and I wrote. The lamp light wasn’t enough.

That summer, I bought an Asus Windows laptop with Windows 8 and a backlit keyboard. The interface was clunky but I got used to it. The only issue I had was the freaking space bar! When I typed, I guess the way I hit the bar wasn’t sufficient and I’d get frustrated as my words jumbled together.

computer-1839667_960_720Not long after, my wife started online schooling and needed a more robust computer than her MacBook Air. Her mom had a MacBook Pro, so with some cash and my Asus, we made a three way trade. My wife got the Pro, I got the Air, and my mother-in-law got the Asus. That set-up has worked great until recently.

About a week ago I got a new MacBook Air with a larger screen cause these older eyes had a hard time seeing on the smaller screen. Such is life I guess.

I’ve used several writing programs over the years but I’ve settled on two. My main writing program is Scrivener. I love how easy it is to change chapters, customize headings, and create usable files. And as far as cost, it’s one of the more affordable options. Of course, Open Office and the word processor on Google Drive are free, so there’s that.

I also use Microsoft Word. I’ve found as much as I love Scrivener, sometimes I have a need for the trusty Word program. It’s great for formatting paperback books. I use it for Standard Manuscript formatting when submitting short stories. I’m sure Scrivener could do it, but the program is so complex at times I can’t find what I need.

So that’s it, my tools of the trade. I work on a MacBook Air using Scrivener and MS Word. It’s worked so far, though I’m always up for learning new programs and practices to make my process better. What about you? What’s the set-up you use for your writing? What’s your go-to writing program? I’d love to hear if we’re alike or if you’ve got something else that works better.

Rough Writing

This post is one I originally posted on Facebook at the end of July and was one of my most viewed posts ever! It’s a deeply personal account of a tough moment in my writing “career.” I’ve posted about it before but this seemed to resonate with many writers and readers. Here ya go!


Last year, I learned a valuable lesson in regards to my writing.

I wanted to turn one of my four NaNoWriMo novels into a publishable book. I choose what I thought was the best one and revised it then hired an editor to look it over.

When I got the edits back, I was also given a brutally honest assessment of the work. It wasn’t something I wanted to hear, but man it was so helpful and so spot on. I cannot thank that editor enough for opening my eyes to the problems it had and how far from being ready it was.

Then, a few days later, I attended a writing conference where they were doing a blind reading of submitted stories with a panel of agents and small publishers. Anyone that wanted to could submit a three page sample of their story and they’d read it out loud for the entire conference to hear. Once it got to the point in the story where that agent or editor would’ve rejected the submission, they were to raise their hand. Once a majority of the panel rejected it, they’d stop and offer a critique of why they rejected it (or if it went the entire length, why they would’ve asked for more).

I submitted my three pages. So did about a hundred other writers. They only read five submissions but guess whose got read? Yeah, this guy right here! It was the same story I had my editor work on. Already feeling bummed about the comments received so far, when they started reading mine I was in shock but also curious.

boy-859364_960_720When they got to the second page, hands started flying up. I sipped my Diet Coke like nothing was going on but inside I was crushed. I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. Their feedback was brutal. Much like the editor I worked with, they didn’t hold back, however this was in front of a room of over a hundred writers! Fortunately the only person that knew who’s story they were critiquing was myself.

Those combined experiences with that draft made me question everything I was doing. Was I good enough? Do I have a clue about what I’m doing? Was I mistakenly claiming the title of “writer?” Should I give up?

My drive home from that conference was a dark, lonely drive. However, when I finally pulled in the driveway, I determined to use this for good.

I vowed to get better, to try harder, to continue progressing in my craft because I love it. I enjoy writing and it’s a part of me now. I chose to take their criticisms not as a personal attack, but as my alarm to improve my writing. I had skill, but it needed work.

It was a tough lesson to learn, but in the end the most valuable thing to happen to me.

Writing Ideas

When you write and get stuck on a scene or stuck on a story idea, what do you do?

I’ve got a couple tricks I’ve found useful when I get in those predicaments.

My go-to method for story idea generating is to search random pictures online until I find something useful or inspiring. Normally I’d go to Flickr and start searching through the public photos. I’ve found the site to be excellent at discovering new and interesting photos.

My method then is to save the image in a folder on my computer and just sit and stare. I like to think long about what’s in the image, what could be happening, what did just happen, and more. Back when I used to release brand new flash fiction on the 15th of every month, that was my tried and true method for creating new stories. I’d also include the image in the story. If you search around on my blog long enough, you’ll eventually stumble on those.

old-book-2514411_960_720Another method I like to use to enhance my writing is to listen to music. Back when I was working on my first NaNoWriMo novel called “Master of the Drunken Fist,” my protagonist would drink various types of alcohol and go into another dimension based on the the type of alcohol he drank. For example, when he drank moonshine he ended up in a backwoods, rural setting. When he drank vodka he was on an expedition in Russia.

When it came time to write the scenes in that other dimension, I would listen to various types of music. When I did the moonshine scenes, I created a playlist on Pandora based off of the “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. It was perfect for setting the mood. When I wrote the vodka scenes, I listened to Tchaikovsky non-stop.

I found the various types of music, like the alcohol my protagonist drank, transported me to a different world and helped me create scenes that were more alive and more true to the feeling I was trying to evoke.

I’ve known other authors who will do something similar. I know of an author who will search through random YouTube videos for songs to draw inspiration from. Like my random photos, they help him generate ideas for stories.

As with all writing, we come to our methods in different ways. I would never tell you to do it like I do because it might not be your thing. I can suggest you try what I do to see if it works, but I’m not gonna say my method is the only one you should use. What does matter is that you find your thing, whatever it is.

Do you have something different that works for you? Share in the comments so others can try your technique. Let’s share our methods so we can all learn together.

Anatomy of “The Selection”

Creating a novel is an overwhelming experience. The various parts need to fit together like a giant puzzle so in the end a clear pleasing picture appears.

I’ve known some writers that must plan every scene, every chapter, and every character to such a degree that their outline takes months to create. By the time they write the story most of it is already planned and plotted to a fine degree.

Others write with a crazy lack of any structure, fitting words here and there hoping to keep a coherent train of thought going till the end.
I fall somewhere in the middle.

When planning a novel I make a rough (and I mean rough!) outline that serves as guard rails as I write. I research certain topics ahead of time. I read stories or news articles to gain insights into those topics. I go for an immersion experience through research. I want to feel comfortable with the subject so when I write it comes across as true and believable.

No matter if I write about medieval fantasy, science fiction, or something in the horror genre I want my readers to connect to the story in some way.

My latest novel called “The Selection,” the one I wrote for NaNoWriMo was written this way. I researched some key points though there are others I feel weren’t quite up to the standards they need to be, but that’s what revision is for right? I studied and immersed myself in information about Kepler 186f, the inspiration for the planet Anastasia in my story.

Then I take all that research and write.

When I write I follow a fluid outline that sometimes is written, sometimes not. This past novel I didn’t use a written outline but I had a plan in mind and followed it to the end. For me that type of “structure” is perfect. I get the guard rails I need to keep me in check but it allows me the flexibility to change big things as I go along. For instance I had a couple big twists at the end of the novel that weren’t planned but as I wrote the characters and story they revealed themselves to me. That kind of organic flow as I write feels right.

It’s not the style for everyone. I realize that and I would never recommend to write like I do. Every writer has their own unique style based on teaching, failure, and comfort with the material.

As I wrote my most recent novel, I also let the characters dictate who they are. I had a vague feeling about them and as I wrote, that was fleshed out and hopefully they became real. In my mind they kinda are. I see them clearly and they are distinct individuals with their own agendas and aspirations.

I suck at naming characters. Three in my latest novel are named after someone I know though the characters are not based on those people. For everyone else I used a random name generator. I hate naming people. I also had to name animals since my setting was an alien planet. That was tough! I think if I were to venture into another novel like that I would spend more time creating that world ahead of writing insisted of making it up on the fly.

Not that I would spend too much time world building. I want the basics laid out ahead of time and the rest to reveal itself as I write.

When I write longer pieces like a novel, I don’t like to write it everyday. I like to get a few days at a time. Then I take a day off so I can think about the project and when I return to it I approach it with new eyes and fresh ideas.

Finishing my latest work, I realize there is much that needs correcting. There are several plot points I need to make stronger. I need to make some background information more detailed. Overall it needs a bit of heavy lifting to read better and more coherent.

But I have the first draft written. I can’t revise what I haven’t written. And that’s what NaNo is all about.

If you’d like to check out the novel in it’s first draft , crazy raw form, you can read it here: “The Selection.”

Nearing the End

As I write this, I’m just over 34,000 words into my latest NaNoWriMo attempt. I intend on getting to the end and completing my fourth novel. With the upcoming long weekend, I should find enough time to power through and hit 50k by the end of day on the 30th.

You can actually read what I’ve written so far. I’m using the Tablo writing platform and I’m quite impressed by the experience so far. I’ve had someone comment and I’ve received over 120 reads. You can find the story here. I do caution you to read it with a certain amount of understanding. It is a very rough draft with all sorts of problems. But, you can still read the story and get an idea where I’m going with it. I’m open for suggestions and critiques as well.

What I’ve discovered over the years participating in NaNo is something that correlates to my day job of sales rep.

Writing daily and uploading my word count on the NaNo site gives me instant visual verification that I’ve accomplished something. It shows me how many words I’ve written since the last time I uploaded my word count, my average word count, my expected completion date if I continue at the current pace and many other quantifiable bits of data to help me push on.

In sales it’s very much the same. I have monthly and annual goals. Every order counts. Every dollar adds up. I can break down my goals by week and day if I want to. Small orders eventually add up to larger totals. I could have a weak sales day and counter it with a spectacular day that covers for the shortages. Daily I can check my totals and watch as I get closer to my goal.

That attitude and ability to be patient when the days aren’t going the way I’d like have helped. Of course I’d rather make the goal as soon as possible but knowing if I stay the course I’ll eventually get to the end is a comforting thought.

Writing a novel isn’t easy. Heck writing short stories and essays isn’t easy either. But with determination, patience, and a willingness to trek on when everything seems against you, you can get to the end. You can make the goal set for you. You can do something amazing.

If you are writing this month, I wish you the absolute best. Don’t worry about editing or if your story is going where it needs to go (see the link to my story in progress for confirmation of this) Use this time to write. Editing comes later. Fixes can be made when the month is over.

I know I write about NaNo a lot. It’s something I get excited about. It’s a month long sprint to 50K and there’s nothing like being engrossed in your work so much that it’s the only thing on your mind. Characters become good friends. Settings seem like memories of a real place once visited. Plot lines intermingle with one another.

If you’ve never tried it I challenge you to do so. If nothing else, it will get you in the mindset of writing. It will give you an excuse to put your story down on the screen or paper.

Good luck to all the writers this month. You’re almost there! If you failed and won’t make the deadline, don’t worry. You’ve started something wonderful. Keep at it. One word added to another gets you that much closer to the goal. You’ll finish and that accomplishment is more meaningful than you know.

 

 

Guest Post: Kris Baker Dersch

I’m excited to bring you today’s guest writer Kris Baker Dersch. She’s the editor and producer of an excellent flash fiction podcast called No Extra Words (Go subscribe now!) Besides her duties with the podcast, she’s also a writer, librarian, and a mom.

Kris was kind enough to offer an essay and I think you’ll enjoy hearing a different voice than my own. Please, please, please go visit her at one of the many links I’ve included below, I know she’ll appreciate it and so will I.


 

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A new bookstore just opened in the town where I live.

I love bookstores. Owning my own bookstore is one of those pipe dreams I have, like some people want to have horses and run a dude ranch. It’s not going to happen. But in my head, I’m Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail with a quirky little book shop that is just what people don’t know they need. Of course, we’d also have to sell records so my husband could participate. And we’d decorate it with old typewriters.

Even movie reality doesn’t work here, because by the end of the movie her bookstore gets shut down by Tom Hanks and the big chain around the corner. I’m sure that the people who ran the wine cellar or specialty shoppe that once occupied this bookstore’s spot in my quirky suburban small-town will probably tell you to hit this bookstore very soon because odds are they will not be long for this world. Reality is hard on dreamers.

Writing can be like this. There’s the dream of the bestseller and the book signings. The movie rights to your first novel will go for a high six figures, nothing to set cinema records, but plenty to live on forever, although you’ll keep writing because you love the craft just that much. If my bookstore owner fantasy is Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, in the author fantasy I’m Emma Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction with her Selectric and her quirky shut-in status, not enough to be mental illness, but just enough so you know she’s famous enough to get away with it. Or maybe Colin Firth in Love Actually, typing away in his French villa that is somehow also in Portugal. Maybe I just love their typewriters.

I haven’t hit my reality when it comes to life as a writer. Or maybe I have. Lots of work, self-imposed deadlines, no money. Maybe this is what it is all about. That certainly is a romance-killing reality.

I’m doing Nanowrimo again this year. I have two wins: 2009 and 2012, so you can see I’m not consistent about doing it. In 2009 I only had to work 16 days in November because of a scheduling fluke and I had my own little office, an attic bedroom in the house I was sharing with my then-boyfriend. I had a “new” 80-year old typewriter, my first, and I felt like Anne of Green Gables writing under the eaves. The whole thing was terribly romantic. I wrote some kind of historical fiction and never looked at it again. In 2012, I only made it because of a last minute “I shall not lose” 20,000 word Thanksgiving weekend. I never did figure out how to turn a Nanowrimo draft into anything more than dead trees.

I crashed and burned on my third Nano attempt last fall. That boyfriend and I are now married and share our home with this tiny human who last November at the age of six months decided to stop sleeping. Week 2 I fell out of love with my novel idea, and week 4 I didn’t write at all. Writing can be a real slog. I wasn’t planning on signing up at all this year. What’s the point? I wondered.

I didn’t know what to write. I was disenchanted with the idea of launching yet another manuscript. It helped to learned that the rules of Nano have changed and it is now acceptable to bring partially completed works and add to them for your word count. Thinking of November as my “finish the crap I’ve started” month is not romantic at all, but that’s what actually inspired me to sign on and take the plunge again. While there’s a lot to be said for launching into the great unknown with an idea and barreling out thousands of words just to see what happens, after six years of trying to tame this writing beast, I know that there’s more to it than that. Sometimes it’s a brilliantly edited short story you thought would be a novel but just needed trimming. Sometimes it’s yet another draft because damn it who wants to read all that unedited crap. Sometimes it’s flash fiction because life with a toddler and the Great American Novel don’t mesh. It’s hard work, all of it, and less romantic than that bestseller and movie rights dream, but a lot of things that are worth it are hard work. Like owning a bookstore.

I wish that bookstore owner all the luck in the world, and I hope if there’s anything I can do to make her successful I will be able to step up and do it. I started that today by buying some books. She may not make it, but every indie bookstore I love exists because someone took the leap. And every book I ever stayed up all night reading, re-read eight (or ten or fifteen) times, or clutched to my chest after finishing it because I couldn’t let it go exists because someone rolled a piece of paper into a typewriter, picked up a pen, or opened a laptop.

Whatever you’re doing to build your word count today, I salute you. It is two parts hard work, and one part dream, but the dream keeps us going.

 


 

 

You can find Kris at her blog: noextrawords.wordpress.com

Twitter: @noextrawords

Facebook: facebook.com/noextrawords

And of course the podcast itself: No Extra Words

It’s Time To Tell Your Story

Your story needs to be told. No one can tell it like you. No one experiences it like you. I can’t write it for you. It’s your story, not mine.

It’s time you write your story.

Your story is informed by your experiences and reaction to them. Your story lingers in your head begging to be set free. Dare you expose what thoughts rest inside you? Nothing great happens without daring risks.

Now is the time to tell your story.

Your story might be a science fiction romp through the universe. It might be historical fiction. It might be a vampire romance. Or it might be autobiographical. It doesn’t matter – it’s your story to tell how you want it told.

There’s no better time than the present to write your story.

You can keep your story to yourself if you want, but at least get it out of your head and on paper or computer screen. No one has to read your story, it’s for you alone. But I promise when you do get your story out, it’ll make you feel accomplished. You’ll have done something worth shouting about. 

I want you to tell your unique story.

We all have stories within us. I think it’s part of being human. We carry thoughts and experiences around like energy in a battery. It fills us and powers us. We use them to relate to others. Sometimes we like to hold those stories close to us, but deep down, I think we all have a desire to share our story. 

This is your time to get your story out.

Every November during NaNoWriMo, hundreds of thousands of people decide it’s time to get their story out. They make the life-changing decision to finally let out what’s so long been rattling around in their head in a spectacular cathartic release. Isn’t it time you did the same? 

Your story needs to be told and only you can tell it.