The Next Chapter

Writing is a mixed bag of emotions. Yet no matter how difficult the journey, writers simply cannot quit writing. It’s who we are. It’s what we do. I heard this sentiment echoed among the women at a private writer’s retreat I recently attended. I also heard the same thoughts expressed in the two writer’s groups I joined.

The great thing about these two particular groups is that everyone is incredibly supportive of each writer’s success. Still, we sometimes communicate our desire to be ahead of where we are. A friend told me he wished he had several novels he was sitting on while waiting for the market to be right for them such as I am doing. I longed for a contract with a major publisher such as the one another friend recently landed. What I hope is that all of us can learn to be happy where we are in our writing lives while maintaining a forward progress.

I mention this because I have just completed an important step in the writing process: the completion of my second novel. I actually revisited this particular manuscript to increase the word count because although I believed I had finished it, the advice of others suggested that there was room to grow the book even more. Turns out these wise people who were able to step back from my work and assess it were correct.

Fortunately for me, getting back into the world of these particular characters was welcome and enjoyable. The novel grew in positive ways and is now in the hands of beta readers. While they read with pencils poised to correct and suggest, I’m experiencing post-writing letdown as I bid a gentle goodbye to my characters. Of course, I know this is not the end of my relationship with them. There will undoubtedly be editing and revisions in my future, but I must switch gears to engage another, less favorable part of my writing life: the dreaded query letter.

I returned to a post I wrote in December of 2014 (The Terror of Querying) where I admitted some things to myself regarding my query letter. While I’m preparing to query another book, the same principles apply. And this time, I find I’m much less afraid when thinking about of the process which, hopefully, will help me when I actually query.

While I’m on the secure-an-agent leg of my writing journey, I’ll continue writing by working on those amazing blog posts I promised you earlier as well as planning my next novel and reading every moment I’m not writing. As always, thanks for taking this journey with me.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 23

Recently, at my writer’s group, a fellow writer who is beginning her chosen art form told me that she was advised to not write above an eighth-grade level.  I remember several seconds of stunned silence between us before I asked, “Who told you that?”  Based on her troubled countenance, I don’t doubt that the horror of this suggestion came through in my tone.  I’ve also been told that my facial expressions convey exactly what I’m thinking, so I hope I didn’t overwhelm the poor woman with my response.  I wanted her to run screaming, just not from me.  If I didn’t scare her off, I’ll make sure I soften my reactions when discussing such matters in the future.

Still, I am shocked that this type of bad advice is floating around writer’s groups.  The last time I checked, there were still twelve grades a student in America needed to complete.  Somebody please tell me if the progression of education stopped at grade eight.  That would mean my child, currently a senior, has read nothing beyond an eighth-grade level for the past four years.  That’s insane.  Then again, I recall the small heart attack I experienced when I saw Stephenie Meyer’s The Host on the high school reading list.  Which piece of classic literature found itself guillotined at the inclusion of that piece of tripe?

I have suspected for a long time that the art form of writing was under attack.  My fellow writer’s comment confirmed this.  So when did the dumbing down of American literature begin?  I don’t know if I can actually pinpoint the precise moment it occurred, but I can tell you the moment I became aware of it.  (And shame on me for not being more vigilant if it took place sooner.)

Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content within education, literature, cinema, news, video games, and culture in order to relate to those unable to assimilate more sophisticated information.

I remember the day I saw a t-shirt printed with the statement “underachiever and proud of it.”  I had another moment, not quite as intense as that with my fellow writer, but one in which I was completely baffled.  I could not fathom a person or society comprised of people who willingly settled for mediocrity in anything and a world in which one did the bare minimum to get by.  There is no hope of success when one functions under such a principle.

And yet, this is exactly where we, as a society, have fallen twenty-five years later.  It’s as if those who bullied the smart kids for hanging out at the library weren’t content to just harass their fellow students.  They wouldn’t stop until the smart kids not only condoned but encouraged this stagnation of the intellect.  If you don’t get on board—don’t hold yourself back from seeking knowledge or temper your drive and ambitions—you’ll be labeled  a snob in the least and intolerant at the worst.

So again I ask:  why this attack on art?  Because art is dangerous.  Art tells the truth.  Artists are freethinkers who challenge the status quo.  It was a novelist and playwright who said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  A gold star to anyone who can tell me who said this.  Here’s where the problem of proud underachiever comes in.  The generation in which this concept became acceptable doesn’t care enough to find out who said the above-mentioned quote or what the quote even means.  They are too lazy to want this information for themselves and are disdainful toward anyone who does.  If it isn’t required of them in school, and based on the poor quality of curriculum in American schools I doubt that it is, they won’t reach out and grasp the knowledge.

That’s pathetic when you consider that we live in an era where knowledge is readily accessible.  No more searching through the card catalog or plowing through large volumes of encyclopedias.  You don’t even have to go to the library.  Just ask Alexa, Cortana, or Google what you need to know from the comfort of your couch.  Be sure to wait until the commercial or you’ll miss the best part of your favorite recorded TV show.

What troubles me about his indolent attitude is that it’s creeping backward and contaminating older generations.  Hopefully it won’t pollute the writing of those already established and feeling pressured to churn out more or older writers just beginning to pursue their passion.  As for me, I am personally committed to fighting this process of dumbing down by writing the best literature I can and by seeking to improve myself in every way.  I am not afraid to compete, to go for the gold.  After all, why run the race if I don’t intend to win?

I’ll most likely be among the first to die if America ever succumbs to an oppressive regime because we all know how much tyrants fear artists.  But If I can leave behind a written work that the next generation, possibly the survivors, smuggle from home to home and hold up as an example of what they should strive for, then my art—my writing—will not have been in vain.

How I Cheated at NaNoWriMo and Won

how-i-cheated-at-nanowrimoA couple years ago, my friend and fellow writer, S of JSMawdsley, talked me into trying NaNoWriMo. She mentioned it at the writer’s group she facilitates at the library where we worked. At the time, I was mainly a short story writer and dabbled in the occasional picture book. As luck would have it, I had an idea for a novel in mind, and NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect way to get it out of my head and on my laptop.

Being new to the world of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t prepare at all. I just started writing on November first and quit on November thirtieth. I had 50,000 words, which satisfied the requirements of NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t have a complete novel. What I did have was a lot of work ahead of me and the conviction that maybe I really hadn’t won.

At this point, S would probably have told me I needed to outline my novel, but the first thing I discovered from writing such a lengthy piece is that I’m a pantser. I plot a little when approaching my writing, but I love to explore the rabbit trails because that is where I discover my best writing. My opinion on pantsing can be read here: Are You A Pantser?

So, did I win NaNoWriMo or did I cheat? I started at about the last one-third of the novel because I had the most information for writing that portion. In short, I learned the valuable lesson of researching before you write especially if it’s for a contest such as NaNoWriMo. You don’t want the added stress of trying to conduct research while keeping up a word goal.

I pressed on throughout the year editing what I had written and creating the rest of the novel as I wanted it to be. I researched more thoroughly and ended up chucking quite a bit of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo. Again, part of that was my fault, but I also wondered if one 50,000-word novel every year is what I wanted. Is that what the creators of NaNoWriMo want?

I suspect and sincerely hope the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep people writing because that’s what I did. Before I knew it, November had rolled around again, and with it NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t finished with my first novel, so why on earth would I abandon it for the added pressure of creating a new novel. Admittedly, I had no new ideas at the time, and I didn’t want the burden of coming up with one. Also, there was no time to research even the slim ideas that passed through my head.

Instead, I cheated, and I cheated grandly! I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and without a single ounce of shame, I re-entered my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Dr. Welles’s story was almost complete, but I needed a little motivation to finish the missing chapters and tie it all together. NaNoWriMo provided this inspiration by keeping me on track with a daily word goal, but it also became a beneficial editing tool. If I edited my daily word goal, I counted it along with any new writing.

What I achieved wasn’t another half-baked novel, but rather a well-written, well-edited novel with which I was extremely pleased. A titch more editing after the fact, and Dr. Welles was ready for the hands of beta readers.

I took a couple years off from NaNoWriMo, but the point of the contest was always close to my heart. I knew I couldn’t devote time to a new novel and make The Secrets of Dr. John Welles all I wanted it to be.   Then there is the fact that when story inspiration comes to me, I have to begin which sometimes means starting before NaNoWriMo starts. Yes, there is Camp NaNo, but my heart belongs to the original taking place in November.

When NaNoWriMo rolled around this year, I was already a little over halfway through my current novel. During the month of October, I had to set my writing aside to prepare for my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. When I was ready to restart, good ole NaNoWriMo once again came to the rescue as a means up jumpstarting my writing. Although I didn’t sign up with the official website, I created a spreadsheet to track and tally my daily writing goal. I’m using it to finish the current novel, for which I am prepared research wise, as well as for any writing I do that can be published including my blog posts.

Yes, that’s cheating because it’s not a single new novel of at least 50,000 words. But again, I have to believe the heart and soul purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep writers writing. That is what I am doing.

A Snapshot of Writing

A Snapshot of WritingThe creation of art can be a wonderful and dreadful process at the same time. Some of the struggles I’ve encountered with my chosen art form of writing include writer’s block, doubts and fears regarding my abilities, the evil query and rejection letters, comparison, envy, impatience, and the list goes on and on. But every now and then, there are lamps along the tunnel as I travel toward the light at the end. That’s when it’s wonderful.

As an outlet for my frustration, I began to tag along with my sister-in-law when she took photographs. She’s really quite good and a patient teacher as well when I asked her questions on how she approached her shot. One of the ways she explained the process was to hand the camera to me. I declined the opportunity to even hold her camera, which looked far too technical and expensive, but in addition to being a great teacher, my sister-in-law is mildly insistent. There was no way I was getting off the hook.

So, I snapped a few pictures as she taught me what the various dials and buttons on the camera do. She talked me through the procedure, and by allowing me to make mistakes, I learned quite a bit and became addicted to photography.

Here’s where the wonderful part happened. After setting up an account on ViewBug for my photos, joining challenges, and voting on other peoples’ pictures, I earned a free tutorial on landscape photography. Even though I don’t own a camera, I watched the video with the hopes of gaining more knowledge and possibly impressing my sister-in-law.

The lesson on photography will help me hone my skill, but what truly impressed me was how much of what the instructor said could be applied to writing. For starters, new experiences are good for you. Even if you’ve been writing for a while, keep in mind that every time you start a new piece, you’re taking yourself someplace you’ve never been with a different location, characters, style, descriptions, etc. And even if you’re working on a series, you have the power to make something new happen each time. Then there is your unique perspective. You are going to see things differently than anyone else in the world, so write them from the perspective that you alone possess.

As for equipment, writers have the luxury of keeping it simple, and I strongly suggest you do. A well-sharpened pencil and single-subject, college ruled notebook is all you need to create literary brilliance. Know the basics and fundamentals of your technique. Scouting a good location is important for a writer because distractions, even in the home, will keep you from your goal. Timing is important for the same reason: determine when in your day you are the most productive and stick to the schedule. And when it comes to composition, that’s where your personal style will shine through.

So now it’s time to address your process. The instructor on the tutorial called it a mind process and used words every writer knows. He started with subject. Identify what deserves to be written. Don’t forget POV. Take a small bit of advice from a photographer, and don’t be afraid to explore multiple POVs at the same time. What it does for photography will not be lost on writing. The formula for determining exposure translates into plotting, pantsing, or a combination thereof for a writer. Again, don’t be afraid to experiment. Next, decide what you’d like to focus on. Once all of this is determined, work that composition.

When you show your photographs to other people, they don’t know what else is going on around the scene you’ve captured or how you felt when you took it. Writers can combat this issue by providing essential backstory at the appropriate time. But just like a photographer, you don’t have to show it all. Leave a little mystery, a little something to the imagination, and your reader won’t feel led around by the nose. Write about the most interesting parts because that’s where the story is, and you’ll capture a good picture. A mental picture in this case. Remember that the objective is not to capture one big picture of everything all at once, but rather a frame that tells a clear story. You are the director, you choose the content.

Don’t fall in love with the first thing you write. Investigate your characters’ surroundings and discover what else you can do with it or them. Walk through their world. Return many times with breaks in between. Take another look at your subject, and decide what else you can do with it. Then apply your creative style in a way no one else has thought of.

Add vibrant but well-written details and structure, and a sense of order will emerge. You can do this on different levels of your writing whether writing on a grand scale, intimate stories, or the minute particulars. Keep in mind that your ideal and the reality won’t always match, but don’t let this discourage you. Work with what you’re given, seek inspiration, and the great story will come.

As for filters, they apply to the writer during the editing stage. You’ll be able to filter out the bad in your own writing after you’ve set it aside for a couple months and return to it fresh. Beta readers provide some of the best filtering toward your writing goal, seeing things you didn’t, and offering advice from their own perspective.

With a few modifications, the guidelines for taking a great photograph apply to writing with stunning clarity. I mentioned this at my writer’s group and was told by a poet that this is known as the rules of the creatives. They are a set of standards that transcend one artistic form to positively influence another. Hanging with the poets a couple of times a year has already lent valuable insight to my writing. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that my newfound hobby would as well.

There are so many artistic pursuits that crossover to supply inspiration and encouragement. Already I’m viewing the story ingredients in my mind and trying to figure a way to bake them all together so as to produce a perfect word painting. I suggest you do the same.

To NaNoWriMo, or not to NaNoWriMo, that is the question

I first heard about NaNoWriMo two years ago from my friend who heads our Writer’s Group. The idea of writing 50,000 words (an entire novel) in thirty days was both exciting and terrifying. As luck would have it, I had been kicking around an idea for a great novel. NaNoWriMo seemed like a good way to get the story out of my head and onto paper.

Before NaNoWriMo, I wrote short stories and children’s stories of picture book length. I had never heard of outlining a novel which might have been helpful for my first NaNoWriMo experience. Undaunted, I began writing near the end of the book leading up to the scene that was the catalyst for the whole novel. That’s when I realized I need to go back to my character’s beginning. My first experience with NaNoWriMo was a jumbled mess.

I reached my goal of 50,000 words but didn’t have a complete novel. There was more to the story than I originally thought. The rest of the year was spent creating those portions while editing and chucking large sections of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I began to wonder if my November efforts had all been for naught when NaNoWriMo rolled around again. What to do?

I cheated again. I used the 50,000 word goal to keep writing new stuff my novel needed and editing what I had written last year. Perhaps the Deities of NaNoWriMo would smack my fingers with a ruler for this, but I justify what I did with the explanation that at least I wrote.

This year marks the third NaNoWriMo since I first participated. I didn’t join. I also didn’t use it as a motivational tool for rewrites and editing. I let myself off the hook with the understanding that my schedule and novel were in different places than what NaNoWriMo required. In short, I didn’t have the time and there wasn’t anything new to write or edit to meet the word count. I also didn’t want to start another novel when I already had one under way.  I’m not sorry for having tried NaNoWriMo, and I’ll probably do it again. In the meantime, I shall continue working on my second round of editing and looking for beta readers.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not NaNoWriMo is for you, consider the following article by Christopher Shultz. He’s much more eloquent in his explanation of what one needs to consider before jumping feet first into NaNoWriMo without knowing what it’s all about. I agree with his opinion that one should make NaNoWriMo work for him/her and that it isn’t a ‘must’ or ‘mustn’t’ situation in the life of a writer.

Zane in the City

Love Me, Love My Dog

Love Me, Love My Dog

The following short story was written for a contest hosted by the American Kennel Club.  When I wrote it, I had my friend, Diana, in mind.  Diana is a member of the writers’ group I attend at the North Branch of the Stark County District Library.  She is a dog lover and owns an Italian Spinone.  Her beloved Bernese Mountain Dog, Targa, recently passed away.

Targa was an amazing dog who pulled a little cart.  She was the subject of several children’s stories Diana wrote.  Together they attended classes to certify Targa as a therapy dog.  Even though she didn’t pass, Diana’s love for Targa was evident whenever she talked about her.  My goal was to capture that love and channel it into a story about a dog owner and her pet.

I decided upon a hound for my story because of another friend’s fondness for them.  Hounds can be strong-willed beasts who will own you if you don’t lovingly, patiently train them.  Even then, you may find yourself bested from time to time.

You’ll want to make a cup of cocoa for this cold weather story.  Lucky for you, there just happens to be a recipe for cocoa on my blog under Edible Fiction.  It’s the perfect beverage for the tale that follows.  So, grab some cocoa, curl up under your favorite throw, make sure your four-footed friends are gathered around you, sit back, read and relax!

Zane in the City

 

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