Preparing for NaNoWriMo? Step 1: Clear the Decks and Collect Ingredients

Ingredients set out to be transformed into imaginative cakes and tortes. Poppelsdorfer Schloss café, Bonn, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.
Ingredients set out to be transformed into imaginative cakes and tortes. Poppelsdorfer Schloss café, Bonn, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

A friend (waving to Jane!) asked me how to prepare for National Novel Writing Month and after I sent her the third e-mail, suggested I write a blog post since November 1st is coming right up.

This is the first post in a short series on preparing for National Novel Writing Month. You can find the second post about finding the core of your story here and the third post about organizing your story bits and pieces into a winning shape here. Happy Writing!

Jane had lots of good ways to clear the decks:

  1. Read Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem!
  2. Freeze a few extra dinners.
  3. Set up to write. Get the writing set-up organized, whether that means lots of spiral notebooks or Scrivener on your computer or iPad.
  4. Plan your time. Block out writing-free days in November. Set up word-count targets in Scrivener or use the free online Pacemaker.

I had a few more ideas about the actual writing prep. It looks a little different depending on the kind of inspiration you’ve got for this project, but it’s all about putting it where you can find it again.

  1. No inspiration? Then set up virtual or physical shoeboxes*, go out into your world with all your senses active and find some. The things that appeal to you personally give your book that unique voice people are always talking about. Don’t skimp here.
  2. Idea for a character? Try the brilliant and deceptively simple Reverse Backstory Tool to nail down your character’s wants and needs.
  3. Idea for a setting? Go to the library and get a pile of photo books or picture books that give you visuals. When you get stuck writing, dip into a book and whatever you see, goes into the story. If you’ve got a contemporary, realistic story in mind, you could try the Urban Setting Thesaurus or the Rural Setting Thesaurus.
  4. Idea for some part of a story? Try this fascinating Day by Day Outline for NaNoWriMo. This list could save you when it’s 10 PM and you’re sleeping on the keyboard, but you want another 1,000 words.

*Virtual shoeboxes can be anything from a Word file with a long, alphabetized list of ideas of all kinds, a private blog that lets you search for that elusive link, a Pinterest board, or a nifty app on your smartphone. Pick something fun and easy to use.

Have favorite ways to get ready for NaNoWriMo? Share your tips for success in the comments below.

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The Olympic Games Blues: 9 Ways to Juice Up Your Writing Life

Building with glass dome with gold figure on top
The local name for this building is Zitronenpresse or the “lemon juicer.” What do you do when your writing life is squeezed dry? © Laurel Decher, 2016.

When my older brother and I were 8 or 10 or 12 years old, Mom would turn off the Olympic Games because we got so down in the dumps about how little we had achieved in our lives.

These days, it’s even easier to see what everyone else is achieving. Don’t misunderstand: I love to see writer friends achieve challenging milestones! It gives me hope that it can be done.

Over time, I’ve collected a lot of friends who write and publish, so there are more and more milestones to celebrate. This is wonderful! It’s thrilling to see hard work rewarded and see good work in the hands of readers who enjoy it.

The problem comes when I look at my current projects and measure them against the goalposts of all my writer friends simultaneously.

I start wondering if my pumpkins will EVER bloom into coaches and drive away to the palace. It’s a kind of ambition sickness that makes me dissatisfied with my work and leaves me hopelessly unproductive.

So, what’s to do? How do you cure the Olympic Games Blues? Here are some questions that help me. Maybe you’d like to try them:

  1. Am I writing regularly? When I see a bit of progress* in my creative work, I feel much happier about my projects. If it isn’t possible to write a LOT, make time to write a LITTLE, regularly. A bit of scribbling in a notebook scares away the imposter syndrome.
    *progress by any measure: word count, improved scene, dialogue, or understanding of character motivation etc.
  2. What creative work have I done this year? When I feel like I’m getting nowhere, it helps to widen the window. Bill Gates widens it even more: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
  3. What have I learned about writing recently? I don’t mean information about writing or publishing. I mean what have I experienced about writing or tested out in publishing. (Show Don’t Tell applies to more than the written page.)
  4. Am I taking risks in my writing and publishing? Risks can be queries, contests, workshops, whatever. Risks are scary to the lizard brain, but they fill the creative brain with hope. Something is about to happen!
  5. Whose work inspires me right now? Reading reminds me why I wanted to write in the first place. It also makes me happy and happiness makes the creativity flow. Reading books I love gives me the experience I want to give readers. That experience gives me ideas of things I want to try in my own writing.
  6. What’s the very next step? I had an advisor in graduate school who helped me so much during my dissertation research. He took time to meet with me, listened to what I was working on, and asked, “What’s next?” This question works wonders because it’s easy to get behind when you get ahead of yourself.
  7. Do something else. The elusive joy of writing sometimes shakes loose after we play hard to get for a while. Try gardening, long hikes, cooking, or whatever hits your reset button.
  8. Broaden your gaze. Put your work in perspective. Get involved in a charity auction, visit a prison and do a workshop on writing, or do an open mike with a girl scout troop. Figure out how your work can give something to others in another way. Take the pressure off the words.
  9. Lose a rule. What are you telling yourself about writing and publishing that might not be true? Try dropping a writing “rule” and see what happens.

Ambition puts the focus on an inflexible, predetermined, and probably inaccurate future. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ambition is called a “grievous fault” and is connected with greed for power. Ambition is an attempt to steal the future.

Creativity happens in the present. It solves problems playfully, without worrying about the Olympic Gold. Persistence puts the focus on the creative work and not on the uncontrollable outcome.

What helps you when the bar seems too high? Feel free to share in the comments below. I’d love to know what you do to get your writing life back on track.

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The Joy of Exploring Your Writing Territory

Black peppermill like machine with sliders around the body and a crank on top
The first hand-held calculator was invented “after hours” in Buchenwald concentration camp by Curt Herzstark. If creativity kept him going there, what’s my excuse? Image: Arithmeum, Bonn.

I’ve been reading Susan Kaye Quinn‘s Indie Author Survival Guide (Second Edition) Crafting a Self-Publishing Career Book 1). In spite of the title, the book covers topics that are also interesting to traditional novelists. All writers struggle with figuring out a target audience, creative freedom, and how to keep from “stopping too soon.”

Susan Kaye Quinn highlights an especially intriguing idea about how to escape comparisonitis from Steven Pressfield:

There are many nuggets of inspiration in War of Art by Steven Pressfield (I highly recommend it), but I’m going to highlight the section where Pressfield describes dealing with writerly competition in Territory vs. Hierarchy (I’m paraphrasing):

We (as humans and writers) define our place in the world either by Hierarchy (a social pecking order) or by Territory (a turf or domain). For the artist/writer, Hierarchy is that destructive urge to compete against others, to evaluate our success by our rank within the hierarchy of writers, and to write based on the effect it produces on the hierarchy. Pressfield insists the writer must operate territorially: to do work for its own sake, inwardly focused. Territorial work provides sustenance—the writer puts work in and receives back well-being; similarly the territory of our creations can only be claimed by the work we put into it. The artist who commands their domain is satisfied by the creation itself; the work is its own reward.

This goes beyond the “work is its own reward” trope. Staying focused on working territorially keeps the debilitating effects of hierarchical thinking from beating you down.

The Arithmeum museum in Bonn has the world’s largest collection of “calculating machines” which honestly sounded a bit boring until I went on a tour there last week. Inventing a machine that could carry over to the next place (from 9 to 10 or from 999 to 1,000) is a work of the imagination.

Our mathematician and tour guide demonstrated a beautiful, grandfather clock-like calculator whose inventor, Poleni. It made a lovely ratcheting sound while it added up numbers. Unfortunately, Poleni committed suicide after a contemporary’s calculator achieved the next coveted milestone.

This second calculator apparently didn’t work reliably but was a great prestige object for the Viennese Emperor. Even in mathematics, there are many milestones and many ways to solve the same problem. To me, Poleni’s story looks like a classic case of stopping too soon.

Fiction has easily as much inventive territory to explore. We’ll never get through the possibilities of plot, narration, characterization, dialogue, structure, imagery, language, rhythm, or metaphor in our lifetimes.

There’s so much to discover. Let’s encourage each other to keep on keeping on.

Happy Writing!

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Writing Gratitude Countdown (6): The Gift of a Professional Eye

A partially constructed ferris wheel against a blue sky with puffy white clouds.
Ferris Wheel In Progress. Dresden, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the sixth post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. As we gain more experience as writers, we learn to value different things.

Writing contests and pitching opportunities are adrenaline-driven chances to win the “Golden Ticket” of an agent or a publishing contract.

Friends, there are more writing adventures ahead!

A knowledgeable editor’s feedback can be life-changing in a completely different way. When you’ve been working on a project for a while and you just can’t get traction, there’s nothing better than skilled analysis delivered with tact. (Sometimes the tact isn’t absolutely necessary.)

I love reading books about the writing craft but it’s not always possible to see your own work clearly. Sometimes I’m feverishly fixing the subtext in a scene when the real problem is that I’ve mislaid my character motivations. That’s when I need a professional eye to help me out of the writing jungle.

That brings me to number six in my Writing Gratitude Countdown [sound the trumpets!]:

6. The Gift of a Professional Eye: the value of personalized expert advice.

Thank you to these generous editors who routinely offer prizes of the expert sort! Penniless writers everywhere call down blessings on you!

a) Kristine Asselin, a.k.a. the Query Godmother let me try out her query writing Mad-Libs-style template and critiqued my query. A fun way to get your query written!

She’s also the author of Any Way You Slice It, a YA novel with pizza, hockey, a determined heroine, and a cute boy. (Try it, you’ll like it.)

b. Ellen Brock, Professional Freelance Novel Editor has a series of videos on all aspects of novel-writing. She also gives away opening pages feedback during her Novel Boot Camp. The rest of the year, you can submit your first page and query for a critique.

c) Deborah Halverson gives away a free partial edit and a grand prize of a

Fully assembled ferris wheel against a blue sky.
Completed ferris wheel. Dresden, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

free full edit every year during Revision Week. (In 2016, Revision Week was in June.) At her website, DearEditor.com, she also answers writers’ questions year-round.

 

I won a partial edit and was blown away by her excellent, detailed, and entertaining feedback.

Thanks so much!

 

d) Sara Cypher, The Threepenny Editor gives away a free full edit every year in honor of the anniversary of her editing business. I didn’t win this prize, but she sent me a very encouraging e-mail. Maybe you’ll win this year’s: Enter by October 15, 2016.

I hope my editing contest experiences inspire you to take another step forward in your writing life.

Fully lit ferris wheel shining on a dark night. Reflections in the water.
Editors make your work shine. Ferris wheel at Dresden City Festival. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Thank you so much to these brilliant editors. You shined light in the darkness!

Kristine Asselin, Ellen Brock, Deborah Halverson, and Sara Cypher.

And that’s my sixth installment of gratitude for my writing journey.

(The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, and 3. The Gift of Hospitality, and 4. The Gift of Feedback, 5. The Gift of a Deadline.) More to come!

Please share your stories of eagle eyes who’ve rescued your work from the deleted folder.

Happy Writing!

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Writing Gratitude Countdown (5): The Gift of a Deadline

lamp post with four feet and very knobby knees outside the Zwinger Museum in Dresden.
Need a leg to stand on? Try one of these contests to get a little more support for your writing. © Laurel Decher, 2016. Zwinger Museum, Dresden.

This is the fifth post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. I keep finding more things to appreciate about the writing life.

It’s sometimes easier to be gentler with other writers than with yourself. But being hard on yourself for too long dries up the words. Gratitude is a wonderful oasis from ambition.

Gratitude also seems to be a writerly re-set button. Remembering all the people who took time for me is humbling. Humility and gratitude make it easier to give myself time to grow as a writer.

(You can find earlier posts here: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, 3. The Gift of Hospitality, 4. The Gift of Feedback)

5. The Gift of a Deadline: the value of markers in the sand

Even after a manuscript has been re-written and polished, there are so many steps to work through before it can be sent out into the world. Gratitude helps my writing motivation and so does a solid deadline.

Fortunately for writers, the publishing community has a generous selection of contests that help great stories come to light. Here are a few of the ones that have helped me:

a. Get your pitch** ready. When I first heard about Twitter pitch contests, I didn’t get it. How could it help to describe your manuscript in 140 characters?

But Twitter pitches aren’t just a catchy sales technique to find an agent or editor. Writing a Twitter pitch for #PitMad helped me identify my story’s core.

**Read all about pitches and find dates for upcoming contests at The Winged Pen.

Thanks to Authoress for organizing all the moving parts of so many pitch contests! I’m very grateful for the deadlines! Check out all of her contests here.

b. Get your query ready.

Michelle Hauck offers several contests that require a query letter: Query Kombat, Nightmare on Query Street, Sun versus Snow, Picture Book Party, and New Agent. I got great feedback in the New Agent contest.

Thanks Michelle Hauck for organizing these great opportunities!

Thanks Wade Albert White for your excellent feedback on my query and first 250 words and a even a synopsis! (Talk about over and above!) His middle grade book is available for pre-order on Amazon: THE ADVENTURER’S GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL ESCAPES. You can add it to your GoodReads list here.

c. Get your first page(s) ready.

  • Secret Agent Contest Submit the first 250 words of a completed manuscript. Monthly except June and December. While you’re at Authoress’s website, Miss Snark’s First Victim, check out her other contests.

The other contestants weigh in on the entries, so you’ll get lots of feedback even if the Secret Agent doesn’t comment on yours. And the feedback I got from superagent Linda Epstein made me say: “Oh, that’s what they mean by tension!” Invaluable.

Thanks again, Authoress!

Thanks Secret Agent Linda Epstein!

Kathy Temean’s contest lets you submit 250 words to a different agent each month. If your entry is chosen, you get specific agent feedback on your page.

Thanks Kathy Temean for organizing this monthly contest and for interviewing new agents every month! Sign up for her excellent newsletter here.

Thanks to YA author and literary agent, Marie Lamba, for her insightful feedback!

d. Get a once-over for you first 50 pages. Or your whole manuscript.

Believe it–writers are generous people. #PitchWars is a contest where over 100 authors volunteer to read submitted manuscripts and fight over the privilege of working with their favorite over the next three months. For a taste of what these generous writers are like, check out my fellow Winged Pen mentors here.

Some mentors even offer feedback to manuscripts they didn’t take on. I really appreciated hints I got back from my almost-mentors that my story was starting too late. It’s easy to write a few more chapters for the beginning once you have feedback like that.

Thanks for organizing this amazing event every year Brenda Drake! I don’t know how you do what you do. You’re always thinking up new ways to fish writers work out of obscurity.

Add these books published by #pitchwars authors to your reading list.

If, like me, you didn’t get into PitchWars or you missed the deadlines for these contests, there’s no need to despair. There’s more generosity going on all the time. I’ve seen a number of charity auctions offering great writerly prizes to raise money for colleagues, help refugees, or to celebrate a writing anniversary.

For example, here’s one that was organized by middle grade author, Shannon Hale. Auctions are often announced on Twitter.

I was fortunate to win a 50-page critique from Jackson Eflin in honor of Ava Jae’s Blogoversary.

Thanks Ava Jae!

Thanks Jackson!

This post is getting too long again now, so I have to stop. But there are always more opportunities to help and be helped as a writer. If the contests above aren’t quite the kind of deadline you’re looking for, the Sub it Club does a contest round-up every month.

Feel free to mention your favorite writing contest below in the comments. I’d love to hear about your experiences of generosity.

Happy writing! Happy submitting!

So that’s my fifth installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, and 3. The Gift of Hospitality, and 4. The Gift of Feedback.) More to come!

If you’d like to share about people who helped you see your own work clearly, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear about it!

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Writing Gratitude Countdown (4): The Gift of Feedback

Worker in orange vest squeegees windshield of ICE train in Dresden Train Station.
Who helps you see your work clearly? © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the fourth post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. It’s a series about people who’ve helped me on my writing journey so far. I’m taking a moment to say a heartfelt thank you!

(You can find earlier posts here: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, 3. The Gift of Hospitality.)

4. The Gift of Feedback: the value of clear sight

a. How critique works: The earliest critique group I can remember was in high school, in my Creative Writing class. I think my beloved and brilliant writer friend Zina got me to sign up. Mrs. Chloe Vroman and her Creative Writing class at Provo High School. This is where I learned that it’s easier to see inside someone else’s story than inside your own. And that the right critique can open up the story for the writer. I wish I’d said thank you before it was too late! 😦

b. How a group works: Smart and funny Colin Ryan led me to my first critique group in Vermont, led by lovely, hospitable Margie Sims. As well as sharing her writing expertise, she modelled simple organization, communication, snacks, structure. Later, the group became a collaboration between me and the industrious and highly capable JoAnn Carter. All of them taught me how to make a safe space for writers.

c. How writers can sabotage their own success and how critique partners (CP’s) can save them: At the Ockenga Writers Publishing Workshop, I found another group of thoughtful, generous readers. (I wrote more about the Workshop here. My dear friend Eileen first invited me there and it changed my life.) My patient CP’s put up with my unconscious but annoying thrashing* until I finally learned to stop it.

We encouraged each other to keep on going and believe in each others’ work. A vote of confidence is so valuable! Thanks a million million Girard and Jeanne Doyon and Lisa Morrison!

*thrashing–the neverending revision of a single piece of work, generally prompted by waiting for someone else to tell you what your story should be about.

d. How critique groups raise the bar: I’ve written about how I became a part of The Winged Pen here. This group of power writers is the epitome of “set your sights high.”

I call this the calculus factor after the feeling I had when the girl next to me in calculus class asked questions until she understood everything on the chalkboard. It opened my eyes: “Oh, we’re actually supposed to know this so we can use it.”

Gratitude is an interesting lens. The more I look through it, the more I see how I’ve been helped. When writing is a wall that blocks the way forward, it’s useful to remember what kinds of help are possible.

Another unexpected benefit: it’s fun to reconnect to people I’ve lost track of. I’m enjoying the successes of my long-lost friends and mentors! Well done, all of you! It’s an honor to know you.

Happy writing!

So that’s my fourth installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, and 3. The Gift of Hospitality.) More to come!

If you’d like to share about people who helped you see your own work clearly, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear about it!

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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“Sharing: A Practice of the Heart” at The Mudroom

Interior castle courtyard. Half-timbered houses nestled together for safety.

In medieval castles, people traded living space for protection. What will you trade for the life you want? Eltz Castle, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This month, I’m over at The Mudroom blog writing about Simplicity, Intentionality, and Living Small. That’s their theme for August. Here’s a taste of my essay:

Sharing: A Practice of the Heart

How do you decide to voluntarily limit the space you occupy in the world?

When I moved to Germany four years ago with my family, I thought we’d live the romantic European life. An apartment instead of a house and garden, string bags for the daily grocery shopping, errands by streetcar, vacations by train, and fresh vegetables from the market square.

Read the rest of the post over at The Mudroom.

Thanks for reading!

Laurel

 

 

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