Posted in Writing

Milestones and Checkpoints

Tomorrow marks the end of Today’s Author’s first year. Rob and I started this blog because another blog was ending it’s run, and we didn’t feel like we were done. When we started we really didn’t know what to expect, or what this would become. We had a few authors we knew who decided to come on board, and a few we were less familiar with. And while I don’t know what Rob would say, as long as we got a little traffic and a little participation, I’d call it a success. But I think we got a lot more than that.

Today’s Author’s 2013

  • 269 Posts (counting this one and tomorrow’s writing prompt) – That includes:
    • 152 Posts by our writers
    • 107 Write Now Writing Prompts
    • 10 Writer’s Circle Discussions
  • 1647 Comments (as of the drafting of this post) – That’s a little more than 6 comments per post.
  • 15 Writers – That includes some writers we’d never even “met” when this blog started. We’ve lost a couple in the last year to busy schedules. And we’ve had one take a step back to deal with a terrible, terrible year–and hope she’ll be back to the pen sometime soon in 2014.

Looking deeper than just the numbers:

  • We’ve had our own Sharon Pratt have a post featured on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed section, which presents highlights from around the blogging platform’s community.
  • Our Tuesday and Friday Wite Now Prompts are now listed on The Daily Post, one of WordPress’ own blogs (about blogging).
  • And perhaps, most importantly, we have steadily grown a community of writers whose goal is to help inspire and motivate each other.

It’s all better than I’d hoped. Now I’m anxious to hear what you think–our readers and our contributors. How do you think we’ve done in 2013, and what would you like to see in 2014?

Posted in Writing

NaNoWriMo, Don’t Stop Now


What to do with your 50,000 words now that you’ve won NaNoWriMo

dont_stopCongratulations. You’ve survived a NaNoWriMo November. Not only that, you won. You kept a vigilant eye on that daily goal. And you met–or even exceeded–that goal enough days in the last month that you’ve emerged from the fray with 50,000 words. Now, it’s time to take a look at what you have.

You’ve got a bad, first draft. I’m not trying to tear you down. I’m just telling you what is, in all likelihood, the truth.

But that’s OK. NaNoWriMo, isn’t designed to get you to write a polished novel. It’s supposed to get you off the sofa and into your writing chair. And it did that. But NaNoWriMo is just a first step. And I’d like to give you a little advice on how to take the next step, and do something with what you just wrote.

1. Pause, Don’t Stop

Do you know how long it takes to break a bad habit? Or to create a good one? 28 days. If you do something for 28 days, you have changed YOU. You are now a more productive writer. So we don’t want to lose that. But it’s also important to acknowledge that the pace you’ve been holding yourself to isn’t sustainable–at least not if you have school or a job (or both). Plus, over the past month you’ve probably negelected a few things–maybe even an important person in your life.

So for a couple days it’s a good idea to calm down. Rregroup. Relax. Take your understanding sweetie out for a thank-you dinner. Catch up on a few deadlines and that pile of laundry.

And while you should NOT keep writing at the breakneck pace you’ve been pushing for, you should definitely keep writing. Every day. Even if it’s just a little. Unless your story ended at 50,000 words, just keep writing that. Even if it’s just for 20 minutes each day.

You’re not done, but yes, you deserve a break. A small one.

2. Evaluate

NaNoWriMo doesn’t really allow time to look over what you’ve written. That’s intentional. It’s real purpose is to show you what you can do if you turn off your internal editor. But now you need that annoying alter ego with the red pen. Reread your NaNoWriMo output with a critical eye.

If the story has held up, great. Highlight sections that might not be up to the quality you want. Move stuff around so it flows better. NaNoWriMo left you with a beautiful mound of clay that looks kind of like a story. But now it’s time for careful sculpting to bring out the details.

If your story didn’t hold up, that’s OK too. Because I guarantee you there are snipets of gold in that morass of 50,000 words. Now comes the time to find those hidden treasures and get rid of the rest (BTW, “get rid of” means move into a different document so you can look over it if you need to. It does NOT mean delete).

Which brings me to a question. At the end of NaNoWriMo was your story done? If so you can skip Step 3 and head directly to Step 4. But for the other 99.9%, Step 3 is for you.

3. Keep Writing the Story

Just because NaNoWriMo is over doesn’t mean your story is. Finish it. If the heavy word count is something that was working for you, then keep sprinting. Or, if the gaps in your plot were starting to bug you, but you couldn’t patch the cracks and still win, now is a great time to slow down and smooth over the rough spots. Do a little character backstory, or chart out your plot. Now that you’re not on a strict deadline, you can take a little time and proceed with a little more deliberation if that’s what you want.

What you don’t want to do is set the 50,000 words aside and say, “I’ll get back to it later.” Too many NaNoWriMo novels have died because the author lost momentum. NaNoWriMo tries to make a habit of out writing now. Don’t settle back into the habit of writing later.

4. Edit

After your NaNoWriMo novel is written, you don’t have a finished book. You have a finished draft. So here’s the time when you go back over your work and tweak, rewrite, path, expound…whatever you need to do to turn a rough draft into a second draft, and eventually into a finished work.

How long did it take you to write your daily NaNoWriMo word count? 2 hours? Then set aside 2 hours each day to edit and revise your book. If that wasn’t a pace you could keep up, then make it one hour.

Wrapping it up

If you haven’t noticed the theme running through this post, let me sum up.

You’re not done. So don’t stop.

Posted in Writing

Getting Some Distance

There’s an old aphorism that in order to write about love, you can’t be in love. That is to say that you must have lost love, and be removed from it, before you have the perspective to write about it. You may have encountered this is your own writing, in a different way. Have you ever been told–or told someone–that you were too close to your own story?

What’s that about? Is there any merit to the idea that by putting a work aside, and forcing some emotional distance between you and it, that you can gain a sense of perspective?

Maybe we can answer that by looking at a different kind of love–love of a place.

James Joyce’s Dubliners is a collection of short-stories set in Dublin, Ireland in the early twentieth century. Critics at the time hailed the work as capturing the essence of living in a modern Ireland. And since it’s publication in 1914, it has been held up as the epitome of capturing a time and a place in fiction. But while Joyce had most definitely lived in Dublin–he was born there and lived in and around Dublin for 22 years–he wrote Dubliners while living in Zurich and Trieste. In fact, in letters he wrote that he used the stories to remind himself about why he missed Dublin, as well as reminding him of why he left.

The reason that putting some space in between you and you own fiction can, sometimes, be helpful, is that the absence of something from your life–and from your daily consciousness–has a tendency to distill your memories of that thing–that place, that person, that story–down to most memorable aspects.

I have been divorced for nine years now. When I look back on the years I knew my wife the things that stand out to me are the very best and worst of the relationship. I remember, with great fondness our trip to the Salt Lake City Olympic Games–it was probably the best vacation of my life. And, equally, I remember coming to terms with infertility, and the growing stretches of time we spent apart, until ultimately we were no longer a couple. But I have to work to remember the little joys and trials of daily life with her. I’m sure we had favorite restaurants we frequented, or television shows we watched together, but I can’t recall any of these.

Time has distilled the entire relationship down to the truly memorable things–the good and the bad. The trivial things–that matter immensely to day to day life–get smoothed out and pushed to the background.

Likewise, after some time away from a story, the things that stick in your head, are those characters, those scenes, those lines of prose, that captured your attention and boiled in your subconscious. Those are things that made you have to write the story. And the little things, the scenes you wrote just to get the reader to the next good part, the flat character who serves merely as a distraction, and the clunky prose that you always meant to make better but never did, those things get forgotten. And once you reread your work, they stand out like headlights in the desert. As you reacquaint yourself with the story and characters, what you love and hate about it will rise to the surface.

You can write your story, and you can write it with love…but maybe the two of you just need a little distance.

Posted in Writing


waitLess than 24 hours until the start of NaNoWriMo.

Over the last month, we at Today’s Author have weighed in on NaNoWriMo. We’ve told you why we’ll play along, and why we won’t. We’ve meted out advice on what you need to do in order to finish, and what you need to have in place before you start to improve your chances.

Now it’s your turn…and, ours too. Depending on when you’re reading this, you have less than 24 hours left in your normal life.

Over the next month, we understand you might be a little short on time, but be sure to swing by. We’ll be here. Some of us will be sharing our own NaNoWriMo progress. We’ll also be continuing our tradition of supplying writing prompts each Tuesday and Friday–if you’re up against a creative block, these could provide just the right boost. And others will be offering encouraging words and a shoulder to lean on.

Good luck.

Well? What are you waiting for? Get writing.

But wait until Midnight or it doesn’t count.

Posted in Writing

Planning for a Busy November

This month, we at Today’s Author have a specific goal in mind. We want you help you get ready for NaNoWriMo.

What?! You’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo?!
Come out from under that rock and sit a spell, and let me fill you in. This is from their Wikipedia page:”NaNoWriMo is an annual internet-based creative writing project that takes place every November. NaNoWriMo challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and 30. Despite its name, it accepts entries from around the world. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get people writing, no matter how bad the writing is, through the end of a first draft.”

I’ll take exception to one part of that description: “no matter how bad the writing is.”

I don’t like that. While I certainly agree that the goal of turning off your editor, and giving the creative monster inside you a Frankenstein-like jolt of juice, if at the end of the month, you’re left with 50,000 words that make you cringe when you think about tucking into the second draft, I don’t think you’ve done yourself any favors. Of course, I’d rather you write 50,000 words about the positive effects the US Congress has had on the modern word (i.e., alternative history/speculative fiction) then nothing at all.

NaNoWriMo2013This month, we want to help you move past the nothing, keep moving past the worthless first draft, and into the territory of creating a first draft that leaves you wanting to finish it. A lofty goal for sure, but most of us here at Today’s Author lean a little toward the megalomaniacal.

To kick things off, I want to help you with a little basic math.

To finish NaNoWriMo you need to write 50,000 words in November. November has 30 days. That’s 1666.66667 words each day, right? You don’t need to look for a calculator, Google search will solve math problems for you. I’ll wait. OK, so whether you just checked my math or not….That’s 1666.66667 words each day, right?

WRONG. It’s at least 2,000 words per day.

No, I didn’t suddenly develop acalculia. I am instead acknowledging a basic fact: *(&%^# happens. You will not be able to write everyday–or at the very least you can’t rely on the same level of productivity each day. Why not?

Oh I don’t know…maybe Thanksgiving! Yes the the helpful people at NaNoWriMo chose a month that’s 3-7 days shorter than it appears–at least for those of us in the US. Unless you have no family, or are more than willing to snub them, you’re probably not going to get a lot of writing done on National Food Coma Day (NaFooCoDa)–what with all that football and all those carbs. And if you’ve got kids and a budget, you may lose a good bit of the next day as well, as you pepper spray and kidney punch your neighbors to beat them out to the extra 1% discount that applies from 5:00AM to 5:01AM–Ahhhh, Black Friday.

The point is, if you want to succeed, you need to build a little margin-of-error into your schedule. Because in November the silent manjority of NaNoWriMos (>85% don’t finish) will learn the hard way that it’s nearly impossible to write 50,000 words in 30 days if you’re writing behind schedule.

If in the first six days you can write 2,000 words each day, you’ll be at 12,000–2,000 words ahead of where you need to be at the 1666.66667 pace. That’s a whole day off. That’s a day to be sick, to spend with your kids, to lock yourself in the bathroom and cry–you know, however you like to spend your time. And if you’re one of those who can write 2,000 words every day, then on November 25th you’ll be done.

And then you can stuff yourself to the brim with cranberries and stuffing, basking in the knowledge that you are awesome, and you didn’t need the whole November to write your draft. Heck you wouldn’t even have needed all of February.

Posted in Writing

Poet, Author, Academic, Diplomat

For obvious reasons, we try to talk very little about politics on Today’s Author, but there are times when politics is an unwanted guest in the world of creative writing.

Kofi AwoonorUnless you are a current events avoider, I’m sure you’ve heard about the terrorist attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. What you may not know–I didn’t–was that one of those killed was a writer. His name was Kofi Awoonor.

Kofi Awoonor was, perhaps, the leading poet of Ghana. And if it wasn’t him, it was his cousin, Kofi Anyidoho. He was most famous for his poetry which was inspired by the oral tradition of the Ewe people. He studied at, then taught at the University of Ghana, before moving on to the University of London to study literature. He wrote several plays for the BBC, before moving to the US as a kind of travelling student/professor. After he returned to Africa in 1975 he became politically active, and was imprisoned without trial–after this his focus shifted and he wrote mostly non-fiction. From 1990 to 1994 he was Ghana’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and headed the UN’s committee against Apartheid.

He was killed hours before he was scheduled to perform at the Storymoja Hay Festival–a four-day celebration of writing, thinking and storytelling.

Perhaps, his most famous work, is the protest poem, The Cathedral.

On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.

Kofi Awoonor
1935 – 2013
Poet, Author, Academic, Diplomat

Posted in Writing

Dealing with Cruft


Cruft krʌft

  1. (computing, informal) Anything old or of inferior quality.
  2. (computing, informal) Redundant, old or improperly written code, especially that which accumulates over time.

Cruft is a computing term–

WAIT! DON’T GO! I promise this will be about writing, even if I occasionally delve into computers for an analogy.

In computer coding, cruft is the buildup of useless or redundant programming language, usually caused by incomplete editing, often resulting from tight deadlines. Let’s say you’re writing a program to automatically email a response to someone who leaves a comment on your website. You have two ideas as to how to go about this. You try one, but you’re not happy with the way it works. So you disable the first try–you don’t delete it, just in case your second try is worse–and try plan B. Plan B works great, so you save it, and you’re on your merry way. But that first attempt is just sitting there in the code, not doing anything, but taking up space.

The remnants of that first attempt is cruft. The program will work, and the end results may be just as effective as if you go back and get rid of all that redundant code. And that code just sits there, deactivated, taking up a small amount of space on someone’s hard drive, causing your website, or your computer, to run just the tiniest bit slower. A little bit of cruft is no big deal. But if too many of your programs have tiny bits of cruft, the cumulative effect can be noteworthy.

In creative writing the same process occurs. Let’s say you decide you need to delve into your protagonist’s reason for doing what she does. So you write a scene with her psychologist. The scene is well-crafted, and you love how the the snappy dialogue turned out–it’s actually one of your favorite scenes in the story. But now that you’ve moved on, you realize that her motivations are well laid out in the action of your story. But you don’t want to cut the scene because you’re proud of it–especially the great dialogue.

That scene is now cruft. It’s something that isn’t advancing your story–just taking up space. Now of course, this is a simplistic example. Maybe that scene still has a purpose. Maybe the fact that she can open up to her therapist but not her girlfriend is helpful to the story.

When editing, determining what is cruft and what still has purpose is one of the most difficult skills to develop. It’s only the most useless of description or scenes that has no purpose whatsoever. The harder line to walk is to know whether the bit of story is important enough to the plot, or the character development, or the texture of the writing to keep it.

It’s the difference between bloated writing, and tight, crisp prose.

Posted in Writing

Advice From Cats


Why You Cross the Street When You See a Writer Coming

Dale-Roe-AvatarI’ve always been fascinated by the creative process. And not the just the way we come up with ideas, but the nearly endless ways each of us has to shepherd those ideas to fruition.

It’s a time-tested method to shut off your internal editor during the process of creation. Many of us will dress this up with our own justifications, but what it all boils down to is that the inception of ideas is a process of creative thinking–and the tailoring and editing of ideas is a process of critical thinking–and those two kinds of thinking can’t happen at once. Coexistence doesn’t work because the creative can’t deal with this editor.

Of course, there is a time for that editor. The work that your internal editor does is at least as important as your raw creativity. This editor tweaks characters, tailors plots, smooths over rough scenes, or dialogue, or exposition. Without the editor, your writing would never progress beyond raw, unshaped, occasionally-clever prose.

But in order to be a decent author you need to let each of those processes have their time. Over the years I’ve developed a method to wall off my editor from my creator. What’s my secret?

My editor is my cat.

Go ahead and laugh. I’ll wait.

I don’t mean that literally, or course. I haven’t slipped that far into the realm of crazy cat guy. What I do is when I’m trying to reason something out, I explain it to my cat.

She’s helpful in two key ways. First, she’s a pretty good listener, and she’ll sit there for minutes on end as I elaborate on a tricky point. Second, she’s quite good at delivering a judgmental stare–so if I’m a bit unsure of an aspect of what I’m working on, I tend to over-explain, talking it to death. This desire to explain the rocky section, is generally a reliable sign that something’s just not working.

Now, a cat may not work as your editor. For one, you might not have a cat. Or maybe your cat doesn’t have the haughty glare of a librarian. Maybe your dog will work. My old Shih-Tzu would have been great, with those calm, wise eyes. But every other dog I’ve had would have been too willing to please.

Or maybe you are your own best editor. Maybe you can keep your two halves separate in a way I never could. Or maybe you just wind up arguing with yourself incessantly, mumbling plot devices and trying out different voices for your characters, regardless of who might be in earshot. It’s these writers who are often mistaken for schizophrenics–or Bluetooth addicts.

Just remember to keep your editor happy. A can of tuna often works.

Posted in Writing

I Need Space

deskI’ll be moving soon. Nothing major. No huge life changes. We’re moving from an apartment in Raleigh to an apartment in neighboring Durham—mostly to cut down on expenses and to drastically shorten the morning commute. And as I’m boxing up books, and throwing out stuff I haven’t used since the last move, I’m realizing that this move presents certain challenges and opportunities regarding writing.

I have come to the conclusion that my current writing space isn’t working.

But let me take a moment to correctly state the problem:

Like most of us, I have plenty of obstacles that get in the way of writing. Some of them are real, while some of them are undoubtedly intracranially-exaggerated to make myself feel better about why I’m not as productive as I feel I should be. This writing space problem is a real problem. I just don’t know how much of one. But I’m under no delusions that it will be a panacea, and as soon as I clean off my desk, I’ll start cranking out novels.

Here’s the issue:

The desk that I found many years ago in a thrift store, that quickly became my writing desk, has been taken over by life, and is now perpetually crowded by a laptop, USB hub, speakers, a trackball, bills and the detritus that always seems to collect in the places where we spend most of our time.

Now, when I want to write on the computer, this all works reasonably well. Generally, I can move the bills somewhere else in one bundle, turn off the wireless adapter for a little while—maybe put on some ambient music…maybe not—and things are fine. But increasingly, I find the computer a terrible distraction when writing. Even discounting the social and recreational diversions, sometimes when I’m sitting in front of my laptop it’s pretty hard to convince myself that I shouldn’t be doing something else—like designing that website that I agreed to do or reading over that story that a friend is waiting on.

Increasingly, when I’m in the mood to be creative, I’ve been closing the laptop altogether. Admittedly, this has as much to do with limiting distractions as it does with my renewed interest in an old hobby—fountain pens. But regardless of the reasons, the upshot is that if I want to put some ink on the page I need a place to put a notebook. And look at that desk…it’s just not going to happen.

So do I go through the time and expense of getting a new desk (and I’m really not sure where to put it)? Or do I ban my computer, and all its accoutrements, to someplace else, and keep my little desk covered in paper, pens and inks?

This is going to require some thought.

Posted in Writing

Intergalactic War II

So, in case you missed it, yesterday Matt committed the most heinous act of blasphemy ever by anyone, even tangentially, associated with sci-fi. Although he will be forgiven, the Vogons have been notified.
But I do understand where he’s coming from. He fell victim to one of the classic blunders–Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could never have lived up to what it had become in his mind. We’ve all fallen victim to this, and if we’re being honest we’ve all probably done it to other people.

For me, it’s Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I hated this book. A visceral, palpable hatred. But I doubt it has much to do with the story or the writing. No, my ex ruined this book. She was both horrified and excited to find out that I’d never read it. Not only did she run right out and buy a copy for me… she hovered. She asked me, at least twice each day, how much I’d read. Did I get to the part where…? Did I like the part where…? Eventually, I finished the book just to get rid of my literary stalker.

In subsequent years I’ve thought about giving the book another try. This book is nearly universally loved by sci-fi types, so it’s probably safe to assume that I’d like it if I gave it a fair shot. But even the thought of reading it again starts my teeth grinding. And even though, in my head I know that my distaste didn’t stem from a weak story, or bad writing, or over-description, or any of my other pet peeves about writing–even though I know that I dislike the book because of the conditions under which I read it–I know I’ll never revisit it because it already has a negative impression.

It would be easy for me to point out to the formerly good guy, Matt, that much of his impression of the book might have been attributed to having inflated preconceptions about Hitchhiker’s. That part of the magic of the book is how it tends to catch readers off-guard with its silly characters and ridiculous plot. It is making fun of serious sci-fi as much as it’s making fun of society. But by the time Evil Overlord Matt read the book, these weren’t a surprise to him. He expected a funny book. In fact, he probably expected a very funny book.

I guess the moral here is to be careful when making recommendations to your friends. You can easily ruin the very thing you’re trying to sell.

That, and Matt should be punished for his heresy.