Posted in Writing

Ready…Set…NaNoWriMo

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.

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

crufty

Cruft krʌft
noun

  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

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

Why We Can’t Stop

The longer I write–and the more I fight against writing–I wonder if we’re all just masochists. I’ve tried hobby after hobby over the years, and none of them inspire the levels of stress, angst and dissatisfaction that writing does.

Archery, a hobby that seems to revolve around tinkering with dozens of individual pieces of equipment just to get a 1/4″ improvement on a grouping of arrows–a hobby that seems like it’s purpose-built to drive people to frustration–is more relaxing than writing. At least, that’s true when you’re up against a block.

So why do we do it? The most basic–and somewhat true–answer is that when it works, when you clear the barriers and can slam down 2,000 words without realizing that 2 hours have passed, it feels glorious. But that’s not the real answer for many of us. Especially when the frustrating sessions outweigh the productive ones.

So why?

Ben Dolnick, a writer and occasional contributor the NY Times, recently did a piece for NPR about the retirement of Philip Roth, a noted and long-time author. In the piece, Dolnick explains why he doubts that Roth will stay retired.

“There are plenty of times in a typical writing day when retirement seems, even to someone much younger than 80, like the sweetest imaginable relief…. But fiction emanates from an organ every bit as mysterious, and as much beyond conscious control, as the liver. The actual work of being a writer – the generation of plots and characters, the resolving of tangled chapter transitions – goes on while you sleep or shower or walk the dog. You might as well announce your retirement from metabolizing sugar.”
–Ben Dolnick

Yes. That’s it. I write because… well, because I can’t not write.

And that’s why we’ve created Today’s Author–for those of us who can’t not write.

Here’s the link to the full article.

 

 

Posted in Writing

Young at Heart

I’ve just discovered something about myself. I’m a great audience.

I’m a sucker for a story. It doesn’t even have to be a good story—just not a bad one. I realized this while going through my recent reading list.

To understand this it helps if you know a little about a popular theory of art called the Suspension of Disbelief.

The suspension of disbelief (also the willing suspension of disbelief) is an unconscious contract that a reader (or watcher, etc.) gives to the storyteller (or artist). It’s easiest to explain by example.

When you are in a theater watching the latest Indiana Jones movie you accept that the story you are going to be told is a little outlandish, that the hero will be the beneficiary of extraordinary luck, that it’s fundamentally OK that hundreds of people are going to die, and that there are limits to the level of special effects, and your mind makes allowance for these things as you watch the show.

The suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy the story being told. If you did not suspend disbelief you would question how it’s possible for a man with a whip to defeat an army with guns. And you’d be right. But you wouldn’t be enjoying the show.

So, a few days ago, while reorganizing my bookshelf—reshelving the ones I’d just read or pulled out to reference, pulling out other I had yet to read, or want to reread again—I realized that in the last month or so I’d read a lot of pulp.

I’m no snob when it comes to novels. True, some of my favorite stories came down from heavy hitters—Poe, Shakespeare, Dumas…—I also greatly enjoy the thrillers so often trashed by the literati. Heck, I actually liked The DaVinci Code…both times I read it. I think Stephen King is a master storyteller, no matter that he writes horror and bestsellers, both of which are a kiss of death among literature snobs.

I think what it comes down to is that I just enjoy reading so much that you’ve got to present me with a pretty bad book for me not to get caught up in it.

And I do get caught up.

I never figure out the killer before it’s revealed. The surprise ending that surprises no one, almost always surprises me. When an author kills off the secondary character that everyone liked, but that every other reader knew was going to die, I get upset.

See the thing is, I love stories. I love good plots, even if the characters are boring. If you’ve got no plot, but the characters are interesting you’ve still got me hooked. Even if those are so-so, but you’re a good writer, I’ll still enjoy the journey.

And to take it a step further, I love writing. One of my favorite books is about the impact of the Bill of Rights on modern life. Not much storytelling going on in there.

I suppose there are writers out there who would think this a weakness—that I can’t tell the difference between good and bad writing, or good and bad books.

I choose to look at it a little differently. I see it as a plus. I still love writing. I haven’t become so cynical that I have to look down my nose at what I don’t believe measures up to my standards.

Or to put it a different way…when I read, I still get to be a kid.

Posted in Writing

NaNo Wrap-up

NaNo Winner

I’ve officially won, NaNo. Even though there are five days left, I’m done, and well across the 50k mark. But unlike in years past I’m not really all that jazzed about it.

I think it’s because the story I chose was a spur of the moment creation, and not one of the stories I’ve already sketched out, and planned to work on. So it doesn’t feel like I accomplished something I’ve been meaning to accomplish, as much as it feels like I’ve added something to the pile.

But at least I can hand my hat on the fact that even when my writer’s block is crippling, I can always kick it into submission for a short while. The longer I write, the more sure I am that I need solid immutable deadlines.

Posted in Writing

NaNo Wrap-Up (Almost)

I really never intended to participate in National Novel Writing Month (their abbreviation: NaNoWriMo, mine: NaNo) this year. I had done it each of the past two years, and while it was generally a good experience, it was also an exhausting one.

And since this year I’m not only starting a new job, but I have a small ensemble of web design clients, I thought I’d take this year off, and just encourage my fellow writers over at Write Anything.

Fate had other ideas. As Halloween night ticked away, exhausted from walking the kids around the neighborhood in my Donald Duck costume, I fell asleep more quickly than normal.

And woke up 45 minutes later.

Unable to get back to sleep I picked up a blank journal I has purchased a few days earlier and one of my favorite rollerballs and thought I’d conjure up a good night’s sleep by writing about a guy who couldn’t sleep.

Six days later I’d slept about 6 hours—total—and had written a little more than 50k words.

Since then, the insomnia has waned a bit. I wouldn’t say I’m sleeping well, but I’m no longer a daytime zombie either. However, my production has waned as well. This weekend will probably be the last days I devote any time to NaNo this year, and I’ll likely wind up somewhere around 90k words.

But the big question…is what I wrote any good?

Yes and No. Starting as I did with no prep work, I had no illusions about the plot. It formed itself in a olive brainstorm, and it’s flaws are apparent. However, the character turned out pretty good, and there are some long passages that will be useful once rewritten. So I guess it turned out alright.

However, I don’t recommend severe sleep deprivation as a tool for tackling NaNo.