Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Procrastination: Things I do to avoid writing #1

What I tell my wife - "I'm plot-planning" or "I'm doing some characterisation"
What I'm actually doing - hitting the Seventh Sanctum site and other random generators, generating names for taverns, pirate ships and magical artifacts.

Actually, there are some really cool generators on there that have turned out some great things I've modified to fit some of my plots and characters. It's so easy to lose time randomly generating names and things, and also great fun. Try it for yourself - but only when you have time to procrastinate.

I went one whole step better today in my procrastination, and made my own manual random generator. I printed out a whole bunch of different character traits on paper, cut them out, folded them up and put them in a shoe box. The idea is that I come up with a character name (probably from an online generator or randomly picking a page in my baby name book), and then pick three traits for my new character and go from there. I have a couple of wild cards in the box called "Specials". If I get that trait, I get to pick from the Special Traits box, which includes such things as has super powers, has an addiction, is famous, is pregnant, is dead among others. I'll add to it as I come up with more interesting things with which to terrorise my unsuspecting characters with.

So today I was randomly generating some test characters, just to grease the wheels, and came up with the following:
  • Jenny, accountant, 36 - innocent, attentive, (special) has super powers - sounds like she works for H&R Block
  • Henry, waiter, 22 - determined, impolite, (special) gay - like most of the waiters I've encountered
  • Manuel, truck driver, 46 - mischievous, imaginative, (special) dead - being mischievous and imaginative may be the reason he ended up dead   
  • Clementine, student, 16 - decisive, sullen, (special) engaged - teenagers, huh?
  • Delores, star ship captain, 48 - charming, restless, (special) invisible - great to spy on your crew and make sure no-one mutinies
Can't say I'd find a use for any of these characters in my novels as yet, but you never know. Enough procrastinating for one day. I'm off to randomly generate a Ninja for the YA novel I'm working on. Then maybe a pub for my underage characters to get busted in.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

NaNoWriMo Prep: My Super Writer Disguise

I've found it! Who would've thought that a trip to Noosa and shopping on Hastings Street with The Girls would turn up the first element in my Super Writer Disguise? It, for those wondering, is a fedora hat. I've always been one for caps - my soccer team can attest to the fact that I don't leave home without it, and that they know I'm getting serious when I turn it backwards. But I've never been one of those stylish people who wear cool hats of any description when leaving the house. Apart from "hat days", which in my house usually means I'm sporting a terrifically pointy "Alfalfa" do, or I've slept the whole night on one side of my head, resulting in a side-mounted flat-top that would make MC Hammer jealous.
So anyway, I was waiting for The Girls outside a shop, and on a bit of a whim I put on a fedora and turned to my wife and asked "Do I look like a writer now?" After giggling a little (which could really have meant it looked like crap), and saying that it actually didn't look too bad, one of our friends came out of the shop and said "Oh yeah, that looks so cool!" (Thanks for clearing up the crap/cool thing Kirst!). The only problem - it was way too big for my small head.
From then on, every time we went into a shop that happened to also sell hats of any type or description, I found my head being fitted with all manner of headwear. I particularly like the beanie with fluffy ears and tassles that made me look like I was trying a little too hard to disguise myself as sheep. Not really conducive to writing though. There was also one of those trooper hats, you know the ones with the furry side flaps you see on American guys in the movies? It also had inbuilt headphones for your ipod, but no matter how warm that hat would have kept my head, I draw the line at looking like a dork from American Pie.
There were rastafarian hats, joker hats, bucket hats and sombreros. No matter how hard we looked, though there were plenty of fedora-style hats around Hastings Street, I just could not find one to fit my head. I am now on the hunt for one online, though I keep coming up with the same problem. "Small/medium" means too big for my head, and "one size fits most" - well, my head obviously isn't in the "most" category. I have tried finding kid-sized fedoras, but don't wish to be wearing one imprinted with flowers or sparkly things. I just want a cool, (not black) adult-style fedora hat that sits on my 54cm brain box without slipping down over my eyes. Is that so hard to ask? Apparently so.

Hmm. Maybe I should just look for a cape and wear my undies on the outside??

Monday, 23 May 2011

Bad Book, Good Book. How readers have the power to keep good writers writing.

Bad books - we've all read them. We've all complained about them - especially the bit about having spent good money on something that turned out to be crap. But how to avoid them? Sorry to say, but it's almost impossible. Bad books are going to be out there no matter whether they're self-published, or manage find their way through the gatekeepers of Big Publishing. The reason for that is that bad books are subjective. What I think is total and utter crap, someone else might think is the best thing since sliced bread.
From a writer's perspective, reading bad books can be just as good as reading good books. Good books show me how TO write, whereas bad books show me how NOT to write. They're like my train tracks for my writing - bad books on the left, good books on the right, and if I can at least stay right of the left (hopefully as close to the middle as possible) and keep moving to the right, I know I'm doing ok.
With the advent of e-books and cheaper and easier ways to self-publish, bad books may start to become more common. There is an upside to this though - the reader has more choice and more power than ever to decide what will be published. Theoretically, writers of bad books will suffer from bad sales and bad reviews and will either stop publishing all together, or strive to get better. Good writers won't suffer too much, though it will still be hard to get novels out there and selling well. As readers, we can help good writers keep writing by doing the following simple things:
  • Keep buying good books - You know when you laugh at something a kid does, and they do it again, just to get the attention? The same principle works for writers. Buying books encourages writers to keep writing.
  • Review the books you like, as well as the ones you don't - It's important to do this tactfully though. Don't just write "it was crap - hated it from start to finish". It's important to state your reasons. For example, "I found myself not caring about the characters" or "the plot was too far-fetched". These types of comments allow the author to (hopefully) improve his/her next work, and an undecided reader to decide if they might like the book.
  • Pass good books on, and/or recommend them to your friends - Share the love. Most writers write because they have stories they want to share. You'll do your bit by sharing their stories with people you think will enjoy them as much as you did.
  • Check out book review websites - There's plenty on the net now so google "[book title] review" and I guarantee you'll find heaps of reviews, both good and bad for whatever you're thinking of buying (check the bad as well as the good for a balanced view)
  • Take a chance on a new author every now and then - There are some great finds out there, you only just have to look. Don't just stick to the authors Big Publishing tells you are good (because they've published them and spent bazillions on their marketing). Best way to find these gems? Google "indie book review blogs" and check out some review sites. (I'll feature my favourite review blogs at a later date.) Also check out Smashwords, who specialise in ebook publishing - popular with new authors, these guys upload ebooks to amazon, B&N and other online bookstores.
The best thing I've found so far to cut down on buying bad books? Amazon's "sampler" feature for e-books and "search inside" feature for print books (though not all books have the search inside feature). Sampler and Search Inside give you a look at what the actual book will look like, with an excerpt from the text. To use the Sampler option, you need a kindle, or you can download the free pc kindle app from Amazon. A lot of ebooks also have the option of buying the print version (most of the big names do this), though some indie authors offer one or the other. Just search for whatever book you're after in the ebook section of Amazon, and click on the "Send sample now" button, and the sample will be downloaded to your pc. You can read it and decide if you want to buy the print book if it's available (or you can buy the ebook straight from your kindle app).
Search Inside works in much the same way. It gives you an idea of what the print book will look like, including an excerpt of the text. You can read the excerpt on screen and decide if you like it or not.
The single best thing about Amazon though, I think, is the "Also Bought" feature, showing what other books people bought, who've previously bought the book you're looking at. I like to click through these, reading excerpts as I go, and making a note of the ones that interest me for future reference (read: when I get my monthly book allowance and can actually buy something rather than book-stalk).

In the end, a book will get published by whatever means a writer deems necessary to get that work to the masses, regardless whether it's good or bad. It's up to us, as writers, to put out the very best we can to keep readers coming back for more.
And it's up to us, as readers, to encourage the very best writers to keep producing more of the work we want to read.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Why I WILL be doing NaNoWriMo this year

This is a post I stumbled upon through the twitterverse about the author's opinions on the myths of NaNoWriMo, and why she won't be participating. While there are a few blog posts now debunking her debunking of these myths, I wanted to add my two cents worth as a NaNo virgin, looking forward to my first attempt at the NaNo marathon. So, read this first to get some context, and come back and read my post in reply.

Thanks for coming back.

So Ania's "myths" consist of the following basic points about NaNo that she takes to task. Nanowrimo will:
  • Motivate me to sit down and write
  • Give me a great way to get involved in the writing community
  • Force me to write the first draft in a specific time
  • Give me prestigious awards when I achieve my goal
  • Give me a publishable novel by the end of it.
  • Make novel-writing fun
I see no bad points about any of these that Ania makes - though I suppose it depends on your perspective. The following points I make because I've actually read the book "No Plot? No Problem" by Chris Baty (as I've said in a previous post) so I have a little knowledge on the background and the purpose of NaNoWriMo. And it was only after reading that book, and checking out the online forums and community that I decided that I would compete this year. I'll tackle the above points in order.

  1. Motivation - It's bloody hard to be a writer, especially when you have a busy life outside of it. It's also hard to be a full-time writer, because it's so easy to procrastinate when you have no-one to kick your butt whenever it's planted in front of the TV. The motivation from NaNo comes from two main places. The first being other NaNo-ers themselves, as you race each other to get to the magic 50,000 word mark. The other, if you've prepared correctly, are all the people you've told you're a shoe-in to write a novel in 30 days. If you pick the right people, they'll all collectively kick your butt back into your office or wherever it is you write from to hit your word count. Some of us need a little extra motivation. From my own experience, I can sit daydreaming for hours of the novel I know I want to write, and even plot-plan to the Nth degree, without actually writing the damn thing. Having someone hanging over your shoulder asking for the next chapter, and the next, and what are you doing with that character really gets you cracking. Either that, or you die with embarassment at not having achieved anywhere near what you said you would.
  2. Getting involved in the writing community - It's not actually the "writing" community NaNo is spruiking, it's the NaNo community - like-minded people meeting in one place to share their mutual interests. That is, afterall, what a community is about. Yes, there are plenty of other "communities" out there to be involved in if you're a writer, and NaNo can be a jumping off point for those NaNo-ers who realise that they may actually have a talent. I'm not actually involved in any writing community as yet - though I do site- and blog-stalk some of my favourites, with a view to eventually start posting comments.
  3. Forcing me to write a first draft in a specific amount of time - Well, that's kind of the point. If not now, when? is the question NaNo asks. Most people say "when I have the time, I'll write a novel". Most people, however, never find the time. NaNo just provides the excuse for those "one day" writers to sit down and have a go. The first draft is always the hardest thing to write, and NaNo is all about just getting the words down, no matter how crap it is. If you're anything like me, your inner critic steps in as soon as you type the wrong word in the second sentence, and your motivation and plot goes leaking out of your head, while your critic argues with your muse. The major point of NaNo is to just write, and accept that the first draft is just that - not a masterpiece, but the beginnings of the structure of the great novel you're building. Or a load of crap, to only be seen by the insides of your garbage bin or shredder. Either way, you've gotten 50,000 words of something out of your system.
  4. Give me prestigious awards when I finish - Well, no, not really. And if you read the NaNo website, you'll realise that the prestige is only with regards to your own ego and boasting to all and sundry about how you kicked ass and wrote 50,000 words in a month, and oh, that's about the size of a (small) novel, did you know? The thing I want most out of NaNo is to be able to prove to myself that I can finish something I start - that's prestige enough for me. And for those people who say 50,000 words doesn't constitute a novel, I say who cares? While I know publishers have guidelines, I prefer to write the story in as many words as it needs, and then edit fom there. As for cheaters, well, there'll always be people happy to take credit for something they haven't really achieved at all. I know that won't be me, and knowing that there may be some people who "win" who did it the easy way in no way takes anything away from my hard work.
  5. Having a publishable novel at the end of November - Look, no matter whether people write their novel in November, or take twenty years to get it done, there'll always be aspiring writers who think their first draft is the best thing to ever be written. And there's a way to make sure us, as readers, never have to read their dribble - it's called Big Publishing. As ebook self-pub is taking off big time, the gatekeepers of bad writing will become the readers themselves. Most people go into NaNo realising what they're writing will need heavy editing if they hope to one day be published - or, to be thrown in the bin. And those who don't would be writing their crap and trying to get it published regardless. They just have an excuse to churn out 50,000 words a lot quicker than they would have done otherwise.
  6. Making novel-writing fun - Now this depends on your attitude. As I said earlier, it's bloody hard to sit down for the duration and finish writing a novel that you were so excited about at the start. No matter how long you take, it's a war of attrition. NaNo attempts to take away the critic, so you can get from start to finish without all that hand-wringing and self-doubt. Just punch out the words over 30 days and see what you have at the finish - then let your critic go nuts. But hey, you might just have some fun doing it in the mean time. Or, you might hate yourself and what you write but you'd probably do that anyway, so NaNo just confines it to 30 days. Then, after the dust has settled, you can get over it and say you're never going to do it again. Besides, I'm guessing it's hard not to have fun if you're writing while wearing a stupid hat, or a cape, or whatever writing totem you've decided on.
Overall, love it or hate it, NaNo is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I think it empowers people to achieve something so far out of left field that it will translate to other areas of their life. Me? I'm a writer, so the proof will be in the manuscript. It's a psychological thing for me, and a confidence thing. Proof to myself that I can write that many words in one manuscript, rather than over the twenty or so I have starting to pile up on my hard drive. It's less about allowing yourself to write crap, and more about understanding that while most of the stuff you write might be crap, there'll possibly be some gems to be found if you dig a little deeper - gems you can pull out of the rubble and craft into something beautiful, but only after the NaNo dust has settled.
Plus, I get a really legitimate excuse to shut myself off from the world for a whole 30 days and indulge in my passion without feeling bad about it.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

NaNoWriMo Prep: Magical Tools and the Secret Writing Identity

It has been said that writers are a breed apart. Some of us who are actually good at their craft are akin to super heroes - wrestling sub-plots like out-of-control fire hoses, lassoing themes before they gallop off into the dark recesses of Never To Return Land, and gently guiding their hero around the spot where the piano's going to fall even if they whinge about missing their morning coffee, all in order to write the best story they can. Well, not all of us are like that. We can, however, pretend we're Super Writer, and NaNoWriMo proves to be the perfect Super Writer platform. Lots of Super Writers gathering together in a virtual world racing each other and the clock in their quest to wrangle, lasso and eventually, chain 50,000 words to the pages of their Great NaNoWriMo Novel.
So how can this be done? How can you sneak in the side door of Super Writer-dom undetected by the real Super Writers? By acquiring a few simple tools, and of course, a simple yet cunning Super Writer disguise.
  1. First, you'll need a Magic Pen - don't be fooled by the promises of those cheap ball-points. Yes they may be cheap and get the job done, but do they offer up the extra goodies you'll need for your quest? Things like smooth-flowing ink and being well-weighted in your hand. Do you have to shake the bejeesus out of it just to get it started in the morning and hence lose a whole paragraph from your mind? Do you think best by "pen-clicking", like I do? You'll need a retractable (and a place to work away from people who are annoyed by your incessant clicking). Try everything in the stationery shop - your Pen of Wonders will reveal itself to you, but you may have to gently coax it out - make it realise you're its writing soul mate and it will do great things for you.
  2. To go with your Magic Pen you'll of course need a notebook - yes, you'll be doing the majority of your NaNo-ing on your laptop/computer (see 3 below) but for all those times you're at work or shopping or otherwise staring into space, you'll need a notebook to jot down your ideas and side-stories as they come to you. Don't ever trust your brain to remember that great one-liner you discover for your hero to say to the villain at the end of your book - your brain is too busy thinking about the washing that needs to be done, the pile of dishes on the sink and other more important things. Your notebook should be sturdy, yet light, so you can carry it around with you. Spiral-bounds are probably not the best for this quest, as the pages tend to tear out. You'll need something solid; something that says "I carry the workings of a great novel inside".
  3. Word Processing Device - this will usually take the form of a laptop, pc or netbook, but some people like the feel of banging the keys of an old typewriter - makes them feel more writerly apparently. Me, I have a laptop and a netbook - I like to hedge my bets. Regardless of what you like to type on, you'll need to upload your final document at the end of November for word count verification so you'll need an internet connection and a computer at some point.
  4. Reference Book - for formatting purposes. You can just as easily google manuscript formatting, or buy something like The Elements of Style. The guys at NaNoWriMo though suggest you have on hand one of your favourite novels. This will give you an idea of what the printed word should look like - how paragraphs run, where indents should be, how dialogue is treated. Don't forget though, this isn't a beauty contest, so just concentrate on getting the words on the page. You can get critical of your formatting if you want to edit your novel later into a more presentable format - if you think it's good enough to go out on its own and seek publication.
  5. Music - I've read that every book has a theme song, or at least some sort of musical score to go with it. I've not really found that to be the case myself, but I have found that scenes have popped into my head while listening to a piece of music so there may be something in this theory. To test this one out this year, I'll work out what type of novel I want to write and fit the music to it. For example, want to write about a Jackaroo out the Back Of Burke? Keith Urban and his ilk are probably your best bet. Is your setting in the 90's when you were going through Uni? Some hardcore clubbing music might be the way to go. It's totally up to your own tastes - try a few on for size and see what gets the juices flowing.
  6. Writing Totem aka your Super Writer Disguise - this is my absolute favourite idea, and as such I will be using the next couple of months to track down the perfect one. This should be more than just some fluffy dice hanging from your computer screen. It should be something that tells you, and the rest of the world, that you are in Super Writer Mode and serve as your Do Not Disturb Sign. These can take the form of hats, gloves, tweed jackets with elbow patches, capes and costumes. Me? I'm leaning towards a moustache at the moment, though I have been testing the Backward Cap Totem for the last week. I also like the idea of a cape - or maybe a combination of a few of them might work - maybe a handle-bar moustache and a fedora? I'll keep you posted on this one.
There are a few other things you'll need - snacks, drinks, rewards, and to find a couple of writing hideaways, but I'll deal with these in another post. For the moment, I'm off to spend some quality time at the stationery shop to track down my Magic Pen and notebook, and a quick trip to the costume shop to see what dastardly Super Writer disguise fits my needs.

Monday, 9 May 2011

NaNoWriMo Prep: My Writing Magna Cartas

So I've read everything in "No Plot? No Problem" up until the chapters I'm supposed to read just before I start NaNoWriMo in November, and I've come up with a To Do list to keep me occupied and motivated as the clock ticks towards November 1. One of the first things I want to do is print and frame my Writing Magna Cartas. While I could wait a few more months to start all of this prep, the Magna Cartas are a fantastic idea I want to implement into my writing life above and beyond NaNoWriMo.
Quite simply, they are my likes and dislikes about books I have enjoyed reading. So, for the first one, I will list what I like - keeping me on track for good writing. The second one is a list of my dislikes - serving to steer me clear of bad writing.
For interests sake, some of the things I like in my favourite books include:
  • humour - slapstick, self-deprecating, jokes-on-you sort of thing, I don't mind as long as I get a chuckle every now and then
  • sidekicks - must be funny, daring and loyal
  • appropriate endings - though not necessarily happy, they must fit the story and be believable
  • quirky characters - faultless heroes are hard to like, I prefer mine flawed
Some of the things I dislike:
  • loose ends - nothing worse than a story that introduces 5 characters, and I don't know what has happened to 3 of them by the end of it all; or alternatively, 3 of them are killed off in the final chapters because the author doesn't want to bother with them any more
  • low character motivation - make me love him or hate him, but if I don't have strong feelings about a character, I won't care one bit what happens to him
  • gratuitous and/or graphic sex scenes - (no, I'm not a prude!) I've recently been listening to an audio book which has a lot of sex scenes, and the trouble with audio books is that you can't just skip ahead a page or two when you're over hearing about the characters' latest sexual exploits
  • anti-heroes or villains who are bad because they were bullied as a child - sometimes villains are bad because they get more girls that way; and I don't want to read all about their troubled childhood in the final chapters either - I want to hate the bad guy, not sympathise with him.
Ok, so that's just a taster of what I have down on my lists. The logic in writing these down is really to discover what you're most likely good at - already I can see that I much prefer light-hearted romps rather than heavy dramatic-type novels. Escapism, if you will. There's nothing wrong with sweeping, multi-book sagas spanning decades and generations (I will, afterall, read almost anything). When I'm reading for enjoyment rather than research, I do love something that doesn't over-tax my brain (yes, that was a pun about my work in case you missed it).
Anyway, if you're thinking about joining me on the NaNo journey, start thinking about your likes and dislikes, so you can get a grasp on what sort of story you might like to pour your blood, sweat and tears into come November. In the mean time, I'm off to print my Magna Cartas on parchment paper in Ye Olde school-type calligraphy font, frame them in cheap frames and stick them on my wall above my desk.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Write a Novel With Me

Ever wanted to write a novel but never had the time? Never thought you could do it? Well, now's your chance to throw caution to the wind. I am embarking on NaNoWriMo for the first time this year after putting it off for the last two. What is NaNoWriMo? It's short for National Novel Writing Month, and begins on November 1st each year (though you can pick any 30-day month and do it unofficially, or use a full 31 day month and take it a bit easier). It entails writing a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days. That's right - that's 1,667 words A DAY.
NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to test my mettle - to see if I have what it takes to pump out a novel in a month. And since the NaNoWriMo motto is "Quantity over quality", it should be an interesting ride - especially since I have to knee-cap my inner critic for an entire 30 days. (Hear that Muse? You get 30 days trouble free to do whatever you want).
So here's the deal - I've just signed up (6 months early, as you can see by the counter on my blog) and intend to spend the next 182 days psyching myself up for what will truly be a marathon effort. Especially since November falls during tax season in Accountant Land. I also have 2 birthdays that month and will be back to working 4 days a week. Despite those little inconveniences, I will attempt, for your viewing pleasure, to write those 50,000 words in 30 days or less.
I am throwing out the welcome mat to anyone who wants to join me. Before you make your decision, check out the NaNoWriMo website to get a feel for how it all works. You can join a local group if you wish and you get to update your word count daily during November. There's a lot of encouragement to reach your goal - and no brickbats if you don't. There are also prizes of the writing variety when you reach that magic 50,000-word-mark - not to mention the kudos of having written an actual novel (no matter how crap it is!).
It's a daunting task, and one that I don't take lightly. Afterall, I have enough unfinished manuscripts to wallpaper the houses in my street. And that's why I have signed up so early - to soak up other peoples' success stories and tips. I have also purchased a book called "No plot? No problem!", written by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty, which offers insights into how NaNoWriMo came about and a section for weekly encouragement to be read while you're on your 50,000-word roller coaster ride.
Even if you don't join me, you can come along for the ride. When November rolls around, I'll add my word counter on my blog, and try to write a few words each day (in addition to the 1,667 for the novel) updating how the novel is progressing. If you do decide to join me, but don't want to sign up to the NaNoWriMo site, I'll add your very own word counter on my blog and you can keep me updated on your progress (I will trust you to be writing the words you say you are). I will expect to be taken to task over missed deadlines and will most likely need plenty of encouragement to NOT quit in the middle of it all when it all seems way too hard.
For those who are a little interested, but still not sure about it all, I'll post bits and pieces in the lead-up to November about how it works and what you should be doing to get ready. In the mean time, I'm off to find some inspiration on the NaNoWriMo forums, and start generating some NaNoWriMo-worthy plot ideas.