Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Taking a Risk: Gambling on Character

Tom and I were married one week before Christmas. A few weeks prior to our first anniversary, a married-into-the-family relative asked us to drive her to her parent’s house. It was roughly 100 miles away. We agreed. The plan was to drive her there, turn around, and drive home.

When we arrived, her parents insisted we stay for dinner. How nice of them.

Then they suggested that since it was dark, we spend the night and leave the next morning. Why not?

Late in the evening, our married-into-the-family relative’s family sat down to play a “friendly game of poker.”

“Do you play cards?” they asked.

“Sure, but we’ve never played poker.”

“No problem. We’ll teach you.”

They dumped a pitcher of pennies on the table and parceled them out to the whole family. “We use pennies instead of chips,” they said.

They taught us how to play poker. We each won a few hands and we lost several. When we were out of coins and it was time to go to bed, the patriarch of the family tallied everything up and announced that we owed him $5.00.

“What? We thought this was all in fun.”

“Let that be a lesson to you,” he said. He demanded our money. Tom reluctantly pulled out a five dollar bill and handed it over. All the money we had to get home.

We went to the room assigned to us, slept with one eye open, and left before breakfast the next morning. Lesson learned.

Often, as writers, we start our story thinking we know our characters. We have an idea of what they look like, their age, and a bit about their background. We try to think of habits or speech patterns that will set them apart. How she bites her lower lip when she’s uncertain or how he tends to frown when he’s thinking.
Graphic Courtesy of Scholastic
via Google Images

Sometimes our characters surprise us. They speak up when we didn’t expect them to have anything to say. They offer insight we didn’t know they possessed. Sometimes they prove to be self-centered or deceitful when all along, we thought they were wonderful people living out a wonderful life in the pages of our book.

We’re surprised when our protagonist’s legs turn to Jello in the face of a problem. She was so strong and confident in the early pages. We don’t like our antagonist…never have. So when he makes a sweet gesture or we learn of his troubled past, we have a strong desire to forgive him. Of course he then rears his ugly self once more under the scrutiny of our pen and we slide back into the assurance that all is as it should be.

I love the way characters take on a life of their own as I type. I love to see how they take charge of the story and twist it until it suits them. It’s a gamble to write freely and give the characters space to grow. It is likely to require a serious red pen effort to round them up, get them back in line, or cut them out of the story completely.

You take a chance and you walk away stronger for it. Lesson learned.

How do you develop your characters? Or better yet, what real-life characters do you “collect” to use one day in a story? What makes them interesting?

Thanks for visiting A Novel Creation today. I look forward to reading your comments.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Done is Better Than Perfect

Lessons learned from cutting the grass

For forty-three years I served as my husband’s barber. Yep, he let me cut his hair but refused to let me cut the grass. Why? I am terrible with a mower. I leave tall swaths of grass in the middle of a nicely mown lawn. If I do a good job and cut every piece, it’s only because I’ve used enough gas going over and over the yard to have raced a couple of laps at the Indy 500.

Now I have to cut the grass. I do it though I am still terrible at the job. I’ve had other women tell me how much they enjoy using their lawnmower. How it gives them time to think or how it is great exercise. Okay, I’ll give them that last one. I’m pretty sure I lose weight every time I mow. Of course I reward myself with ice cream so the whole exercise thing is a wash.

I have, however, learned lessons from this weekly activity I can apply to my writing.

The grass didn't need to be cut all winter. I was in the clear for months. Then…summer came and the grass was getting high. I was clueless about mowing the grass so I called my neighbor, an experienced grass cutter. Steve came and started my mower for me. He showed me how to push in the little flappy button thing and then pull the rope. The first time I mowed, he started it for me. He then told me how to engage the…thing… whatever it is called…to make the mower go uphill easier. And I learned that if you let go of the whatchamacallit, the mower stops. It’s a safety feature. I may not know all the terms, but I got the idea. The lesson here is this: If you don’t know, ask. Join a writer support group or a critique group. There will always be someone to help you as you write.

The second lesson I can apply to my writing is this: Figure out how to make what you have work for you.  Yep. I mowed my grass that first day. It took me forever, but I did it. About a week later, the green stuff was back. I knew I couldn’t keep calling Steve to start my mower, so I decided to do it myself. The first problem I faced was learning to start the machine. It turns out I am shorter than I think. My arm isn’t long enough to hold onto the whatchamacallit and still pull the rope. After a bit of thought, I realized I could loop a rope around the whatchamacallit, then push the lawn mower away from me while simultaneously pulling the starter rope and holding onto the other rope. Confused? Don’t worry. Just trust me when I say it works.

Sometimes when I’m writing, I wish I had a certain program or software to make the job easier. Or I wish I had the resources to get glossy, professional business cards made up. Oh, yeah, if you read last week’s post –Rebecca Waters: Undercover Boss—you know I now have the money to get those cards! But that hasn’t always been the case. My middle daughter designed and printed up my first set of business cards the night before the first writing conference I ever attended. I meet writers all the time who talk a big game and have all the bells and whistles, but don’t use them. And I meet other writers who make what they have work for them. They are the ones who publish.

The biggest lesson I learned in my summer grass cutting experiences came from my youngest daughter. After that first day…and I’m pretty sure it took a whole day…I moaned about the task.
“But you finished the mowing?” she asked.
            “Uh-huh.” I was so exhausted I could barely speak. “But it doesn’t look very good. Your dad would have been disappointed.”
            “Sometimes, Mom, done is better than perfect.”
            Wise words. I love that girl. And they are words I need to remember when I’m writing. There is a reason we create a FIRST DRAFT: to get it done; to get the flow of the story down on paper. Trying to perfect what we write as we go is paralyzing. Get the job done. You can always go back and revise.

There are many more points writers can draw from cutting the grass. For example:
·      Before you start, get rid of the debris that threatens to sidetrack you or break your pace
·      When you edit, cut…then go back in a week and cut some more.
·      Get rid of the weedy words that choke out your story and sidetrack your readers
·      Learn the order of things—pump, hold, pull, engage –write, edit, revise, rewrite
·      Finally, keep plugging along. Do what you have to do to get the job done. And don’t run out of gas.

Thanks for dropping by…what lessons for writing have you learned from your everyday activity? Thanks for leaving a comment and sharing the post!


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Rebecca Waters: Undercover Boss

Ah, the things you learn on cable TV. I haven’t had cable for several years. A couple of months ago, I discovered I could get better internet service and phone service by bundling those with cable television. I still turn the set on mostly for noise, but now I have a wider range of choices for the voices filling my living room.

Recently, I discovered a program called “Undercover Boss.” Apparently the show has been on for some time. The premise of the reality show is that the president or CEO of a company takes on a disguise and acts as a new employee of the business. Those he works with (I’ve only seen male bosses so far) are told the newbie is part of a reality show highlighting people changing careers or something. Hence the cameras following the disguised CEO around. By acting as a new trainee, the CEO learns how the company is functioning internally. The CEO often has a question in the back of his mind, “How can we improve…” You can fill in the blank. Improve our productivity…Improve our customer service….Improve our sales, etc. At the end of the show the CEO reveals himself to the employees rewarding good workers and admonishes those not doing their best.

I imagine the show appeals to me in part because of my background in educational ethnography. To conduct such research, an anthropologist often goes into the setting to be studied and acts as a participant. He or she taps into the knowledge of the culture by interviewing participants and collecting data through first hand observation. Yep, what takes a researcher months to complete, “Undercover Boss” accomplishes in a week. Sort of. 

Okay. My blog is about writing. What does any of this have to do with writing? I see my writing as my business. (See Getting Those Crazy Ducks in a Row for a brief view of my business plan. Book to follow.) I am president, CEO, writer, manager, and everything else in my little company.

Taking a cue from “Undercover Boss,” and maybe because it sounded like a fun post, I went undercover at to see how I might improve my productivity and sales.

The Set-Up
The first task at hand was to find a suitable disguise and assume a new identity. I’ve actually never seen a show where a woman went undercover, so I had to take my cues from the programs I viewed. They almost always have a moustache and glasses and some way to change their hair or wear a hat. Here’s what I came up with…what’d you think? I don’t recognize me!

I decided on the name Maggie Sloddguts. My first stop is to touch base with Rebecca Waters, author of Breathing on Her Own. She thinks I’m coming to job shadow her because I have an idea for a best seller I’d like to write. What I really want to do is find out how I can help her become more productive.

Maggie: Hi there! I’m Maggie. Would you by chance be Rebecca Waters?

Rebecca: [extends her hand] Nice to meet you. I understand you want to be a writer.

Maggie: I have a great idea for a best seller. I had a very dysfunctional family and I know everyone would love to read about them.

Rebecca: Uh, okay. Well, let’s get you started. I have some pages here that need to be edited. I’m going to let you go through those and take this pen to make notes. Circle trouble areas and write any questions you have in the margins.

Maggie: I don’t want to be an editor. I want to be a writer. Maybe they’ll make a movie out of my book. I mean, it’s that good.

Rebecca: Great. In the meantime, you need to learn how to edit your own work. Writers have to do a lot of editing and rewriting. So have a seat here at the kitchen table and let’s see what you can do.

[While Maggie settles into her assigned task, let’s get Rebecca’s first impression of our Undercover Boss.]

Rebecca: I’m not sure Maggie will make it as a novelist. She doesn’t seem to have a clear picture of all that’s involved. Writing is hard work. And I hate to say it, but that girl needs some serious waxing.

[Rebecca returns to her protégée. Back at the kitchen table.]

Maggie: So you print all this out and go through this with a pen all the time?

Rebecca: It depends on the project. I’m learning to use a program called Scrivener and think that will help a lot. I’ll be able to do my revising on the computer and save earlier drafts and so forth. It is a lot less cumbersome. I just need to learn all of the details.

Maggie: Do you take classes for that or something?

Rebecca: I’ve gone through the tutorial and then JessicaWhite, an author/blogger of Christian Fiction (transformational fiction), put together a great chat to go through some of the basics. It takes a lot of time to learn new tools. For example, I can write 1000-1500 words every day without a lot of difficulty, but I’d like to double that. I have the Dragon Word Recognition program I’ve never used. Just need to figure that out, too.

[Outside the house with “Maggie”]

Maggie: Rebecca has a good handle on the work involved in writing a book but she knows it could be better by implementing a few tools. Also, I noticed that working at the kitchen table wasn’t as comfortable as working at an ergonomically designed space. And it’s distracting. I was trying to do a bit of editing while the television was on and found myself making the same mistake over and over.

[Moving on to the next job.] I’m now going to go visit Becky Waters. She works behind the scenes. She manages a weekly blog and handles all the marketing needs for Breathing on Her Own. I want to see how that is going for her and how I might be able to help her.

Maggie:[Entering room and shaking hands with Becky ] I’m Maggie.

Becky: Good to meet you, Maggie. You’re here to learn about blogging?

Maggie: I want to learn everything I can about blogging and marketing and all the other behind the scenes jobs connected to writing.

Becky: I’m happy to share what I know. The blog I write here at Waters Words is called A Novel Creation. How are your computer skills?

Maggie: Oh, fair.

Becky: You’ll learn. I've had to learn by doing or beg for help! First, I’m going to have you work on a marketing piece. I need you to design some business cards and bookmarks. I’ll draft a blog post while you work.

Maggie: Is that hard? Drafting blog posts? I mean you have to write so many of them, how do you find time to do it?

Becky:  I keep a schedule for my blog. I post once a week and have done so for over two years now. It’s usually fun. I try to share what Rebecca is experiencing in her current writing journey –you know, what she’s learning along the way. And I try to have several posts drafted or ready ahead of time. I also feature guests posts from other writers.

[Let’s interview Maggie outside to see what she thinks.]

Maggie: Becky is in way over her head. She manages the blog fine and after reading many of her posts, I know that part of what she does is going well. It’s the marketing end. Breathing on Her Own is doing well, but only because Becky’s been able to recruit people like me to come in and try to design things for her. She needs more confidence and better computer skills. One of her daughters designed her first business cards, a couple of her daughters put the book trailer together, and I know she calls on them for assistance all the time. I know she appreciates her daughters, but they would probably appreciate some help. She really needs to find a professional designer for her website, cards, bookmarks, everything. But of course that all costs money.

Me, Myself, and I

Yes, it’s me. Rebecca, first, I want to tell you I think it’s good you are looking for new ways to be productive. I understand the draw of being able to “write in your jammies” but you are more productive when you get up and get dressed in the morning. Sometimes you do better when you get out of the house. I want to help you. I’m giving you these gift cards to do a little shopping. Buy some work clothes and take yourself out to Starbucks for a change of pace. I also want to see you build in some time each week to learn some of those tools you want to use. If you don’t schedule time for it, it won’t get done.

[You can’t see her, but Rebecca is wowed!]

And let’s take a look at getting your work environment working for you. The kitchen table and the sofa are not ergonomically great places for you to spend long hours writing and they are in the most distracting areas of your home. Let’s take a look at putting your office together in a way that serves you. I’m giving you permission to take three days off of writing to do whatever you need to do that.

Becky, I like the way you’ve set up a schedule for yourself. You seem to have a good handle on the types of things that distract you. I know you stress over the items you need to market the book. I’m earmarking $200 to get more business cards and bookmarks and supplies for marketing.

[Becky hugs herself with glee.]

So what do you think? Ready to go undercover? What do you think you would discover about your writing business? Thanks for visiting. Be sure to take a moment to leave a comment and share the post with your friends.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Writers Write: Declaring July My Personal Writing Month

Writers write. They actually spend time in front of a computer or with a pen in hand and they write. It is the simple truth. Writers write.

While others talk about it, writers do it. Writers write. You see writing takes time. If you’re a follower of this blog, you know that a few weeks ago I ran into a problem with my plot structure. I turned to the internet and the library to see what I could learn about “plot.”  What I didn’t tell you was that one of the books I checked out was an inspirational little book by Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It caught my eye because of the title: No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress,High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. (I understand there is an updated version of the book as well.)
I checked it out and for the past two weeks I’ve enjoyed the quirky mind of Chris Baty. Although the book has some gritty language sprinkled in here and there (Nothing vulgar or I would have put it down.), I must say that I have enjoyed the book and the challenge Baty puts before those who want to call themselves writers.

From what I read, Baty and some of his friends said, wouldn’t it be cool to write a novel? They threw down the gauntlet to others and soon had a group of people who “always wanted to write a book.” They decided 50,000 words was their target length. They met in coffee shops and libraries to write. Not to talk about their writing. Not to share or critique or edit each other’s writing. They got together to write. Because that’s what writers do. Writers write.

Okay, yes, I picture the movie version of the Chris Baty story looking something like an episode of Seinfeld. There is a ton of humor in the book.

However, I think my biggest takeaway from the book was this: “Turn off your inner editor.” That resonates with me. I find my inner editor often shuts me down. The inner editor wants to reread everything and make sure it makes sense. The inner editor in me wants to perfect a sentence before jumping into the next paragraph.

The curious part of that inner editor piece is that I must have words written first to edit. Baty encourages writers to write. Get the words down. Stay with the project for the month, get the words down, and then set that inner editor loose.

I’m familiar with the concept of getting words down on paper. I belong to a group called My 500 Words. Everyone in the group attempts to write 500 words a day. I then joined up with another group who sets their sites on writing 1000 words a day. I investigated “Chunk Writing,” where you write “your” optimal word count each day. And I’ve read a number of blog posts suggesting the word count doesn’t matter as much as the task at hand. I do, after all spend a lot of time revising, editing, querying, researching, blogging, marketing and so forth. I don’t count all of that in my daily totals of words written—only the words I add to my novel.

 I love the whole idea of taking a month to write a novel. Will it be wonderful and perfect and a best seller? Probably not. But it will be done.

So where does this leave me? I declared July my own writing month. I’m averaging 2000 words a day. Two thousand unedited words moving my story along at a fast pace. I am a writer.  Writers write.

Bottom line: Write then write some more.

Thank you for visiting the blog today. I would love to read your comments…like do you use a word count? Ever try NaNoWriMo? Want to get together and write?

AND…Be sure to come back next week when I reveal what I’ve learned as an Undercover Boss.