Worldbuilding 101: A Dastardly Plot

After running around like a chicken with my head cut off for the past couple of weeks, I finally had a little bit of time this past weekend to relax, calm down, and focus on what’s really important: binge re-watching both seasons of Pushing Daisies.  And, uh…writing.  Right?  Yeah. Totally important.

I’m getting to the meaty part of the second book in my new series, where things start to get really complicated.  Since I hadn’t been able to settle down with my manuscript for a while, I ended up sort of listlessly poking at the keyboard, jotting down a few passages that were pretty but not too relevant, trying to recapture the mood and remember where exactly I was headed.  It isn’t always so easy to dive back into a universe you’ve neglected even for a short period of time, and I was getting frustrated with my lack of direction.  So I turned to my old stand-by when I’m feeling stuck: narrative plotting.

I know a lot of people are pretty rigid when it comes to the way they plan out their books.  I’ve previously recommended programs like SuperNotecard, and plenty of people are sweet on Scrivener or EverNote to keep their thoughts in order.  But I would recommend something a lot simpler if you need to snuggle back into the warm, fluffy blanket of your own imagination – or if you’re just not sure how everything is going to come together or what to write next.

I do this…

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…and I find that it really helps.  I leave the names in, though, so I know what I’m talking about.  It’s informal, easily changed, and it captures my stream of consciousness without nagging about order and perfection.  As much as I love a good old fashioned outline with bullet points and index cards and super organized color-coding, I get most of my best ideas when I’m just going with the flow.

I think I probably will end up transferring the bulk of the series’ plotting to something a little more structured as the story builds and the lies pile up, but when it comes time to figure out what the heck my characters are going to get up to next, I always turn to the simplicity of a non-judgmental blank Word document and the pleasure of free writing my way to an epiphany or two.

Shelf Unbound Writing Competition Winners!

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You’ve waited patiently for months to hear which books topped the list of the second annual Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition.  Wait no longer, people of Internetlandia!  The answer is before you in the brand new December/January edition.

Along with the grand prize winner, finalists, and a slew of notable books organized by category, you’ll find a short essay by me about the self-publishing industry and an excerpt from The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun for your perusal and delight.

All of the winners looks pretty darn fantastic, and I’m looking forward to checking them out.  I suggest you do the same, because you can never have enough good indie books taking up space in the attic and stuffed into the recesses of your Kindle.

Five reasons to participate in NaNoWriMo this year

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Oh my gosh, Jen.  Will you stop trying to bludgeon people into tackling National Novel Writing Month?

No.  No, I won’t.  Because it’s awesome, and it can make you feel awesome.  And since my blog posts will likely taper off during the next four weeks or so, I thought I’d take one last opportunity to recruit as many intrepid souls as possible to this noble cause.  Here’s a short list of why I do NaNoWriMo, and why I think you should sign up for this 50,000 words in 30 days adventure.

Someone has to eat all that leftover Halloween candy

Is your girlfriend complaining about the temptation of all those stray fun-size Snickers?  Are you worried about your kids’ A1C1 testing a little too high?  Be the hero they always thought you could be and put those simple sugars to good use.  Starburst and Twix make the optimal fuel for some quality midnight noveling madness.  Few of us would hit our 1,667 words a day without a steady intake of Twizzlers.  Extra motivation?  If you don’t write quickly, you’ll be forced to subsist on nothing more than rejected Good ‘n Plenty.  Gross.

It’s like a great vacation without shelling out for the hotel

Let’s face it.  If you live in most of the United States, there’s nothing much in November worth sticking around for.  The coats come out, the leaves go brown, the frost creeps up your car windows, and you start tripping over boxes of stuffing mix and foil roasting pans every time you sneak into the pantry for another Three Musketeers.

Thanksgiving may be a great holiday, but I guarantee that three and a half weeks of locking yourself in your room and getting totally lost in your own imaginary world will be a welcome break – for both you and your loved ones, who are probably pretty sick of having to deal with you throughout the rest of the year – before you have to settle down at the table with the in-laws.

The people are crazy, and that’s how we like ‘em

Writers are funny people.  They’ll whine and moan about being forced to sit their butts down and do what they keep saying they love, and then they’ll whine and moan when real life gets in the way.  They’ll build fantastic universes rich with deeply detailed cultures and fraught with peril, heroism, and heartbreak, but if you ask what they’re typing, they’ll stare at you blankly and grunt something about “stuff.”

But when these walking contradictions get together en masse, something wonderful happens.  The sheer weight of creative genius pries them open, and they start to share, collaborate, encourage, and cheer each other on as if Amazon sales rankings no longer exist.  The NaNoWriMo community is amazing, and the free pep talks, local events, and international connections are worth twice what you’d have to pay to attend a writer’s conference half as big at any other time during the year.

Even if you don’t win, you still win

You know that old chestnut about how taking part is just as good as winning?  Well, it isn’t.  But it’s still pretty rewarding, especially when you’re only competing against yourself.  Sure, you might lose momentum half way through when the doubts set in.  Sure, the holiday may throw you off track at 47,000 words.  But even if you only write 500 words the whole month, that’s 500 words you didn’t have on October 31.  There’s no way to lose NaNoWriMo except not to play.

Why not?

So why not give it a try?  Because you’re too busy?  You’ve got work or school or both?  Bollocks.  Take a look at the number of college students participating – take a look at the number of elementary school kids in the Young Writer’s Program – and think again.  I’m not one of those people who believe you’ve got to put writing above everything else in your life if you ever want to see your work on a shelf, but sometimes a little kick in the pants is exactly what you need to realize your full potential.

Take a month.  Take a chance.  Lock up your inner editor and open up a Word doc, because November is coming up quickly.  Are you going to write a novel in the next thirty days?  Why the hell not?

Seven Things You Should Never Do Unless They Work for You

flowerWrite every day.  Write when you feel like it.  Drink green tea.  Don’t drink anything so you never have to get up to pee.  Only use the 2008 limited edition Graf von Faber-Castell Collection pencil, made of 240-year-old olive wood and 18 carat white gold, and the finest 14th century cured calf skin parchment when jotting down notes at Starbucks.  While not drinking anything.

While it’s impossible for one person to know what’s going to work for another, writers are constantly bombarded with tips and tricks, advice and anecdotes from people who claim to have all the answers.  It can be infuriating, but it’s also how we learn what’s good and what to chuck out the window.

Yeah, I’m going to be one of those people for a minute.  I’m only making this list because these things are important to me.  They’re things that I struggle with or things that I think I’ve learned so far.  But you might not give a damn.  You might do exactly the opposite and have great success.  And that’s totally okay.  I’m gonna do it anyway.

Back up

The cold, simple truth is that there is no book unless you write it.  There are no words unless you tap them out on your keyboard, or scribble them with your ridiculously overpriced pencil.  Writing that book is going to be hard.  It’s going to make you feel like an idiot half the time, make you suspicious of your sudden genius the rest of the time, and it’s going to scare you into running away.

Don’t do it.  Don’t back down, and don’t shut that laptop until you type “the end”.  Your first draft is totally going to suck, but that’s why you work on a second.  And if your second draft sucks, then it’s time for a third.  But you can’t improve a blank page.  Just write.

Don’t back up

For the love of all that is holy, use the freakin’ cloud.  Use Amazon, or Dropbox, or Google Drive, or whatever alternative you like.  Email your book to yourself every day.  Wear a necklace of USB drives instead of that one with the dried severed ears of your enemies.  Carve your draft into a mountain and keep a picture of it on your cell phone.  Then email it to yourself, print it out, and hang a laminated copy on your wall.  Back.  Up.  Your.  Work.

Ignore your image

It’s awesome that your four-year-old drew a picture of your main character on some notebook paper during art class.  It’s totally great that you learned how to use MS Paint and made your very own book cover featuring little Sally’s masterpiece and some wicked Times New Roman action.  But let’s think for a minute about what else is on the shelf.  Let’s think about the picture of yourself that you swiped off of Facebook from that graduation party you went to three years ago.  You’ve got a beer in your hand.

You don’t have to drop $500 bucks at the portrait studio.  You don’t need to hire a web designer.  It doesn’t take a lot of money to publish a professional-looking book.  There are templates and free stock art (make sure it’s free for commercial use, please).  There are helpful people in forums that enjoy making your work look the best it can.  There are a hundred thousand other self-published authors to compete with – and to learn from.

Study up.  See what works.  See what attracts your own eye.  It might be as simple as a clear picture with a smiling face and an easy-to-find email address, but your readers are going to see that before they even get to your book.  Make a good first impression.

Put the blinders on

I am so guilty of this one.  I don’t read a lot of other books.  But I do follow a lot of other books.  I follow agents on Twitter, and major publishing houses, and successful authors (traditional and indie) in my little niche.  I read the news, and keep up with the statistics, and occasionally, I even write about the state of the industry for all of you guys.

Am I an expert on publishing trends and contracts and mergers?  No, of course not.  But knowing what’s going on around me helps keep me focused, and helps me figure out where I want to go.  Self-publishing is an industry in its infancy, and we are the generation of writers who are going to shape it for years to come.  Knowing what’s happening is only going to help you.

Wear the wrong shoes

I write epic fantasy.  I write a very specific kind of epic fantasy.  My books appeal to a relatively small number of people, and I’m okay with that.  I don’t write urban fantasy, or steampunk, or sci-fi, because those genres don’t fit who I am as a writer.  I’ve found my shoes, and they’re helping me hit my stride.

Just like your high school guidance counselor told you, you’ve got to be true to what you’re feeling.  The words have to flow, and you have to go to bed excited to wake up in the morning and keep typing.  Otherwise, you’re just going to give yourself blisters, and you’re going to resent your work.

Get overwhelmed

Oh, this is such an easy one to do.  And it happens to the best of us, whether we like it or not.  You’re scrolling through five hundred pages of text you’ve slaved over for the past eight months, and suddenly you want to smash a bottle of wine over your head until you beat the idiotic drivel out of your brain for once and for all.  You’re never going to publish it.  You’re never going to sell a single copy.  No one is ever going to like you, and you’re going to die miserable and alone.  No one’s even going to care if there’s a typo on your tombstone, because they’re not going to visit.  You’re going to put this piece of crap away and never, ever, ever, ever look at it ever again because you hate everything and you need some ice cream right now, damn it.  Right now.

Come on.  Get a grip.  Scroll back up and read the first item on this list.  Leave the house, take a walk around the block, go to Carvel and drown your sorrows in chocolate syrup.  Then get back to work.

Get bitter

So it’s the middle of the month and you’re still staring at the beige bar of shame on your KDP report.  You just got a rejection email from a query you sent out six months ago after forgetting all about it.  Your cat just threw up on the rug, and you have to pay your car insurance.  Carvel was closed.

It’s Tuesday, and that’s when you usually write your blog.  What’s on your mind today?  Hmm.  How about that rejection letter?  How about you blast that hapless agent for not knowing good writing if it fell on her head?  You’ll show her better than to pass on your masterful oeuvre in favor of some two-bit, jumped up amateur with the next derivative, repetitive, boring, poorly constructed vampire novel that’s going to get a WB series and an action figure along with its six-figure deal.  You hope she reads it and goes home crying after being slammed with your scathing remarks.  You hope she quits after realizing she’s a fraud and a failure and no longer fit for the sacred task entrusted to her.

Uh, no.   Because she’s not going to read it, but lots and lots of other people will.  They’re not going to want to work with you.  They’re not going to want to read your book.  They’re going to call you immature, and petty, and angry, and unprofessional.  You’re going to shoot yourself in the foot.

We all have bad days.  And we’re all writers.  We just have to learn not to combine the two, unless it’s going to breathe life into our fiction.  You want to be the cheerful, resilient, level-headed author that’s a joy to speak to at a cocktail party.  You want your attitude to be an ambassador for you, even if you’re secretly steaming mad.

Publishing is business, even if you’re doing it yourself.  Every word you write is a business card.  Every sentence is a pitch.  You can’t control the market, and you certainly can’t control what other people like and don’t like.  All you can do is put your best foot forward, take your lumps, and keep doing what you love.

That’s the Game, Boys

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I’m a Camp NaNoWriMo winner!  For the first time, I’ve successfully topped my word count during a summer event.

It helped to have a novel that’s pure, uncomplicated fun to write, full of adventure, intrigue, bickering siblings, and teenage angst.  Ambergris now stands at 61,000 words, and I think it’ll end up being one of my shorter works, likely concluding at 90,000.  Or 100,000.  Or, you know, maybe 250,000.

In any case, I wrote 50,000 this month (I started early, so the first 10K don’t count), and it feels good.  Spring has revitalized my creative spirit, even if it’s killed half my garden plants with its fickleness, and I’ll probably spend the next two or three weeks finishing up this first draft before returning to The Spoil and getting that shaped up for release.  Looks like it’ll be a busy year for Aenetlif Press.

Did anyone else take up the challenge?  Are you close to meeting your goal, or has life done its thing and derailed your efforts? I can’t remember if the second session will be in July and August next year, but now’s the time to prepare for either!

For the Love of the Game

Note for anyone who may be remotely worried, since I’m located in the Boston area: I’m perfectly all right and know no one who was personally affected by the events at the Marathon on Monday.  I’m as shocked, upset, and sad as anyone, but I’m equally encouraged by the efforts from our first responders, police officers, and ordinary citizens who turned a moment of tragedy into yet another reason to be proud of my quirky, crazy, brash, fiercely loyal, and deeply caring adopted hometown.

***

April is just a little more than halfway over, and that means we’re heading into Camp NaNoWriMo crunch time.  I’ve been doing pretty well so far, staying about a day and a half ahead of my target despite a lost weekend due to company, and another one coming my way in a few days.  I’ve been hitting 2,000 words per day pretty consistently, which is great, and I may even hit 50,000 before the deadline, knock on wood.

The ride hasn’t been this smooth since 2009, when I leaped into my first November with the first draft of The Last Death.  Since then, I’ve worked on The Paper Flower, some untitled mess that will never see the light of day, and spent last year’s main event and both of the Camp sessions slogging through The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun to various degrees of success.

ambergriscovergoodThis April, for those of you who don’t like me on Facebook (like me on Facebook!), I am indeed working on my rollicking seafaring adventure story called Ambergris, which seems to have turned into a young adult coming-of-age Treasure Island knock off…with dragons.  Weird for me, right?  Right!  I mean, come on!  But I kind of love it, and I’m having more fun than I ever thought possible with such a tale.  And that’s what’s making the words flow effortlessly.

That’s also what was missing with The Spoil, and why it was such an effort to drag myself to the keyboard everyday.  I’m not saying it’s not a good book – it’s a very, very good book, and I’m very proud of it.  It’s dark and exciting and heartbreaking and full of beautiful, tragic, extraordinary things, just like a fantasy novel should be.  But writing it was an obligation, in a way.  People were asking for it.  The Last Death demanded a prequel.  It is/was my sophomore novel, which is a pressure point all on its own.  It has to be good, because The Last Death is good.  It has to be better.

That’s a tall order, and while I think I’ve satisfied it (or will satisfy it when I’ve done a good edit), that’s not why I like to write.  I like to go on the adventure with my characters, throw them curve balls, see how they duck and weave through challenges as the nets draw tighter and the stakes get high.  I like to see the plot come together in unexpected ways, tie up those loose ends, and type “the end” knowing I have poured my heart and soul, sweat and angst and adrenaline onto those pages and come out with something worth spending time with.  That’s the joy of writing.  That’s the only reason to do it.

And that’s something I’ve recaptured now that the expectation of writing a history book that contains all the answers and no mistakes has been lifted.  I’m very glad to know that I can have that feeling again: that it wasn’t a one time thing with the first flush of discovering that I like writing books.  I’m hoping that I’ll be able to bottle a little of it and keep it around when I edit The Spoil at the end of the month.  I think I’ll be able to, and it will only improve my work.

But for now, I’m going to follow my strange, silly, surprising path, and see where it goes.  If you look up on the top of the site, you’ll see a brand new page for Ambergris with a blurb and an excerpt, and I’d love to hear what you think.

I hope you are all safe and well, and experiencing the same mad, gleeful pleasure of putting words on paper.

Location, location, location

I’m not a coffee shop writer.  I suppose I ought to be, considering I’m a tech-savvy twenty-something with aspirations of being a moderately-caffeinated yuppie, but I just can’t seem to manage to live up to my label.

coffee-shop-1I want to be one of the cool kids lounging in a comfy leather chair, tapping away at my laptop and sipping some overly complicated coffee concoction.  I’ve got the Mac Book.  I’ve even got a sleek new Kindle Fire tablet.  But I can hardly even figure out how to read the menu and order my drink without getting distracted, confused, and tongue-tied in such a busy environment.  The constant chatter, the jet engine whirr of the milk foaming thingy and the deafening ice crusher, the door always opening and closing…some people thrive on the background noise and constant movement, but it just isn’t for me.

At my day job, you’d think it would be easy to use my spare moments to squeeze out a couple hundred words before 5:00.  After all, we’re an office dedicated to writing, aren’t we?  But we’re also an office dedicated to comparing page views, sharing information, a lot of good-natured teasing, and even more talk about football (bleh).  That means as soon as I put my headphones in to listen to my favorite white noise mp3 and slip into my own fictional universe for a while, I have to take them out again to make sure that the person who’s talking isn’t expecting me to answer them.

The only place I’ve ever been able to really concentrate is at home.  Sitting cross-legged on the couch in my pajamas, snacks at hand and shoes nowhere to be found, I can be sure that there won’t be any interruptions or calls for my attention that I can’t easily ignore.  For me, the background needs to completely fade away so I can focus.  The quiet, familiar surroundings I’ve cultivated for myself (when my neighbors aren’t home, at least) present me with no surprises.

Maybe it has to do with feeling secure.  No one is going to read over my shoulder or look at me funny when I start whispering to myself as I type.  I don’t have to justify myself; I don’t have to worry about being watched as I take part in what is a fundamentally internal, deeply personal pursuit.  For me, my home is a safe retreat from feeling angsty about what the rest of the world thinks about me, and the release from my perpetual low-grade social anxiety is the only thing that allows my creativity to run free.

So you don’t have to worry about me taking up the best chair in the corner for hours at a time.  I won’t hog the outlets or ask if I can borrow your charger for ten minutes.  And I won’t be spending a fortune on topping up my latte every time the clock strikes, thank you very much.  Give me a blanket and the freedom to stretch out any which way I please, and I’ll spend half the day happily muttering to myself, oblivious to the rest of the world as I creep towards my manuscript’s finish line.

Where’s your favorite place to get some words down on the page?  Vote for your top choice or leave a comment below.