Last year (2014), I didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo because . . . frankly, I 1) had no new ideas, 2) wasn’t particularly enthused with the thought of doing it again, and 3) wasn’t sure NaNoWriMo had anything left to teach me.
And this year, I was in pretty much the same mindset. Until.
Three things occurred roughly simultaneously, then a fourth one happened that pushed me to the point where I am right now; i.e., considering doing NaNoWriMo again for 2015. I’m not 100% sure, mind you, but . . . there are processes that are . . . um, processing. In my brain.
Thing the First. I went to WorldCon, thoroughly enjoyed myself (other than the trips to and from the con, that is), and decided pretty much on the spur of some moment or other to go ahead and register not only for the 74th WorldCon in Kansas City, MO in 2016, but the 75th WorldCon, as well. That one’s in Helsinki, Finland, in 2017. I’m quite excited about both of those, actually. I’ve already registered for 74 and paid my dues and all that. I’m applying for a passport in about a month for the trip to Helsinki. I already have flight alerts for both trips set up so I can get good prices. Alternatively, I check the price of driving to Kansas City, MO each Monday to see if it’s more than the price of the flight. If not, I may just drive.
Thing the Second. A friend (Karl) happened to mention on Facebook that registration was open for Paradise Lost 6 Writers Workshop. Paradise Lost is only open to people who have participated in certain other workshops (Viable Paradise, Taos Toolbox), or who are a member of Codex Writers. I am both a graduate of Viable Paradise (in 2012) and a member of Codex Writers. So yay.
Once again, on the spur of some moment I wasn’t aware of until it had passed, I registered for it. It’s in San Antonio, TX in April of 2016. I already have a flight alert for the trip set up so I can get a good price. Alternatively, I check the price of driving to San Antonio, TX each Monday to see if it’s more than the price of the flight. If not, I may just drive.
Thing the Second-and-a-Halfth. When I registered, there was the option of registering for the workshop only or the critique track. For critique, you have to read some other people’s submissions and critique them, and submit something for critique yourself. The workshop is in April. On the spur of yet another moment, I threw caution to the wind and clicked on “critique track.”
Which means one thing: I better get my butt in a chair and my hands on a keyboard.
Thing the Third. I started reading — and very much enjoying — Debra Jess‘s wonderful book Blood Surfer: A Thunder City Novel. It’s an urban science fiction . . . fantasy . . . kind of a thing. Basically, super heroes plus romance. It’s very good, so far. I’m going slowly because I’m also reading another friend’s novel at the same time, this one for critique.
Thing the Fourth. A lot of my blog posts contain this phrase, but it is, nonetheless, true: so, I was in the shower . . .
So, I was in the shower and this . . . idea just popped into my head. Not quite fully formed, but my brain decided to dwell on it during my commute to work. And while I was at work. And on my drive home from work. And as I lay in bed that night waiting for sleep. And the next morning. And . . . well, you get the point. And then, this morning, after the spectre of NaNoWriMo had been broached by the Forum Writers (my standing Tuesday night critique group), my brain went into overdrive and I dictated many ideas into my little digital voice recorder on the way to work.
I won’t go into great and glorious detail on what the idea was, but I will give you the first sentence that was what popped into my head in the shower that morning: “Hero Man often wished the press had given him a more . . . well, magnificent name.”
That’s all you get. :)
I will, however, add that all this comes just two short weeks until November 1st, which leaves me very little time to actually plan out anything, which is where my reluctance to commit comes in. Also, my Apple MacBook died. With Scrivener on it. I write everything in Scrivener. So I need to get a new laptop, regardless.
- I keep meaning to post a write-up of what happened at the con. And I have started the posts. But I keep having interruptions. (Stupid work. Stupid real life.) But I’ll get to them. Eventually. Probably.
- Debra was in Viable Paradise with me in 2012.
- I listen to podcasts on the way to and from work. The one I listened to this morning happened to be a back episode of The Round Table Podcast during which the guys brainstormed and workshopped a superhero novel. If I believed in such things, I’d think this was the Universe sending me a strong message. Good thing I don’t believe in that sort of thing. :)
In my two experiences with Weekend Warrior — the contest on Codex Writers where participants are given prompts for five weeks and have approximately 54 hours to write a 750-word flash piece inspired by one of the prompts — I’ve received a good bit of very terse feedback, one particular recurring phrase of which I had taken to be a negative, because I honestly had no idea what it meant, but it sounded bad. Weekend Warrior critiques are just a few words, with no space or time for in-depth commentary.
<digression> From a reader’s perspective, it may sound like I’m completely obsessed with Weekend Warrior and with critiques and that I spend all my waking time dwelling on it. I don’t. This blog is about writing, so if something occurs to me that clarifies my writing or reading patterns, I may write about it. But there are many other things that occupy my time, and I have spent no more time dwelling on Weekend Warrior or the critiques therefrom than any of you have spent worrying about whether Kim Kardashian . . . uh, I have nowhere to go after that, because I couldn’t care less. But that’s my point. I go weeks without thinking about it, and then a little whisper in the recesses of my frontal lobe surfaces: “‘Workmanlike language’: what does that even mean?” So bear with me, and please don’t go away with the impression that I’m obsessed. :) Now, back to my blog post, already in progress.</digression>
So, the other day, I saw the same phrase used on some forum . . . and it was quite obviously a compliment. So I asked a friend of mine, Terra LeMay, who recently acquired an agent for her novel and for whom I could not be more excited, “What does ‘workmanlike language’ mean to you?” I explained in what contexts I’d heard it.
Her answer not only surprised me, but has given me quite a bit of insight to my own writing and why I inexplicably don’t like some stories / books that are otherwise well-written.
‘Workmanlike language’ basically means that the words that tell the story don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to themselves. There are no turns of phrase that make you stop reading and say, “Wow! That was beautiful!” and then read it again and again, with the words rolling off your (figurative or literal) tongue. In other words, to quote William Shakespeare out of context, “The play’s the thing.” (Actually, quoting Shakespeare, here, who is quite well-known for his beautiful, often lyrical and surprising turns of phrase was probably not a good choice. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with it.). The words stay out of the way, letting the story — the millieu, ideas, characters, and events — be the star.
And it dawned on me: this is not a negative remark (although it’s possible some people might have meant it that way): it’s positive, for me.
Because this is what I strive to do. It is also what I look for in the things I read.
My feeling about writing and reading is that if you’re paying attention to the words, you’re not giving enough attention to what they’re saying. My characters don’t enunciate with mellifluous melismatic ease . . . they talk. Or perhaps speak.
Now, I can look back on some very good books that . . . I’ve just been kind of ‘meh’ about. Because, as Gloria Estéfan might say, “the words get in the way.”
I like some of them in spite of the flowery language (and I don’t mean ‘flowery’ as an insult, much in the same way that ‘workmanlike’ is not an insult now that I know what it means) because they have the other elements that I want in equal measure. So I can read a novel or story with flowery, expressive language that draws attention to itself, but as long as the story itself holds my interest, I’m fine. I might even pause over a particularly well-put-together sentence and marvel at it and wish I’d written it.
A recent example is Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which I read as part of a reading group I belong to. Most everyone else seemed to like it, but it just left me high and dry. They were all talking about the beautiful, poetic language while I was saying, “All the absurd stuff lost me.”1 I was focusing on the story; they were focusing on the language, and the stuff behind the language.
It also dawns on me as I type this blog post that this very issue is probably the problem I have with most poetry. In poetry, the words are key, and the beautiful turn of phrase is the point.
Since we’re already talking about Shakespeare, compare these two side-by-side excerpts from Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are telling Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia about their encounter with Hamlet:
Nor do we find him forward to be sounded
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.
|“And he’s not exactly eager to be interrogated. He’s very sly and dances around our questions when we try to get him to talk about how he feels,” Guildenstern said.|
Did he receive you well?
|“Did he treat you well when you saw him?” asked Gertrude.|
[Note: Text on left is public domain. The modern English explication on the right is taken from the No Fear Shakespeare website and used entirely without permission, but I’m pretty sure it falls under fair use. I merely added the quotes and attribution, like you’d see in dialogue in a novel.]
Shakespeare’s original language is beautiful. It’s in iambic pentameter, it rhymes, and each word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and still remain faithful to the form. The right-hand text is ‘workmanlike prose.’ It’s more like what I would write in a story, and far closer to what I would rather read. The meaning is conveyed, but while I might quote Shakespeare, I will only remember the meaning conveyed by the words on the right.
Of course, certain caveats apply here: Shakespeare was writing a play in a strict form requiring rhyme and meter and a certain flair for a turn of phase. He even made words up when existing ones didn’t suffice. But if I were reading a modern adaptation of Hamlet in the form of a novel, I would expect to see language much more consistent with what’s on the right. Because people actually speak that way. The words and their arrangement don’t obfuscate what is being said. The prose form doesn’t require that normal sentence structure be subverted to fit a rhyme or meter.
So I guess what I’m trying to get around to saying2 is this: each individual writer (and reader) uses language that not only makes them comfortable, but excites them and is appropriate for the work itself.
And for me, that is often “workmanlike language.” :)
- The very point at which it lost me was when his wife came to visit him in prison and brought all the household belongings, members of her family, the cat, etc, and spent the entire time talking to everyone but him, as he basically cowered in his crowded cell speaking to no one. I did get that there were a number of metaphors and a lot of symbolism going on, but it was at that point that I just stopped caring and said, ‘This is too far out in Absurdland for me to even see the way home.’
- I often have a point, and I sometimes actually get around to making it. :)
In my last post, I ended on kind of a cliff-hanger. I apportioned out all my required time and my copious spare time, and discovered that I actually have quite a bit of it, but I don’t spend most of it writing, because . . . well, I don’t know why, really. I do enjoy it, when I actually do it. It’s just a matter of getting over that initial hurdle.
So, when do I write consistently?
Codex Weekend Warrior. For the last two years, I have managed to churn out ten flash pieces in under 54-ish hours. This year, most of that was actually in five hours, because my inspiration didn’t come until way late.
What’s the common thread of those two things? Gamification.
In other words, I write consistently when it’s treated like a game. For each day during NaNoWriMo, I have to write at least 1667 words, and I can compare my progress with other peoples’ progress, and have little word wars and such.
During Weekend Warrior, there is a deadline, and then at the end there’s the rating of everyone else’s stories. The game is obvious there.
I tried one gamification system that didn’t work as well. It’s called The Magic Spreadsheet. It was created by a classmate of Mur Lafferty‘s at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. She talked it up quite a bit on her podcast I Should Be Writing and so, after some hemming and hawing, I tried it out. It’s a system of rewards and “punishments.” For each day you write 250 or more words, you get a point. The longer your unbroken chain is, the more points you get. As you consistently write, you “level up” and then more words are required for each day, etc. But miss a day and . . . you go back to the start (in some ways; it’s complicated).
But, alas, the spreadsheet is unwieldy to manage, and I just couldn’t get into it. What consistuted “writing” for them wasn’t what necessarily constituted “writing” for me. I mean, a blog post is writing. So is writing a document at work. Sure, it’s not going toward a story, but it is BICHOK.
I lasted for about 10 days, and then I was out of town for the weekend and broke my chain. And that break cost me points, and I never went back to the Magic Spreadsheet.
Then, a few days ago, Sherry D. Ramsey, a friend of mine from The Quillians, my Second Life writers group, posted a blog post about a site called 750 Words. Which is almost exactly the same thing as The Magic Spreadsheet, except it doesn’t matter what you write (not that it did on TMS, but it felt like it did.
750 Words “requires” that you write 750 words every day, to gain more points, and to get silly little badges. 750 words is roughly three pages of a mass-market paperback. That’s doable in a day, without trying too horribly much for me.
So I signed up and am trying out their free, 30-day trial. After that, you have to pay them $5/month. Unfortunately, it’s through PayPal only which is distressing, because I loathe PayPal, so I won’t be able to continue after my 30 days are up, and no one from the site seems to be monitoring their Twitter or email or forums to answer questions.
But for now, this is working for me, and it’s forcing me to write blog posts (three of them, so far, including this one!) and one letter that will not be sent, but which allowed me to lay out my arguments in a coherent manner so that when I do contact the people in question, I can sound prepared instead of not. And several thousand words of outline for my novel.
Now, the question is whether I can continue this even after the free trial runs out, on my own, or whether it’ll fizzle like some of the other ones.
I do have a novel I’m supposed to be working on. And I have a novel group and either me or one other person are “up next” for having a novel to critique, but alas, neither of us has anything actually ready for critique yet. At least in the other person’s case, they have begun the novel. What I have are a few thousand words from NaNoWriMo and a bunch of notes that may make up a novel plot. It’s the one I’ve been talking about on here, forever, with the magical FBI in Atlanta. Much revised and hopefully improved over the next-most-recent attempt.
So I’m proceeding apace on the gamification of writing. But what about the other stuff? Stay tuned!
The title of this post is a quote from Roald Dahl from his book My Uncle Oswald.
I haven’t written much — here, but also in general — since the end of NaNoWriMo in November of last year. A couple of book reviews and the stories of how all three of my blogs got their names, but that’s about it.
I’d love to say it’s because I’ve been busy as a beaver writing and haven’t had time to compose a blog post.
I’d dearly love to say that. Unfortunately, if I do, I’ll be lying.
I could blame it on a lot of things. Blame is fun, as long as it’s not aimed at myself. Let’s try it, shall we?
I broke my good glasses1 last November, just six days into NaNoWriMo, and had to send them in for warranty replacement. So I’ve been struggling to see because my backup glasses aren’t adjusted for the distance between my eyes and where the laptop sits. However . . . I managed somehow to finish out NaNoWriMo with 50,000+ words using those glasses. And now, in late February, I finally have my glasses back, good as new. Actually, they are new. Warranty replacements.
Or I could claim that my right shoulder that I hurt in a fall last summer has been giving me fits, and that the long, drawn-out process of waiting on workers comp to do what’s right has increased my frustration level to the boiling point. And it would be true, but that wouldn’t take into account the fact that it hasn’t stopped me from doing anything else fun that I wanted to do.
So the Finger of Blame™ turns once more to point firmly back at me. Stupid Finger. :)
I did participate in Weekend Warrior over on CodexWriters, and this means I have five brand-new flash pieces to do something with (such as edit and submit). But I also did Weekend Warrior last year, and had five pieces of flash to do something with . . . and I did nothing with them. I have recently started editing those stories2 and sending them through my own little critique process, trying to get feedback on how I can improve them enough to send them out on submission. Because that’s the goal, here: submission. With the ultimate goal of publication.
I’m certainly not doing it for whatever money I might get; writing is not a profession to take up if you plan on making a ton of money, unless you’re Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer, Jim Butcher, or someone like that. No, this is about proving to myself that I can write well enough to make people want to read it. I have stories to tell, dammit, and I want to tell them in a way that people find compelling.
The problem is, what I’ve proven to myself is that even I don’t want to read my writing, sometimes. Allow me to explain.
On Weekend Warrior, the goal is to write a 750-word flash story between Friday at 9 pm and Sunday at midnight, using one or more of five prompts given on Friday night. Once all the stories are submitted, each participant reads all the submitted stories and rates them on a 1–10 scale. Various people use the scale differently, but since each individual uses their scale consistently, it works out even if everyone’s use is slightly different.
Across all nine of my submitted stories (I missed the deadline on week four, this year, but still wrote the story), my average scores have been in the mid-5 range. What a 5 means is that the story has potential, but doesn’t have enough of something to really get the readers involved. (This is based on several writers’ comments on the very topic of how they score others’ stories.)
In other words, my stories didn’t grab the majority. They didn’t keep their interest. They failed to make readers care or want to know the ending. Or the ending failed to satisfy. In essence, it means that my writing is OK, but not exceptional.
Granted, I do get some scores in the 7–9 range (I’ve never received a 10). But I also get scores in the 1–4 range. But in general, it’s firmly wavering between a five and a six.
I should also note that the winners of each round are generally in the high-6 to mid-7 range. I have never seen a story score an average of above a 7, although granted my experience is limited to the two years I have participated. But that extra point or two makes a big difference. The difference between “OK” and “exceptional.”
These are 750 word stories, maximum. And it’s difficult to introduce characters, setting, plot, conflict, an arc of character growth, world-building, and a satisfying resolution in only 750 words. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Others can obviously do it, so it shouldn’t be beyond me.
These readers aren’t just average, run-of-the-mill readers, either: these are my writing peers. These are the same types of people (and frequently the same exact people) who will be making the ‘buy/not buy’ decision at a market where I have submitted.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t take every negative comment to heart and immediately think, “I suck.” What I think is, “I can do better than this.” Followed immediately by, “But how?” And that’s been my stumbling block. Going from “This doesn’t work,” to “Why doesn’t it work?” to “How can I make it work?”
And how can I see this before I submit rather than after the critiques?
And it finally dawned on me that I also read all the same stories they did, these people who are my peers. Many of them are published authors3. A few are award-winning authors in my genres. But on the whole, the stories I scored high were the same ones most of the others did. So we agreed on the stories that did best. And that’s the key.
So, what can I learn from those stories? The ones that not only I, but others whose judgment I respect, judged to be better than the rest.
That’s what finally clicked. I can examine those stories that worked for me as both a reader and a writer, take them apart, analyze them, and try to work out why they work for me.4 What part or parts did or did not draw me in. There are some patterns, and the trick will be to identify when I am following one of those patterns and nip it, as Barney Fyfe famously quipped, in the bud.
This is usually difficult for me, especially if the writing is something I enjoy. When I’m in critique mode, I do it without much effort, unless the story is very gripping, in which case I occasionally forget to critique. But that very fact often becomes part of my critique: “I got so caught up in this section that I forgot I was reading it for critique and just enjoyed it.”
I know for a fact that writers like that kind of comment. :)
I can’t think of a single time anyone has ever told me that. So it’s time to raise the stakes.
And I realize, writing this, that . . . I say this at the beginning of every year. It loses its meaning because I’m always saying, “This year, I’m going to do better! I’m going to write! I’m going to submit!”
And then, along about February, the doldrums hit and I lose impetus. Something falters. I lose confidence. Or I fail to get any good critiques. Or I find other things more important than writing. Like YouTube or podcasts or what few hours of TV I allow myself to watch.5
And I’d like to say “this year, it’s going to be different!” After all, I waited until the last part of February to break my silence. To do that ‘resolutions’ thing that people tend to put so much stock in at the start of a new year.
I’d like to say it. And I hope I will look back and say, “This year was different! I got published!”
But for now, I’m going to concentrate on what is important.
More on that next time.
I did something amusing. I wrote this over the course of several days, and the tone has changed drastically. And it’s so typical of me. I remembered my scores as being worse than they were on Weekend Warrior for both years. In researching for this entry, I went back and examined all my votes and discovered that I actually scored way higher than I remembered. Three of the stories were in the high-4 range, but all of the other seven were firmly in the 5 range. I remembered them being overwhelmingly below 5. So I edited this to have a little more positive tone and outlook. Any maudlin tone that remains is purely unintentional. I actually feel pretty good about the stories I’ve written. I just need to translate that, as stated, into forward momentum.
- I bought a pair of SuperFocus glasses in spring last year, and while I was cleaning them one morning in November, the inner lens popped and oil went everywhere. Luckily, the warranty covers them for full replacement for one year.
- Of the ten stories I wrote, I really like the ideas in seven of them. Two of the others are unsalvageable (one was accidental fanfic and the other was so clichéd, it actually hurts), and the last one is too long to tell effectively in a flash piece.
- To get into Codex, you either have to be published or have completed a juried workshop, which I did in 2012 at Viable Paradise. So some of these peers are literal peers — they have published nothing, but are working to get better. Others are peers only in that we both type on keyboards in the hopes that someone will read the output and enjoy it.
- By the same token, I can take apart the ones that were consistently scored low by others and myself and figure out what didn’t work.
- I know that TV is the bane of many writers’ lives. I actually don’t have cable or local digital TV. I have NetFlix and Hulu Plus and a ton of DVDs. My housemate and I are working through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and Doctor Who right now. And Jonathan Creek when we find time.