Sunday, November 29, 2015

NaNoWriMo -- the home stretch, or: Don't hit publish yet!

I wrote a lot of words this weekend. A lot of words. When I went to bed Wednesday night, my NaNoWriMo total was 43,800 words. Between cooking the Thanksgiving meal and visiting with family on Thursday, I managed to add just 200 words to the total. But by midnight Friday, I had comfortably crossed the 50,000-word threshold and validated this year's NaNo novel. And I kept writing Saturday to finish up the last chapter or so. So the final word count for Spider's Lifeline is either 55,756 (my count) or 56,095 (NaNo's count). I dunno where NaNo found the extra 300 words, but I wasn't inclined to argue with them since the difference was in my favor -- and I was over 50K either way.

(As most of you know, I think, my daughter Kitty is also doing NaNo this year. She blew past 50,000 words long ago, and won on the 20th, the first day validating was allowed. But her story wasn't done at 50,000 words, so she's still writing. And writing. Her goal is 150,000 words by midnight tomorrow. And she says her story won't be done even then.)

Some of you reading this may be doing NaNo for the first time -- or maybe you've done it before, but this is the first year you're going to win. Congratulations!

Now, I'd guess, your friends and loved ones are reacting in one of two ways:

  1. Wow, that's a lot of words. So can we resume Real Life now? You need to clean out the gutters before we put up the Christmas lights...
  2. OOOOOH! That's so cool! I want to read your book! Gimme gimme gimme!
As flattering as reaction #2 is, I'd recommend you tread even more carefully with this one than you would with reaction #1.

I'll be blunt: Writing 50,000 words in a month is a notable achievement -- but it doesn't mean you've written a publishable novel. At best, you have a first draft. More than likely, it's what my indie author friend Alexes Razevich calls a zero draft. It's the thing you need to have so you can start shaping it into a novel.

Our friends at NaNo will be posting a whole range of winner goodies on Tuesday. In the past, the prizes have included a free paperback of your book from CreateSpace; I think I heard that this year's prizes include a free hardcover from somewhere-or-other. Please, please, please resist the urge to order a copy before you have edited your book. If you publish it right away, there's a really good chance you'll re-read your book six months from now and say, "You know, really, this thing is a steaming pile of crap."

Or worse, someone else will tell you.

The NaNo folks know this to be true. On Tuesday, they'll have a bunch of suggestions for what to do with your book next. But I guarantee their number-one suggestion will be to leave it alone over the holidays. Close the file and set it aside until after New Year's. That will give you some distance from the work, and will give you a better chance to see its problems.

On January first, when you crack open your draft for the first time in a month, read it critically. Try not to get swept up in the story. Look for missing words and homonyms -- spellcheck and grammar check will not catch everything. Watch out for dangling plot threads; places where you've said the same thing two or three different ways when one way would suffice; characters you never properly introduce; characters you introduce too many times; and so on. 

Once you've been over your book a few times, find some beta readers. And I don't mean your mom. Look for people who will give you an honest opinion -- people who will tell you where the trouble spots are. Once you have their feedback, edit your novel again. The rule of thumb with beta readers is that if one person says something is a problem, it might just be them -- but if several people say something is a problem, it's a problem.

At this point, you might want to hire a professional editor. Lots of indies don't -- but lots of indies do. And don't hire your high school English teacher, unless he or she has professional editing experience. Novel editing requires a different skill set than term paper editing.

Then there's cover art. You might have mocked up something for NaNo, but compare your mockup to books in your genre at Amazon -- and be honest. If your cover looks amateurish, hire an artist to make you a better one.

Only after you've gone through all this will you be ready to publish your book.

But you don't have to worry about any of that until New Year's. For now, bask in the glory of your accomplishment. You wrote 50,000 words in a month! Tons of people have tried and failed -- but you've done it! Congratulations!

These moments of congratulatory blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

How I earned the NaNoWriMo Farting Car badge.

Got your attention, didn't I?

The people who run NaNoWriMo have all sorts of ways to make the 50,000-word trudge more fun. They have in-person meetups and an online chat board, encouraging emails from published authors, t-shirts and mugs and posters and pins. And this year, they've started giving out badges for various things. (Disclaimer: They might have started issuing badges last year, but I skipped NaNo last year so I can't say for sure. Please feel free to set me straight if they did, in fact, start last year.)

The Writing badges are awarded automatically for meeting milestones -- setting up your novel, entering your word count every day, and so on. You can also win Participation badges for things like filling out your profile and donating money to the Office of Letters and Light, which runs NaNo and its affiliated programs.

And then there are the Personal Achievement badges, which you get to award yourself. The achievements are sometimes whimsical, the rules are merely suggestions, and the NaNo Police don't come to your door and demand you relinquish any Personal Achievement badges you claimed but didn't actually earn.

So I thought I'd talk about how I earned a couple of my Personal Achievement badges -- mainly because the other alternative is to talk about the Syrian refugee situation, and when I said I wasn't going to get political on this blog, I meant it.

(Yes, yes, the farting car is coming. Patience, grasshopper.)

So the two purple circles up top are the badges in question. The one featuring the orange vacuum cleaner is the Procrastination badge. "Give yourself this badge if you've put off noveling in new and exciting ways," the rules say. I almost skipped this one, because I don't really consider vacuuming a new and exciting way to avoid writing. Heck, it's practically a truism that if I'm doing housework, it's because there's something else I need to do but want to do even less. However, last night, my daughter Kat and I found ourselves wandering through the grocery store, looking at all the things we could buy to, you know, make Thanksgiving dinner really memorable. Like a jar of Nutella dressed up like a snowman. Or cranberry-and-sage-flavored Triscuits. (I recommend against those, by the way.) I think expeditionary grocery shopping qualifies as a new and exciting way to avoid writing, so I gave myself the badge.

The badge that looks like a game of Pong is the Game On badge. For this one, you have to participate in a word war, dare, or sprint. NaNo has a page on their site dedicated to listing these sorts of things, but Kat and I did our own.

We both signed up for NaNo this year. A couple of weeks ago, Kat mumbled something about a weird noise in her music. (She writes to a soundtrack and I prefer silence, so she uses headphones.) I had just heard a truck make a weird noise on the highway, so I told her it wasn't in her music, it was a truck outside. "It sounded like it was farting," I said.

"We should totally put a farting car in each of our stories," she said.

"Deal," I said.

I wrote mine in yesterday. So when Spider's Lifeline hits the virtual bookshelves in the spring, keep an eye out for that farting car. When you find it, you'll know why it's there. You're welcome.

These moments of badge-winning blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Why I don't believe in writer's block.

Tomorrow starts the second half of National Novel Writing Month. If you've been participating, it's possible that your book has been going along tickety-boo, more or less, until now, and you should be close to that magical halfway mark of 25,000 words.

But maybe you're not. Maybe, for whatever reason, you got started late. Or maybe your characters are running off in a completely different direction from what you envisioned, and refuse to be corralled. Or maybe you're getting bogged down in editing -- going back to what you've already written and adding or deleting stuff -- and now you despair of ever finishing your novel at all, let alone by November 30th.

These problems can stymie a writer, and even lead to what some refer to as writer's block.

I don't believe in writer's block. Here's why.

When I worked in radio journalism, I had a deadline every hour -- sometimes multiple deadlines every hour. Sometimes during morning drive time, I'd have to write headlines that aired at :15 or :20 past the hour; as soon as I was off the air, I'd immediately have to start writing a five-minute newscast that would air on the half-hour. You haven't lived until you've had to write five minutes' worth of news copy in ten minutes. And when you're under those kinds of deadline pressures, let me tell you, you don't have the luxury of writer's block. You go through the newspaper or the latest wire copy or the stories your reporting team gathered the day before, and you write like the freaking wind, and you take the first draft you've just pounded out and you slam the headphones on as the news sounder is fading and you key the mic and start reading what you just wrote -- and you hope to gods you didn't do something stupid like forget to include somebody's first name. And if you discover you did, the guy's first name is now Fred, because there's no time to go back to your source copy and look it up.

The thing is, though, you can put together a five-minute newscast in ten minutes because you've prepared ahead of time for it. You've scanned the newspaper and looked at the wire copy, so you have some idea of the big stories of the day. Your crack reporting team has left you fresh news that you can just plug-and-play. In other words, you have a game plan.

Just like my old days in radio news, one of the keys I've found to winning NaNo is to have a game plan. I start the month knowing who my characters are. I also start with a rough outline of my plot. If I find myself staring at a blank screen, I pull out my outline and figure out where I'm headed next. And then I just start typing. If I realize I'm going to have to do some research to flesh out a scene, I plug in a placeholder and keep going. Because unlike when I was in radio, I'll have a chance to edit this puppy and fill in all those holes once NaNo is over. For right now, my job is to key the mic before the sounder runs out at midnight on November 30th.

So what do you do if you're not at 25,000 words yet? Take a little time to map out your game plan for the rest of the month. Identify some days where you can put in a long shift on your novel. Write yourself a rough outline of your plot. Then sit down and start typing your novel.

Good luck, and see you at the finish line. You can do this.

These moments of game-planning blogginess has been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The World Fantasy Convention Report.

This year's haul is noticeably smaller than in years past.
Warning: If you're looking for nuggets of writing advice, they're here -- but you'll have to put up with a fair amount of fantasy-fiction name-dropping and some fangrrl squeeing before we get there.

Sorry that I'm a day late in posting this week. Today is my World Fantasy Convention hangover day. I've been to enough of these now that I've learned to build in a post-convention day off, to help ease my re-entry into the normal world. This strategy first paid off after the WFC in San Diego, where guest of honor Neil Gaiman was treated like a rock star. I described this to an attorney I was working for, whereupon she said, "I don't know who that is." If we'd had that conversation the day after convention's end, I might have broken down sobbing. As it was, I was able to feign a simple case of mild surprise. (The sobbing came later, in private.)

This year's convention felt kind of thrown together from the start. There were fewer than the usual number of communiques from the organizers before the convention, and the book bags were a lot smaller than usual. At past conventions, I'd received between twelve and fifteen books in my bag -- some ARCs (advance reader copies), some overstocks, some because the author was a guest of honor. My hardback copy of Gaiman's American Gods came in my book bag in San Diego. This year -- well, reference the photo above. I bought the Donaldson volume in the dealers' room; four of the others came in my bag, together with a paperback copy of a book I got in hardback last year (David Baldacci's The Finisher) and a mass-market paperback of a book I'd received in my bag a few years ago (Peter Brett's The Warded Man). I picked up the Novik from the book exchange table. The author of Without Bloodshed, Matt Graybosch, told me his publisher had ordered enough books for every bag, but never heard where to send them or when the deadline was.

(The peppermint pig wasn't in the bag, either. It was a freebie at the registration desk.)

Anyway. As a member of Broad Universe, I participated in their Rapid Fire Reading Thursday afternoon. I had about five minutes to read, and chose the scene from Dragon's Web in which Rafe first meets Sage's father at the pizza place. I was gratified that the audience laughed in all the right places. (Note to authors: Broad Universe has a special rate at NetGalley, and you don't have to be a speculative fiction writer -- or even a broad -- to take advantage. The rate is $25/month for members and $45/month for non-members. Full details here.)

Once my reading was over, I was able to relax and be a fangrrl. Of course, that meant attending every panel Stephen R. Donaldson was on, and first up was a geek girl twofer: Donaldson interviewing guest of honor Steven Erikson, whose ten-book Malazan Book of the Fallen series is well on its way to becoming a classic of the grimdark subgenre. (Yes, grimdark is an actual thing.) Erikson's books are doorstop-sized tomes, running a thousand pages or more. He explained that he kept his editor from cutting them down to size by insisting that this scene here in book A was crucial to understanding a scene in book G -- which may or may not have been true. Donaldson (who has been known to say, of his own ten-book series, "internal consistency is a bitch") wanted to know how Erikson keeps all the details straight -- to which Erikson said, "Oh, please - when one character changes gender? Twice?" Turns out he has great intentions about note-taking, but lousy follow-through; the assistant he hired to organize all the details of Malazan discovered 50 or 60 notebooks, each containing about three pages of notes.

I ran into YA fantasy author Sarah Beth Durst in the elevator, and later saw her on a panel with Donaldson about whether quest narratives are in or out of fashion. Sarah, bless her heard, said she really enjoyed The Martian because everyone in it was so nice -- prompting Donaldson to blurt, "I was so bored!" He then invoked the spirit of Lester del Rey, who ran the Del Rey imprint at Ballantine in the 1970s and '80s. Donaldson said del Rey believed there were three types of conflicts in fiction -- man against others, man against nature, and man against himself -- and that while just one will make a good story, you need to include all three for a great story. Clearly, in Donaldson's estimation, The Martian fell short.

The other "quest" panel I attended was not nearly as interesting. Moderator Jeanne Cavelos, who runs the venerable Odyssey workshop program, kept a tight focus on the topic of what to take on a quest -- even though authors Carol Berg and Catherine Cooke Montrose kept trying to steer the discussion away from a packing list into more interesting territory. After all, the key element of any quest is the questers themselves: not the physical things they bring along, but how they survive, what they find, and what they bring back with them -- and that includes self-knowledge and maturity as much as it does whatever McGuffin the party has been sent off to fetch.

Finally: Walking back from the art show Saturday night, I stumbled across an impromptu concert featuring six or eight convention attendees (one of whom, I learned later, was Charles de Lint). Among the songs they sang was one called "The Family Car". I didn't get a video, but here's one of some other people performing it on "The Prairie Home Companion" a few years back.

Yes, there's irony in people who work in traditional publishing singing heartily about the car as America's safety net. Publishing is a tough business, no matter how you do it.

These moments of convention-addled blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

NaNoWriMo recipes for success.

Yes, folks, it's November 1st, and you know what that means: It's NaNo time!

For those just joining us, November is National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a. NaNoWriMo, a.k.a. NaNo. This thing has morphed into a pretty good-sized event, with thousands of writers around the world taking part. The idea is to write 50,000 words in 30 days -- 1,667 words per day. Fifty thousand words is a novella -- or a really good start on a longer novel.

Now, just because you've spewed 50K words on a virtual page by the end of November, it doesn't mean you can upload it to Amazon immediately. Well, you can, but it's not a good idea. It's a much better idea to consider your NaNo work a first draft -- or, as some writers call it, a zero draft. Let it sit for a few weeks (at least!) -- until January, say -- and then dive into it and start hacking it to pieces. Eventually, with a number of rounds of editing, you'll have something you can be proud to publish.

But the thing is, you can't edit a book until you have a draft. That's the real value of NaNo -- it gives you a reason to write the first (or zero) draft in the first place.

I didn't do NaNo last year, although I did Camp NaNo in the spring, and I've done several of both over the past few years. The last couple of times I did NaNo, I thought I could beat the system by ignoring my book all week, and then writing like mad on weekends. The flaw in that plan, I discovered, is that people want to do stuff with you on weekends, and it made me cranky when I couldn't get my writing time in. So this month, I'm going to try pacing myself a bit better, by aiming for 1,667 words on as many days as I can and writing ahead when I can. I know already that writing ahead will be necessary, as I've managed to schedule myself out of town for not one, but two long weekends this month -- and the first one is next weekend, when I'll be attending the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY. (I'm participating in the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading Thursday afternoon at 3:00 pm -- if you'll be at the convention, join us!)

Keeping yourself well fed is another thing to consider during NaNo. Novelists do not live by caffeine and junk food alone -- or they shouldn't, anyway -- and cooking from scratch doesn't really take that long. No, really. Stir-fries are ridiculously quick. Here's a basic recipe that I made for dinner tonight, in fact.

  • 1 cup of uncooked rice (brown or white - your choice)
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 lb. protein of your choice (beef, chicken, whatever - you could even use tofu, but I've never done it)
  • 1 bag of vaguely Asian-style frozen vegetables (I used Trader Joe's Harvest Hodgepodge)
  • Ginger-garlic sauce (see below)
First, put your rice and water a 3-quart pot. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for however long the rice bag says. If you have a rice cooker, it's even easier: plug in the cooker, put rice and water in the pot, and hit the start button.

Now, mix up your sauce. I use a half cup of water, about 1/2 tablespoon of cornstarch, 2-4 Chinese restaurant packets of soy sauce (so maybe a tablespoon?), and about 1/2 teaspoon of powdered ginger and granulated garlic. Stir it up in a one-cup glass measuring cup, then taste to see if you need more spices. Once you're happy with the taste, set it aside.

Go write while the rice cooks.

Cut your protein into 1-inch cubes (a little bigger or smaller doesn't matter). Spray the bottom of a wok or large frying pan with cooking spray. Dump in your protein cubes and saute (that means cook over high heat while stirring them around) until the sides are browned, which will take a couple of minutes. Dump in the frozen veggies and saute the whole mess for about a minute. Stir your sauce again, and pour it over the protein and veggies in the pan. Once it's bubbling, let it cook for another minute or so, until the sauce thickens. Serve the stir-fry over the rice. Makes about four servings. 

Now you've had a good dinner (with leftovers for later in the week) and you even got some writing in. Nice job! Now go write some more!

In other news, A Billion Gods and Goddesses dropped this week at Amazon and Smashwords, and the paperback is out, too. I've been gratified by the response so far; in fact, the book even made it onto Amazon's Hot New Release list in a couple of categories. Thanks very much! You're all my new best friends.

There appears to be a snafu with Smashwords' distribution system to other retailers -- so if you're interested in the epub version, you might want to buy it at Smashwords and sideload it to your device. Let me know if you need directions on sideloading.

These moments of stir-fried blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.