Friday, October 29, 2010

NaNoWriMo, Here I Come!

If you're anything like me, you felt a change in the air on October 1. Something shifted in the artistic atmosphere, something wild and crazy that send a rush of adrenaline pumping through your veins. All over the world, writers began whispering, anticipating and feeling marvelous excitement at what was just around the corner. And if you listened carefully, you could hear the collective sound of shiny new story ideas being unwrapped and plunked down into eager waiting minds.

It was a moment of inspiration. It was the beginning of NaNoWriMo season.

What is NaNoWriMo, you ask? To put it succinctly, it is glorious literary abandon. You see, in the writing world, the entire month of November has been designated National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. "NaNoWriMo," or simply "NaNo," depending on how lazy you are). Participants have from midnight on November 1 until midnight on November 30 to pen 50,000 words or more (about a 175-page novel), which translates to about 1,667 words per day.

Now, let's be clear about one thing: If you're the type of writer who simply must make every phrase sing before it hits the paper or computer screen, this event is not for you. This is your excuse to write absolutely unpublishable garbage, because, as the folks at NaNo's Office of Letters and Light like to say, "It's all about quantity, not quality." It's a time for writers everywhere to tie up their Inner Editors, put duct tape over their mouths and lock them in a closet. After all, there's gotta be a diamond in the rough somewhere, right?

Writers sign up from literally all over the globe to join in on the chaos; over 165,000 took part last year! Not bad for a gig that started out with a mere 21 brave souls back in 1999 :)

So, as you've probably already guessed, yours truly will be geared up and ready to go come November 1. This will be my third year participating in NaNo, and I'm more excited now than I've ever been. I've never reached that elusive goal of 50K words, but I have a good feeling that this third time will be the charm. Why? First, I've got a shiny new idea that's a doozy, if I do say so myself! I've gotten great feedback on it so far. Second, this year I discovered that when it comes to NaNoWriMo I'm definitely a "plotter," not a "pantser" (Want to know what those are? Stay tuned!). Finally and most importantly, I'm kind of a poor loser, and I really don't want to go through all of the late nights and caffeinated beverages it takes to survive November without having my 50K to show for it.

Whew! If you're new to the game, consider this your official introduction to National Novel Writing Month. If you're a bit of a veteran, now's the time for you to jump in and share your words of wisdom with the newbies. What are your secrets to reaching 50K? How do you stay motivated during the tough times? And of course, the most critical question of all: which snacks do you reach for when hunger strikes?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My First Book Review! Lockdown (Escape From Furnace 1) by Alexander Gordon Smith

I've never done a book review before, but I figure 4 years spent writing essays as an English major in undergrad makes me fairly qualified for it. Methinks the book review will be considerably more fun ;-) Alrighty then, let's get started! Here's the lowdown on Lockdown: Escape from Furnace 1 by Alexander Gordon Smith:

Fourteen-year-old Alex Sawyer is the bully on the playground you were terrified of as a kid---lunch money stealer and all. He and his best friend Toby make it a habit to break into peoples' homes and steal whatever strikes their fancy. One night, however, their heist turns lethal when Toby is gunned down in cold blood by gigantic men in black suits and creepy strangers wearing gas masks. Alex didn't do it, but with no one to back up his story, he's found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life in Furnace Penitentiary, the world's worst maximum-security prison for teenage criminals.

On the surface, Furnace is kind of like a teen version of
Oz; the days are long, the work is hard and the food is terrible. There are a few minor differences, though, like the seriously gross-looking mutant dogs that run around hoping for a bite (or ten) of human flesh. There's also the blood watch siren that sounds at night, which causes kids to get snatched from their beds and disappear. So yeah, Alex wants out, and he's determined to find a way to escape. There's only one problem: no one has ever escaped from Furnace.
Okay, let's start out with the positives. First of all, the book is chock-full of tension. I had a moment in the bookstore when I was trying to decide between this book and another one that was pretty similar. The reason this one won out was because it hooked me like a baited fish right from the first line. The opening scene has Alex running for his life with mutant dogs hot on his tail, and it sets your pulse pounding as if you're right there in the prison with him.

That brings me to the second main strength of the book: great imagery. Smith does an excellent job making the world of Furnace come alive for his readers. You can literally feel the heat in the air, taste the grainy, disgusting prison slop and hear the wild shrieks of the gas-masked creatures echoing in the night. Reading it is truly an intense and viseral experience.

Now it's time to discuss the novel's weaknesses. Although I enjoyed the page-turning aspects of the story, I was turned off by Smith's tendency to spell everything out for his readers. Remember the old adage, "Show, don't tell"? Well, Smith does a heck of a lot of telling in the story. When every other sentence drives home just how horrendously evil and awful Furnace is, that's just overkill. I know the guards are mean; you don't need to use the words "malicious" and "cruel" every time you describe them, you know?

This flaw made the characters problematic for me as well. I never felt any real connection to most of them because they were all put in boxes. As in, characters A, B and C are good, while characters X, Y and Z are eeeeevil. Alex was the exception, an anti-hero if you will, but I would've preferred if all the characters had been that way. It was too black and white; I needed more shades of gray.

The Bottom Line: If you're looking for a fast-paced thriller that doesn't require you to think too much, Lockdown is for you. It wasn't fabulous and it wasn't terrible, just pretty decent. There were some frightening supernatural elements in it, so it's not for the kidlets, but anyone middle-school aged and above should be okay.

Lockdown is the first book in the Escape From Furnace trilogy, with Solitary and Death Sentence due out in 2010 and 2011 in the U.S. (both are already available in the UK). I'm interested in seeing how things pan out Alex and his friends.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars (worth grabbing on
Time for sharing now. What do you think of my very first ever book review? Love it? Hate it? Utterly indifferent? Let me know your thoughts!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Facing Your Fears (Part 3)

Ugh. I've avoided writing this post for a long time because I was afraid of it. Yup, you read that right. I've been afraid of writing a post about facing your fears. Go figure.

I suppose what's made it so difficult is that at the end of the day, I don't have the answers, only the questions. Scoff if you like, but at least you know the truth: I've been writing for years and there are still plenty of things I don't have figured out yet. I'm like many of you---just stumbling around and trying to find my way. And how do you give advice about something you can't do yourself?

That, in essence, is the whole reason I started this series in the first place. As with my writing, I blog from my life, the good, the bad and the ugly. For better or worse, I put my struggles out in the open because I never want to give the impression that this stuff is effortless. That doesn't help anyone. Writing about the challenges forces me to work through them, along with reading advice from my wonderful followers :-) I love getting different perspectives on the issues we all face in our craft.

So, how do you face your writing fears? What do you do when that huge, horrific monster rears its ugly head and gnashes its razor-sharp teeth? At this point, the only answer I've come up with is that you suck it up and make yourself write anyway. Scared you're out of ideas? Start writing about the room you're in and what could happen there. Seriously. Scared you'll never get published? Give yourself a deadline to finish a story and then start querying, no matter how crappy it is. Scared you'll get published and your novel will flop? Write another book that's better than the first one so more people will want to read it.

I know you were looking for something fabulous and profound, something that would totally blow your minds, but right now that's all I've got. Other writers have said the same thing far more eloquently, but this is my version of it. The longer I write, the more I realize there are no easy answers to being successful at it. You just have to do it, and do it, and do it, and do it some more. Then one day, some glorious shiny day that's as bright as a new copper penny, it pays off. And man, is that payoff ever sweet when it comes.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My Characters Are Not My Kids

I'd like to take a short break from the Facing Our Fears series. Blame it on my Muse. She's not exactly a linear thinker :-) Don't worry, though. We'll get back on track soon enough...

While driving home from work yesterday evening, I got a plot idea for a story I've been working on. A wonderful idea. An awful idea. A deliciously, wonderfully awful idea.

It's wonderful because it fits the story so well and it's true to my heroine and it adds so much nail-biting tension I can hardly stand it...and...and...well, it is exactly what I need. To a tee.
At the same time, it's awful because it requires me to do a really bad thing to my heroine. Bad enough to almost destroy her. Bad enough to cut her off from just about everyone around her. Before you ask, yeah, it is that screwed up, and no, it's not rape, torture or any other form of abuse. It's something a little more subtle, but with equally devastating results.

The funny thing is, as much as I love the idea, a large of me is railing against it because I know just how difficult it will make life for my character---for many of the characters in the story, in fact. And, even though this is a perfectly fictional being we're talking about here, some twisted maternal part of me wants to protect her, keep her safe. I want her to walk, talk and feel as alive as real, flesh-and-blood person, except I don't want her to feel pain. I don't want her to bleed.

Am I the only one who thinks that's a tad bit weird? Gosh, I hope not.

Fortunately, I thought of some wise words from one of my favorite writers of all time, the one-and-only Holly Lisle. I don't believe I've mentioned her on the blog before, but the woman has been an utter godsend for my writing. Her website has advice for just about every writing question you can think of, and 99.9% of it is FREE. Not to mention the fact that her Secret Texts trilogy features some of the most fantastic world-building I've ever come across...

But I digress. Anyway, in her "How to Create a Character" workshop, Ms. Lisle says the following:

You must feel empathy for the characters you create, both the heroes and the villains, but you can never feel sympathy. In other words, you have to understand why your characters do what they do, but you can't let that understanding tempt you to ease their suffering, or let them take the easy way out of situations, or experience sudden miracles that remove their obstacles.

And you know something? That's exactly my problem right now. I'm sympathizing with my heroine instead of empathizing with her. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I've spent a ridiculous number of years with this character, more years than I'd care to admit. I suppose it's natural that I've become attached to her, that I think of her as a sort of adopted child.

Except that she's not. She's a character, not a kid, and no matter what hell I put her through, she won't break. Besides, if she never has to go through anything tough, no one will want to read her story.

What about you? Do you ever get too attached to your characters? What do you do when it happens?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Facing Your Fears (Part 2)

Okay, I've never done a blogging series before, so I hope you'll bear with me. I'm still feeling my way through this thing. Well, let's dive right in, shall we?

In my last post, I discussed how fear is an emotion that both helps and harms us. I also mentioned how it can be a pretty serious Muse-killer if we allow it to be. In the comments section, we talked about our fears at different stages in the writing process. These three were the ones most likely to have us waking up in a cold sweat:

Fear of FAILURE: This is probably the most obvious of the three. You know the feeling. You find an agent, but she can't sell your story to save her life. Or, you find a publishing home but the book tanks. Or worse, it gets all sorts of press---only it's the bad kind. Pick your scenario, but they all end the same way; namely, with you curled up in the fetal position in the corner of your bedroom, sucking your thumb.
  • Fear of "WRITING LIMBO": This fear is similar to #1, but with a subtle difference. It's less about the crash-and-burn and more about never having the chance to crash in the first place. It's that infuriating mental brick wall we writers lovingly refer to as "writer's block." It's getting stuck in the quicksand of endless revisions. It's querying the same story for what seems like years and never getting past form rejections. If that stuff doesn't give you the heebie-jeebies, you ain't serious about writing.
  • Fear of SUCCESS: At first glance, this last fear seems a little nonsensical, doesn't it? Picture the pinnacle of success for a writer: a seven-figure book deal, a big-budget movie offer, a spot on Oprah's Book Club AND the New York Times bestseller list... Who in their right mind would be afraid of that? Someone who thinks about what comes next---how to surpass all those lovely expectations you've set for yourself. After all, you're only as good as your last book, right? How on earth do you top Oprah's book club? What if you run out of things to say and nobody likes you ever, ever again?

  • I'll bet some of you out there are thinking this post is a little...well, depressing for your taste. If so, I don't blame you; it's a bit of a downer to me as well. But here's the thing: our fears can never go away unless we face them. We have to look them square in the eye and not flinch, not even for a second. This is the first step: calling them what they are, giving them a name.

    Part 3 is the hardest part, doing what it takes to move past them. Are you ready?

    Sunday, August 29, 2010

    Facing Your Fears (Part 1)

    Everyone is afraid of something. You can be the biggest, baddest, most outrageously muscle-bound guy or gal the world has ever seen, and there will still be something out there that scares your shorts off.

    For me, it's cockroaches. Can't stand the things. I used to work in an office that where they jumped out in broad daylight and literally looked you in the eye. No matter what our pest control guys sprayed at them, they would not die. Ugh. Just thinking about it makes me queasy.

    Anyway... Moving on.

    My point is, fear is instinctive; it's built into the fibers of who we are as living creatures. Heck, animals have that whole fight-or-flight response down to a science. Just try sneaking up on a grizzly bear in the forest and see how Mr. Friendly reacts to being startled. (Okay, don't actually try that. I don't want to get sued.)

    In the right context, fear is a perfectly healthy---and at times even life-saving---emotion. Fear is what prompts us to teach our children about "Stranger Danger," for example. However, if we give it too much control, it cripples us. It holds us hostage and crushes our dreams before they even have the chance to take flight. And that's what makes it so dangerous. Fear doesn't allow us the opportunity for failure or success. It only keeps us stuck where we are.

    As a writer, fear is your greatest enemy. It can turn your Inner Editor from a soft and helpful whisper into a whiny, nagging scream, one that tells you every sentence, indeed, every single word you put down on paper is wrong, wrong, WRONG. It can keep you revising the same WIP for 15 years, yet at the same time convince you that it should never see the light of day. And if you let it, fear will ensure that you always remain an aspiring writer, never a published one.

    You deserve better. Don't let your fears do that to you. Starting today, let's face them together.

    It's sharing time now, boys and girls: What fears do you have about your writing?

    Saturday, August 28, 2010

    The Value of Write Ins

    I love write ins. They are absolute life-savers. Seriously, they're super-duper awesome, and if you're a writer and haven't been to one before (or even heard of them), you don't know what you're missing.

    I was first introduced to the idea through the famous and fabulous event known as National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as its participants fondly call it). During this month-long extravaganza, writers meet up in libraries, coffee shops and other casual hangout spots to crank out as many words as they can. There is usually no or very little talking involved, except for the occasional question if a writer gets stuck and needs some quick feedback. The point is simple: to eliminate all distractions---pets, screaming kids, spouses, the real housewives of whatever city---and do that writing thing we're supposed to do.

    I know on the surface, sitting in the same room with a bunch of other writers doesn't seem that extraordinary. After all, I can do that at home too, right? Well...yes. And no. Here's the thing: No matter how incredible our writing may be, no matter how well our characters resonate with our readers and our prose stirs the soul, we're not superheroes. We're simple, flawed, limited human beings who need support. We need folks to bounce ideas off of, folks to drag us down from the pedestals we build for ourselves, folks that can, if necessary, look us in the eye and tell us we've gone stark raving mad.

    Writing groups exist to fulfill that need, either in a physical sense or increasingly, in a virtual one. Blogs like this one are a perfect example. We may not all be in the same city, state or even country, but we're still connected across time and space, encouraging and uplifting each other, pushing one another to succeed. The brilliant Mark Twain once said, "Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great."

    And sometimes that greatness just comes from being in the same room with a like-minded soul. Sometimes it's just knowing that someone is nearby who's doing the exact same thing you are, experiencing the same sense of elation at their accomplishments and struggling with the same kinds of challenges. Sometimes just knowing you aren't alone is enough.

    Today, it was more than enough for me.

    P.S.: If you're not part of a local writer's group and you're looking for one, check out a funky little site called It allows you to search locally for just about any kind of club or organization your heart desires, all from the comfort of your own home. Ain't modern technology grand?

    Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    Where I've Been (a.k.a. Now You Know Where This Blog's Title Came From)

    Hmm. Where to begin...

    First of all, has it been over a year already? I keep looking at the date of my last post and shaking my head, as if there are missing ones lying around somewhere that I just haven't gotten around to publishing yet. Sadly, this is not the case. I really did just fall off the face of the blogging world.
    No need to state that this post has been an awful long time in coming. I've spent about the past month or so mentally beating myself up for not posting sooner, not commenting on anyone else's blogs, not even reading any other blogs until recently. And don't even get me started on my equally-neglected Twitter account. Oy vey.

    Well, no more. Life is too short for self-deprecating thoughts. It's time I came back to the realm of the living and explained what I've doing for the past year. So here goes nothing (taking a deep breath)...

    The short version is that my family moved cross-country, and in the process I started a new job and became a working mom. So yeah, I guess you could say I've been busy. Add the stress of moving to the fact that I kind of suck at the whole work-life balance thing, and you have one sadly neglected blog. That's pretty much the story of my whole writing life; it's been that way ever since I was nine years old. Green light, red light. I write like mad for a few weeks, months, years, whatever, and then stop writing altogether for just as long, if not longer.

    Here's hoping we can change all of that---for real this time. Fingers crossed, taking another deep breath, saying a prayer...

    Green light.