Monthly Archives: Oct 2015

It’s just writing

It’s nearly November and therefore nearly time for Nanowrimo. Every year in October I start wondering how to best utilize the upcoming month and end up reading and re-reading my many (many) books on the craft of storytelling and writing.

This can be inspiring, but it can also be overwhelming. I think, for many years, I’d pore over books by successful authors in search of The Secret. I’d think to myself if I could discover their writing process or set up a similar schedule, I’d unlock the mystery of writing something others might want to read. (And that I might actually dare publish).

Over time, I’ve slowly grown to realize (I can be a bit thick) that at the very core of every how-to or ‘on writing’ type book out there, the advice is the same: Just Write. Authors will detail their writing process almost reluctantly with a caveat for readers like me: ‘This is my writing process. What works for me may not work for you. There is no secret, just write.’

Still, with Nanowrimo looming once more, I’m turning to my old (and maybe just fine) habits of reading awesome books on craft. A friend loaned me this book: Complete Writing For Children Course.

Guys, it’s so good. I devoured it in a matter of days. This is going to sound nuts, but all those books on writing I re-read every year? Not a single one is specific to writing for children. Not to say I haven’t learned things from the other books I regularly read, but this was a game changer.

One book I turn to every year is called The Fire in Fiction. It’s a respected book with loads of good advice, but it is geared very much to the Detective and Thriller adult fiction genres — genres I rarely read and am generally not much interested in. I haven’t read a single book Donald Maass quotes or sites as examples. I told myself it didn’t matter, that I could still learn and apply the principles and tips to my own work. And I have done, and I could continue doing so… but it is drastically different to read a book on writing that actually applied specifically to writing for children.

The Complete Writing For Children Course even has entire sections (and corresponding workshops) on picture book writing and poetry, but I mostly spent my time studying the YA and MG sections. If that’s not enough, it was published just last year, so many of the references and works quoted are current books I am not only familiar with, but have read cover to cover.

I found it very inspiring, and only let myself be intimidated briefly when I went to the author’s website (she looks so young, yet is utterly brilliant and incredibly accomplished!).

Here are my favorite quotes:

Personally, I don’t keep to a schedule — not in any rigorous definition of the word ‘schedule;’ certainly not as many authors do. This is partly because I have a full-time job, as you probably do, and it’s difficult to stick to an unbending daily schedule when the job gets in the way.

[…] There’s huge pressure among writers, professional or not, to stick to a daily schedule. Blog after blog, you’ll find similar requests: write 500 words a day. Write 1,000 words a day. Write in the morning, from five to seven, before the kids are awake. Write when you’re driving by talking into a Dictaphone; write on your commute, by typing on your Blackberry. Some people do that, it’s true. I know a few. But I think the pressure is mostly unhealthy, and guilt-trips would-be writers into thinking they should get less sleep.

[T]he […] common misconception that writing is some mystical process which occurs only following flashes of inspiration. Stephen King famously says that amateurs wait for the muse, while real writers just get up and go to work. There’s a lot of truth in that statement.

But there’s also a lot of truth in the fact that not all days are the same; that, generally speaking, we tend to have more time at weekends and on holidays; that some days are just already too full. Some days we’re also tired, ill, grumpy, not in the mood. Writing one thousand words every day […] is an excellent idea in theory. But there’s no point in producing a thousand bad words every Monday morning because you’re stressed by the weekly meeting with your boss, [or] stopping exactly at one thousand excellent words on Sunday afternoon when you’re alone in the house and the kids are away for three hours playing rugby.

There is something worryingly obsessive-compulsive about blogs emitting orders to would-be writers about time management.

As a result, writers often feel unreasonably guilty for not writing. This guilt crops up even in titles of blogs and podcasts about writing — see the very popular ‘I should Be Writing’ and ‘Writing Excuses’ podcasts. But seriously, be kind to yourself. It’s not that important. It’s not as if you’re not doing your job as a firefighter and dozens are dying while you twiddle your thumbs. It’s just writing.

I mean, RIGHT? She’s amazing. I love her. I had to turn that into a print for my cork board. It’s brilliant.

There’s more.

Write, maybe not every day, but perhaps two or three times a week. Or once a week, but seriously and keenly, for a relatively long time. Word targets can be good and bad; writing a thousand words can feel good, but if you have to delete them all tomorrow because they were sloppy, there’s not much point. […] [D]on’t force another tired five hundred words out at the ‘scheduled time.’ Don’t listen to the muse, but do listen to yourself.

Worth repeating:

Don’t listen to the muse, but do listen to yourself.

It was just what I needed to hear. I’m not really one to obsess about word counts, but I have been one to feel down if I’m not writing a good amount every day. After discussing the pitfalls of getting caught up in Twitter or Facebook and getting too obsessed with posting wordcounts and #amwriting hashtags, she adds:

[O]nline ‘procrastination’ can be hugely interesting, motivational, enriching, essential.

Validation! And really, if I’m being honest (and not unreasonably hard on myself) the professional procrastination I was writing about was exactly that. The map I spent two days making has continued to be an enormous help in plotting and writing. It’s not like I wasted six hours on Tumblr or something! (Confession: I don’t really know what Tumblr even IS).

So. Here’s to reading encouraging, inspiring, genre-specific things, writing in my own way and on my own schedule, and debunking the myth of The Secret. Onward!

Professional procrastination

Ways I have professionally procrastinated when I should have been writing:

  1. Map making
  2. Researching
  3. Reading, browsing, checking out, and buying books on the craft of novel writing.
  4. Reading author websites
  5. Reading writing forums on Reddit
  6. Re-reading bits from favorite books to see how other authors handled plot and character development.
  7. Searching for tutorials on world building and race/species creation.
  8. Blogging or using social media
  9. Making graphics for blog posts
  10. Obsessing over one chapter rather than working on the whole.
  11. Being weird about my writing environment.

Whilst engaged in #4, I stumbled across this post in which Chuck writes about all the different ways you can outline your novel. In discussing a ‘con’ for the Story Bible method, he says:

A very good way to waste time productively. Most things like this have a horizon line of functionality, and it’s very easy to traipse past that horizon line and continue writing your worldbuilding story bible for 16 years while never committing word one to the actual book you’re writing. It feels productive. But after a point, it damn sure isn’t.

Emphasis mine.

Some of those rabbit holes I fall down are productive and interesting and some spark new ideas or solve problems (like my map making). I also find in stepping away from my novel to do something mindless or professionally procrastinate, a solution for a sticky plot point will present itself like magic, and I’ll have an ‘ah-ha’ moment. But there is definitely a balance, it can be way too easy to waste too much time doing other things.

Like making this print to hang over my computer.

I didn’t know who first coined the phrase when I made it, but it appears that the brilliant ‘butt in chair’ is attributed to the incredible Jane Yolen.

So now that I’ve made the print to yell at me, I’ll be more focused, right?

Fantasy Maps: helping me write better

You know how we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover? How about judging it by its map? I love a book with a map, and happily for me, maps are plentiful in the genre I enjoy most: fantasy.

“I wisely started with a map and made the story fit… the other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities.”
— J. R. R. Tolkien

In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy TravelThe Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel, Diana Wynne Jone’s hilarious parody of fantasy literature, she says that if you’re on a quest you must expect to visit every single place marked on the map.

But of course!

Maps are not only wonderful for readers, they’re helpful for authors too. I’m working on a rewrite of my MG fantasy adventure novel and I was having a bit of trouble figuring out how long it would take my protagonists to walk from point A to point B. I had a hand-sketched map, but wanted to make a prettier one in Photoshop. My first efforts were a bit disastrous, but after falling down a veritable rabbit hole of map-making research, I made a much better one. I can’t stop gazing at it!

vona-stewart-map

Even though talented map makers like this guy or this guy could do so much better (and I dream of one day having them make a map for my books), my little map is helping me with my story writing.

For example, though I had a rough idea of where my kingdom borders were, plotting them out on the map helped me see exactly where my border town would lie, and where I needed to add The Fork (an Inn):

vona-stewart-borders

And what a huge help for calculating distances! A year or two ago, I read a new middle-grade novel that was really well done, except for the fact that it jumped all over the author’s world. It seemed like the characters could leap between kingdoms in mere minutes while the evil pirates were taking eons to breach one of the walls. The lack of travel planning hurt the story a bit (even though its target audience probably wouldn’t notice), so I wanted to make sure the journey my characters were taking felt realistic to the reader. Plotting out their journey was extremely helpful; it helped me see several flaws in my writing right away.

vona-stewart-distances

My world isn’t exactly to scale, but this visual helped me sort out a handful of flaws in my writing right away. I discovered I had my protagonists making a 20+ mile journey on foot in just a couple of hours. Whoops!

Seeing everything laid out on the map also helped me figure out where to put a few places. The academy, for instance, is located up by Merlin’s Fjord in the upper left hand corner (hard to see at this size). Whenever I’d write about the academy prior to making the map I would leave blanks when describing where it was or how to get there because I just couldn’t picture where it should be. Once I created the map, I knew right where it needed to be located. Like magic!

Want to make your own fantasy map? It’s not as hard as it looks, especially if you’re already familiar with Photoshop. Here are the tutorials and resources I used (I hand drew some of my elements).

Fantasy Map Making Resources

There are lots more resources, try searching map making brushes on Deviant Art. I also found some brushes on the cartographer’s guild forum. And I spent hours drooling over all the pretty fantasy maps I could find on Deviant Art and especially Max’s Maps. Such a beautiful art!

FYI: It took me two and a half days to make my map. The first day, I made my first try, which was totally fun but had some geographical problems. My current map took me another day to complete (when I should have been writing, but this is research and world building, so it totally counts!) and then I spent another half day gazing at it, adding kingdom borders, renaming some things, and adding in those ‘floating’ areas I didn’t have a solid place for in my head. Even if you just draw your map out on paper, it’s a terrific exercise. I highly recommend it!

p.s. Fun fact: J.R.R. Tolkein’s famous map of Middle Earth up top was drawn by his son Christopher! Tolkien drew his own maps for The Hobbit as Christopher was too young to help at that point.

p.p.s. Here’s an index of fantasy maps from books, what a collection!

Book report: The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature

The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon’s Lair to Hero’s Quest, How to Write Fantasy Stories of Lasting Value – Edited by Philip Martin

I picked up this book at a library book sale a few years ago. It was published in 2002, and on first flip-through, I thought perhaps it was a bit too out-dated and shelved it.

I also allowed myself to become detracted by a few critical reviews of the book that complained the delivery was dry, or that there was nothing new or helpful. But I was searching for a different book last week and came across it sitting on my bookshelf. I pulled it out and ended up reading it cover to cover, highlighting bits all along the way.

The essay format could probably read a little dry for some, but to me it felt like I’d won the lottery and somehow managed to get personal advice from a host of amazing writers. The title does make it sound like it’s going to be a step-by-step guide, and it isn’t really, but there are lots of instructive bits, and I enjoyed it immensely.

In fantasy, magic is the analogy; it is the spark that lights our imaginations, that fires up our dreams. Fantasy allows us to return for a few precious moments to that luminous realm of childhood, to a time when our unlimited powers of imagination and our hopes to discover our place in the real world were all one.

We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairy land… [But] Does anyone suppose that [a child] really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale — really wants dragons…? It is not so.

It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, give it a new dimension of depth.

— C.S. Lewis, from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” Emphasis my own.

…[E]ven for stories that do not swirl with such gale-force power, in the first scene we should meet the main character. We should sense soon that this character has some desire, urge, or drive. And we should get at least a whiff of an impending action, problem, or event.

[C.S.] Lewis made the bold statement that “myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.”

Tolkien disagreed. Through fantasy’s liquid patterns, Tolkien knew, we can share old truths, wondrous beyond the point of fact.

Emphasis added.

“The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! Which I consider most unfair. As a writer, you feel like one or the other should be better.

[…] When it’s a few years later, and you’re reading the scene out loud and you don’t know, and you cannot tell. It’s obviously written by the same person and it all gets the same kind of reaction from an audience. No one leaps up to say, “Oh look, that paragraph was clearly written on an ‘off’ day.”

– Neil Gaiman, interview with Claire E. White, in the Internet Writing Journal, March 1999.