Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Congratulations NaNoWriMo participants!

A brief congratulations for those who competed in NaNoWriMo

Did you complete your 50,000 words on time?  Even if you didn't, you gave it one hell of a shot.  And if you did . . . CONGRATULATIONS!

Does one need to wait until November to write the first draft of your novel at near-lightning speed?  Oh, no.  Just write 1,667 words in a single day.  Believe me, it may seem like a lot, but once you get going, I'm sure you find the words flowing out like water from a hose.

Even though NaNoWriMo is over doesn't mean your writing has to stop.  Keep going, keep writing, and excel at your craft.

Why I like Food Network's "Restaurant Impossible"

Chef Robert Irvine is one cool dude.

I'm an avid Food Network TV watcher, whenever I get a chance to watch TV, which usually amounts to an hour or so a day, depending on how much writing I get done.  I don't watch Food Network TV because I want to be a chef.  I just enjoy cooking.  It's not a passion of mine--that I reserve for my writing.

Robert Irvine, over the past few years, he hosted a show called Dinner Impossible where he was challenged to create meals, under not-so-ideal circumstances, in not-so-ideal time-limits.  Nowadays, he upped the ante in the show Restaurant Impossible.  In RI, Robert goes into failing restaurants, shows the owners what they're doing wrong, how they can fix it, and does it all within a very frugal budget (typically for $10,000 in 48 hours).  I've even liked a similar show called Bar Rescue for much the same reasons: because I can transfer it back to my writing.

These TV shows are analagous to editing one's stories in the way of having someone else read it.  Critically.  We all have someone who'll give us the tough love and tell us our story stinks worse than a pile of rotten potatoes (which, by the way, does smell like shit).  Hopefully that person is a reader.  Having, and trusting, someone who will read your writing with a critical eye will give you an edge over someone else.

This person, 99.999999% of the time, will be someone unreleated to you--because we all know how much family members tell the truth.  NOT!  This person will be a good friend, and could even be another writer.  Do you have to pay this person?  Not in my opinion you don't.  Even Stephen King points out in his book On Writing that he has a group of people, outside of his editorial circle, who reads his stories, and he said nothing about paying them.  I, personally, would be honored if Mr. King chose me to read a future story of his (hint, hint!)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Quantity vs. Quality - structuring your first draft

Simon Sinek, on a recent post, wrote: "The hardest part is starting.  Once you get that out of the way, you'll find the rest of the journey much easier."

Over the years, I've met people who have a great idea--be it a novel or an invention--and when I asked them what they did with it, they said, "Oh, nothing."  Why is this?  Because it is hard to start.  Especially if you're not used to doing something on your own, something that will further not only your life but the lives of others.  Starting is a lot like jumping off the diving board for the first time when you were a kid, and your parents urged you again and again to do it.

Well here I am, urging you to do it.  Because you can.

When I start the first draft, I go for quantity.  I set a goal of X amount of pages each day.  Some people use words.  Whatever works for you, use it.  But set out each day to complete those pages/words.  To start off with, I'd go slow.  Set the bar a little low, especially if you've never written before.  In college, with juggling a job and school and tae kwon do classes, I set the goal of one page a day.  I had a calendar, where I slashed a hash mark for every page I wrote.  What I wanted to see was the number of pages increase steadily over time.  One week I did seven pages, the next I'd do ten, then fifteen . . . you get the picture.  Go for quantity, and don't worry about what it looks like.  That's what the second and beyond drafts are for.

Once the book is complete and you've celebrated, the second and beyond drafts are slower.  Here, you're looking for quality.  This is where you use the macro-level and micro-level editing techniques I laid out before.  You're looking to improve the writing, because Lord knows your first dtaft isn't very good.  And don't think you're a horrible writer just based on the first draft.  No writer gets it right the first time.  Over time, your first draft will improve and the less editing you'll have to do, but that's years down the road, once you've written several thousand pages.

Do it.  Today.  Start.  Jump off the diving board . . . GO!

Monday, November 28, 2011

How I write my first drafts. It's not for everyone.

Every writer is different.

That's a good thing, because if we were all the same, life would be fairly boring.

How each writer writes their first draft is also different, despite a few common themes or techniques.

Here's what I do.  Ready?

As I've noted before, I don't outline.  Even the thriller I'm currently editing, I never outlined it.  I'm what is probably called a discovery writer.  I write by discovering and do very little planning.  Stephen King is like this, even though my skills pale in comparison with his by lightyears.

I set a goal of X amount of pages to write in a single day, then I set out to write those pages.  Most of the time, I either meet that goal or exceed them, with a constant urge to exceed.  It may take me several months to write, but for the most part I do not look back, except to check a few facts or to make sure all of the details match up.  I rarely go back and edit.  I resist all temptation to go back and fix something.  I wait for that until the first draft is complete.

Not all writers do this.  Some edit as they go, but I personally find this too tedious.  I'd just as soon get all of the pages out there--I call this vomiting as much onto the page as possible.

Find out what works best for you.  My way isn't for everyone.  But the bottom line is to dedicate yourself to writing . . . and write every single day.

In the words of the great philosopher, El Nike: "Just do it!"

Sunday, November 27, 2011

9/11 is my Pearl Harbor

I can't watch any 9/11 movies.

This morning, I watched Pearl Harbor on WGN-TV.  I watched the whole thing, admiring the courage America faced and at the same time despising the cruelty brought on to us.  My heart raced as bombs struck ships and bullets ripped through buildings, killing hundreds upon hundreds of people.  I know much of the minor details are fictionalized, but the main plot--that the Japanese bombed Pearl Habor--remained the same.  It happened.  We lived.

I don't know this for fact, but I imagine when Pearl Harbor came to the screen, a number of people who lived in that age probably couldn't watch it.  Not that they thought it was an awful movie--it wasn't, by the way--but since they lived through those tragic events, it was like revisiting them all over again.

Hence the reason I can't watch any movies regarding 9/11.  I lived through that event--okay, I was way over in Minnesota at the time--but my blood still boils whenever I see video footage from that tragic day.

Every generation has an event that defines it, something that says, "Oh, I was here when that happened." I remember right where I was when I first heard reports about the 9/11 bombers.

I don't usually tell you this, but I'm currently reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and although I'm not even 100-pages into it, I can already tell it's a great read.  The gist is about a guy who finds a portal to the year 1958 and discovers that he could alter history by stopping the JFK assassination.  My grandparents lived through Pearl Harbor, and my parents lived through the JFK assassination.  That defined their generation.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Okay, okay. You want to outline. Let me show you what other writers do.

As I've said before, I don't outline.

Depends on what you're definition of outlining is.  All writers do to a certain degree, even if it's all in a person's head.  I scribble a few notes on a  Post-It or in a notebook, but is that considered outlining?  To me, I envision outlining as writing down the most detailed events of your story, filling in the gaps here and there, before you ever start to write "Chapter One."  Not me.  Aside from those scribblings--and what's rolling around in my head--that's it.

Last year, when Ian Graham Leask was visiting our little library, he suggested outlining in this way: take a roll of butcher paper, spread it out across the table or the floor, and write out the various parts of your story.  Very clever.  I've even read about people taking a large piece of paper and free-writing the outline.  Thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver tells that he spends a lot of time, meticulously outlining his story, by writing down the various parts in an extremely organized fashion--reminds me of grade-school and we were asked to outline our essays with Roman numerals and such.

I recently listened to a podcast ( where Brandon Sanderson said he uses the document map feature for Microsoft Word.  To try this out for yourself, open your Word document and click on the "view" tab.  You'll actually have to write something but it categorizes it.  Let's say you have one heading for each character, and then various aspects of your worldbuilding, you can use the document map feature to jump down to that part of your outline.

I'm sure there are tons of other ways to outline that I haven't touched on.  Please share me your outlining methods, and if any of these above help, give it a try.  It's possible you're having problems starting your story and you need to outline a little to organize it.  Do it.

But most of all, write.  Write something.  Every single day.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What I'm thankful for . . .

This may sound like some amatuer term paper one would write in high school, to write about how I spent my summer, but with today being Thanksgiving, I thought I'd share a bit about what the last 11 months looked like and how I am truly thankful.

Right off the bat, 2011 has been one trial after another for our family.

January and February (and the early part of March) were not the best for us, financially-speaking.  Aside from filing for bankruptcy, which we didn't do, imagine two of the worst possible financial disasters one could face.  Okay, I imagine the IRS coming after us would be bad and that didn't happen, but anyway these two financial disasters were not very pleasant to work through . . . but we did it.  It took a lot of hard work, budgeting, and guidance from close family members and a financial guru named Dave Ramsey, and we did it.  We emerged stronger than ever.

Then in April, my wife was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).  Even with it being Thanksgiving and over seven months later, we're still not out of the water, but we're still working on it and my wife is healing more and more each day.  The doctor said she may not be completely healed for up to five years.

It's easy for one to look at all this and assume we would be just pissed at the world.  We're not.  We're thankful we went through the financial hell in January and February (yes, believe it or not, we're thankful) because when our other world fell apart, there would be no way we could've survived unless our financial house was in order.

I am thankful for family (most of them, and that's all I'm going to say about that so don't tempt me to elaborate - they'll come around, I'm very forgiving that way), friends, and even the community we live in.  We're also thankful for the medical staff at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, ND and at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. We're also thankful for the generosity of so many individual people who have stepped up to help.

We're also thankful for God.  Because without His love, none of this would be possible.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Example of micro-level editing

The following is an example of micro-level editing, from one paragraph in my thriller Beholder's Eye.

            As the eldest child, Claudia Raynes has grown quite accustomed to her Dad’s weird work schedules.  She remembers when he worked vampire hours: work at night and sleep in the day.  He finally switched to a normal day shift when she was in the first grade.  Now, with his new job, he’s back to a weird work schedule again.  Not vampire hours, but even worse ones, longer ones, depending on what type of case he’s working on.

And here is the finished product, after micro-level editing:

            As the eldest child, Claudia Raynes remembers when her Dad worked vampire hours: work at night and sleep in the day.  He finally switched to a normal day shift when she was in the first grade, and has grown quite accustomed to it over the years.  Now, with his new job, he’s back to a different work schedule.  Not vampire hours, mind you, but even longer ones, depending on what type of case he’s working on.

See how much more smoothly it is?  The main issue I had was that Claudia, in the first paragraph, had grown accustomed to her father's work schedules, but he hadn't worked the nightshift for several years.  Why would be accustomed to them, if they were so long ago?  She would be accustomed to him working a normal day shift.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Patience, young Jedi. The art of micro-level editing.

I'm not going to fool you.  Micro-level editing requires a lot of time and patience.  There's really no way around it, so deal with it if you want to be published.

Micro-level editing involves the minute details of your story, whether or not a certain word should be there or a certain sentence.  Those who do not write have little appreciation for this, and frankly don't understand what a single word could mean to the entire story.  But for us writers, we do.  We know.  Like the skilled cabinetmaker, we sand down all of the corners, even if they won't be seen.  (Words, however, are seen of course . . .)

Take this for an analogy.  Michelangelo paints the Sistine Chapel, so exquisite and complete that from the floor it's as beautiful as ever.  But up close, here and there, the work is sloppy.  Very small places, he does this.  What happens?  The Sistine Chapel isn't as exquisite as you thought.  That's why the smallest details can make or break the story.

Break your story into pieces.  First, lump your chapters together.  For example, in my thriller Beholder's Eye, I lump the first nine chapters together and call them "The 1st body."  This is for my own organizing, I didn't really name this "Part 1: the 1st body."  No way.  Then, I take each chapter and break it down into scenes, which is easy because it's usually where the page break is.  I examine each scene as a whole, reading ever-so slowly, with my mind whirling.

Does the scene make sense?  Do the characters advance, even a little bit?  Is this scene necessary to further the story?  Is the dialogue realistic-sounding?  Is some of the dialogue unnecessary?  Could my descriptions get beefed up a little--try three or four good non-cliche descriptions, ones that will make it unique?  Speaking of cliche, are there any cliches, either in the dialogue or the scene itself?  Do I have any unnecessary adverbs--or have I eliminated them altogether?  Is the dialogue simplified to be "he said" and "she said."?

Even the use of a repeated word can cause a reader to draw attention to the words instead of the story.  I was recently editing Beholder's Eye and found in two paragraphs I used the word "after" three times.  Carefully examining these two paragraphs, I eliminated two of them--one I completely struck from the story and the other one I re-worded.

This should get your started, and by no means is this a complete list.

Remember: above all, have patience.  Your story will be worth it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

NaNoWriMo - the epitome of El Nike's philosophy


National November Writing Month

With today being the 21st of November, it's too late for me to start, but rest assured this is something I want to tackle next November.

What is NaNoWriMo?

In a single month (this could be any month but the NaNoWriMo people picked November because "Na-no-rye-moe" sounds way cooler than NaJaWriMo or NaAugWriMo) one is to write 50,000 words of a first draft.  That equates to 1,666 words in a single day.

Can it be done?

As the great philosopher, El Nike, says, "Just do it!"

Example of macro-level editing

I could pick several examples of macro-level editing in my own writing.  The best example I have is from the first novel I ever wrote - a deer-hunting horror story that I wrote back in college.  The reason this one may be the best to choose from at this point is because, as a writer in the pre-infancy of his career, I was naive in the realistic-ness of the story.  Certainly, with it being horror-genre, it's a story that could never happen, but in that world under those conditions with those characters, would the overall story be realistic in how it emerges.  Turns out it doesn't.

The gist of the story was a group of four friends who go out hunting each year in the wilds of northern Minnesota, and they found themselves immersed in a killing spree with an undead monster--who just happened to be their best friend who went missing years ago.  Anyway, in the story, the monster killed between thirty and forty people.

Do you see a problem with that?

You may not, but if you were to thread that with the rest of the story, it was all up to the local Sheriff's department to solve, without the help of the FBI or even the Minnesota BCA and without the governor calling in the National Guard to keep the peace.  Also, if there's a killing spree nowadays that involve even a handful of people, the media flocks to it like flies on shit.  In my story the media was non-existent.  Not that I needed the media, but I should've at least written a little about it.

In the end, the number of killings were greatly reduced - it's a novel that needs a lot of work (for crying out loud, it was my first novel; of course it's going to need a lot of work) but it will be published some time down the road.

I could go on and on with examples, but for now I'll leave it here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Viewing your story from space - macro-level editing

Macro-level editing doesn't come easy to me, but I have a few tricks that may help your writing.

Macro-level editing, like the title of this blog entails, is viewing your entire story as a whole.  Some writers have been known to spread out the printed pages, literally, either across the floor or papered the walls of their office.  I've never resorted to this, but if it works for you, do it.  Physically viewing it as such gives a feel of how weighty the words are, the amount of dialogue, even the amount of "white space."  Honestly, it shouldn't look like a brick wall, the pages solid with words.  It should be chopped, short paragraphs mixed in with long, and plenty of dialogue.  If you don't believe me, pick up your favorite book.  What does it look like?

First and foremost, your story has to be complete.  The first draft, I mean.  Then, what I do, is take a few weeks off, doing something totally different before tackling this story again.  Afterwards, when I'm ready, I take the printed pages and read the entire thing as fast as I can.

Reading it in this fashion accomplishes a few things.  How does the story flow, smoothly or choppy?. How does it sound?  Does the plot make sense?  Is the plot realistic for the characters involved?  Do the characters grow?  Do we connect with the characters?  Is there a common thread tying the story together?  Do your multiple plotlines converge neatly at the end?

It's a lot to think about, but if you can work on all of these--and this is, by no means, a conclusive list--then your story will be much better and you can work on the next step: micro-level editing.

At this point in the macro-level editing process, you may even see if you have blocks of exposition that could be removed, because, quite frankly, even though this worked for Tolkien, it doesn't work well with today's readers, for the most part.  Few today can actually pull this off.  Don't fool yourself.  You're probably not one of them.

Are there entire chapters that could be eliminated, because they do nothing to further the story?  It's happened to me, and more than likely to you too.

Take a month or two and work through your story in this manner.  Then, once you feel it looks better viewing it from space, it's time to move to micro-level editing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Two types of editing - macro-level and micro-level

Although there are dozens upon dozens of varying techniques of editing your stories, for the most part they can be broken down into two camps: macro-level and micro-level editing.

I'll break these down further in the subsequent blogs, but here's a teaser of them right now.

Macro-level is the overall story.  This could be the tense of the story (past or present), or the structure, the plot, characterization, descriptions, or even what I call the "realistic-ness" of the story.

Micro-level is the bits and pieces of the story.  This is each chapter, paragraph, or sentence.  This would also deal with the plot, characterization, and descriptions, but on a more individual basis.

When I'm editing, it feels like my mind is scrambling on various planes, on both the macro- and micro-level.  This is why it typically takes a writer a long time to get their story publish-ready, because there are so many aspects of writing you need to be aware of.

But rest assured, with practice, one can learn these and become a better writer.  You'll still need the assistance of a great editor.  Nothing could ever replace that.  Yet the more work you can do ahead of time, the better.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Writers' groups - pros and cons for novelists

Typically, regardless of the structure of your writing group, novelists are most times at a disadvantage.  And for obvious reasons.

But do I still feel attending a writers' group is beneficial?  Absolutely, I do.  Let's explore.

The most obvious reason is because on a typical night, all a novelist will be able to read is one chapter.  Even if you met once a week, it could still be over a year before the entire group hears the complete novel. And with Permanent Ink--the writers' group I attend--we meet roughly 17 times in a year.  At that rate, with 62 chapters to the thriller I'm currently editing, that would be three and a half years!  Yikes!  Even if all members showed up at each meeting, they might not remember what happened from one meeting to the next.

Some writers' groups, who feature novelists, focus on one reader a night and they share four or five chapters.  Others present their writing ahead of time and it's up to the other members to read the given material.  Do whatever works best.

Novelists are writers and I truly believe everyone benefits from others' input.  Even if you don't read every single chapter, take a chapter you're having problems with or excerpts of it.  Or, heck, even read what you think are the best parts.

Overall, the pros definitely outweight the cons when it comes to novelists.  Even if you're writing a Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson-esque fantasy epic, it still works--because it has for me.  And with my writers' group, there are three of us who write novels.

A final note: the novelists could give their entire novel, or chunks of it, to the others to read ahead of time, giving them adequate time to read it.  That way, their novel could be read at one time, rather than spread out.  Just a thought.  Try anything.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Writers' groups - how often?

Something that should be hashed out at your first writers' group meeting is the question of how often you're going to meet.

This is going to vary, depending on the number of members and their schedules.  I mention this because the group I meet with has met every three weeks for the past eight years.  That works out best for us, who seem to have very busy schedules (working two jobs, raising a family, etc.).  It also gives us time to polish up our next piece and continue working on other projects we're not sharing with the group.

Some groups meet monthly and others I've known meet biweekly--on a side note, I listed to a writing excuses podcast ( where the members of that podcast attend weekly.  Keep in mind, those are published authors, but it's something to think about if you want to be published.  When we met, we thought monthly was too long of a break between meetings and every two weeks seemed tobe too often.

Typically, we've averaged four to six members at a time.  Here is what we do: after a quick greeting, we see who brought stuff to read.  Most times, everyone has something, although not everyone attends each meeting.  Then, whoever has something to share, passes out copies of their work and then he/she reads their piece.  Afterwards, we critique what worked and what didn't, the story's strong points, and if there are places that need revising, we address them here.  This process can be cumbersome, especially if all five current members share something--three of us are novelists so sharing entire or partial chapters can drag these meetings out.  In the past, we've tried handing in your work to the librarian a week prior to our meeting, and although this worked for a little while, it also proved troublesome because not everyone was able to get their work to the library and the library was really open after 5PM one night a week.  If it works for you though, that's great.  At least try out different ways to share your stories.

How often you meet doesn't matter as much as it does one's commitment.  You should commit to attend every single meeting, even if you don't have something to share.  You're still able to critique others' works and hopefully inspire you to bring something next time.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Let me introduce you . . .

Say hello to my thriller, titled Beholder's Eye.

As you may notice on the left-hand site of the blog is a status update on my editing process for this novel.  Beholder's Eye is the fourth novel I've ever written--and completed.  I won't go into a synopsis for the story right now, but rest assured I will in the near future when the editing process is near completion and I'm ready to start contacting literary agents again.

Beholder's Eye is based in Minnesota.  The main character is an investigator for the Minneapolis PD.  Much of the story is in Minneapolis, with the exception of the last hundred pages.  Here, it draws the character into a small rural community, where he witnesses a horror synonymous with those from another small town in Wisconsin--Ed Gein, anyone?

That's all I'm going to say about Beholder's Eye.  Keep an eye on the status update as it nears the 100% mark.

How do I calculate this status, Mark?

I'd show you the spreadsheet--thanks, Microsoft, for giving us Excel--but I'll summarize here.  I have a total of six columns, each with a different task for each chapter that I X off when it's completed.  There are sixty-two chapters and each column is as follows:
1) Edit hard copy - this is where I edit the hard copy of each chapter, done typically away from the computer.
2) Making corrections to each chapter - self-explanatory, in a way.  I go through and make the corrections from the hard copy to each file.
3) Re-read the changes out-loud, noting any discrepancies - the longest part of the process, for this involves reading and reading each chapter until it is, for lack of a better term, in a publishable form.
4) Updating the word count - another self-explanatory process, so I can keep track of how many words are in this novel.
5) Print finalized copy - I like to keep a hard copy of each novel, just in case.
6) Backup each file - another ones that needs little explanation.

I also keep tabs on which chapters I've shared with the Permanent Ink writers' group.  One of the members has also agreed to read the entire novel - which I am very grateful for, as she's noted discrepancies in some of the first chapters that slipped my mind.  I've given her ten chapters at a time and right now she's reading chapters 21-30.  Thanks, Amanda!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Writers' Groups - the good, the bad, and . . . the weird?

Right up front, let's get this off my chest: not all writers' group members are good.  Specifically, some are like a cancer.  Thankfully, I've only met one.

And if it wasn't for my daughter, sitting in a stroller next to me (looking as cute as always), I would've walked out and never returned.  I could've walked out with her, but it would've been a hassle.

Writers' groups: the good, the bad, and the weird.

There's so much good about these groups, I could go on and on.  First, you get the social interaction with fellow writers.  Sure, if you happen to be one of the more veteran members of the group, the others will look at you for guidance.  That's okay.  One of our number one topics, other than reading what we've written for that meeting, is just the act of sitting down and writing.  I'm fairly determined and make sure I write something every single day.  I've been told on numerous occasions how much inspiration I cause in others because of it.  And, knowing you have a meeting soon, will also push you to get something to share.

Another good point to a writers' group, and probably the most important, is reading each other's work.  There are many ways to do this, and others I haven't thought about, but I'll leave this for a future blog.  Frankly, it's very numerous and I'll get into more details then.

We've had a few weird members too, although I can't really call them members.  A few years back, an elderly gentleman came to our group, because he had a story to tell but didn't want to take the time to write it.  He wanted us to write it for him.  Sorry, that's not what we were about, but we were polite enough and listened to him.  In the end, we kindly told him we all have our own stories to write and share.  He seemed a little off by it, and on occasion attended a few other meetings to see if we changed our minds.  We hadn't.

The bad.  Unfortunately this came in the form of one of our founding members.  I will not mention names here, and I will also try not to even give the indication of male or female.

This member wrote stories, memoirs mind you, about her past when she lived in another country.  She (oops, it was a female!) wrote beautifully, with great prose, although she always seemed to hate what I wrote and nitpicked each and every thing.  I wrote horror at the time (still do, but now it's more thrillers and fantasy).  My first three novels are horror-genre, and I've written a number of short stories in this genre too.

On the meeting date in question, I shared a gruesome story about two teenagers (although, if I recall, I never said their ages but it was implied), and it was my attempt at flash fiction. (Flash fiction are extremely short stories, usually just a few pages long).  Anyway, at our next meeting time, she shared a different story than what she normally did.  This was a story, narrated by a group of teenagers, who were sitting out in the hallway and waiting for their next class.  They spotted one of my children (yes, she mentioned my name in the blasted story) and the teenagers debated kidnapping him and torturing him, simply because I was a famous author (in the story) who wrote gruesome tales.  I took it as a personal sting.  Now, I can take attacks at me and not take it personally.  But when it's directed on my kids . . .

This person also seemed to exhibit an aura of arrogance regarding her writing.  She did this by completely destroying our own stories.  I would even write, at times, and in the back of my mind would think, "What would _____ say?"  But I soon quit and just kept writing what I loved, regardless of what others think.  On another occasion, she critiqued another of our member's writings about her early days on the farm and wanted to know more about the mechanics of farming.  Sorry, but the best writing is about characters not an essay on farming implements of the early twentieth century.

(I should note right here that she moved away years ago)

Take it for what it's worth.  Attend (or create) a writers' group, knowing the good, the bad, and the weird are out there.  But that shouldn't keep you from doing what you love: writing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Debating the need for a writers' group

You've been writing a while, you've got your first (or fifth or tenth) novel finished, your short story is done . . . now what?  You'd like to have someone else read it, but who?

My friend, let's discuss the need for a writers' group.

Do you absolutely need one to get published?  No.  But what a better way to, not only connect with other writers who may be struggling with the same issues as you, get a group of impartial critics of your work.

Over the next several weeks, I'll touch on the finer points of a writers' group.  Today, I'll start with where to find one.

I live in northwest Minnesota, where there are probably more white-tailed deer than people (or so it seems).  Back in college, I attendeded a few fiction writing classes (taught by famed award-winning Minnesota author Will Weaver) and for each class you had to read something to the rest of the class.  This was my first taste of a writers' group.  Even though we were classmates, all of us were writers, with varying aspiration about the craft and skill level.

Let's jump ahead to the year 2003.  This would be in the early summer and my daughter Mariah was just born.  The librarian at the time knew I loved to write and asked if I'd be interested in joining a writers' group that she was starting up.  She did some writing, but ran into several others who also did.  At this point, the only writers' group was about 90 miles away in Roseau, MN.  Long story short, the Permanent Ink writers' group was born in Red Lake Falls, MN.

I won't dwell on the group's history, except for one: over the years (8 and still going strong), we've had an eclectic sort of people attend our group meetings.  We've had poets, playwrights, novelists, and short story writers.  We've had people working on their family histories and others who are working on a fantasy epic.

Great, Mark!  But where do I find one?

First, I'd check with either your local library or bookstore to see if they know of one.  Chances are, if you live in a town of at least 5,000 people, at least one exists.  Then again, where Permanent Ink meets every three weeks, our community has a little over a thousand people.

What if there are no such groups?  Create one.  Ask the librarian about where you can meet, ask them to help promote your group, and do it.  Once you do, you might want to set up some groundrules on how often, how long each person can read for, and what type of material.  Don't worry about electing a board of directors or having a group president or anything like that.  We don't, and we've been operating pretty consistently for over 8 years.

I'll explore this topic a little more in depth soon, on how to set one up and who you want in your group.  The bottom line is that the people who join need to be dedicated to writing and offering both positive and honest feedback.  If your story sucks, have them tell you specifically.  Do you need to take each and every person's advice.  No way.  Take what works, and you'll find your stories will start to improve.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Floodgates Phenomenon

It usually occurs when I least expect it, a sudden flash of inspiration and an equally sudden lack of writing implements.

I call it the Floodgates Phenomenon.

Let's take a guy, his name is Jack.  He's a stock boy at the local grocery store but is also an aspiring writer.  One day, while ripping open cartons of Corn Flakes and situating them on the shelf, he thinks of a great opening line to his new book.  He looks up at the clock.  Crap, it's forty-five minutes until his break time - a near-eternity for this starving artist.  There's no way his boss, Manager High Pants, is going to let him take a break early, not with three more pallets to sort through.  He keeps diligently working, all the while that great opening line is just tumbling over and over in his mind.

Finally, it's break time.  He grabs his notebook, steals away into the corner of the breakroom, and writes down that opening line.

Phew!  "Thank God," he says to himself.  "If I would've waited much longer, that one would've gone away."

Then, once that line is down on paper, the next paragraph flashes before him.  He also writes it down.  Then, more and more come to him.  His pen flies across the paper and he's just pumped at the progress he's making.  Before he knows it, his entire break time flies by and he's written two or three pages.

Ever felt like this?  I'm sure you have, even if you're not a writer.

The Floodgates Phenomenon seems to occur when this "flash" shines forth like a lighthouse beacon and you can't see anything beyond it.  Then, once you've committed it to paper or word document (or whatever writing surface you can find - although I don't recommend the bathroom stall, if but a last resort and you don't mind having your idea next to pleas for who to call for a good time) more floods your mind.

This happened while I was planning what to do with this blog.  I thought I'd have twelve decent blogs and that'd be it.  Now I'm past forty and I have Post-Its with scribblings of at least twenty or thirty more.  And do I think that's it?  No way!

It may happen because what is first and foremost in your mind dominates with such authority, that the rest waits patiently behind it, not even announcing their presence until it's free to do so.  That's the way writing is with me.  As soon as I write whatever is dominating my mind, whether it be the next scene of a novel or a new short story or blog, the floodgates open and more ideas pour out than what I originally thought.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

This crazy little thing called Writer's Block

I rarely get writer's block nowadays.

But it's an event that occurs in a writer's mind that causes them to stumble and seize up their writing.

Was I always this way?  Oh, no.  What did I do to remedy it?  Let's explore . . .

In the infancy of my writing career--we're talking in elementary school years now--I used to write the first few pages of a new novel, and for whatever reason I'd quit.  I never really understood it.  In seventh grade, my parents bought me an old black typewriter (yes, you heard right, a typewriter) that had to weigh close to fifty pounds.  (Watch the Stephen King movie Misery to get an idea on what it looked like).  I wrote about thirty or more pages, single-spaced, of a ninja trilogy.  The weird part is I had the entire trilogy all laid out in my head but I stopped at those thirty-plus pages.  I never did anything else with it, and it had nothing to do with writer's block.  I just didn't think the story was worth writing.  I didn't think anyone but me would want to read it.  But who knows what the distant future will bring . . .

My earliest recollection of writer's block was in college.  I was working on a deer hunting horror story--the first novel I ever completed (see a previous blog on how I celebrated this milestone)--when in one of the first few chapters I didn't know how to go on.  At one in the morning, I was getting pretty tired even though I still didn't go to bed.  I continued to write for a few more minutes, not really paying attention to what I was writing, when all of a sudden I wrote something I never intended to write.  It was like someone else's hands were on the keyboard.  I stopped.  I had no idea where to go from here.  Yawning and finally feeling the affects of sleepiness, I went to bed, the story rolling around and around in my head like tumblers on a safe.

In a flash, I awoke and the rest of the chapter appeared before my eyes.  Could I wait to write this until morning?  Not a chance.  I spent the next hour (it must've been after two in the morning at this point) writing the rest of the chapter.

How else can one handle writer's block?  Start with a different viewpoint.  In my first novel, I actually wrote one chapter from the point of view of a white-tailed deer.  What else?  In the thriller I'm currently editing, right in the middle of the book, when I was going to bridge the gap between the murder investigation with a plot-twist that upped the stakes on a more personal level, I had the main character be involved in a traffic accident that landed him in the hospital.  I didn't really plan this either.  It just happened.

Writer's block may also be solved by simply writing something else, starting a new project, or even reading a book--I know we're all reading, but how much is a topic for another blog.

What are your writer's block stories?

Monday, November 7, 2011

"What if I can't think of a good ending?"

In light of the previous post about creating dramatic endings, one question that could be asked is: what if you can't think of a good ending?

That could be what was in Bram Stoker's mind when he ended Dracula how he did, even though I seriously doubt he didn't really know how to end it.

One answer that comes to mind is: it doesn't have to end . . . with that one novel.  Could it be a sequel or a trilogy or even a long series?  Then your monster wouldn't have to die or end, it could live and grow stronger.  Need an example?  Lord Voldemort in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter is one.  He keeps growing more powerful with each book.

Another answer would be to write three or four alternative endings, have a group of trusted friends read them (ones that can give you an honest opinion, not a sure-this-is-good-but-only-because-we're-friends-and-I-can't-tell-you-the-truth).  You need the truth here.

If you can't even do that, skip the ending (for now) and go on to something else.  Then, after a week or a month, come back to it.  If you still can't think of one, then maybe your story isn't as good as it should be.  And if that's the case, write another story.

A final word of advice on this could be: what books or movies are similar to your story?  How did they end?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why I hate Bram Stoker's "Dracula"

Hate is such a strong word, but it grabs your attention.  I could've said dislike or any number of words taken from the thesaurus.  The one that I chose was hate.

Why, in the world, would I hate (or dislike or am hostile towards or resentful or about three dozen other words Roget's recommends that don't have quite the punch hate does) such a classic as Bram Stoker's Dracula?

Simple.  The ending sucked.

There you go again with the strong words, Mark.  Did it really "suck" that bad?

Let me clarify: Dracula is beautifully-written, from varying journal entries and letters, gaining multiple viewpoints of this frightening tale.  Much is built on setting up this elusive monster, one that slithers through the forever night, sucking blood and transforming victims into his minions.  Even the race back to Transylvania, with Van Helsing on his heels, is a nail-biting thrill-ride.  And how does Mr. Stoker end this masterful tale?  (Spoiler-alert: if you've never read this tale and intend to do so, STOP READING RIGHT NOW . . . okay, the rest of you can march forward with me)  The death of Dracula is reduced to a few sentences that ended so quick, I had to backtrack to find out what in the hell happened.  When I read again how Dracula's death was brought out, I nearly threw the book in the garbage.  But I didn't.  I plowed through to the end, resentful of Stroker's cop-out for a dramatic ending.

This is advice for mostly horror writers, and possibly thriller writers too.  When you've created such a dangerous creature and, in the end, that creature dies (or is captured), make that as explosive and dramatic as possible.  Your readers will thank you for it, for joining you on the journey you created for them.  What if George Lucas, when he created Star Wars, decided to not blow up the Death Star but simply have it slowly disintegrate?  Star Wars never would've been such a spectacular hit that it was.  For your endings, make them worth it.  Your reader just spent hours and hours and hours on end, following your tale.  End it right.  Don't cop-out like Stoker did.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Becoming a list-making freak

In the previous blog, I confessed that I'm a Post-It freak.  But I'm much more than that.  I freakishly love to make lists.

Earl Nightingale taught in his Lead The Field audio program that one should start a list of things you want to accomplish the day before you do it.  He said to write down the five things that you want to accomplish, prioritize them in the order of their importance, and the next day start with number one.  Once number one is complete, go on to number two.  And so on.  At the end of the day, create a list for the next day.

If one does this, commits to doing this, you'll accomplish more than you've ever dreamed of.  Will there be some days that you only get one thing done?  Of course.  But it doesn't matter because you worked on the most important thing.  Motivation author Brian Tracy taught in his book Eat That Frog that the best way to start your day is to do the biggest, ugliest task--the one you've been dreading or procrastinating on.  He calls it "eating the frog" with the frog being that dreaded task.  Once it's done and out of the way, you can move on to other tasks.

What's your frog?  It could be the start of your novel.  You just don't know how to start it (blog idea topic - yippee, something to write on my Post-It!) and you're just procrastinating.  Just get up tomorrow morning and jump right to it.  Before too long, it won't be that ugly frog anymore and you'll enjoy doing it--if, in fact, you love writing.  It's possible you'll discover that writing is not your thing and really it's your love of working on Harley Davidson motorcycles.

Start it today, right now, and make tomorrow's list.  Then, tomorrow, look at that list . . . and do it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Truly amazed by the generosity of others

This past year, I have witnessed something phenomenal.  Something that I read about but never experienced first-hand.

Until now.

It's called generosity.

Such a simple word, yet powerful.  Ever since my wife was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in April 2011 (where she doctored at the grand Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, and where she's still residing while she recovers from her bone marrow transplant on September 1st), I have witnessed the generosity others like I've never known it.

And tonight proved it once again.  And again.  And again.  (and again, for near-infinity . . . )

And one day, through the will of God, I will pay it forward.

Okay, now I think I'm gonna cry.

I am a Post-It freak!

3M must love me because I love Post-Its.  Stickies, in other words.  Whenever I get a flash of inspiration or I need to jot a few ideas down for a story or a blog or even make a small list of things I need at the store, I usually write on a Post-It.

Post-Its are like temporary lists, because when I complete my list, I can throw it away and start fresh.

Sometimes my "office" is filled with various notes to myself or small lists of goals I want to accomplish in the next week or month.

Can "to-do" lists be too lengthy though and one can never accomplish everything on it?  Oh, sure.  I've been accused many times of creating "to-do" lists that could never be completed because I've got three kids to raise and other jobs to get to.  But that doesn't mean I still don't create lists.  I create lists to organize and prioritize my goals, something I learned from Earl Nightingale.

And that, my friend, is for another day, another blog.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Brain, we're here to . . . pump you up!

When marathon runners train for an upcoming race, do they run the twenty-six miles right away?  No, they train for weeks, months ahead of time, running shorter distances, thereby training their body for the ultimate test.

Do bodybuilders just do bench presses and that's it?  Nope.  They train various muscle groups, even switching those muscle groups so one set doesn't get overused.

Do farmers plant the same crop over and over again?  Not a chance.  They may plant a certain crop for a few summers or winters in a row, but they rotate after each harvest so give the soil the chance to replenish its nutrients.

Your brain is also a muscle, one that needs to be worked, challenged, and even rotated among various tasks.  Ever been in an endless array of meetings?  Afterwards, if you're not used to it, your brain feels stained, and can even have a "fried" feeling.  But once you've been doing it awhile, that strained feeling grows less and less.

When I work for long hours on a novel--whether editing or writing the first draft--and I finally complete whatever stage the book is in, I always take a break from writing and read.  Sometimes I don't even write anything for a few weeks.  I call it "recharging my batteries."  Brain batteries, in other words.

As you complete the first draft of your book or feel like your brain is strained from hours of writing, step back and do something else--exercise another part of your brain.  Even work on a short story or another story in a different genre or a new set of characters.  Take a break and read a little more than usual.  Then, once you feel recharged . . . go forth and conquer!