Summer Camp Writing Challenge

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Ah, nothing says summer better than sweaty armpits and chafed inner thighs.

And here in Massachusetts, we’re in for a long stretch of hot, humid weather over the next 10 days.

If you’re crazy like me, you probably can’t wait to step outside into a swamp. But if you’re not, this might be a good time to go camping.

Camp NaNoWriMo, that is.

For anyone who is new to the challenge, as I was, it is “An idyllic writer’s retreat, smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” And it takes place during the month of July.

Unlike November’s NaNo, you get to choose the type of project you want to work on and how your progress will be calculated.

Want to write a screenplay or a poem? No problem. What about a series of short stories or a piece of non-fiction? You can do that too. You can even set up a revision project.

You also get the option to track your progress by word count, hours, minutes, lines, or pages.

No longer are you constrained to writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days because this is summer, and in the United States, July is synonymous with freedom and independence.

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I signed up for Camp and entered my project to finish a work-in-progress novel. It remains to be seen if that’s actually the piece I’m going to work on–I kind of want to write a fun murder mystery beach read (because nothing says fun quite like a murder in a beach resort town) or finish my World of Warcraft fanfiction serial. But it would be really nice to finally have this novel finished.

If you’re thinking maybe you should jump start your own prolific writing career or need a little motivation to try a new medium or genre, I encourage you to sign up too.

Another great feature of Camp is that you can choose to join a cabin of 19 other like- or maybe-not-so-like-minded writers for inspiration.

I’m planning to create a private cabin, so if you want to be bunk mates, send a request to clblacke for an invitation through the Camp NaNo message system and be sure to let me know you’re responding to this post.

Writers of all genres and mediums are welcome. You don’t need to be a mystery or young adult writer to join my cabin.

So grab your marshmallows and bug spray and meet me at Camp!

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5 Ways to Improve Your Writing This Year

We can sometimes be so focused on improving how we write in our respective genre, buying craft after craft book on how to concoct the perfect mystery, that we forget great writing transcends mere labels.

So here are five ways you can improve your writing skills in a low stakes environment. (You know, when you’re sick of working on that novel that’s been banging around for ten years and not getting any closer to done.)

1. Go Strunk & White on your ass

No, seriously. Pick up the latest edition of your preferred style guide, study it, quiz yourself, then proofread your work. The art of great writing is not limited to theme and character and voice. It’s about your command of the English language and how you use it to articulate your thoughts. It’s sentence level stuff–grammar, punctuation, usage, composition. Using the Oxford Comma. (Hint, hint.)

Let’s face it, do you really know when to use a dash and when to use an em dash? Or when to use the past perfect tense if the rest of your story is just in past tense? Or how to make the plural of letters, numbers, and names ending in -s?

Classic guides, including, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr and E. B. White, can show you how, and there’s even a workbook to practice. Or check out sites such as Grammar Girl.

Eighth grade was forever ago for most of us, but you won’t have to diagram sentences very long before you master the elements of style and the art of great writing. You may even find yourself silently judging poorly punctuated texts from your significant other.

2. Read and imitate your favorite author

There’s nothing wrong with trying to write like your favorite author. After all, there’s a reason why he or she is your favorite. What is it? What makes you pull her next book off the library shelf as soon as you put one down? What makes you stand in line at the bookstore or pre-order his latest novel?

Make a list of your favorite authors, then list the reasons that drew you to them. The best part is you get to reread any to remind yourself.

If you can identify what it is you like about how these authors write and dissect how they do it, you can practice incorporating these skills into your own writing. And by practice, I mean trying them out in a low stakes environment first. Think, something you don’t mind burning at the stake when you’re done. A warmup, if you will. Something to pass the time while on the subway, during boring business meetings, at family holiday gatherings.

You never know, you may find someone admitting to imitating your style some day.

3. Write one scene three different ways

Here’s another warmup exercise that shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Write one scene then rewrite it two more times using one of the following methods:

  • Write a scene from three different points of view: first, second, limited third, omniscient third. (How do each of these affect your word choice, sentence structure, tone, voice?)
  • Write a scene in three different tenses: past, present, future, or if you’re really hardcore past perfect. (What do you notice when someone views the scene from the past–are they nostalgic, depressed, insightful? From the future–are they filled with anxiety or hope? In the present–does everything flow peacefully or move too fast?)
  • Write a scene to convey three different moods: excited, scared, desperate, ecstatic, pessimistic, etc. (Again, how does this affect word choice and sentence structure? What details do you focus on? Does setting play an important role or is it the character’s feelings and reactions?)
  • Write a scene using three different genre voices: noir, flowery Victorian, Hobbit. (See #2 above and use inspiration from your favorite authors.)
  • Write a scene with three different narrators: This is different from using three different points of view because now you will be writing the scene from three different characters’ perspectives. (For instance, how would a victim, a killer, and a detective describe the same scene of a crime. Use the same point of view for each iteration, e. g. first person, to make it easier.)

You can use a random scene generator like this or this to get you started.

4. Join a writing group

A writing group is different from a critique group. I belong to two writing groups. We meet informally and we usually always write on the same prompt that is given at that meeting. One person from each group volunteers to bring in a prompt–it can be anything from a first line, an exercise on descriptive writing, or a template for an entire short story–then we write for about 30-40 minutes, depending on how long people need to finish up last thoughts or sentences. (I’m usually the last one done.) At the end, we volunteer to read what we’ve written. Some members never read, some always do, and some read depending on the night.

We generally add comments of praise and sometimes suggestions if the writer requests it, but we never point out flaws or what could have been done better. We also don’t bring in larger pieces or WIPs to be critiqued by the whole group unless it is agreed upon ahead of time.

And don’t worry about finding a writing group whose members write in the same genre or have the same level of writing experience as you. In my groups, there are children’s writers, women’s fiction writers, academic writers, poets, technical writers, and genre writers. Some women have been published, some self-published, and some never published. Some members don’t even want to be “writers;” they just want to get out of their house. Some women have never taken a formal writing class. Others have devoted their entire education to it.

You’d be surprised at what you can learn from a diverse group of writers. You can obtain a similar effect by checking out online short story blogs. (You can find a list here, though I can’t vouch for any of them.)

Writing groups are perfect for low-stakes practice and the prompts offered should aim to improve creative writing skills in general. If you’re looking for specific feedback or how to whip your manuscript into publishable shape, you may want to join a formal critique group in which participants have an extended period of time prior to the meeting to read your work and formulate thoughtful comments on how to get you where you want to be.

5. Practice on your own

If you don’t like the idea of joining a writing group, reading your work in front of others, or leaving your cat home alone, you can get the same benefit by practicing on your own.

The best way to practice is to compile a list of writing prompts. Writers Digest has free ones (they also have a link for writing groups) or you can buy Storymatic cards.

If you’d rather come up with your own ideas, here is an example of a prompt we did in one of our groups that you can tailor. (I don’t know the exact origin of it, so you may have seen it elsewhere.)

On seven slips of paper, make one entry for each item below:

  • a male character
  • a female character
  • what he said (line of dialogue)
  • what she said (line of dialogue)
  • where they met
  • where the story takes place
  • what happened in the end

Repeat this process at least five times. The more choices the better.

Now, place all the entries for each item into separate bags (or boxes or bowls or baseball hats or whatever) and shake them up. You should have six male characters to randomly choose from and so on.

Pick one entry from each bag/box/bowl, set your timer, and incorporate all of these items into one story.

Don’t worry if you suck at first. Or for a long time. That’s not the point.

When I first joined my writing groups, I couldn’t write a short story to save my life. Especially not in 30 minutes. I’d only ever written novel-length (or at least novella-length) pieces. So I worked on the prompts for the allotted time and focused mainly on character and voice, which are my weak areas. Over the past year, I’ve gotten to the point where I can finish most of the short story prompts (to an ambiguous conclusion) within 30-45 minutes. They are not perfect. They are not as well-developed as my friend, Trudy’s, as richly detailed as Sara’s, as humorous as Jenn’s, or as poignant as Kathy’s . They are not supposed to be. We are different writers.

But over time, like me, and hopefully with the help of these tips, you too can improve your writing. Practice as often or as little as you like. Revise everything or nothing. When you write for yourself in a low stakes enviroment, anything is possible, and you’ll find your main projects become that much better.

Do you have any tried and true writing prompts you turn to in times of need?

What are your thoughts on or experiences with writing groups? Would you recommend them?

Reinventing the Writer’s Notebook

At some point we’ve all been told we need to keep a writer’s notebook and been given vague instructions to record ideas and bits of overheard conversations in it. We may have even been forced to keep one for a creative writing class and been graded on it. (So guilty.) pen-994464_640

Let’s face it, whether or not we choose to keep a moleskin journal handy or a note app open on our phone, the best ideas usually happen when we’re running, taking a shower, or pooping in a public restroom–all times you don’t want to be lugging around a notebook.

Now, how many ideas come to you in a day, how many snarky comments does your barista really make, that need to be written down or recorded immediately? And how many of those ideas do you really go back and use? No one working at Starbucks is that interesting.635873577289442989-257407846_starbucks-barista

If you look at your writer’s notebook right now, I bet you’ll see a lot of empty, wasted pages just screaming to be filled.

There are better uses for it that will benefit your writing than just some random scrawlings.

1. Reflect on the Day’s Writing

As a teacher, one of the things I teach students is that writing can be used to figure out what you think. If you’ve ever written a first draft only to go back and make a major change, you know what I’m talking about.

Journaling works much the same way. How many times have you journaled about something, starting off with a specific viewpoint, then find out it’s changed by the time you’re done writing? It was through that process of uncensored writing you were able to try on different viewpoints, view ideas through different lenses, and come to different conclusions.female-865110_640

You can use this technique with your works-in-progress much the same way. At the end of your writing session, reflect on it in your notebook. What reservations do you have about what you wrote? What feels off? Where do you feel resistance and why do you think so? Conversely, what victories did you achieve? What went well in today’s session? Did you finally figure out who your killer is? How will this change the rest of your story? Elizabeth Peters once wrote in her notebook that someone needed to be murdered because the story was getting boring.

Reflecting on the day’s writing will allow you the space and freedom to explore new ideas without starting all over again or going down another dead end.

2. Write About What You’re Reading

When I was in grad school, I kept a catalogue of every YA novel I’d read. I included not only the title, author, and general plot summary, but also lessons I learned from either the author or the story. These lessons could be on things I thought had been done well, like how characters were described, how the story was structured, or how mood was achieved. They could also be about things I hated and never wanted to do in my own story. I explored these lessons through writing about them to better understand how they could be applied specifically to what I was working on at the time.  narrative-794978_640

By writing about how you can utilize other authors’ techniques in your own work, you come to understand what it is you actually want to achieve.

3. Keep Track of Your Revisions

First drafts are meant to be shitty. They are a place for your mind to figure out what it thinks, where it wants to go, which ideas it wants to keep. First drafts are also meant to be written quickly without regard to grammar, punctuation, word choice, etc. Those are all things that can be fixed in revisions. You may also find you need to make more substantial revisions because you story has progressed to a place you hadn’t seen coming. For instance, you may need to go back and introduce a new element, change a character, or foreshadow an event. To keep the first draft flowing, fight the urge to revise every time you sit down to write.

Instead, keep a running list of revisions in your notebook. I make notes by chapter that I will revise later. Things like, “Better transition into the figure on the moor and make more dramatic.” Or sometimes, I’ll ask questions: “Chapter 5–Should this be the first encounter with K? What was the function of seeing him earlier?”

Keeping track of things you want to revise while you are writing alleviates the need to constantly tinker and stall any forward momentum.

4. Decide Where You’re Going Next

Speaking of first drafts, Hemingway gave this advice, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.”  No doubt you’ve found yourself ending a writing session because you’ve run out of ideas, only to kick yourself the next day as you stare at a blank screen and flashing cursor.ernest-1097984_640

To avoid this, take time at the end of each session to write in your notebook where you want to go, what you think the next scene should be, and how you think you can get there. This is the time to scribble down ideas without censorship and see where they lead without committing them to your actual document.

Deciding where to go next in your story follows naturally the process of reflecting on the day’s work. At last, you’ve come full circle and without that pesky procrastination rearing its head.

Of course there are a dozen more ways to fill your notebook: making notes about a setting you’ve visited, documenting area-specific sayings and their origins, creating more backstory, scheduling writing times and goals, etc. But above all, it will only help if you find how it works best for you and your current project.

How successful have you been in keeping a writer’s notebook? Do you use a physical or digital version? What other ways do you use it?

 

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 4

We’re heading into the home stretch. Just a mere 10 days before National Novel Writing Month officially kicks off.

Hopefully, you’ve taken advantage of some of the writing exercises I’ve shared in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and it sparked a new juicy novel idea to work on next month.

For some, you might not have been as consistent with your writing as you would have liked and now you’re asking yourself how will you ever be able to write 1,667 words for 30 days in a row? That’s like going to take way longer than 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Your heart picked up a little just now, didn’t it? And your breathing got a little shallower. Your inner critic is probably laughing at you and telling you it’s not possible.

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Of course, it’s possible. Thousands of people do it every year. And you can too. Consistency is the key. Every day you have to sit down and try. Try is the operative word. Even if you only manage to write, say, 100 words a day, that’s still 100 more words than you had yesterday. And that is cause for celebration. (Hey, if James Joyce considered two perfectly written sentences a full day’s work, so can you.)

So instead of giving you another writing exercise this week, something that may only take a few minutes to complete, I thought I’d share some tips on how to write consistently and not feel like crap about it.

  • Be specific about when and where you are going to write. Choose the time and place that fits your schedule. It may vary depending on what day of the week it is or even what your kids’ schedule is like, but knowing ahead of time when and where you will be writing every day will alleviate the first hurdle.
  • Set boundaries on your time. If you don’t have the luxury of living alone, don’t let other people bother you when you’re trying to write. Lock yourself in the bathroom, get up earlier or go to bed later than everyone else in the house, slip out to the library for an hour. The best place to write is a cemetery. No one bothers you there.
  • Decide on what or how much you want to accomplish each day. Start off by setting the bar low, like really low to start, so that when you’ve met your goal, you feel like a badass. Start with 100 words a day, then 250, then 500, then the dreaded 1,667.
  • Or if the thought of a word count already raises your blood pressure, start off by completing one scene per day, or one page per day. You’ll be in the company of John Steinbeck who advised the same thing when he wrote, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” 

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  • Never stop writing when you can’t think of anything to say. You’ll be frustrated before you even start the next day and you’ll waste valuable, precious time pulling your hair out, slamming your fists on the desk, and swearing into your computer screen. Ernest Hemingway said it best when he offered this piece of fatherly advice, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
  • Create the habit of writing by attaching it to a habit you already have (preferably one that’s good for you, but I guess it doesn’t have to be). My favorite thing to do on weekend mornings is drink a pot of tea. When that tray comes out and the first cup is poured, I know it’s time to write.
  • Likewise, you can create a writing ritual. Perform the same meaningful (or meaningless) routine to get you in the mood. Charles Dickens would rearrange knickknacks on his desk, Steinbeck would sharpen 12 pencils, Mark Twain wrote lying down, and Victor Hugo stripped naked to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (For more weird writing rituals of famous authors, check out this book.)

If the thing that gets you down is not so much the time spent at writing but what you end up with on the page, remember you are not the only writer to ever think that what you’ve written is crap. Maya Angelou said, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay, I’ll come.'”

Remember the operative word is “try.” No one is going to think that what they wrote at such a furious pace like the one set by NaNo is great. And if they do, then it really is crap. The point behind the challenge is to just get the words out, the story finished, not to labor over linguistics.

Joshua Wolf Shenk puts it like this, “Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and rewriting the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

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So this week, make writing a priority, or at least set plans to in motion, and have the courage to try.

Hey, if it helps, you can always tell yourself you were trying to write the worst novel ever written.

Good luck!

 

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 2

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, young adult horror novels were all the rage. Authors such as Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike, and R. L. Stine were suddenly catapulted to success with their contributions to the Point Horror imprint from Scholastic Publishing.

These novels, with titles such as Blind Date, Mirror, Mirror, and The Vampire’s Kiss, were not works of literary genius nor were they probably meant to be, but they were immensely popular and fun, quick reads.

While I never read most of the Point Horror books, my favorite YA author growing up, Richie Tankersley Cusick, had written four titles for the imprint, including The LifeguardTrick or TreatTeacher’s Pet, and April Fools, which I must have read at least a dozen times over the years (as well as all her other books). Trick or Treat was my favorite because I love Halloween, and in fact, Ms. Cusick’s books are what inspired me to write my own YA horror/mystery/suspense novels.

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I recently read a Q&A with Cusick regarding the Point Horror series, and she stated that the authors were all given specific titles to work with and had to write stories around them. While some might consider this “factory” writing, I thought the idea would make an interesting writing prompt, especially for those of us who are plot junkies or those who may need a little help coming up with a plot or title.

Again, this is a two-part exercise.

  • First, you will have to come up with at least a dozen (or however many you feel like) titles for would-be novels. I suggest you don’t use titles for books you already know you want to write. That’s cheating! (And don’t worry if you find out there is already a book published with one of the titles you came up with. There is no copyright law for titles.)
  • Secondly, each day, you will randomly select one of the titles and write a short plot summary that you might find on the back of a paperback or inside flap of a hardcover.
  • Set your timer (if you wish) for 10 minutes and get writing. Stop when the timer dings or keep writing. It’s up to you!

This is the synopsis for Cusick’s novel The Mall, which I happen to have at my fingertips, and as you’ll see, it’s not particularly long or involved but is a general skeleton of the plot, the two main characters, and the overall tone of the story:

“Trish smiles into the dressing-room mirror, admiring herself in the gorgeous white dress. Unknown to her, someone else is watching. He knows she is smiling just for him. His soft, strange voice whispers her name from the crowd. His hooded eyes follow her every move … At first she thinks he’s just a creepy customer, hanging round Muffin Mania where she works at the mall. But suddenly he’s everywhere, the man with a thousand faces tormenting her day and night. He knows her secrets. There’s no safe place to hide. There’s no one she can tell, no one she can trust. How can she escape a madman wiling to kill to make her his–forevermore.”

And here are a few titles I came up (again, keeping with the horror theme) to get you started:

  • Blood Sisters
  • Murder Island
  • Hall of Mirrors
  • Cursed
  • Cellar Stairs

If you have trouble coming up with titles, I found this infographic on Passwordincorrect.com that gives you 15 examples of how books are titled.

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Alternatively:

  • Make a list of already-published book titles you have never read before nor know anything about. You might want to stick to a genre you wish to write in or may want to go outside your comfort zone and look for titles in an unfamiliar genre.
  • Continue as above.

I found these examples by Googling mystery titles:

  • Ghostwalk
  • City of Liars and Thieves
  • MacDeath
  • Belzhar
  • Crime Rib

This exercise is not meant to hone your synopsis-writing skills, so don’t worry about making the summary perfect or enticing. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, paragraph breaks, or even coming up with catchy phrases. It’s more about just brainstorming a general story idea with a few important characters. You may even find one of these ideas is perfect for your NaNo novel next month.

Good luck and let me know how you like this exercise. Even better, I’d love to read some of your synopses!