Summer Camp Writing Challenge

conifer daylight environment evergreen

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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 Start Writing Right Now

There’s this thing we do when we have to take out the trash, scrub the bathtub, or visit the in-laws.

  • “Right after this nap.”
  • “Right after the game ends.”
  • “Right after I hit 110 on this World of Warcraft toon.” (Currently sitting at level 1.)

It’s called procrastinate, and for good reason. No one wants to do chores because we don’t get anything out of them. (Unless you count a fresher smelling kitchen.) That’s why the allure of video games isn’t surprising: you kill something, you get a reward.

So why do we still procrastinate when it comes to something we want to do–like write?

I mean, we don’t hem and haw over whether to eat a cupcake or not.

  • “Nah, I think I’ll eat it next week.”
  • “Maybe after I eat this huge salad.”
  • “I have to go work out first.” (Said no one ever in the face of cake.)

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You do want to write, right? You do dream of sitting in your pajamas every day, writing for hours, chain-smoking and drinking scotch, right? Being a best-selling author, going on whirlwind book tours, speaking at international writing conferences, and being nominated for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, right?

The problem with writing is, we’re not getting a sugar rush or anything else for that matter after putting in the time. Sure, you can fool yourself into thinking you’re getting a reward by actually giving yourself something when you’re done (a cupcake perhaps?), but that’s going to be costly both for your pocketbook and your waistline if that’s your only source of motivation.

What can you do instead? So glad you asked. Here are five ways to start (and keep) writing that don’t involve rewards.

1. Face your fears

You may think you’re not writing as much as you’d like (or at all) because you don’t have time:

  • “I have to take the trash out.”
  • “I have to scrub the bathtub this very second.”
  • “I have to visit the in-laws this weekend.”

Or you don’t have a dedicated space:

  • “I’d be able to write if I had an 18th century escritoire.”
  • “I need to buy some post-it notes first.”
  • “The kids will bother me more if I close the door.”

You may even think you need more time to let your ideas percolate before committing them to paper.

If you find yourself coming up with excuses as to why you don’t write, it’s because deep down you have some fear of the outcome. It could be fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of never having another creative idea, fear of missing out on something else, fear everyone will know you’re a fraud, fear you’ll be letting your family down, fear everyone will think you’re awesome, fear people will demand more from you, fear of overwhelming success.

Whatever it is, the only way you’re going to get over it is by acknowledging it.

facing fears

Get yourself a journal (or any other notebook, napkin, junk mail envelope because that is not an excuse to not do this exercise) and write about why you’re not writing. Go ahead, start with all your excuses. Take your time. Come back to this exercise as often as you like. This process will suck and make you feel worse, but you have to do it. It’s like an infection festering deep inside that once it finally bursts through the skin like a big, fat pimple, it hurts like hell for a while. Then you slap some cream on it and wait while it heals.

I guarantee once you find the real reason behind why you’re not writing, you can overcome it.

(Hey look, you just wrote something!)

2. Once more with feeling

Now that you’ve cleared away those excuses and named your fears, it’s time to stop feeling bad about them. If you procrastinate instead of writing because you fear rejection, then what would it feel like to be accepted? Who do you want to feel acceptance from–your parents, a publishing company, your classmates at a high school reunion, a bookstore full of fans lining up to buy the fourth installment in your highly acclaimed detective series?

Whether you want to feel accomplished, light, energized, successful, or something completely different, meditate on it. Feel it. In your soul. Sit with your eyes closed and be in that moment. See yourself typing your last words of the day and hitting “Save.” You stretch back and feel __________.

happy writing

What you’re doing right now is setting yourself up for success. You’re programming your mind and body to replicate those feelings every time you write. Trust me, it will be a much more enjoyable experience than the usual self-flagellation you would normally inflict because your subconscious used to associate writing with fear.

Practice how you want writing to feel every day. Before getting out of bed, before going to bed, before writing, or whenever you get a chance. Connect with it, and soon your subconscious will associate the new feeling with writing instead.

3. Be your own cheerleader

You should be feeling pretty psyched up to write by now. Further this excitement (or cement it in place) by telling yourself how excited you are to go home and write. I know you talk to yourself out loud anyway, and I bet most of what you say is pretty negative.

  • “I can’t believe I just said that. I’m so stupid.”
  • “What was I thinking eating that cupcake?”
  • “I just wasted my whole weekend binge-watching Sherlock instead of writingI’m such a loser.” (But really, who could blame you on that one?)

Let’s turn that around by using the power of crazy talk to inspire yourself.

cheerleader

Keep telling yourself, all day, every day, how excited you are to write and pretty soon you’ll be believing it. Now watch as the first thing you pick up when you get home is your laptop (much to the delight of your cat if she’s anything like mine).

4. Spare no details

Once you’ve identified how you want to feel, write about it.

Grab your journal or the back of your kid’s math homework (because who needs math when you’re a best-selling author?) and write out how you envision your perfect writing life. You can start with the moment your eyes open or the moment your butt hits the chair at your 18th century escritoire. You could be well into your millions or be about to accept an offer on a four-book deal. Spare no details.

Where do you live? What does your work space look like? Who is with you (no one? lucky you!)? How long do you write for? What are you writing? What do you do before you write? What do you do when you’re done? Do you drink a pot of tea and eat gingerbread scones while writing? What do they taste like? Are birds singing, is music playing, can you hear the winds howling around the eaves? How do you feel while you’re writing?

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Use as much sensory detail as possible. And most importantly, use the feelings you identified in #2 as often as possible. Take as much time as you need for this exercise. Go back to it over the course of several days or whenever you have time, adding more and more detail.

This doesn’t have to be polished or perfect. You do not have to be poetic. No one is ever going to read this but you. But it must move you and it must call up your feeling du jour.

Now, every day for as long as it takes (days, weeks, months, years), reread what you wrote and reconnect to that feeling.

Alternatively, you can do this exercise as many times as you want, rewriting your perfect day of writing so you are in your  dream space or your current digs, your ideal situation or your chaotic life.

(See what I did there? I just got you to write and you liked it.)

5. Write for low stakes

If you’re just starting to get into the writing game or you’re trying to build a habit, don’t crush it with some lofty goal like writing a novel every agent will fight over that will make you a million dollars so you’ll never have to work that boring desk job again.

Instead, find something you like to write for fun. Maybe it’s working on #4 above, maybe it’s using writing prompts. Maybe it’s writing World of Warcraft serial fan-fiction starring your own character. Whatever you choose, it should be something you do for yourself. It doesn’t mean no one else will never read it, but you aren’t placing any unreal expectations on it either. If you never shop that short story around, it won’t be the end of the world.

success

When I searched for images labeled “success,” this is what I got. This is what you should aspire to when just starting out. Be zany. Be creative. Be wild. Have fun.

That doesn’t mean you can never aspire to finish your novel. It means, you should wait until your subconscious associates writing with having fun and feeling (fill in the blank) and your habit becomes automatic and something you look forward to. Again, this could take days, weeks, months, years.

If you’ve followed along with these (very helpful) suggestions, you’ve probably noticed you got some writing done too. Yay you!

You didn’t procrastinate, it didn’t kill you, and your fears never actualized. I call that success.

If this post helped you in any way, drop me a comment. I’d love to hear about all your amazing success stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Draft Mindset

In a May/June 2017 interview, winner of The 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, Travis Madden, offers this piece of writing advice, “Just get that first draft completed, knowing it’s not going to be anywhere remotely near the quality of your finished work. And be OK with that!”

So how do you get to be OK with that when you’re constantly thinking about how to incorporate all the things you’ve learned about storytelling?writer-1421099_640

First, forget everything you’ve learned about storytelling. Honestly, you don’t need to know how to create compelling characters, how to raise the stakes, how to pace, plot, hook the reader, etc. to write a first draft. That’s what revision is for. Instead, you need to just write. Maybe you have an idea for a character or a vague sense of setting with no plot. Maybe you have a plot but your characters are flat and cliché. Who cares? You write first drafts to explore these things and figure out what story you’re trying to tell. With that being said, you shouldn’t formally outline before you start a first draft either. Let the words and the plot and the characters come and go as they please without trying to mold them. Save the outline, character sketches, plot summaries, setting descriptions, etc. for revision. I mean, how can you make those things better before they’re even written?

img_0278-1024x683Indeed, first drafts are a lot like corn mazes– you don’t know how to get yourself out of them ahead of time. That’s why they’re so much fun. Sometimes you can only see a few feet in front of you at a time and never know whether the next turn will bring a dead-end or another path to the next fork in the road. You’re excited at the adventure of it and a little anxious about getting lost (and possibly afraid of a Bible-thumping 9-year old named Isaac jumping out at you), but it doesn’t stop you from entering the maze and having fun.

Secondly, adopt the mindset that first drafts should be like creative, unstructured child’s play. I grew up in a time when we didn’t have computers or video games or even VCRs. My parents never sat my sister and me in front of the TV to keep us entertained. We played outside in all kinds of weather, building entire houses out of snow or pine needles. We created menus and played restaurant with my mother’s dishes. I played Wonder Woman, paper dolls, Barbie, bank, shoe store, house, and school. I turned my bike upside down and pretended it was an ice cream shop. 4aeb9200a5c8eccce526a2c407f5ef60

There are no rules in child’s play–at least not in creative, unstructured play. You can be a superhero one moment and a gun-toting stagecoach robber the next. (Yes, I did have a cap gun and no, I didn’t grow up to be a murderer.)

Often when kids make up games, they make up their own rules as they go along as situations call for it. They don’t sit down and plan for every scenario ahead of time the way some writers do. They are true pantsers. Free and unencumbered. They never feel the need to go back and “re-play” what they did earlier because they changed something.

Next, start your story where you need to not where you have to. If that includes beginning with decades of backstory or a dreaded prologue, then so be it. Seriously, how ridiculous is it to try to start your story in the middle of things if you don’t even know where the middle is because you haven’t gotten to the end yet?

As humans, we literally start every day anew when we wake up. So if you have to follow your main character from the moment he opens his eyes until the time something life-altering happens, so be it. That’s what the Delete button is for.young-man-wake-up-morning-rub-eyes-stretch-89053809

This is also why NaNoWriMo is so popular. It allows writers to throw down anything and everything and just write with reckless abandon. Who cares if you followed all the rules? Who cares if it doesn’t make sense in the end? Who cares if your story started out as fantasy and morphed into contemporary realism? You just wrote 50,000 words! Fifty-thousand words you didn’t have time to deliberate over. Fifty-thousand words with a better idea of what kind of story you want to tell and what to revise to get it there.

And finally, don’t ask for critiques or share your first drafts with other writers. It’s tempting to want feedback to see if you’re on the right track. Only you don’t know what the right track is yet. You don’t know how your baby is going to grow up, if it’s even going to make it. This thing you’re writing is like a newborn. parentIt can be infected with other people’s germs super easily and get really sick. It can also turn out to be something you never wanted, depending on who’s taking care of it. So protect it (and your self-confidence) in the process. Remember, no one likes being called a bad parent

To recap, here are four ways to change your mindset around first drafts:

  1. Forget everything you’ve ever learned about writing and just write.
  2. Know there are no rules in creativity. (We never would have been able to send men in outer space unless someone dreamed it was possible. Only then did rules about physics and engineering apply.)
  3. Start your story where you need to, not where you’re supposed to.
  4. Protect that baby from backseat critiquers until it’s fully developed.

What’s your current mindset about first drafts? Do you get trapped in the never-ending cycle of editing? What other advice would you give someone about writing a first draft?

 

Sunday Inspiration: Neil Gaiman

Working on stories was something I did for fun. I didn’t have any grandiose aspirations of becoming published or being a best selling author. (Well, I did, but those were dreams I never thought would actually come true.) I just loved to create characters and send them on exciting and often dangerous adventures. I particularly remember feeling excitement and joy at the prospect of working on my stories during the summers when I was getting my Bachelor’s degree because I worked full time and went to school full time, which didn’t leave time for anything else.

Somewhere along the way though, specifically after graduating from my MFA program, I lost that feeling of excitement and joy to write. I had adopted the mindset that my writing had to perfect, it had to be “of publishible quality” (like they taught in grad school or you wouldn’t pass). I believed my writing had to be perfect not just after months and months of revisions but on first drafts too. After all, I’d been on a schedule of both revising 30 pages and writing 30 new pages every 30 days for two years, which was a ridiculous schedule and did not lead to writing “of publishible quality.” I’d effectively lost my joy.

That mindset of perfection and never being able to achieve it eventually warped into thinking and feeling that writing was hard and laborous and torturous and something to be avoided at all costs (to, you know, wash the dishes or clean the litter box). Of course, not writing just perpetuated feelings of guilt and shame (especially when my mother asked me if I was working on anything) because that was all I knew how to do, that’s all I really wanted to do, and I had let my higher or my younger self down.

I needed to get back to that feeling of excitement and joy, and it needed to start with accepting that first drafts are not meant to be perfect.

Say it with me, kids, “First drafts shouldn’t be perfect.”

The belief that writing was fun and easy naturally followed, and guess what? It is.

I actually look forward to my days off now when I can sit down with my novel and play. My writing hasn’t changed (it still takes me hours to write a scene), but my mindset about it has. And that has made all the difference.

So I invite you to honor your higher self or your younger self who used to get excited to write and felt joy while doing it–not because she was trying to get published or land an agent but because it was fun and that’s what she did.

You are on the cusp of change and your brilliant future awaits. Get excited and get inspired for it by watching Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts.

Now go out there and “Make Good Art.”

 

 

Villains, Antagonists, and Everything in Between

In last week’s post, I wrote that one of the most important aspects of writing a mystery is the villain. I chose this word, instead of antagonist, because it sounds delicious.

But there are differences between the two. So here’s the definitive answer on both.

Villains are always villains.

Antagonists are always antagonists.

Sometimes villains can be antagonists.

Sometimes antagonists can be villains.

Sometimes antagonists can be protagonists.

If that didn’t clear things up for you, here’s a better explanation:

Villains are motivated by evil. Not necessarily Satan, though I suppose that could also be true. Villains are cruel and malicious by nature and resort to criminal activity. Their whole existence is to cause harm and destruction. They may feel slighted by humanity or superior to it. They may even feel their diabolical actions are a form of social justice or in the world’s best interest.

Any way you slice it, villains are always villains. They may, however, not always interfere with the sleuth’s investigation. A villain may just go about her merry way killing off all the bellringers in a local competition to atone for the murder of her ancestor over five generations before without ever thwarting the investigation because she wasn’t on the suspect radar until it was too late.

Antagonists, on the other hand, don’t have to be evil at all. They may merely oppose or try to block the sleuth from achieving his external goal, which is to solve the mystery. This can be done without breaking any laws such as by starting rumors, deliberately stalling, lying, or evading. An antagonist may have the same goal as the main character or may just want the main character not to achieve it.

An example of the difference between a villain and an antagonist in a mystery might be:

Little Timmy, seeking revenge on a classmate, causes an accident that kills the classmate. Timmy’s mother, trying to protect her son, obstructs the investigation by hiding physcial evidence and lying to the detective about Timmy’s whereabouts at the time in question.

Timmy is the villain because his motive was to cause harm out of revenge. Timmy’s mother is the antagonist because she literally opposes the sleuth–she does not want your main character to solve the mystery because it would mean something horrible for her child.

Now as I said, villains can sometimes be antagonists. Not only do they commit the crime, but they lead the detective on a wild goose chase as well, perhaps taunting the sleuth with riddles, leaving false clues, and goading her into playing an “I’m smarter than you” game. Many mysteries centering on serial killers will use this device.

Villains as antagonists also love to knock your sleuth unconscious (every Nancy Drew mystery ever) in order to escape or even hold your sleuth captive.

In the same sense, you may have an antagonist who becomes a villain due to circumstances beyond her control, like feeling threatened or being exposed.

Consider a woman who stages her own disappearance in order to leave an abusive marriage. Her husband hires a private investigator to track her down. The woman’s goal is to not get caught and is in direct opposition to the P.I.’s. As the story progresses and the investigator closes in on her, the woman who is desperate and afraid she’s been recognized, murders the potential witness to prolong her freedom.

Though I’ve only seen the movie, I suspect Amazing Amy from Gone Girl is an antagonist who becomes the villain because she uses misdirection first which then escalates to murder as a means to an end.

In most mysteries, the protagonist will be a sleuth, amateur or otherwise. In capers and heists, however, the antagonist becomes the protagonist because we see the story from the thieves’ point of view. The thieves are not considered villains despite resorting to crime because they don’t steal with evil or malicious intent. They do it mostly because they can, mostly to see if they can get away with it. (And I’m sure the money it brings isn’t too bad either.) By definition, capers are lively and playful, often humorous, and you would be hard-pressed to find much more than childhood mischief as motive.

We want the thieves to succeed because the victim of the theft is usually a horrible person and deserves it, so the detective who investigates the crime becomes the adversary or antagonist.

So there you have it, the definitive answer on all things villain vs. antagonist.

Take a look at your own “bad guy.” Where does he or she fall on the scale of villainy?

Do you like your villain or antagonist more than your detective?

Do you want your villain or antagonist to get away with the crime?