New Year’s Writing Goals, 2017, and Critique Groups

Happy Pagan New Year!

The month of January is named for the Roman god Janus, the two-faces on one head keeper of the doors, of transitions, of ends and beginnings, of looking at the  past and the future. Through the years I have come to appreciate this concept more and more. For me, each January first is a day of renewal,  a time to set goals, a time to dream, a time to hope.

Like with diets, I know I can’t accomplish much writing without the encouragement of friends. My biggest encourager is my husband, Jeff, without whom I never would have honestly pursued writing.

One of my critique partners for the past many years is Samantha. Today she sent a Happy New Year’s message to the group. She wrote, “I wanted to start the year by thanking you wonderful ladies for all your support, encouragement and patience (and of course, thoughtful and skillful critiques)! I cannot imagine traveling this writing journey without you! Love you all!” Everyone in the group agrees with her.

Writing may seem like a lonely journey. I mean, individuals must do the sitting down at the keyboard and typing away alone. But I cannot conceive of a time without the support and encouragement of critique groups, people at conferences, listservs, my husband.

My two writing goals this year is to write, and to show my appreciation and encouragement to my fellow writers.

Happy New Year. May this year be full of completed hopes and dreams.

The Trouble with Having No Agent

       There’s the most obvious two troubles of not having an agent: 1) someone to offer revision suggestions to make your story stronger; and 2) someone to negotiate contracts for traditional publication, etc. But the biggest one to me (as least I think it would be, not quite knowing for sure since I don’t have an agent), is the time and focus bit.

       An agent often gives revision suggestions, then expect you to have it cleaned up and back to her in a timely fashion. The getting it back to her is the time factor. The focus part is not wandering off, thinking about or actually working on writing other stories. Once I was given a week to complete editorial revisions, this deadline was emailed to me the night before we left for a week’s vacation. And, yes, I did revised it.

       A couple days ago I spent several hours looking over some of my NaNoWriMo blabber file. I deleted many words, but got tired of the mess on my screen. I finally stopped and sat down with pen and paper to organize the plot, in three acts, with rising and falling tensions nicely placed.

       I hate this part of “writing.” I’d much rather just blabber away in raw writing on a rough draft. Blah, blah, blah. But after seeing the clutter I’ve write as rough drafts, I find myself wanting to start from the first word and rewrite the entire story. Perhaps I shall.

       But with no agent pressing me onward to complete revisions by a certain time, I’ve decided to stop, take a Christmas and family break until January, and then dive back in – with a plan! That is, as long as I don’t have the story of the next book waving flags through my brain cells demanding attention. BTW, I already have a pile of notes on that story, too.

Oh, agent! Where are you, I need someone to give me time constraints and focus.

Blabber File – Raw Writing

From mid-November into the first week of January is the hardest time for me to find time to write. (Exception: visiting family or vacations) Why, oh, why does NaNoWriMo fall in this time? But any time is a good time for fellow writers to give each other a push, even busy times.

Yesterday our company left. Today I’m doing a ton of laundry and also setting up Christmas decorations. YET, this morning, I found time to do some precious raw writing – that is, rough draft blabbering –  on my WIP story. It felt incredibly good! Maybe that’s one of the reasons I write. When I’m thinking about the story, or typing madly away on it, knowing that about 3/4 of the stuff I think or write will be deleted, I get so excited about the story and the characters.

I actually look forward in January to looking over this (unfinished) WIP and chopping away pages and pages. Mind you, I don’t feel those deleted words were a waste of effort. Sometimes going off-track frees my brain to be thinking outside my box (story outline), and often very strange and wonderful things happen.

So I hope you are blabbering away, doing your raw writing, knowing that soon the bad will be tossed and the good, kept.

Keep on writing.

Historical Research, Storytelling, Mayflower Pilgrims

It’s not even what I write about. Yes, I write historical fiction, but I’m usually fixated on either 1800’s America or 1200’s European-type fantasy world. Three years ago, when PTO President Pam contacted me because she saw on my website that I did storytelling, I agreed to storytell the Mayflower Pilgrim survival tale to her kindergarteners. Of course, I needed a costume, so bought the basic black shirt and long skirt, and then hand-sewed the white parts, just to see how long it may have taken a 1600’s woman to do the same. (Twenty-seven hours, BTW.) I’ve presented the Pilgrim bit to eighteen classes, and have enough information, with props, to keep 5-year-olds entertained for more than an hour, although it’s usually for either twenty- or thirty-minute time periods.

I show-and-tell props. Talk food. Stress the no-electricity bit. And I have four volunteers help me with a Pilgrim skit. Yep. All done in twenty minutes.

I also don’t keep the uglies back, like the fact that when they were starving that first winter, the Mayflower Pilgrims found sand mounds nearby with baskets of buried corn, and took them for themselves. (They later “paid” the Indians for it, but part of me cringes at that. What would you accept as pay back for someone taking your winter supply of food which you’d planted, weeded and watered for months, and then harvested and stored into baskets you’d made by hand?)

There’s also the fact that about half of the passengers and crew of the Mayflower died that first winter.

And what about twice-kidnapped Squanto, forced into European slavery, once escaped, once set free? Since he knew how to speak English from his years of captivity in England, he was the perfect translator for the lost Pilgrims who’d intended to land and live at the already established English colony of Jamestown. Squanto taught them how to plant corn the Indian way, and how to communicate with the people, how to survive.

After the successful harvest the following fall, when the Pilgrims invited their Indian friends for a meal to celebrate, they didn’t realize that ninety men would walk two days to come. Normally, just a handful of Indians checked in on the newcomers. The Thanksgiving Natives ended up, after their two-day walk to the invitation, having to build their own shelters, and even shoot four deer, to provide enough food for the feast. Oh, and there’s also the fact that the four adult English women did all the cooking.

BTW, John Bradford did not list turkey or potatoes in that first shared Thanksgiving at Plymouth, nor marshmallow-topped candied yams. We know they ate venison and corn, of course, as well as duck and shellfish, squash and beans.

What does/will your present Thanksgiving meal look like? Have you invited friends to eat with you who have helped you this past year? Are you thankful to God that you have survived for yet another season?

Wishing each of you food and friends and life at this Thanksgiving remembrance time.

NaNoWriMo Young Writers Group in Battle Creek

I know. I admit it. I did it. I volunteered to facilitate a NaNoWriMo Young Writers Group at Willard Public Library in Battle Creek for this month. I love doing anything I can to get others to write, as long as that is their ambition, too. So besides participating in the regular adult NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – which challenges people to write a 50,000-word rough draft novel in 30 days, or 1,667 words per day). The middle school and high school kids have listed their own word goals. We meet once a week to see how everyone is doing. I was hoping for 5-7 participants. Fourteen signed up and set goals.

Two have come regularly each week where we discuss their stories. One likes to just tell me what’s happening in his story and gets upset with me if I ask for clarification (details). The other is open to lots of “what ifs.” Other kids have dropped by just to have me look over their pages (I rarely read what they write, unless they ask me to), check their word counts, and figure out and mark the percentage done of their goal. Teens have a lot going on in their lives. I’m honored that they care enough to stop and show me what they’ve accomplished. Keep writing!

A girl came just once to “meet a real author” and confessed that she didn’t know where her story was going since it had so many twists and turns. She hadn’t signed up to be part of the group. I suggested she write out the goals for her characters, and maybe try some outlining high points on how those characters can reach (or fail to reach) those goals. She seems pleased with my answer. I wish her well. I felt like a writing doctor. I wish them all well. Keep on writing.

Why I Drag During NaNoWriMo – The Sloppy Copy Stage

It’s always about now – midway through November – when I tend to drag during NaNoWriMo, trying to get in my 1,167 words written each day on my project. Of course, there is the natural panic that about ten of my November days are packed with non-writing stuff. So right off, 50K in 20 days seems impossible.

Over the years of doing this, I’ve learned to make my story outline ahead of time, as well as resist the temptation to write on it at the moment (pre-NaNoWriMo). I’ve also learned to “bank my words.” In other words, I write more than the expected, steady 1,167 words each day. That way I won’t feel so badly on non-writing days. But now I’m in that awkward teen-age test out everything stage: the sloppy copy stage.

Years ago, I’d heard that phrase connected with rough drafts. I told my second graders that I didn’t expect that this sloppy copy would be their best-final copy, that there would be scratching out of words, different sized letters, squished words in the margins, etc. What I got back from even my best students were…works of art. They’d intentionally scratched out and smudged words, and made some letters small including some within the same word huge. Totally unreadable. They’d done as I’d asked, but not as I’d expected. (Bad teacher!)

Now I find myself in the actual sloppy copy stage of my NaNoWriMo project, and I feel like those second graders – intentionally creating sloppy work: writing in this character’s head, going off into a scene which will happen at least a year or two from the end of this book, rambling out on the keyboard about where I think the story is or should be going.

I am so off-outline at this point. It’s going to take me months into next year just to figure out all the paragraphs and chapters to shuffle around, or to simply delete. BUT AT LEAST I’m getting some words down, sloppy-sloppy-sloppy as they may be.

So all of you participating in NaNoWriMo, keep going! Don’t worry about your sloppy copy. Not until next year.

 

Survivalist Skills, Research, NaNoWriMo

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day learning how to skin a rabbit and tan its hide. Yesterday I spent most of the morning learning about saltpeter – mining and leaching and how to turn it into explosives. The paranoid part of me worries that these survivalist skills will be noted by concerned government watchdogs. The winning part of me knows I need to know these skills if I am to write about them. Write what you know.

Now I must admit that I never actually skinned a rabbit, and I never actually mined for potassium nitrate, and I really ought to have been putting more words in my NaNoWriMo project, but I spent hours on the internet doing research – for my WIP (story). My story takes place in a pre-electricity fantasy world. There are cities, of course, and fortresses, and an agrarian culture, but what if I stuck my characters not in the city, nor working on a farm, which I have? The in between wilderness is where they need to survive, so I spend my days with bloodied and charcoaled hands, but not in reality as would be much, much better, but only in research. I do know the ultra-soft feel of rabbit fur and leather against my cheek, and I have walked through a saltpeter mine in Mammoth Cave, so I’m not flying completely blind on what I research or write about.

Writing Tip: Write what you know, but also prepare to spend many more hours in research for even the briefest reference in your book.

Now, back to writing for NaNoWriMo – I’m at a sloppy 15K now. (Whoo-hoo.) Only 35,000 more words to go by November 30th. Keep on writing!

 

Where Do Your Characters Sleep?

With NaNoWriMo just a few days away, here is one thing you could mull over before you dive into your writing like a crazy person during November: Where do your characters sleep? Think of this as part of the setting category of your writing.

We all recall our own teenage rooms with pop-culture posters and such. We are familiar with our coordinated visually pleasing adult bedrooms. But perhaps you don’t write contemporary.

This week I was reading of ancient Icelanders who lived in long, narrow sod houses, with one way in or out. The “master bedroom” was the one furthest in mostly because it was warmest, but also most private. The children, workers, guests, etc., slept two per bed along the walls, and they slept head to foot because it conserved space. I tried to image it, and first only came up with cold feet on one hand, or stinky feet on the other.

In the book Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All, we read how 14-year-old Lucy’s 50-year-old husband was so large, he slept diagonally on the narrow bed. She curled up wherever she could.

Have babies always slept in cribs? Where do they sleep today in rural China? A village in Ethiopia? On a Pacific Island?

In one of my books, I have people camping for a few weeks. This is not difficult for me to imagine since we were tent-campers for about twenty years. Write what you know. But my characters don’t even have a tent! Oh, that’s right. I’ve slept many a night outside with no tent myself, which is lovely, or exciting, like when a big, fat raccoon walked over me in the night. However, tent-camping or tentless-camping, I could quickly get to civilization and any amenities in short order, where that is trickier for my characters.

I think of cowboys who herded cattle from TX to the railroads up north, sending the cattle on to the packing houses in Chicago. (BTW, most cowboys were black-skinned, which is neither here nor there, but just clarifying history from those western actors of the ’50s.) A cowboy on trail usually wore one set of clothing for the two-week drive. He slept in his clothes and had a single blanket as a bedroll. That’s it. Hard ground. Single blanket. No pillow. Oh, and he burned his clothing at the end of the ride. Go figure.

So I reiterate: Where do your characters sleep? If it’s in a building, what is the furniture in the room? Pictures on the walls? Air circulation? Others the room? If it’s in a tree, what sort of tree and what additions? Cave? Woods? Seaside? Picture it. What sounds are there?  Furnace humming? Wolves howling? Mosquitoes buzzing? Hold it. Visualize and listen to it 360 degrees.  Doing it now means next week you will be ready to write it all up during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

National Parks Birthday – 100 This Year (Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore)


imageStu and I visited Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore this October for the first time – after passing by it for decades, going from east to west or west to east. It always seemed such a mystery. Unattainable. But when I visited, I found it quite attainable.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore turned 50 years old this year. I’m grateful for the insight of those who wanted to preserve lakeshore views for the public. Many of the roads in the park are two-laners (one lane in each direction), with no shoulders. Some roads pass through swampy areas.

I’m glad I went on an afternoon in fall v.s. summer. I imagine traffic is bumper to bumper during the hot summertime being so near the Chicago area. Parking is limited, but the view of the southern end of Lake Michigan is LGL (Lovely Great-Lakey). If you look toward the west, you do see the industrial structures along the coast. Look north or east, please.

I look forward to returning sometime to hike some of the trails – not, I think, in summer when there are lots of bugs and lots of people. I prefer my forest walks to be Foresty and quiet, except, of course, for the natural sounds and sights.

It still felt a little claustrophobic for my National Parks taste, but again, I have the woods yet to explore.

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Writing in Spite of Everything

There are times when outside circumstances cause me to not want to write, and I’m not talking about winter coming, John Snow. They may be priorities of a family or relational crisis, or joys, or a visit. It may be work-related times, or trees flying through our house. A death. Or a celebration. Or even when I ponder our present political oddities. It is exactly in these times when I need to write. Writing gives me focus and sanity when the world around me swirls in confusion and insanity. Whenever I think, “Why bother?” I need to center in on the bigger picture, to see beyond all the confusions and conflicts which can so easily suck me down.

Perhaps your life or thoughts aren’t as twisty as above, but you are a writer who is still not writing for all the many other reasons you can list. Well, stop it! You can always journal. When you use the highly emotional trying or joyful times to jot a few words about that moment, they can someday be used in a story. When a childhood memory is stirred up, grab it, record it, remember with all your senses.

You cannot blame circumstances for not writing. You must not blame emotional times for not writing. Those are exactly the times when you need to be writing, even if it’s “just” journaling. Writing gives us focus and clears our minds of clutter.

And then there is NaNoWriMo coming up next month. I have not finished the revisions of my one story yet, which was my plan to have done so before NaNoWriMo starts. However, as it’s not the end of the month, and I have talked myself out of all the outside circumstances, my goal has not crashed. I encourage you to do the same. Write (or revise) in spite of everything.