Last-Minute Holiday Gifts for the Word Nerd in Your Life

It’s time for another round of last-minute gift-giving ideas!

Donations. Unless your recipient is pre-redemption, three-sizes-too-small Grinch, donations are a wonderful present. My personal favorite is Reading Is Fundamental, but a local option may be a good route.

A box of books (and related bookish goods). Book subscription boxes are somewhat coming into their own. There’s the classic Book of the Month club, which offers readers a choice among five different selections each month and the option to add-on for $9.99. Book Riot and Book Riot: YA send books and bookish miscellany every three months. I’m also a fan of Muse Monthly, which sends a book and loose leaf tea pairing. Well done.

A Serial Box subscription. Fiction released weekly, harkening back to the days of Dickens (or the Serial podcast obsession of Autumn 2014). I’ve got Bookburners queued up!

A box of writing supplies. I haven’t ordered from Paper & Pen, but a box of paper goods and writing utensils sounds like a unique gift for someone who loves organization, trips to stationery/office supply stores, or old school writing.

A magazine subscription. Writer’s Digest and Poets & Writers are two of my absolute favorites, and they’re packed with relevant advice and opportunities.

Classes or workshops. Local universities or artistic communities may have in-person opportunities. There are plenty of online options through Writers Digest UniversityLoft Literary CenterArizona State University’s Piper Writers Studio, and The Brainery.

Writer’s Market subscription. If your writer is looking to take things to the next level next year, gifting a subscription to Writer’s Market is your best bet – this website will help him/her find a wide range of contests and agents.

Membership to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. There are some sweet perks in the form of job postings, submission repositories, and scholarships. Plus there’s the fun

Choose-your-own-writing-adventure. This one is kind of my favorite: Purchase a gift card to your intended recipient’s favorite bookstore (many offer online certificates, so you don’t have to leave your computer) and include this list. The writer has the option of picking the books (s)he finds most relevant and helpful.

Feel free to share other ideas in the comments!

Thanks for reading! What’s on your list this year?

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What I Learned About My Manuscript During NaNoWriMo

Note: I am one of those weird people that subscribes to the notion that my work-in-progress should be called a manuscript throughout the development process. During NaNoWriMo, I follow the established nomenclature of “novel,” but I’m reverting back to manuscript.

NaNoWriMo is thirty days of frenzied writing that, in many cases, involves lots of caffeine, little sleep, and forgetting your characters aren’t real people and discussing them as though they are (“Yeah, Cassandra was a little difficult last night but I finally figured out that her driving relationship can’t be a love interest.”)

I truly believe writers are conduits for their characters and should follow their intuition, exploring development arcs and narrative quirks that arise during the writing process. Having a plan and a general outline is great, but adapt — especially for the sake of your characters.

God, writing in Arizona can be the absolute worst.

God, writing in Arizona can be the absolute worst.

Going into the month, I had an outline. Probably the best thing that happened is that I saved it in another Scrivener file by mistake and couldn’t find it. I had to remember major shifts entirely from memory, which meant if I didn’t care enough (or more likely, if the development didn’t resonate enough), I forgot it happened. What resulted was genuine characters driving plot.

I ended up finding the outline on November 30th — the timing couldn’t have been more perfect — and I was surprised at how “wrong” I’d initially called it. What I crafted was a much tighter narrative, with some characters lasting much longer than I anticipated and some not even appearing (yet). The interpersonal conflicts I outlined never made it onto the page. Some of the basic tenets of the plot shifted. Here’s a brief, broad example from the first act, designed to be alternating storylines featuring two female characters and their “groups” (one family, the other…loosely defined). Strikethroughs mean that the planned plot point didn’t happen at all, italics are for items that remain in some form, though were significantly different than planned.

  • Seaside w/ C
    • Decent conditions but writing’s on wall
    • Group comes
    • C escapes with S to forest
    • C & S — > capital
  • Mountains w/ B
    • Accepting, natural
    • Training
    • Rising
    • Departure due to family issues
    • B’s family — > capital

Or: the entire first act changed shifted in focus, tone, and narrative. Also, now there are three anchoring groups, not two (and those aren’t dominated by the characters B and C). The character dynamics have shifted and those groups are somewhat loose in the sense that it’s obvious what connects them, but the ties that bind aren’t always the strongest.

I initially planned for the manuscripts to be four acts, and it seems content with that so far. However, it’s going to be long. I didn’t anticipate finishing the writing during NaNoWriMo – I thought I needed at least twice that for a solid first draft, since I usually write all character arcs and dialogue and then go back and indulge the senses with imagery and the like. Most of NaNoWriMo was dedicated to the first act – and the aforementioned character moments – so this manuscript is shaping to be 150K in first draft mode, easily. God help me.

Oh, and a general tip: always back up your files. I read enough horror stories about losing tens of thousands of words that I didn’t want to risk it. So I also learned that my laptop is almost at capacity now. Thanks, NaNoWriMo!

Thanks for reading! What did you learn from your NaNoWriMo manuscript?

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NaNoWrimo 2015: The Post-Game Analysis

You know, I fully anticipated updating my NaNoWriMo progress throughout the month — not every day, but at least once a week. That didn’t happen, and I only managed my kick-off post. I’m kind of glad, because it meant I spent the month writing and focusing the majority of my efforts on the task at hand. That focus reaped serious rewards for me:

NaNo-2015-Winner-Banner

Yep, I did it. 2015 is not the first time I’ve tried, but it’s the first time I succeeded.

I know I should be like “Woo! I did this! I achieved greatness!”…but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.

Major props to my across-the-country writing partner-in-crime Natasha. Natasha’s one of the 1:1000 editors and we texted throughout the month. Natasha ended November with 42K and the birth of her second child, and she’s my writing hero right now. I could not have kept up with writing or gotten off the struggle bus without her, and she kept me accountable throughout the month. I am 100% on board with writing buddies and support systems and writing tribes and the like.

Oh, and speaking of writing tribes — having spent the last two years writing with 1:1000, I felt more prepared in terms of crafting the story and hustling throughout the month. Normally I get stuck with character development, and while that happened a couple of times, I just jumped to another character and focused on their path until inspiration struck.

Oh, and it is hard. NaNoWriMo is a month of frenzied writing, but I didn’t write every day (which I had hoped to do). It can be draining and exhausting and some nights I just ached thinking about writing, but I made myself do it. I’m nowhere close to finishing, but I’m above 50K and that makes a massive difference.

My general tips? Create a daily routine. Be aggressive when you can (some days I wrote 5K+ because I had the time and mental capacity to do that), and adapt. Don’t let numbers get you down, and keep your characters at the forefront. It can be a personal struggle, and sometimes you have to just force yourself through that wall.

I’m not sure if I’ll do it again next year, but I know I’ll throw some support for to any 2016 participants.

Up next on the blog: The nitty gritty manuscript progress during November.

Thanks for reading! How did your NaNoWriMo attempts fare?

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NaNoWrimo 2015, Day One

Well, here we go.

I woke up having finally gotten a decent night of sleep, the first in weeks. I was also terribly congested, but I took a ClearQuil for that and a Zyrtec for my allergies. After forty-five minutes of checking Feedly and waiting for the meds to kick in, they mercifully have. So, game on NaNoWriMo! I am participating this year, working on what’s shaped into a post-apocalyptic fantasy piece that desperately needs my focus and attention.

Here are a few posts I found helpful this morning:

50K or bust!

giphy

Thanks for reading! Are you doing NaNoWriMo?

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Creepy Flash Fiction, 2015 Edition

 

Last year I posted some great books to get you in the mood for Halloween. This year, I’m ever-so-humbly linking to some of my favorite creepy flash fiction pieces I’ve written.

I know, I know, but I adore writing horror and unsettling fiction, and people tell me I kind of have a talent for it, so I figured why not self-promote and get feedback at the same time?

 

Thanks for reading! As always, feedback appreciated – so leave a note in the comments!

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Submissions Manager

It seems like a worthwhile time to revisit writing progress, since I have some minor updates and haven’t done a Beyond the Blog post this month!

I hear back about my Southwestern horror piece, and it wasn’t selected as one of the winning pieces. Normally I would be really upset, but after I posted about the writing experience and “hustling my own damn talent,” one of the 1:1000 editors reached out to me with interest in seeing it. Together we made some more improvements and tightened up a few areas, and it became a stronger, richer piece. I even told Scott that I kind of hoped it didn’t win, because I liked this version more. To add to that, I’ve come across another contest – seriously, wasn’t searching for it, it popped up on one of my RSS feeds from a non-writing site – and it seems like a much better fit. So, I’ll be submitting there this month. Fingers crossed!

I’ve also been working on a handful of pieces for ongoing submissions and October deadlines. I’m really drawn to flash fiction and it’s been my jam for a while now, but a couple of the ongoing sites are more micro-fiction and that intrigues me. I’ve got one submission planned that will be three linked, 500-word pieces, and I’ve been channeling Erin Morgenstern with rich, lyrical descriptions but not much else. Lots to improve there, I suppose.

There are a couple of longer pieces I’m honestly struggling with, in terms of scope and character. I have some good ideas, they just aren’t translating as well on the page as I’d like. I’ve got October earmarked as a short fiction month, because I think I’m going to try my hand at NaNoWriMo (again) this year.

Also, I designed a rudimentary submissions manager tracking spreadsheet – just something to keep me from emailing links to my stuffed inbox or toggling around tabs in my browser. It’s a simple spreadsheet with columns and basic color-coding to help me track submissions. If anyone has a better version (or tips) based on what they’ve created, I’m all ears!

Thanks for reading! What have you submitted lately?

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The Ultimate Writing Challenge

About two years ago, I challenged myself to do the following “bucket list” items:

  1. Submit something for publication.
  2. Read something aloud somewhere.
  3. Do some public speaking.
  4. Connect with local writers/authors.
  5. Perfect your pitch.

That top one is the focus of today’s post, because I am embarrassed to say that I took that very literally. I accomplished it two years ago with “Pennybacker,” the first piece I wrote for 1:1000. It was a guest piece, before I became a contributing editor, wrote monthly pieces, and generally let the team adopt me into their shared creative awesomeness. 1:1000, woo!

So, that was the piece I submitted. And I loved working with them, so I submitted another piece, and then another piece, and then I got an email around Christmas asking me if I wanted to join the team, and long story short I did an obnoxious happy dance in the middle of O’Hare and Scott was super proud and happy but also a little annoyed because I was kind of embarrassing him.

Moving on.

Since my original submission, I haven’t done a blessed thing. I haven’t tried to submit anywhere else. 1:1000 is my wheelhouse, but also my crutch. I’ve posted things on my own blog, and I’ve started manuscripts with the intention of pitching. I’ve applied to MFA programs (womp womp), and I’ve drafted a few scenes with the vague notion of somehow developing nebulous characters into short stories or novellas. I guess some of the things I’ve self-published through hi.co might generously count, but I am not generous and thus do not count them.

Last week marked six years with my current employer. I’m happy and grateful to have a stable job that challenges me, a benefits package that covers my (limited) health needs, including vision and dental, a fair and equitable wage, and an unbeatable time off accrual rate. These are all wonderful things that I have earned and kept through dedication and hard work. I am lucky to have them. Not many people have all of them; few may even have one of those things.

Still, I was a touch melancholy because I did not expect to hit six years. I did not expect to hit five years. I wanted to write full-time, but I am not and have not been in a position to do that. Maybe I never will be. I expressed to a couple of people why I felt maudlin, and I was surprised by how much positive encouragement I got to continue pursuing my dream. No gritty, grounded-in-reality conversation: Keep trying. You can do it. What have you been working on? Where have you submitted? Why don’t you submit anything else?

I have always maintained that I am my greatest critic, but maybe I’ve been my greatest obstacle, too. I’ve been weighing myself down in practicality, not allowing for the slightest deviation or expanse into dreamworld. Focus most of your writing effort on your manuscript. Don’t spend much time on side projects. Abandon them if they don’t show promise in the first 500 words.

500 words is nothing. As of this sentence, it is slightly less than the length of this post.

I’ve been working on a Southwestern horror piece for a while. I’ve written, cut, rewritten, cut, revised, and reworked the hell out of that piece. I had an idea and I culled and connected until it was finished, the characters real and heartbreaking, the tension and tone exactly how I’d pictured it. I worked off and on for about two months, taking breaks when I needed to and racing over my laptop keys trying to get all the words down in the right order. I hustled my own damn talent and was really proud of what I wrote.

Then I sat around for a week and was like Hey, what am I going to do with this? I thought about submitting it to a specific writing competition, but the piece needed more words than the requirements allowed. It was just under 5,000 words, and when I attempted to rewrite it to fit the parameters, my heart broke a little. This isn’t the story I want to tell. 

I didn’t want to self-publish on this blog. I didn’t want to self-publish on Medium. I decided that I needed to stop holding myself back. I needed to find my next 1:1000: an unknown, a challenge, an opportunity for growth and feedback. The possibility of finding an additional forum in which I can cultivate my voice appealed to me. After a thorough review of upcoming deadlines and recent issues, one publication stood out. I formatted the piece and submitted it for the competition.

It felt like the first ski run of the year: terrifying and exhilarating, like it took too little time to travel too large a distance.

Maybe I won’t win, or be a finalist, or get published at all. But I made it to the end, and I’ll get back on that lift and do it again. I survived it, and with each run I can practice and get better.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Thanks for reading! What is your ultimate writing challenge?

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The Starter Manuscript

I’ve talked about starter manuscripts on the blog before, but not in much depth. I’ve seen a few other writers blog about them in passing; I figured now was a good time to dedicate a solid post to the subject.

Last week, I defined the term based on my own experience:

A starter manuscript is, effectively, the first full-length draft you write and bury somewhere. Although perhaps intended for publishing initially, it allows the writer a space he or she desperately needs: a space to write. A space to make mistakes, create shitty characters, blunder through metaphors, and construct plot holes with reckless abandon.

I think it’s that last part that I find most important. A starter manuscript is about practice. It’s honing the craft and giving the writer a format free of judgment. I may not be proud of the product, but I’m proud that I wrote a first novel of 80,000+ words. I know I’m capable of putting in the time and effort. I achieved something. I may not have medaled, placed, whatever – I showed up.

Those that have attempted a new workout regimen or athletic endeavor know where I’m coming from here. You’re not setting a new personal record (PR) every freakin’ day. Some days, all that matters is that you carved out the time to be present, active, and sweaty. It’s what sets you apart from the version of yourself that would have binge-watched Netflix, or made excuses, or simply said I can’t.

Ask any writer what matters and its that you write. Doesn’t matter where, when, how, or why, it’s that you show up and wage war against the blank page. Some days you will hate what you wrote. You will feel defeated, exhausted, and worse than when you started.

Why bother? Because throwing yourself on the mercy of your creative energy makes you a stronger writer in the long run. It may not be tomorrow. It may not be next week. But it will make you better. It’s about practice, about finding the limits of your creativity and surpassing them.

I’ve had interest in my starter manuscript, back when I went to more writing conferences and pursued literary agents. I chose not to pursue anything farther because I knew I could do better. I didn’t want to put that out into the world, to cross off options before I was ready.

I look back at some of the earlier things I self-published on this blog and I know that I have grown as a writer in the last couple of years. I did that. I did it with the assistance of others (an eternal thank you, always, to the 1:1000 team!), but I gave the time, then energy, the creative output.

When I began revising my starter manuscript, initially intent on finding representation, the voice in the back of my head said This is not your best. This is practice. Don’t settle. Push more. Work harder. Hustle your own damn talent.

Do not mistake fatigue for the finish line. Allow it to make crossing the finish line feel that much better.

readingrainbow

 

Via 99u: Don’t compare your hustle to their highlight reel. In short: writing is writing. If you compare every first draft to the seminal work(s) in that genre, you probably will get defeated. And hey, publishing is an industry that involves subjective opinions, marketing, and whole slew of other factors. Just because you think you’re a better writer than oh-she-of-50-Shades-fame doesn’t mean you’re a better author, at least as defined by XYZ publisher.

Via Chuck Wendig’s blog (with guest stars): Writing a Lot, Writing a Little, and the Power of Failure. Or: write a lot, as much as you need to, as long as you need to, and learn from it.

Thanks for reading! What are you writing, and how are you learning from your efforts (and product)?

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I Can’t Do It All

I originally planned to talk about my love of books intersecting with my wedding today, but I was inspired by an article one of the 1:1000 editors posted on Facebook and the ensuing comments about balancing family, work, and writing. I commented about having to make choices, prioritize, and make sacrifices. It’s a comment I also made in a conversation with my mom last week, and I thought maybe I could use this blog as a little soapbox, and continue a conversation most of us are having inside our own heads.

I can’t do it all.

It’s taken me a long time to realize this, and even longer to come to terms with it and change my behavior.

I am not the person that can juggle half-a-dozen things and get them all done. I don’t have the mental capacity to keep up with all the ins and outs, and I don’t have the energy for it. I used to find moments of idleness irritating, but now I see them as opportunities to read and write. The idleness of one’s youth is the freedom of one’s adulthood.

I work forty hours a week (sometimes more, depending on the projects and time of year). I have an admitted problem being emotionally invested in my job, in pleasing people I will never please and validating authority figures. It is an ongoing struggle, one I am working on and have noticed gradual change. But typically, I feel exhausted after work. Drained. A feeling that has begun to subside, to ebb now that the tide changes.

I do not have the energy every night to sit down and write a chapter. A creative fire blazes inside of me. The writer that lives within me is a phoenix: she rages with fiery purpose.  But without oxygen, fires cannot survive. And the phoenix burns itself out, embers smoldering until only ash remains.

The resurrection can happen by the next day, but not always. Sometimes it is days, weeks, months.

I hope for transformation, when that fire shifts and re-purposes itself from self-immolation to survival.

But I know I can’t do it all, and perhaps that is the best place to start its containment, its control.

Thanks for reading! How do you prioritize and sacrifice?

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

gsaw

I hesitate to call this a book review. It’s not a review so much as loosely-connected thoughts about what has to be the biggest book release of the year. Hell, maybe even this decade. And it’s not so much a critique of the novel as it is a viewing of it from the lens of a writer.

I highly suggest checking out Book Riot’s podcast episode this week, #115 “All the Asterisks.” It’s a brutally honest take on Go Set a Watchman, covering everything from plot and characters to cover art and marketing.

When I finished Go Set a Watchman, I called my mom. It’s no secret that I get my love of reading from my parents: I trade book recs with my mother, an eighth grade Language Arts teacher, and the only person with a more voracious literary appetite is my father. My mother had already finished the book, and she was eager to talk about it.

Both of us enjoyed the childhood flashbacks; they didn’t fit into the novel proper as much as they featured some engaging, nostalgic writing that jumped off the page. I didn’t get into the book until 100+ pages in – and would have abandoned the book had it been any other author or novel. The opening felt very standard, even for having been written in the 1950s.

The thing that struck me is the overwhelming sensation that this was a starter manuscript. A good one – better than most, I’d say – but a starter one nonetheless.

A starter manuscript is, effectively, the first full-length draft you write and bury somewhere. Although perhaps intended for publishing initially, it allows the writer a space he or she desperately needs: a space to write. A space to make mistakes, create shitty characters, blunder through metaphors, and construct plot holes with reckless abandon.

Not everyone needs a starter manuscript, and some writers need more than one.

But this was, ultimately, a solid initial draft. It felt disconnected, with pacing issues and thick, hollow lulls. There were scenes that shined and sparkled with promise, but just as many dull ones. Some of the dialogue felt stilted and forced, but when combined with internal monologues or memories, the conversations among characters worked.

Some sections feel rushed in a good way: stream-of-consciousness, dizzy, and discombobulated. It works since several scenes feature one or more characters in tense, highly personal situations.

And of course, there are some brilliant lines. There were moments where you could see why Harper Lee pushed through to craft To Kill a Mockingbird, where it all came together: characters, story, setting, and skill. It pokes through here and there in Go Set a Watchman, but it was more interesting to me as a writer than reader.

A few of my favorite lines throughout the novel:

My favorite subtle, singular sentence:

She touched yesterday cautiously, then withdrew.

My favorite memory wrapped in present moment:

Jean Louise looked at one of them with acid amusement: when Jean Louise was ten, she made her only attempt to join a crowd, and she asked Sarah Finley one day, “Can I come to see you this afternoon?” “No,” said Sarah, “Mamma says you’re too rough.”

Now we are both lonely, for entirely different reasons, but it feels the same, doesn’t it?

My favorite (unintentional) laugh-out-loud line:

Have you ever consider that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?

Especially, speaker-who-shall-not-be-named? Let’s chat about gender privilege later.

Whereas  To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on issues of race and the experiences of “the other,” Go Set a Watchman feels more intimate, and read to me as a story about destroying your idols and seeing your parents as human. Race is still a large part of the book, but it feels more like a vehicle for familial conflict than an integral core of the novel. Again, just an element that isn’t fully fleshed out. There’s potential there, especially with some of the legal components and interactions with Calpurnia. Scout’s experience at “the Coffee” – a gathering of young ladies to welcome Scout back for her visit – served as an excellent weave of the social and the personal. There was a section that, without offering any spoilers, I wanted to share:

You are fascinated with yourself. You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard.

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