I once heard a journalist say on the Longform podcast that good writers come from reading a certain number of words as a child. He didn't specify the number of words. All he meant was that if you read enough, particularly when the mind is still young and plastic, you almost can't help but be able to write to some extent. We learn from example. When you read, you're unconsciously internalizing patterns of words. And then when you write, you reproduce those patterns. I suspect this trend continues well into adulthood.
Which is why I believe you are what you read.
This is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of modern YA fiction, because I think the prose tends to be low quality, and I don't think it's good for young people (or adults) to internalize bad writing.
But if you are what you read, that has even bigger implications for people who aspire to be writers. Think about what kind of book you want to write. Now think of the books you're actually reading. Are they similar? Are you consuming a prose style that you would like to produce yourself? Or are they misaligned? Maybe you're reading books that you would never want to write.
I've often talked about my love of simple stories. It's just a personal preference. For instance, I enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia a lot more than the Lord of the Rings, because I happen to enjoy clean prose and simple storylines more than the wordiness of epic fantasy. I like a character who has so little room or time to develop in the book that when they do change it has all the more impact on you. When Eustace Scrubb attacks the sea monster in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it actually means something, because there's so little time to dither about who he really is as a character. Or when Puddleglum in The Silver Chair stomps out the witche's magic fire, it stands out as this incredibly brave moment he has in the book. It's so simple, but it means so much more on the scale of a 30,000 word story than if the book had rambled on for another 100,000.
Yet when I sit down to write, I often catch myself producing these long descriptions filled with endless adjectives, or plotlines that go on and on. My writing has always veered towards purple prose - possibly due to some bad habits I was taught in elementary school, possibly because I'm a very visually oriented person. But I find reading those kinds of stories incredible tedious. I hate hyper description.
So what I am I reading right now? The short stories of The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr, which I would describe as highly descriptive writing done well. It's what a purple prose writer aspires to be. But even if it's well written, it's still not the style of writing that I wish I could produce myself. I naturally lean towards it, but I don't enjoy it. That's kind of messed up if you think about it.
Realizing this, I set The Shell Collector aside last night and found my old copy of The Horse and his Boy, one of my all time favorites in the Chronicles of Narnia, because I know that's the kind of story I would like to write myself. It's not middle grade writing exactly. I think almost anyone, of any age, could enjoy the story of Shasta and Bree running away to Narnia. It's just simple, and I like that. So I'm reading it again, for probably the tenth time, in hopes that it will help me to learn a different writing style from my natural tendency, particulalry for the science fantasy novel I've plotting in my head for several years now.
A few months ago I realized I wanted to write that story as if it were a cousin of the Chronicles of Narnia. Instead of attempting to write it as an epic, as I had been doing, I want to cull the story down to its most fundamental form. And to do that, I think I need to keep reading the kinds of books I want this novel to be. Honestly, it's even kind of fun to read a book with the aim of studying its method. I know what happens in The Horse and his Boy, so I can concentrate on the mechanics of the writing and hopefully learn from Lewis. Mostly this involves studying the length of descriptions, what kinds of words are used, how scenes transition, and the role of dialogue and even illustrations in the story. (I would love to have illustrations in my book.)
Have you tried this? Or have you ever noticed you're picking up bad writing habits from books you're reading? I saw this over the summer when I was writing part 1 of The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House, which was meant to be a fun little romp of story. At the time, I was reading Nick Hornby's Funny Girl, and decided it was teaching me this terrible habit of attempting to write comedic timing, so I had to put it down - and honestly, I think Sparrow House improved because of it.
Or sometimes if I'm spending too much time reading internet drivel, I notice my own writing starts to sound the same. This is something I want to avoid at all costs, which is one of the reasons why I resisted hooking up the internet to our house for so long. Ultimately, I caved when I started working from home, and now I'm struggling again with reading way too much of the unedited, unfiltered nonsense that is so typical of writing on the internet.
So let's read what we want to write instead. That's my new goal for the new year. Just read good books that I would be proud to write myself.
With that said, does anyone have a suggestion for a new book I should read if I'm interested in writing a more simple (i.e., not epic) science fiction/fantasy novel? I would love to hear your ideas.
Since I started running my editing business full time, I've been sitting a lot more than I used to. I spent the majority of the day on my feet at my old job, so I never really had any back issues before. But now that I sit in front of a computer all day, I've been dealing with some pretty nasty upper- and lower-back pain. Even though writing is just about my favorite activity to do in the world, lately it's been just a little less fun because it can feel quite physically painful. I never really thought of writing as a sedentary job, but it totally is.
My father has pretty significant back issues, so this is a problem of mine that I wanted to nip in the bud. Taking editing/writing breaks (see step 6 of my work from home tips) and moving around certainly helps, but honestly you can only take so many breaks in the day before you start killing your productivity, and plus, it doesn't really fix the underlying problem, which is a lack of flexibility.
At the beginning of the summer, my upper-back pain was the biggest issue. It felt like someone was driving a knife between my shoulder-blades. I adjusted the ergonomics of my desk, and that helped a little, but not completely. Eventually, I did some research and found that tightness in your chest muscles is what actually pulls your shoulders forward (especially for desk-workers), which causes the area between your shoulder blades to feel tight and painful. Thankfully, it's very easy to solve. I used this gentleman's website as a guide for correcting bad posture and found it very helpful, particularly stretch number 7. I do that one daily, and it has made the pain between my shoulder blades completely go away. I've also noticed that my shoulders look much less rounded. Win-win :)
But as soon as I fixed that issue, the pain just migrated into my lower back. After editing all day, I'd stand up and feel like an old lady hobbling around. Everything felt so stiff.
For whatever reason, my thoughts instantly turned to yoga as a solution. I've done some yoga in the past, usually whenever I happen to belong to a gym (right now, I don't), and I've always enjoyed it, though I've never practiced very regularly. Now that we have internet again, I decided to check out some Yoga videos on YouTube - and have LOVED IT. It's made a huge difference in my back issues.
My favorite is the Yoga by Adrienne channel. She has a really nice blend of vinyasa (flow/strength) and hatha (stretching/flexibility) routines. I really like her teaching style, which is more relaxed ("no yoga-robots"), not too woo-woo, but also just woo-woo enough to help me feel focused on the breath (and not mentally ticking through my never-ending to-do list).
After trying meditation off and on over the past year, and feeling like it wasn't really helping me as much as I wanted it to (for whatever reason, it seems to kill my creativity), I've found that yoga works a lot better at improving my mood. In addition to feeling calmer, I also feel a lot stronger. Even doing mundane stuff, like cleaning the shower, is easier because I'm just better at moving around on my hands and knees. I've always been a very inflexible person, but even I can tell that my flexibility has significantly improved.
Anyway, for you writers and desk-jockeys out there, seriously, consider adding a yoga video to your daily routine. Or, do some sun salutations while you watch TV with the family. I do that quite a bit now and it feels so good to get that body moving around.
Yoga + Writing = :)
A quick list (since I should be writing right now), but here are a few things that can help you achieve your NaNoWriMo goals:
Hope any of this is helpful. If I had to choose one piece of advice, it would be the sugar thing. Seriously, there's a reason you crave candy when you write. It's your brain saying "FEED ME!" I don't think it's a coincidence that on this list of 10 authors' favorite foods, 7 of them are sweet.
Where did this year go? How can it already be time for NaNoWriMo again?
As of a week ago, I wasn't going to participate. The story I wanted to write, and have been trying to write for the last three years, is just too complicated to bang out in one month. It needs time, thought, and a little massaging - and I'm fine with that.
BUT, I've mentioned recently about having some issues getting back into the habit of daily writing ever since I started my editing business (which is still going great). The one thing that NaNoWriMo is really good for is teaching you how to write every day, whether you "feel" like it or not. I want that habit back.
So I dusted off a story I began in August called The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House. I'd already written almost 20,000 words on it and then had to set it aside because work got crazy. It's another practice novel, with a simple concept that allows me to experiment and work at developing better writing mechanics, characters, plot, etc., so that when I am ready to write my more complicated science fiction novel, I'll actually be better prepared to do it.
This past summer I've also been messing around with posting stories on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform. I write under a couple different pen names. Yesterday, I decided to get my act together and after months of putting it off designed the book cover for part 1 of The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House, and finally published it there under the name "Karen V. Calhoun." It's not a perfect story by any means, but I don't think it's terrible either. I've listed it as an "Edwardian Romance," which is not precisely true, but you kind of have to choose a marketable genre whether or not it fits perfectly. It's more of a dramedy romp, if that makes any sense. Nothing too serious, and certainly not explicit. The romance is definitely secondary to the story, and honestly it's more of a "will they or won't they" thing, which I always find is a lot more fun.
Anyway, the whole point of publishing the first quarter or so of The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House was so I would feel even more motivated to finish the novel for NaNoWriMo. I'm not sure the book really needs another 50,000 words to finish, but I'll give it go regardless, and if I complete the novel "early," then I'll just round out NaNoWriMo with another WIP. So my goal is to finish my Edwardian novel AND write 50,000 words in one month, one way or another.
Then I'll do a little editing in December/January, finish publishing the rest of The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House on Amazon, and who knows, maybe I'll send it out to a few agents. Why not? What do I have to lose.
If you're interested in being writing buddies with me on NaNoWriMo's site, I'm listed as "Wordly Bird." You can find my profile here.
And if you're interested in checking out the first part of The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House, you can read it for free on Amazon with Kindle Unlimited. I'll also run some free giveaways over the next few weeks and will let you know when those take place. If you feel like reviewing, that'd be awesome, but don't worry about it.
Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Let me know in the comments. I would love to buddy up so we can motivate each other to finish!
If you take a look at my reading list in the past year, you'll notice that a large percentage of the books I've read are from the Aubrey/Maturin series, which follow the adventures of a British naval captain and his surgeon during the Napoleonic wars.
I've read eight books in the series thus far (there's twenty-one total) and have raved about some (H.M.S. Surprise and Desolation Island, in particular) and detested others (like The Mauritius Command), but eight novels is a lot. I've never gotten so deep in a series before, and I've been wanting to read other things too just for some variety - yet I can't seem to stop, and I think I finally understand why.
The Aubrey/Maturin books almost always finish in the middle of major action; usually a battle. The endings typically occur moments after a victor has been declared.
It's not a cliff-hanger, because there's usually no indication of what will happen in the next book. There's no unresolved conflict, mystery, or questions (besides some long-term, more minor plot points). The books just tend to end on the climax of the story without any kind of denouement. It's very addictive, because you finish the book on such a high note that you can't help but want to read more.
So, this is just a tip or an idea for you writers out there. If you're planning a series, maybe consider finishing your books in the middle of the action/climax. You don't have to leave questions unanswered, necessarily (though you can, that's a sure fire way to bug your reader and get them to purchase/borrow the next book), but maybe consider getting rid of the boring denouement altogether since it can leave the reader on a down note, which doesn't immediately motivate them to pick up the next book in the series. I have to say, it's really an effective method to finish the book in medias res (i.e., in the middle of the narrative), rather than using a boring, if tidier ending. It's the main reason I keep slipping the next Aubrey/Maturin novel into my library haul.
When I was a kid, I read a lot. I think that anyone who reads a lot eventually wants to start writing stories themselves. So on some nights, instead of reading, I'd sit in bed with a blank spiral bound notebook propped up on my knees, intending to write. Except, I mostly just stared at the page until it made me so mad, I'd throw it under my bed and go to sleep.
By age 18 or so, these experiences of writer's block made me think I didn't have what it took to be an author. I could write prose for sure, but coming up with the idea - that was the skill I lacked, and it seemed kind of essential.
What I didn't get was that staring at a blank page for an hour is hardly the best place to find story inspiration. At least, my brain doesn't work that way.
Here's how my brain does work:
When I was a kid, I used to spend literally hours shooting hoops in my driveway. I didn't even particularly like basketball, I just liked the way my mind would "float," so I could tell myself little stories in my head. It didn't take any thought to shoot the ball. I could just concentrate on the stories, which at that age were essentially fan fiction based on books I'd read or cartoons I'd watched on TV. Though this was back before fanfiction.net really existed, so I didn't even know that I was doing was called fan fiction.
A few years later, I replaced shooting baskets with sprinting up and down my parents' driveway Yes, it was weird. A few neighbors made comments, but I didn't really care. Physically, it felt great. I'd get my runner's high, and I'd also get to tell myself stories, which were now accompanied by music from my pre-ipod mp3 player, which was like having my own movie soundtrack. They were still fan fiction style stories, though.
Years and years later, towards the end of graduate school, I started taking long walks around Lake Artemesia (a really beautiful park just outside of the University of Maryland campus), listening to my ipod, and as usual, telling myself stories. Except now, for whatever reason, they weren't fanfiction anymore. They were my own stories. Rough and amateur as hell, but at least they were my own ideas. I think this was around the time that I read George R. R. Martin's opinion of fan fiction, and I think that was the final push I needed to build my own worlds and characters. Normally, I get annoyed when authors get snobby or even belligerent about fan ficiton, but Martin's explanation made a lot of sense to me.
And it wasn't until then, on those long Lake Artemesia walks, that I also finally make the connection between coming up with stories and physical movement. I could tell stories, and I could come up with ideas, I just had to be moving around as I did it. Sitting and staring at a blank page or screen leaves my brain completely stale. It's like, if I stop moving, I stop thinking creatively. Funny enough, this quirk doesn't apply to analytical thinking or school work, where I do just fine sitting still, but if I want to tell myself a story, I have to get up and get moving.
So if you want to get over writer's block, trying taking a walk. Let your mind float a while and see where it takes you. It should be almost effortless. If you're thinking too hard, it won't work. Just take walk. Shoot some basketball. Go for a run. Take a swim. Whatever. Just don't stare at the void and expect it to give you anything in return.
It's almost here! The last day of my job is June 27!
Which means soon I'll be working full-time on my editing business. From home! The picture above is my newly organized home work-space. Aren't the bookcases cool? My Dad built them for me as a 30th birthday present. Isn't he talented? They're made from solid pieces of cherry wood and hand-finished. Both the chair and the desk were road-side finds from back when we lived in Maryland. I still need to hang a few more pictures and actually put some books in my new bookcases, but I think the space is coming along nicely.
I needed to do a little writing from home the other day (my last research paper), and it was so nice to work at that desk with all that room. Plus, it was great to finally get some quiet writing time. Normally, I work in a cubicle and my office is really loud with people coming in and out, discussing research, or worst of all - eating with their mouths open (damn you headphones, no one can hear themselves chewing anymore!). I get so much more writing and editing done when I'm working from home.
It's funny, though, my husband feels just the opposite. He says he's much less productive at home, and maybe other people feel the same way. So here's my work-from-home method in case it's of any help to you:
Step 1) I wake up early to get my fiction writing/editing done. When I don't have to commute to work, I try to write for at least two hours early in the morning, starting ~5 am. This is my daily writing routine, and I like to stick to it as much as possible.
Step 2) Get dressed. While it might be comfortable to wear a bathrobe all day, I know I'm more productive when I act as professionally at home as I would at the office. I just can't take myself that seriously when I'm still in my pajamas, and I think it shows in the quality of my work. So I get dressed, brush my teeth, etc., while my husband is also getting ready for work. I think getting ready together is the key to actually making it happen.
Step 3) I put out all the food I want to eat that day on the kitchen counter, if only to remind myself that's what I was planning on eating. No snacking from the cupboards. If you're like me and need a morning and afternoon snack, again, I just leave them out on the counter. I don't know what it is, but if I remind myself what healthy food I planned on eating, then I eat it. If I don't make a plan, I end up snacking endlessly on whatever I can find.
Step 4) On a piece of paper, I write down a list of things I want to accomplish in the approximate order I'd like to do them. I start with the first item on the list, finish it, mark it off, and move on to the next. I know, it seems obvious, but the lists keeps me organized and on-track. Whatever I don't finish on the list that day gets copied down onto the next day's list.
Step 5) I turn off the internet. Well, to be fair, the internet is always off in our house, but I do shut down the data plan on my cell phone to keep me from browsing The Washington Post all day.
Step 6) I use my watch to measure how long I'm in the "zone" (i.e., really focused) and I stay in it for at least 30 min. If I find myself getting frustrated or distracted, I check my watch, and if I haven't been working for a least a half hour, then I force myself to refocus on the writing again. However, if a half-hour has passed, then I give myself a mini-break (get a glass of water), and then return back to work again. If I've been working hard for over an hour, then I go on a mini-break regardless. I've just noticed that I need little breaks through the day and that after an hour of solid work, I start to become less productive anyway. So I get up, stretch my legs, and do something else for about 10-15 minutes.
Step 7) I try to use those 10-15 minute breaks to do something productive, like unload the dishwasher, clean a toilet, or do my strength training routine. I figure if I'm working from home, then I should use that to my advantage to get little chores out of the way so my family and I can have more fun in the evenings or on the weekends.
Step 8) I take a short midday walk with my dog after lunch. Exercise is important and it helps me think straighter and write/edit better.
Step 9) I finish up my work around 5 or 6 and then take the dog for her long evening walk. I aim to get 15,000 steps a day, which is hard when I'm working from home, but I still try. At the very least, I try to get 10,000 steps. There's no doubt I'm more sedentary when I'm working from home. The house has a way of confining me more than my workplace does, so I have to make a concerted effort to document my exercise to make sure I'm not sitting around all day (I use my Fitbit Charge hr and I love it).
Anyway, just a few thoughts and I hope some of them may be helpful. Bear in mind, though, I don't have kids, which is probably what makes a lot of these tips work. I don't know how you work-from-home Moms and Dads do it, but I salute you.
Do you have any working from home tips?
I did a little painting this weekend and I thought it would be fun to show you the process. I used to paint a lot in high school. It was probably my favorite thing to do. Haven't been doing it so much lately, because life, but it's something I'm trying to do more regularly.
First, because I was just playing around, I didn't get hung up on the materials. I only had some watercolor paper lying around, so I used that even though I was painting with acrylics. Side note: When people say they want to get into painting, I don't understand why they start with watercolors. Watercolors are one of the hardest paints to use well. Try acrylics, or hell, even oils can be really effective since you can layer colors much more easily. Also, a little tip, when I paint on paper I like to use cheap painters tape to create a white border. You'll see the effect when I take it off at the end.
I wasn't going for anything realistic here. And I've never had a very good sense of color, so I didn't bother to do any mixing; just used the paint straight out of the tube since what I was really interested in was using blocks of color to emphasize the composition (the balance of the spatial layout). The picture is loosely based on a section of the property we rent. Our landlords have put up a lot of statuary throughout the grounds and along the paths, so that's kind of what I was trying to show here.
It's always hard to know when to stop, so I added the trees very slowly, physically taking a step back to look at the picture overall. When I decided that one more tree would clutter the composition, I took the painters tape off and then I really got a better sense of the final image framed in the non-painted regions of the paper. Not bad for a little study. In retrospect, I might have done the trees in white or grey to lighten up the "tone" of the picture. It looks darker and more foreboding than I'd originally wanted. I'll probably paint this picture a few more times, trying out different colors and techniques, before I settle on the idea, and then I'll give it a go in oil paints on canvas. That's another trick, don't immediately jump into using the most expensive art supplies. If I had had computer paper available, I would have used that to do this quick study.
But the advantage of painting on sturdier stock like watercolor paper is then it's easy to hang on the wall. I used painters tape to stick it, nothing fancy, and super-easy. When it comes to art, I say let your inner five-year-old be your guide.
I put it up in our stairwell since it was looking a little bare there, but it looked off-balance, so I addded another study I had laying around.
I was never that happy with the figures I painted in the red study, but I liked the blocks of red, black and especially the unpainted white of the windows. It's not perfect, but again, it's just a study. It's all an experiment. Ultimately, I decided it wasn't something I wanted to paint again, but regardless, it's color that looks nice on the wall. I'll probably add a third picture, vertically oriented, to nestle above the woods study. Pictures look nice hung in odd numbers. We'll see.
In addition to your reading and writing, do you have another hobby? I really enjoy focusing on each brushstroke. It's one of the few things that makes my mind go quiet.
But a thought occurs to me. Why don't we use studies when we write? It's a common technique in art. You sketch and paint a few practice pictures to test out your idea, the color, the composition. Why don't we write quick novel sketches? Seems like it would save a lot of wasted writing. Too many of my attempts to write a novel a few years ago resulted in pages and pages of writing that I edited and honed, only to find the overall story and structure disappointing and filled with holes. A writing study could have helped me avoid that.
I suppose that's why people outline their stories, but when I say "study," I mean a step beyond an outline. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether a story is working until you're actually writing it. Maybe the closest analogy we have to studies in writing is a "fast draft." That's what I'm doing right now for my work-in-progress and already I have 30,000 words with the end in sight. I've never gotten along so far in a novel before and frankly, I think it's because I've been consciously fast-drafting it. It's my WIP study.
With the new year upon us, I thought it would be fun to talk about some cliches we should avoid in our writing. Call it a writing resolution.
For instance, I think everyone's writing would improve if we avoided describing facial expressions. I fall into this trap all the time, but read some Hemingway; he rarely if ever wastes precious words on describing a character's physical reaction. And I think there's a good reason for that: there's only so many ways to explain how a character's eyebrows rise to indicate surprise, so we tend to resort to over-used expressions. Frankly, I think we should also officially ban the phrase "bit his/her lip" to show anxiety or indecision. I don't think it's even a realistic description. I've never noticed anyone biting their lip particularly often. Rather, it's a purely contrived phrase to cover unconfident writing (I'm looking at you Stephanie Meyer...).
Also, please no more sparkling or shimmering eyes. Laura Ingalls Wilder may have set a bad precedent with this one. I love the Little House on the Prairie books, but oh my god, the way every character had their own special degree of twinkle in their eyes, it just got silly. I'm tempted to start calling it the Wilder Scale, how much do your characters' eyes twinkle.
And can we stop having our characters do anything "with a smile?" Or have characters say anything "with [fill in the emotion]." (i.e. 'he said with glee.') It sounds ridiculous. Make the dialogue show us how the characters are feeling. Don't get lazy and rely on goofy dialogue tags.
Anyway, just a thought. It's a new year and a fresh chance to be more mindful of cliches in our writing.
What phrase would you ban?
This is a little public service announcement for everyone out there who is doing NaNoWriMo:
Be kind to yourself.
If you don't hit those word counts each day, please don't let it be one more thing to beat yourself up about. NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun. It should help you develop the habit of writing. It shouldn't be another source of stress and anxiety.
I say this because I'm going through a very hard time at the moment. I'll be fine, it's not the end of the world, but I started to feel bad that my personal issues were causing me to fall behind on my NaNoWriMo word count. All I wanted to do yesterday was clean the house (i.e. bring some order and control back into my life) and watch I, Claudius, and I was feeling guilty about that. I felt lazy for not wanting to write.
But you know what? My well-being is more important than word counts. I can take a day off if that's what I really need to feel better. And relaxing did help me feel better. Then this morning, I sat back down to write and 1800 words poured out like they were nothing at all. That was a nice reminder that life goes on and however I might feel right now, I still have the capacity and drive to write.
Anyway I just think it's important to be attuned to those needs; one day you might be to sit and listen to a good story, and the next day it may be to write the story yourself. It's fine. Be kind to yourself. NaNoWriMo is just a game. It's ok.
Writer, editor, scientist.