Putting nettles to good use

When the world lost Terry Pratchett not so long ago, The Guardian posted an article from Neil Gaiman titled, “Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry.” The gist of the article is summed up in these two paragraphs:

“There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld. It’s also the anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the 11-plus; anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny; anger at his early American publishers who could not bring his books out successfully. . . .

“Anger is the engine that drives him, but it is the greatness of spirit that deploys that anger on the side of the angels, or better yet for all of us, the orangutans.”

The first time I skimmed through this article, I thought the point was that anger fueled Terry Pratchett’s writing. I thought, “That’s interesting,” and almost moved on.

But then I stopped, reread a little closer, and saw a completely different point: that Terry Pratchett chose to use his anger to fuel his writing. Where he could have let his anger grow and chafe and destroy, he instead directed his anger to create.

It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Les Miserables: “With very little trouble, nettles can be put to use; being neglected they become obnoxious and are therefore destroyed. How many men share the fate of the nettle!” (160)

What are we doing with our anger, our nettles, our weaknesses? Are we ashamed of them? Do we feed them hot air and let them fester? Do we use them to destroy?

Or do we harness those things, channel them, focus them, and put them to good use?

One of the most beautiful things I’ve learned as a writer is that you don’t touch your readers with perfect characters. Even the most heroic hero must have flaws to forge a connection with similarly flawed human hearts. Flaws make us human, and overcoming obstacles in spite of those flaws (or even with the help of those flaws) makes us heroic.

Use your weaknesses to create something good in a world that is always looking to destroy. Use your weaknesses to lift and strengthen others. Use your weaknesses to change the world.

You might just find that you’re not as flawed as you once thought.

Hearing voices everywhere . . .

Last week, I talked about the importance of giving your characters distinct voices. It takes a lot of work to find your character’s voice without completely overdoing it, so here’s another challenge to help you develop distinct voices:

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Rewrite part of a scene several times in first person, each time narrating the scene from a different character’s point of view.

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Venturing into Graphic Novels

In the continuing spirit of trying new things, I decided it was time to try that genre I’ve avoided for a long time: graphic novels. The book that convinced me it was time to try was A Wrinkle in Time: the graphic novel, originally by Madeleine L’Engle, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson.

Honestly, I probably shouldn’t have started out my graphic novel adventure with an adaptation of one of my favorite books of all time. That’s just setting it up for failure. BUT I will say that I enjoyed the illustrations much, much more than I expected. While Larson’s interpretation of the story was vastly different from my own, it was very beautifully drawn and expressed.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much of L’Engle’s incredible writing that you can fit into a graphic novel. While Larson did a good job of fitting in many of the good, powerful lines, there were still so many that were missing, and I was left completely unfulfilled. A graphic novel can’t hold a candle to the power of words.

That being said, I’m willing to try again. Like I said, it wasn’t totally fair to start out with an adaptation of an amazing book. So tell me—have you read any graphic novels? Which would you recommend?

NaNo in February?!

Today, I’m pleased to present Julie Holmes from Facets of a Muse! Julie writes adult mystery with psychic elements, mystery with a touch of romance, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy—and she’s got a decade of NaNoWriMos to her credit! That’s amazing. Keep reading to see how NaNoWriMo reshaped her writing process, and click here to see a sample of her novel Daughter of Pele. Thanks for visiting, Julie!

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First, thank you, Emily, for writing our first guest blog post for the Meet Your Main Character blog. It was a great post! Thank you for inviting me to try to explain my own writing process. Sheesh. I just do it. Now I have to think about it? Seriously, though, understanding why what I do works for me points me in a direction for fine-tuning my process.

To all those novelists out there: has anyone ever asked you how long it takes to write a book? What’s your answer? A year? Two? Five? Been working on it since college and your oldest child is graduating from high school this year?

Been there, and realized if I wanted to write down all the books I had in my head before I get to that big writing studio in the sky, I needed a better method. I had half a dozen books begging to get out of my head, and once there was room, more were ready to be mulled about by creative brain cells. There’s no way I’d get them out during my lifetime unless I wrote every day, the advice given by just about every writer who makes a living at it. But come on, that’s hard to do along with everything else going on. You know, like family and work.

Enter NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. Some ten years ago, I read an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about a group of local writers who participated in the event every year. NaNoWriMo = Fifty thousand words in thirty days. Fifty thousand? In a month? Okay, so 50,000 words is about the length of The Great Gatsby, so it wasn’t like War and Peace, but that’s, like, a whole book. In a month.

Opportunity! In order to write those 50,000 words in a month, I’d have to write every day. If I could get into the habit of writing every day, I’d get the books out of my head, and become a better writer through practice. You become better at anything if you practice it. So I penciled NaNo onto the calendar for November.

In order to write a book in a month, I needed a plan. I wrote my first two books during the fifth grade through to my college freshman years, “pants”-ing it, that is, writing “on the fly”. No road, no map, just what I built in my head and anything extra made up on the way. That may work for a lot of writers, but I needed something different if I was going to write a whole book in a month. Maybe I should try an outline. And hey, since I’m on a roll here, how about testing the whole process on a fresh, completely new, no-mental-synopsis-yet story idea.

Gulp. I was committed to doing this, but oh, boy. I found Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days. Perfect! That’s exactly what I’d be doing. She uses a system that lays out the characters, settings, timelines, motivations, story evolution (conflict(s), short- and long-term story goals, roadblocks, showdowns, etc), beat sheets, and free-form summaries of the beginning, middle, and end. I recreated her worksheets on the computer and spent a month filling them in. I decided to write in the morning, so I trained myself to get up at 4:30 am (still do) to write for an hour and a half or so before everyone else got up for the day. Now I was all set.

I wrote almost every day that November, and though I didn’t make it to 50,000 words that first year, I created a habit of writing every day. I also learned the value of outlining my book. If I could write a brand-new story idea, what would happen if I tried to rewrite one of my old books? The next NaNo, I totally overhauled the second book I’d ever written, and “won” that year’s NaNo. The bonus was I ended up with a stronger story than my pantser original.

In the years since, I’ve learned some things:

  1. I need a concrete target to work toward, not just a “get to the end of the story” target. A “get to the end of the story by the end of the month” goal works better for me, otherwise there’s not enough pressure. Visualizing my progress, like I can with the NaNo progress chart, helps too.
  2. Outlines work well for me. They give me a chance to brainstorm the story, including character and timelines. I use them as a map through the story, but if the characters want to take the scenic route, I’ll let them.
  3. That inner editor will torpedo a NaNoWriMo victory every time, because she makes you go back and rework something in your rough draft. Hey, it’s a draft, it isn’t supposed to be good yet. Send her on vacation or lock her in a box for the month. I send mine to the Caribbean. I figure that way she’s too busy enjoying herself to bother me, and she’ll be all recharged when I start revising.
  4. I lose my “write every day” habit, so I need the annual reinforcement.

Now, with a decade of NaNos and eight completed novels under my belt (along with a few I didn’t reach “The End” on), I know I can do it. I can write 50,000 words in a month. With my last couple NaNos, however, I haven’t had “The End” success, which is frustrating. I outlined, planned, and wrote, but I just couldn’t get there. Part of that had to do with rewriting the story with a dead body this time, which changed the story line. I didn’t want to wait until November to write it, so I did something crazy. I decided to pick a month and do a self-imposed NaNoWriMo. I don’t know what I was thinking when I picked February, the shortest month of the year.

Guess what? It worked! Granted, I posted my intentions on my blog, so I was accountable to my followers, which added pressure to succeed. And even though I surpassed 50k words in 28 days, the story wasn’t done. I kept it up, and finished the story two weeks later.

Woo-hoo!

Every writer has his or her own method that works for them, and sometimes it takes a few tries to figure out what works best. For me, a NaNo approach works, including an outline written ahead of time. Afterward, I shelve the project for a month to get some distance, then call my inner editor back for revisions. And more revisions. Then send the manuscript to my writing sisters for comments. More revisions. After CPs and beta readers get their eyes on it, and more revisions, I’ll have a polished piece to add to my collection.

Now, if I could only find an agent…

Finding whose voice?

When I started to get more serious about my writing, one piece of advice I frequently heard was, “Find your voice.” Like most advice, it’s nebulous and somewhat misleading.

Writing is not just about finding your voice, because books are about so much more than the author. Beyond finding your “authorial” voice (whatever that is), you have to find the voice of your narrator and each of your characters.

It’s amazing how much characterization can be done solely through the way your character talks—the words, the tone, the speed, the volume, and so forth. Good voice characterization makes each character distinct and memorable.

So here is my writing challenge for you this week:

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Write an exchange between two (or more) of your characters with no dialogue markers whatsoever. Make it clear from the voice alone who is talking.

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The Power of the New

I’ve been writing stories since I was ten years old. Earlier, if you count the ridiculously detailed games of make-believe I used to press on my friends. And yet my method is always changing, morphing, expanding. In the past two months, I’ve done a whole lot of things that I’ve never done before, and it’s improving my writing in a way I never could have done while staying in my comfortable habit zone. Here’s what’s new in my writing world:

  • Outlined an entire series before starting on the first book. It’s ridiculously a lot easier to change an outline than to change a draft. You’d think I’d have figured this one out a long time ago.
  • Wrote a draft in six weeks. Never have I ever done NaNoWriMo. The very thought of it stresses me out. But with my handy-dandy detailed outline in hand, I punched out the fastest (and best) first draft I’ve ever accomplished.
  • Got feedback from a new reader. Two new readers, actually. And getting that fresh perspective on my writing has given me new eyes to see where I can improve.
  • Edited on a hard copy. Every time I opened my draft on the computer, I would stare at it blankly for ten minutes and close it again. So I printed it out, and yesterday I got a third of it edited and an important scene rewritten. Longhand. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve written fiction longhand?
  • Begun organizing some multi-author events. Super excited about this one. Author events are okay on your own, but when you get to hang out with other super cool authors at the event, it gets ten times awesomer.

In the book Lighten Up!, Chieko Okazaki says, “I want us to make up our own minds, experiment with one form and abandon it without feeling guilty if we find it doesn’t work, listen to what works for other people, find something else, seek the Father’s will, find still something else, move into a different season of our lives, and find still something else” (17-18).

I’m a firm believer that trying something new is how we progress in all areas of our lives, and writing is no exception. So tell me—have you tried something new lately? If not, then what are you going to do about it? What’s the next new thing that’s going to give you a new spin on the world?