Everything is Ready

“If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.”
– Ivan Turgenev

When someone finds out I’m a writer, I inevitably hear about how they have a couple stories of their own lurking in their head, or three novels half-started, etc. Which I applaud, because I’m always happy to hear about fellow writers doing their best to write.

Rarely have I ever heard a story where they finished the work.

Sometimes this is because they’ve lost interest. Sometimes they cite the dreaded Writer’s Block. Sometimes they just don’t know how to begin.

J.A. Konrath declares that there’s no such thing as Writer’s Block. He also says you shouldn’t listen to people who say you must write every day to be a writer. Which I agree and disagree with.

Writer’s Block happens to me, but only because of the quote at the beginning of this post: I suffer from perfectionism, which means there are times when I want everything to be ready for me to write. I want to write, but some part of my brain tells me that the conditions aren’t right, aren’t “ready,” for writing. So I stew, fuss, and complain until my brain figures out that I don’t need perfect conditions to write, I only need to make time to write.

So I do agree with Konrath’s point that you don’t need to write every day. I’d like to alter his assertion, however, by claiming that even if you don’t physically write every day, you do at least think about writing. While you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, ask your characters questions to know them better. Study the people around you and note interesting personality ticks that could help flesh out your characters.

There’s no such thing as perfect writing, remember. There is always room to improve. So don’t let your need to get it right the first time stop you from writing. Let me tell you that you won’t get it right the first time you put it on paper.

Don’t let that blank sheet of paper intimidate you.

If you feel like writing, but don’t know how to begin, write about that! Write about how you’re feeling about your work, or lack thereof. Write about what you did today. The point is to get used to writing, in any form.

Like musicians, writers can only improve by practicing. This includes reading and writing a lot. When you feel the urge to write, just do it. Don’t let your fears crowd your ideas. The moment you put pen to paper, you are ready. There is no better moment to begin than now.

On Writing the First Three Chapters

Crazy as it may seem, I don’t worry about the first three chapters. Wait, I take that back. I do worry. I worry about them a lot. But at the same time, I’m not too worried about them.

See, the thing is, and I hope Jaye is reading this…

I almost never keep the first draft of my first three chapters.

“What?” you cry. “How is that possible? They are the foundations to your plot! They set up everything that will come, and has most recently been, in your work!”

And that is an excellent and valid point. To which I respond, “Yes, but since you wrote them first, most likely, I bet they’re a pretty bad example of your writing style, in comparison to later chapters.”

Your later chapters are almost always better, at least in terms of the first draft, because you…

  1. Know your characters better
  2. Know your plot better
  3. Know the overall purpose of your work better (a.k.a. theme or thesis)

So what do I do? I force myself to move past chapters one through three. When writing a first draft, or even a second draft, I focus on the end goals: Can I finish this work? Will it accomplish the themes, plot twists, emotions, and subtle messages I’m trying to impart?

What I really obsess about is the ending. It is the ending, I feel, that defines the beginning. To me, the ending is that sometime-heartbreaking goodbye to a friend. And when we say goodbye to someone, what is one of the first things we start to do? Reminisce about how that friendship began. We want to remember where we came from. That is how I know where my beginning should start. I need to know the ending before I can really understand and write the beginning.

Perhaps that doesn’t make any sense. So here is something else that you should always do with your beginning: Start with action. In fact, you should always…

Start with the action that jumpstarts all the other actions in your work.

This typically means meeting the hero for our heroine in romance. Or our detective finding our murder victim in a mystery. Or something catastrophic that will end the world as we know it in a science fiction.

So once you’ve finished writing the ending, go back to the beginning. Does the beginning make sense, in terms of the ending? Does the ending correlate/follow from the beginning? If not, you need to rewrite those first three chapters.

Does this help? Have I made any sense at all? I wrote this post in reponse to a question Jaye had about his first three chapters, both how to do them, and how to get past them. So if you have suggestions for Jaye, let us know in the comments.

How to be a Computer-based Beta Reader

Please excuse another post off the Tuesday/Thursday schedule.

From August 22 to August 31, I’ll be without ready access to the internet and I need guest bloggers! If you would like to be a guest, contact me by Thursday, August 21, with your guest post. Guidelines here. If I don’t use your post that week, don’t worry. I’ll definitely use it later and will notify you the week I use it.

Now that we’re all connected using Crit Partner Match (if you haven’t joined, you should!), it occurred to me that many of us are computer-based beta readers, which can be a monumental task. So today’s tidbit will provide useful tricks in Microsoft Word 2003 to help you become a more efficient and productive beta reader. If you use a different program, comment with your reviewing hints to help your compatriots.

First: What is a beta reader?

I’ll admit to not knowing what this term meant even a year ago. A beta reader is the new term for a critique partner, it seems to me, and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. Wikipedia states that a beta reader is a reader who looks over a written work with a “critical eye with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.”

Some beta readers do more than others. Some refuse to edit your grammar, because that’s basic stuff. Others will get so nitpicky you’ll want to tear your hair out. So make sure to discuss your writing and editing styles with whomever you pair up with (and this can be a one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many relationship).

In comparison, the alpha reader is the writer or author of the written work.

Now onto the editing.

Microsoft Word 2003 is the software I’ll talk about today because it’s the one I have the most expertise in. For the record, Word 2007 has the same features, but the buttons to use them are in different locations (the ribbon).

Track Changes: Deletion

Sometimes when you’re reading through the work, you have to delete a sentence or paragraph. But how do you do this so the alpha reader knows the change you made? There’s this awesome module called Track Changes that will note every change you’ve made to the document by adding a sidenote that you can hide or show at will. See an example screenshot. To use Track Changes, do the following:

  1. Click View » Toolbars » Reviewing in the menu bar. This will give you a new toolbar that gives you the option to make comments, track changes, and highlight.
  2. Click the little icon that looks like a piece of lined paper with a tiny sun in the top left corner and a pencil in the bottom right on top of it. If you hover your mouse a little tooltip should appear saying “Track changes.” This is what you want.
  3. Now, any change you make to the document will be recorded.
  4. If you don’t want to see the tracked changes, you can click the Show button which allows you to select what is visible and what is hidden.
  5. If you hit Track Changes again, it will stop recording all your actions after you hit the icon. It does not get rid of the changes you made previous to hitting the icon, however, so don’t freak out.

Track Changes: Rewording, Reorganizing, Adding text

Follow the same steps as the Track Changes: Deletion section. Tracking the changes will also note any additions you make, and I think will also note if you move something. Maybe. If it doesn’t, then you always have the option to comment.

Commenting on the Work

This is my new favorite toy in Word 2003/2007. Using the same Reviewing toolbar, you can comment whatever text you’ve selected with your mouse. It adds a rounded rectangular bubble to the right of the page with a line to the text that you selected for the comment. See an example screenshot. To comment, do the following:

  1. Click View » Toolbars » Reviewing in the menu bar. This will give you a new toolbar that gives you the option to make comments, track changes, and highlight.
  2. Click the little icon that looks like a yellow/tan-colored Post-it note with a tiny sun in the top left corner. If you hover your mouse over the icon, a little tooltip should appear saying “Insert Comment.” This is what you want.
  3. Now, a bubble should appear to the right of your text, with a blinking cursor.
  4. Type your thought.
  5. When you’re done, click outside of the bubble. Now, if you hover over the text you selected to comment, you should see the bubble highlight itself. You might also see the text from your comment hovering above the text…it depends on how you do it.

The really neat thing about this is that if someone else opens the same document with your comments on their computer, and they start to add comments, Word will tell there is a difference. To account for this difference, the colors of the comment bubbles will change depending on the computer/owner of the Word program.

You can also navigate through the document based on previous/next comment. Pretty cool, huh?

“Going to” not “Want to”

A guest post from a new writing accomplice, Zoe Winters. She writes to encourage you to find your dream and follow through, using the television show The Biggest Loser as a classic example. So read on, and tell us your dreams!

One of my heroes is Ali Vincent.  If you don’t know who this is, she was the winner of the last season of “The Biggest Loser,” a weight loss reality show.  Midway through the season she was eliminated, though the show planned to bring back a couple of contestants from home who earned it.

In the elimination room right after she was eliminated she said: “I am going to be the next biggest loser.”  And she said it with such conviction, that though most of us thought she was loopy, we believed her a little bit.  She became the underdog.  When she was brought back on the show, she became a favorite for the win.

As it got down to the wire, both she and Kelly desperately wanted to be the first girl biggest loser.  Kelly talked daily about how badly she wanted to be the first girl to win and how cool it would be.  But she never said any more than that she wanted it.  No one doubted that she wanted it.  And she worked hard for it.  But she didn’t get it.  Ali did.

Between the two, I can only find one difference.  Ali kept saying “I am going to be the next biggest loser.”  Going to.  Not Want to.  It stopped being a dream and started being a goal.  Of course saying you are going to do something, doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen.

If Ali had failed she would have had “I’m going to be the next biggest loser,” hanging over her head forever, because she said it repeatedly on national television.  Some people thought she was “too cocky,” but I don’t see it that way.  She was single-minded.  This was her goal and it was happening one way or another and if it didn’t happen she would go down fighting.

If she had failed she would have picked herself up off the ground and kept going.  “The Biggest Loser” was a one time opportunity, but she would have found something else impossible to do and would have done it.  Because that’s who she is.  We need more Ali Vincents in the world.

When approaching your writing, what are your goals?  Do you see them as just dreams?  Things you “wish” would or could happen?  Things that would be really cool if they happened?

Do yourself a favor, decide what you’re “going” to do.  Take your dream and own it.  There are no guarantees that this will get you where you want to go, but when you take control and subtly shift a dream to a goal, it shores up your belief in your ability to reach that goal.  And with strong belief comes creative ways to start moving toward the prize.

Zoe Winters writes paranormal romance.  She can be found at http://zoewinters.wordpress.com  Her novella, Kept, will be released as a free e-book from her website in October.  Her novel, Save My Soul, will be released serially as a free podcast, release date to be announced.

Stumbling Blocks, Workshops, and a Contest

“Nobody’s perfect, I gotta work it again and again ’til I get it right…”
Nobody’s Perfect sung by Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus

Well, Hannah Montana’s right on the money with this one. This song should be the theme for all writers in the editing phase.

I have been an editing machine, lately. That is, until I hit chapter 24, where the draft became muddy. Apparently I was experimenting when I wrote this chapter and the couple after it. The results from the experimentation are faulty at best.

Conclusion: I have to alter a major subplot of…oh, I guess I’d say the last third of the book.

This is a little frustrating. I don’t remember writing chapters clogged with internal dialogue, unnecessary angst, and way too much exposition. I’m cutting pages, chapters even, fighting through to get back to the essentials.

The Workshop

I’m holding an online editing workshop next week to contribute to Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show, don’t tell
  4. Thursday: Tell, don’t show
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

There will be links to worksheets, websites, and books that should help you edit your own work. I’m providing a lot of these links because I know people edit in different ways, and I want to help as many people as possible.

The Contest

At the end of the week, I’ll give a free critique of the first three chapters (or the first 50 pages, whichever is shorter) of one commenter whose name I will pull from a hat. To be eligible…

  1. You must comment during the LB&LI week (July 28 to August 3).
  2. Your comment must be on an LB&LI post, following the theme of the day.
  3. You must comment here on the blog, http://blog.worderella.com. I can’t see your comment if you’re reading me on LiveJournal, for example.
  4. Your chapters/excerpt must be prose. Double-spaced, twelve pt font, Times New Roman or something similar.

The winner will be announced on Tuesday, August 5. I read all genres, so don’t worry if you’re interested but don’t write historical fiction or romance. I’ll try to be as fair and as honest as possible to help you. Whether you accept my suggestions or not is your prerogative, of course.

I’ll provide my comments using the Microsoft Word comment feature. If you don’t have a Windows machine, or if you don’t have Microsoft Word, we can work something out.

Inspiration from Clever Television

I choose my television and movie choices carefully (most of the time). If I listed my favorite tv series, a pattern of character-driven plots will emerge (Pushing Daisies, The Office, Gilmore Girls, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Dead Like Me…). This makes sense because my fiction is character-driven. Maybe I should watch shows that are more about the plot, so I don’t have blindspots? In any case, today I’m writing about one show and one movie that inspire me, and I hope you’ll share yours!

Pushing Daisies, on ABC

Pushing Daisies is a delightful, narrated mystery show about a man named Ned who can bring the dead to life with the touch of his finger. There is a catch, however: a second touch will kill the person forever. And it turns out that if Ned lets the person stay alive for more than a minute after his special touch, someone else must die in their place. Things get juicy when he brings his childhood sweetheart back to life. If he lets her live, someone else must die in her place. If he touches her once, ever, she will be dead forever.

Would you believe me if I said this was a comedy? I love this show because of how clever the writers are with Ned and Chuck’s situation (Chuck is short for Charlotte). Thanks to the narrator, the mood is reminiscent of the most recent movie rendition of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Really, it’s like sitting down to story time every week. Look for it this fall, I bet you’ll like it.

Penelope, starring Christina Ricci

Now in terms of movies, am I the only one who saw Penelope, that movie starring Christina Ricci? And loved it? This is a fairy tale about a girl cursed with a pig’s nose until she is loved and accepted by one of her own. This movie is straight-forward, and some claim it failed at teh fairy-tale attempt, but this is a movie of characters, each with a motive, each with something to learn. Everyone learns something in this movie (all the main and secondary characters, anyway).  I found it charming and refreshing for the simple reason that the heroine is her own hero.

So here’s something I’ve always wondered about my fellow writers/readers. They always say writers should read a lot, a statement I heartily agree with. But what about other media outlets? Do you feel television and movies can inspire you, or does it blunt your creativity? Are there certain shows you watch precisely because it sparks your imagination? Tell all!

Researching Your Setting Using Google Earth

google_earthIf anything deserves more attention in my research, it’s the setting. Not for lack of trying, though; it’s something I tend to obsess about, if you’ll remember, but the resources about my little village are sparse at best. This concerns me because character histories often depend on the character’s environment, so it’s risky not to know the nooks and crannies hidden in your location.

Enter Google Earth. I finally caved in and installed the free application on my computer. This, despite my misgivings that I would waste hours studying the landscape rather than studying how the structure of a material changes depending on the number of vacancies at the atomic level. (I’m so glad I graduated.) Heaven help me, I was at the computer for two hours squealing about all the little physical details that, without technology, I would have had to journey to the UK to see it myself.

Thanks to the internet, I did manage to find 1885 maps of the area. But seeing actual color photos of the landscape around the manor house, and the relative locations of local ruins Mary walks to when she needs to let off some steam… and then to see photos taken by other Google Earth users living in the area! Oh, when I found Wayland’s Smithy, I knew, I just knew, that Mary spent hours there as a child, and returned there when bereft as an adult.

And if this isn’t enough, I also installed Google Sketch Up, a 3D modeling application. People use it to make 3D renderings of buildings on Google Earth… you know what I’ll be doing in my free time pretty soon. Yes, that’s right, making mock-ups of my characters’ not-so-humble abodes.

For those of you struggling with details about your setting, take a peek at Google Earth. It’s free and works on all major platforms, it seems. If you’re writing historical fiction, you might have to imagine what the city looked like during your era, but many places (especially in Europe) still have the old streets and some of the old buildings to give you a better understanding of what is within walking distance, etc. If you’re writing a contemporary piece, you can watch traffic patterns, the weather, and more.

A great resource for anyone curious about the world, Google Earth is an awesome research resource for writers.