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You Might Not Be A Writer (And That’s Okay)

wanderlustywriter:

I’ve never known how to say this without sounding like a snob. This post sums up my thoughts so well.

Originally posted on 101 Books:

I’ve heard a sentiment over the last few years that goes something like this: “Everyone’s a writer. We all just need to tap into our ‘inner writer’ to become one.”

That’s probably a simplistic representation, but the sentiment is along those lines.

It sounds nice. It might make you feel a little warm and fuzzy inside.

But it’s not true.

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Wanderlusty Wednesday

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It’s almost September. The end of the summer is always a weird time, even after you’re out of school. And is it just me or do the summers go by faster and faster the older you get?

This is also my favorite time of year for camping. Going into the woods or on an island in the middle of a lake for a couple days or a week, sleeping outside, cooking over a fire, peeing behind a tree, jumping off rocks into the water. I love it. I love the naturalness of it. Another reason why I probably shouldn’t be living in Brooklyn.

My favorite place to camp is Lake George. I used to go every year with a group of guy friends, usually six to ten of us. This was before everyone reached thirty and became preoccupied with significant others, children, etc. We’d go the week after Labor Day, which is the best time to go, because the prices are slashed, all the families have headed back to school, the water is warm and the nights are cool. We’d rent out campsites on Vicar’s Island and nearly always had the island entirely to ourselves. It’s real camping–no bathrooms, no showers, you’re not even allowed to bring soap as it might get in the pristine lake. There’s a few picnic tables and a spot for building your fire. That’s it. It’s wonderful.

We spent our days paddle boarding, jumping off the ten-foot rock into the water (often fully-clothed–we referred to it as showering and doing laundry), drinking our weight in cheap beer, eating s’mores and pocket stew (canned vegetables, tomato sauce, garlic powder, salt and pepper wrapped in tin foil and set in the fire–oh and the carnivores added meat) and feeding the fire. There’s no cell phone service, no electricity–we woke with the sun and slept with the dark. The stars there are some of the finest I’ve ever seen–you can see the entire sweep of the Milky Way from that island.

If you ever have the chance, go there. I miss this place.

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In which George RR Martin agrees with me (or vice versa)

“There’s an old writing rule that says ‘Don’t have two character names start with the same letter’, but I knew at the beginning that I was going to have more than 26 characters, so I was in trouble there. Ultimately it comes down to what sounds right. And I struggle with that, finding the right name for a character. If I can’t find the right name I don’t know who the character is and I can’t proceed.”

– George R.R. Martin

I totally agree.

Wanderlusty Wednesday

chateau 2Don’t major in French, they said. It’s useless, they said.

What “they” failed to take into account was that someday, a relative could win a trip to stay in a French chateau for free. And that this relative may need a translator. And then, as the sole French-speaking niece in the family, you will be invited to spend two weeks at said chateau. For FREE.

I have an obsession with chateaus. This place was straight-up my dream house. A stone chateau originally constructed in the 1500s, it was purchased and restored by an American couple in the mid ’00s. It had three stories, eight bedrooms, a library, a turret, a wine cellar, unicorn tapestries on the walls. A pool. A trampoline. And wifi!

It was in the absolute middle of nowhere, of course. About an hour’s drive from Toulouse. The nearest town was Mirepoix. Grocery shopping required a half hour car ride to the nearest LeClerc. But it did come with abundant wildflowers, some cats, and a cute little old lady neighbors who brought over eggs from her own hens.

My sister and I stayed in the tower bedroom, like princesses. We consumed nothing but wine and bread and cheese the whole time we were there. We wandered around the area a bit, but really we just basked in the beauty of this place that had been there for centuries.

If that place ever goes up for sale, and if my plan to become a millionaire is ever realized, you’d better believe I’m putting in the first offer. Until then, I can only dream (and write my little heart out).

A few more images, keeping in mind this was taken with my ’05 point-and-shoot:

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On Show and Tell

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As a writer, it’s a mantra you hear over and over: “Show, don’t tell.”

There’s a reason it’s repeated endlessly: it’s one of the main things that separates good writing from bad writing.

But there’s something else I don’t always hear, and it’s something I see relatively often in beginner writing (especially my own). It’s something I see in published writing too, and it drives me nuts. I call it the “Show and Tell.”

It’s when a writer shows us what’s going on–and then, just in case we didn’t get it, tells us as well. I find this annoying. It’s like the writer’s saying, okay, I’ve shown you what’s going on, but in case you’re a little slow, I’ll make it a bit more clear for you. As a reader, I hate being pandered to that way.

Here are some real-life examples from a novel I recently read. (This is why I like to read bad books–they’re such good teachers.)

1. “His face reddened in shame.”

“His face reddened” is enough. You should have already shown us enough in the scene for us to know his face reddening was a result of shame.

2. “He stared at it. He blinked. Then he put his hands out to run his fingers across the words, as if he didn’t believe his eyes.”

The second part of the last sentence is implied. You’ve shown him staring. You’ve shown him blinking. You’ve shown his hands running across the words. You don’t also need to tell us he didn’t believe his eyes; we understand that by now.

3. “They maintained eye contact with each other for longer than necessary, as if trying to communicate some secret message.”

Really?!?! Is that why people maintain prolonged eye contact? So happy to have that obscure human tendency explained to me. Argh.

Finally, this one:

4. “He frowned. Clearly, he was upset.”

Thank you for explaining what “frowning” means. And a helpful hint: anytime you use the word “clearly”, you don’t need whatever comes after it. If it’s clear, don’t say it.

Examples like the above (especially the last two) drive me nuts. I’m not immune to them as a writer, by the way; when going through my writing to edit, I’ll always find one or two “show and tells” and I’ll mentally berate myself for being so obnoxious to my readers. But that’s what editing is for; to catch these things before anyone else does.

Good writing is about a lot of things; not the least among them is tight prose. It can take some time to learn how to make your prose as tight as possible, but I think the mantra “show, don’t tell”, along with the mantra “don’t show AND tell” is definitely a step in the right direction.

Wanderlusty Wednesday

guernsey

I’m having one of those days (weeks, actually) where all I want to do is crawl inside a book and live there. Or just go to some remote, beautiful location and read good books and drink cocktails all day.

The above book is one of my frequent rereads. I can’t recall ever reading an epistolary novel before, and to be honest a novel written in letters didn’t exactly appeal to me at first. But The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is just so beautifully done. If you haven’t read it, do so. Now.

I’m experimenting with the epistolary form by writing my current work-in-progress in journal entries. I reread Guernsey, as well as The Perks of Being a Wallflower (more on that beautiful book later) for inspiration, and they both helped quite a bit. I’m not sure how this current one is going to end up. I’ll let you know in a few months!

On Getting Started

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I get a lot of questions when people find out I wrote a novel. One of the most popular is: how did you start?

So if you’re thinking of writing a novel, I thought I’d share some advice on how to get started.

Once upon a time…

I was a little kid who loved to write. Somewhere around high school, I stopped doing it. Why? I have no idea. I think I was too busy trying to be cool (at which I failed, FYI).

I remember thinking about it again in college. But I was too busy having the college experience to actually get any writing done. It wasn’t until the year after college when I moved to Saint Lô and had an abundance of free time that I began considering it again. I lived in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and there wasn’t a lot to do. My teaching assistant job was only 12 hours per week (and as a foreigner I wasn’t allowed to get another job). Perfect time to write a novel, right?

I wish. I spent that year traveling every weekend (which I don’t regret at all), taking long walks through cow pastures, drinking Calvados, eating galettes … and thinking about writing a novel.

I spent a year thinking about it. Reading books about it. Googling articles about it. A YEAR with more free time than I’ll ever have in my life. And I didn’t actually write anything.

But I was percolating. My first novel takes place in Saint-Lô, and I didn’t write a word of it while I was living there. I regretted this, at first. But then I read that Hemingway, who set his novels in real-life places he had been, didn’t actually write about a place until he had already left it. He wrote about midwest after he’d already moved to Paris, wrote about Paris after he’d moved to the south, etc. You need to give yourself a little distance from your subject. Time to percolate. And most importantly of all, time to commit yourself to it. As Stephen King says:

You must not come lightly to the blank page.

I got back from France, got a job, got bored, and got serious about becoming a writer.

Here is what I’ve learned about how to get started:

1. Do some research on novel-writing, but don’t go crazy  At the beginning, I read about twelve “how to write a novel” books, as well as countless articles online. In retrospect, that was WAY too many. Your head becomes crowded with advice, some of it contradictory (You must outline! Outlines are pointless!) However, writing books aren’t without their value. If you read one book on writing make it this one. On Writing is brilliant and funny and full of practical advice from someone who has had a bit of success in the field. But again, don’t go crazy on the writing books. I’ll quote Stephen King again:

I’ll be as brief as possible, because the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.

2. Read the kind of stuff you’d like to write  For me, that’s YA. I reread all my favorite YA books. I read every popular YA book on the market, even ones I didn’t like. I read stuff outside YA too, writers whom I love, those masters of beautiful sentences. Take notes of what you love, what works–and what doesn’t. Just because a book is published doesn’t mean it’s any good. I’ve gotten some of my most valuable lessons from poorly-written books. More on that in another post.

This is the easiest part of novel-writing for me, since I’m a voracious reader anyway. You should be too; why would you want to write a novel if you don’t enjoy reading them?

3. Write down your ideas  It doesn’t have to be a formal outline. It just has to be something where you keep track of all the wonderful things bubbling up in your head. Write down these ideas as fast as they come to you. And they’ll come to you in weird places. Half my ideas are in the Notes section of my iPhone. I’ve been known to stick my hand out of the shower to frantically tap out an idea on my phone before I lose it.

4. Organize your ideas into a rough summary/outline, but again, don’t go crazy  For my first novel, I wrote dozens of formal outlines. I had separate word documents for character, for plot points, for theme. Outlines for each character’s arc. Historical facts. Every time I got overwhelmed by the sheer number of documents I had, I’d start a new one. It got to the point where it was too much to really be helpful. And in retrospect, this is why it took me so long to finish–I kept going through my multitudes of notes, second-guessing myself, putting things in, taking them out, obsessing over theme, etc. You get the point. Don’t do what I did.

For my second novel, I keep one word document entitled “notes.” In it I have three sections: Characters, Timeline, Story. I keep track of each character in a little paragraph–age, description, temperament, any important facts I need. The timeline for births, deaths, important life events. Then in the Story part I write down whatever comes to mind. I take all my notes off my iPhone, any jotted down notes at work. Everything. Then I go back and organize it into (rough) chronological order, in a loose paragraph format. I cross things off as I go along, and discard whatever doesn’t work (keeping all discarded items in a “discarded” doc. I don’t often refer back to it. Its main purpose is keeping me from having a panic attack every time I hit the delete button.) I don’t have every element in the story in there–just what I’ve thought up so far. It’s perfectly fine to have holes. Desirable, even. Some stuff will only come to you as you write it. My second novel is moving along much more smoothly (and faster!) than my first.

5. Write This is the most important part of all. To write a book, you need to write it. Just start. Don’t spend time crafting the perfect opening sentence. Hell, you don’t even have to start at the beginning. Write a scene. Write another scene. Eventually, you’ll want to put them in order, edit them down, etc. But for now, just get your story onto the page.

6. Keep writing  I got stuck so many times. I changed my mind, then changed it back. I’d scrap entire chapters. (My “deleted writing” document was over 2,000 pages long–roughly seven times the length of my novel–when I was finished.) At one point I gave up and wrote something else.

But keep going. Write, write, write. When you get stuck, take a walk. Wash the dishes. Have a drink. The muse will return. Believe me.

7. Find what works for you  Outlining didn’t work for Stephen King, or for me. Some writers can’t write without it. Another piece of advice I’d often heard was “Don’t edit as you go. Keep writing.” You know what? I edit as I go. Since outlining didn’t work, I’d often propel my characters down the wrong path. Then I’d have to backtrack. I found I wasn’t capable of just carrying on with the story–I had to get them back to the right spot first. It’s just the way I write. It’s the way Tana French writes. It’s not the way Stephen King writes. And that’s ok.

8. Be kind to yourself  Novel-writing is a learn-as-you-go skill. This is your first novel. Write your ass off, but don’t be overly critical of yourself or your processes. You’ll get there. I did.

Was this helpful? Did I miss anything in the beginning-a-novel process? Let me know!