Day 5: Tips for All Writers, Big & Small

I realized I first wanted to be a writer when I was in about the fourth grade. It took a bit of time for me to figure out what exactly I wanted to write about (and even now I’m not so sure, so I write about anything that piques my interest), but one thing I was positive of was this; if I was going to be any good at it, I would have to keep up with it and practice. Easier said than done when you are going through adolescence and have a full load of homework, play for the school basketball and softball teams, are an altar server for your local Catholic church, then have obligations to friends and family. Even now I have a hard time finding the time to write while finishing up on my masters, keeping a house clean (barely), working on the adoption of a child, checking in on a weak immune system with a combination of diet, daily workout sessions, and regular doctors’ appointments, and then still obligations to family and friends.

My point is this. If you want to be a writer, and a good one at that, you need to designate time for yourself to regularly write. One of my favorite comedians, Lewis Black, started out studying drama and writing plays before he took the step towards standup. In his first book, Nothing’s Sacred (which I would rate in the PG-13/R area for younger readers), he had this to say about writing:

Lewis Black, comedian and playwright
Lewis Black, comedian and playwright…

“All you had to say was, ‘I am a writer,’ and you became one. You didn’t even have to write anything. You could just sit in a coffee shop with a notebook and stare into space, with a slightly bemused look on your face, judging the weight of the world with a jaundiced eye. As you can see, you can be completely full of s*** and still be a writer.”

My goal with this post is to give you some guidance to not just say that you’re a writer, but to actually make you become a writer, and with practice, a good one!

In my earlier posts, I have mentioned National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. What is it you ask? NaNoWriMo is a non-profit program that takes place during the month of November. From the 1st to the 30th, each participant must write a novel/book that totals in 50,000 words. Yes, you read correctly. 50k. I have been an avid participant of this program since 2007 and since then, not only have I completed the event four times, but I am now one of the Municipal Liaisons for the region of Detroit. So I am literally one of the people in charge that the good folks of Metro Detroit come to when they have questions or concerns. Let’s just chalk that up on my list of responsibilities above, shall we?

The NaNoWriMo Crest
The NaNoWriMo Crest

So why do I recommend this program so much? Because not only is it a great way to get started writing that novel you’ve been toying with writing for so long, but it gives you a solid goal, it connects you with different people who are doing the exact same thing, and there are local events and “write ins” that you can attend to help push you. Lore: the Legend of River is a novel that is a success of two years of participation in National Novel Writing Month, and I have the USA::Michigan::Detroit and USA::Illinois::DeKalb regions to thank for that! If you have questions about National Novel Writing Month for this coming year, you can visit www.nanowrimo.org for more information or contact me at adriannemkarpo@gmail.com.

With all the writing insanity that NaNoWriMo has to offer, it might be hard to keep up sometimes. Yes, this can be very true. But there are also programs designed that make you keep writing until you are done. My favorite happens to be a delightful little application called Write or Die by the devilish Dr. Wicked. The application is quite simple to use.  You set a time limit and a word count goal in the settings and hit “go.” Then you write. You write and you don’t stop until your time limit has run out or you have hit your set word goal. If you stop before that, you know what happens?  Horrendous alarms will go off and not just startle you, but annoy the living heck out of you (and those around you) as well. Trust me on this one. It once played “MMMBop” at full volume in a room full of people on me. I don’t go to that Starbucks anymore. And if that isn’t embarrassment enough, it will begin to delete everything you have written thus far, word by word! There’s a reason the program is called Write or Die!

The application has a simple online version that can be used for free or a downloadable version (known as Write or Die 2) that can be purchased with more features for all of your writing pleasures. Say instead of being punished for not writing you would rather be rewarded for what you had done? Then you can adjust the program to show you a cute photo of kittens after you reach a certain goal! Or puppies! Who doesn’t like puppies?  The point of the program is that it gets you writing, strictly, and concentrating on what you are doing.  For those interested in this program, visit www.writeordie.com.

For some of us, it’s not lacking in the desire to write, but more that there is no place to write.  Some of us can’t write if the dog is sitting and staring at us while his food dish lays empty. Or if we sit outside a restaurant or cafe, we’re too worried about the wind picking up and blowing our notes all over. All writers are different. Each of us is going to have our preference when we write.  My dear friend (and fellow NaNoWriMo ML) Owen Bondono addresses this in an article he wrote for Writer’s Digest about finding one’s niche in the writing world. He states in the article:

Every writer needs their own specific combination of factors to thrive creatively. Some people like quiet, while others like noise. Some write first thing in the morning, others write after everyone else has gone to bed. Finding your writing niche is key to upping your productivity. 

I write the most and my best during November with my fellow NaNoWriMo participants. We like what we do and instead of making it work, we make it fun and a game. We eat food, we laugh, and we compete with each other to see who can write the most words in a short amount of time. If I’m by myself, however, I usually do well with the WiFi turned off, some quiet instrumental music going in my earbuds, Write or Die open and set to a reasonable amount (usually 2,000 words at a 15 minute span), with some kind of soda sitting at the side of my laptop while hanging in the local library on a typical afternoon. That’s my niche. Then I just go and I get in my zone. Check out Owen Bondono’s article “NaNoWriMo Prep Work: How to Prepare to Write Your Book in 30 Days” if you would like to learn more about finding your niche and an environment that is conducive to your writing.

Lastly, there are a couple of little tricks I have picked up that help when planning with what you want to write.  Here are some simple tricks of the trade:

  • The Character’s Glove Box: While this trick has been known by many names, the results are the same. Make a list of questions for each of your main characters. What would they have in their purse/car glove box? What is their view on a certain political topic? What’s their favorite drink? What is their biggest pet peeve? What this is designed to do is make the writer think about their character’s reactions and give them some traits they may not have known they had in the first place and make them seem more real and well-rounded.
  • Roll a Paper Cigarette: This trick is designed to make you (the writer) get into the
    Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
    Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

    mindset and voice of your character. In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about using a prop to inspire the writing of your character. Maybe your character wears a particular hat. You should find that hat and wear it. What if they always sip a particular glass of wine after dinner? Pour yourself that glass of wine (grape juice for the little ones). I used to write about a particular character who smoked when she was bored or stuck waiting for someone. So since I wasn’t a smoker, I took three sticky notes, rolled them into the size of the common cigarette, taped them in place, and played with that paper cigarette between my fingers and lips as I wrote.

  • The Magna Carta: Chris Baty, who founded NaNoWriMo, put out a book a few years back about writing a novel in a month entitled No Plot? No Problem! In it he talks about writing two Magna Cartas before writing your novel. In the first one, you write down everything you want your novel to be. In the second, you write down everything you do not want in your novel. Whether they turn out to be short lists or long, keep them close so you are able to consult them easily as you work.
  • Storyboard: One of my personal favorite methods of setting up a plot is to storyboard. It’s what professional movie makers do all the time. Animated movies storyboard with drawings even! Maybe you don’t exactly know where you want your novel to go just yet. You just have a couple of events and scenes in mind that you
    Walt Disney working on storyboards for a film...
    Walt Disney working on storyboards for a film…

    want to write about. That’s your queue to start storyboarding. Pick up a pack of index cards and take out a few. Write out the basic elements of one scene on an index card and place it on the table (or in some larger cases, like mine, the floor) in front of you. Write out all your ideas for this particular project on cards and soon you will have a layout of your ideas before you.  Now that the cards and ideas are displayed, you are able to rearrange them into a timeline of your choosing. Maybe you want to divide up a certain scene. Take that original card and rewrite it on two instead. This method gives you a simple visualization of your plot to work with.

Writing a novel can be a massive task. But with the right tools, it doesn’t have to be a daunting one. Writing can be like traveling.  You are about to embark into a foreign territory. Why wouldn’t you do a bit of research and pack your tools to take with you before you leave? Otherwise, you could be scrambling to make it home and learn the language. The lesson: emersion is one thing, but preparation is another.

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