Existence and Past Subjunctives #amwriting

Grammarians are philosophers. You can find us in darkened chat rooms, arguing about existence, to be or not to be, postulating theories that are subjective, doubtful, even hypothetical. Or, at least the words and rules to describe existence can be murky.

We call them Subjunctive Verbs.

When you go out to Wikipedia, the whole subjunctive verb thing looks quite complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. The subjunctive (in the English language) is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. So today, we are once again looking at Past Subjunctives: the verbs was and were.

But first, what does “subjunctive” mean?

Dictionary.com defines “Subjunctive.” as:

adjective

1.(in English and certain other languages) noting or pertaining to a mood or mode of the verb that may be used for subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate statements or questions, as the mood of ‘be’ in ‘if this be treason.’

2.the subjunctive mood or mode.

3.a verb in the subjunctive mood or form.

First, let’s consider existence and what Past Subjunctive Tense covers: how to use the words ‘was’ and ‘were,’ which are forms of the verb ‘be.’

Which is correct?

  • I wish I were a penguin. I would fly through the water.
  • I wish I was a penguin. I would fly through the water.

If I only wish I were a penguin, were is correct. If I could actually be a penguin, was would be correct and I would have to rewrite my sentence, by deleting ‘I wish’ and changing ‘would’ to ‘could.’

The Grammar Girl goes farther. She says: Believe it or not, verbs have moods just like you do. Yes, before the Internet and before emoticons, somebody already thought it was important to communicate moods. So, like many other languages, English has verbs with moods ranging from commanding to questioning and beyond. The mood of the verb “to be” when you use the phrase “I were” is called the subjunctive mood, and you use it for times when you’re talking about something that isn’t true or you’re being wishful.

I love that clue—that verbs can be wishful.

The Grammar Girl gives us a great example: Think of the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye sings “If I were a rich man,” he is fantasizing about all the things he would do if he were rich. He’s not rich, he’s just imagining, so “If I were” is the correct statement. This time you’ve got a different clue at the beginning of the line: the word “if.”

English tends to favor fewer subjunctives than some other languages. So why are some grammarians ranting about irrealis mood and were? (And what the hell does that mean?) Irrealis mood is an older, nineteenth century label for a verb mood. Simply stated, it means that language can express fact (what is real) and can indicate fallacy (what is unreal). It was identified by the linguist, Roman Jakobson.

English has a formula for expressing the unreal: the irrealis mood, but that label is no longer as well-known as its modern label: the past subjunctive verb form. This verb form expresses a hypothetical condition in present, past, or future time:

Steven Pinker, in his extremely convoluted, difficult to follow book on language and usage, The Sense of Style, discusses the word, irrealis. He offers several complicated explanations but eventually gets to the point, and I will boil it down here:

There are times when we use a form of the verb ‘was’ even though the subject of the sentence has not yet happened, or may not happen at all:  the past subjunctive verb form. It is unreal and may remain that way. “If I were.”

Let’s go back to the song from Fiddler on the Roof, If I were a rich man. As I am a woman and intent on remaining so, I will never be a rich man. As I am an author and intent on remaining so, I will never be rich. So, for me, that song title contains two impossibilities. “If I were” is the correct subjunctive mood.

When you are supposing about something that might be true, you use a form of the verb “was” and don’t sweat it.

If it’s likely real: Was (possibly is) I heard he was training his dog to fetch.

If it’s likely unreal: Were (possibly isn’t) If I were a penguin, I wouldn’t need to rent a tuxedo.

We are still talking existence here. Remember from above? The past subjunctive verb forms express a hypothetical condition which may exist in present, past, or future time:

  • Don’t complain about the food. What if I was a chef?
  • I wish I were
  • If this be treason…
  • To be or not to be

What if you are writing a technical manual, a dissertation, or an email to a client or coworker? Despite the ill-conceived efforts of many critique groups and Microsoft Word to erase all forms of ‘to be’ from the English language and replace it with ‘is,’ you have a right to use the subjunctive verb form if you choose to do so. Write with your own sense of style.

When your intent is formal, subjunctives may abound, often in the form of commonly used phrases:

  • Be that as it may,
  • So be it,
  • Suffice it to say,
  • Come what may,

Steven Pinker has a point that is important to this blogpost: Subjunctives are hard to spot. Forms of “to be” can be found in subordinate clauses where something is mandated or required:

  • I demand the prisoner be fed the same as anyone else.

A verb like “see” also has a subjunctive form when something is mandated or required:

  • It’s essential that I see your report before you send it.

In ordinary writing, we rarely need to use subjunctives in clauses with mandates except perhaps to show a formal conversation.

Subjunctives are small verbs of existence, but used correctly they have a large influence on your writing voice.

And, thanks to Steven Pinker, we now know that if someone drops the word “irrealis” on you at a critique group, it’s a hint that they are fond of obscure, nineteenth century words. Surprise them by telling them the past subjunctive verb form is your friend, and you enjoy using it appropriately.


Credits and Attributions:

Subjunctive Verbs, by Mignon Fogarty, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/subjunctive-verbs, Copyright © 2017 Macmillan Holdings, LLC. Quick & Dirty Tips™

Wikipedia contributors, “English subjunctive,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=English_subjunctive&oldid=807313887 (accessed November 19, 2017).

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#BookReview: The Witchwood Crown by @TadWilliams

I am a great fan of Tad Williams’ work, in all its many incarnations. The Witchwood Crown is his most recent release, a follow up to his masterpiece series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It is a fitting continuation of the original story featuring four great characters, Simon Snowlock, Miriamele, Binabik, and Jiriki.

I became a confirmed fan of epic fantasy in 1988 when I first entered the world of Osten Ard and The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams. Simon was such a complex, sometimes clueless character that I was immediately drawn to him. Miri was also clueless and naïve. Binabik, Tiamak, and Jiriki had the wisdom needed to guide these two toward making good decisions.

Throughout the original series set in Osten Ard, it seemed like each character was deserving of a novel, and the diverse races whose cultures were so clearly shown fascinated me. The bigotry and arrogance shown by some members of each race, each believing in their innate superiority struck me as illustrating a sad truth about the real world.

When this new series set in Osten Ard was announced, I was curious as to how Tad Williams would maintain that deep connection to the story after such a long absence. In my opinion, The Heart of What Was Lost proved Williams had not lost his touch, that indeed, he had matured as a writer.

I bought the Kindle version of The Witchwood Crown, but also downloaded the Audible book, because I have a monthly subscription. Andrew Wincott is the narrator, and he’s an incredible reader. His narration makes this one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. I read along with his narration, which is an awesome experience.

The Witchwood Crown, by Tad Williams

  • Series:Last King of Osten Ard (Book 1)
  • Hardcover:736 pages
  • Publisher:DAW; First Edition edition (June 27, 2017)
  • Language:English

MY REVIEW (as originally posted on my review blog, Best in Fantasy):

This book is not a light read. Tad Williams’ work is brilliant and complex because he understands the character arc and the importance of agency and consequences. Change and growth or degeneration happen to each character over the course of the story—no one is allowed to stagnate. With a character-driven plot set in a fantasy world, the growth of the characters is the central theme. The events, shocking and yet unavoidable, are the means to enable that growth.

The story opens some thirty years after final passages of To Green Angel Tower. Many events have occurred in that time, leaving scars on those who have lived through them. Prince Josua and his family have vanished. The League of the Scroll is no longer what it was, death and age having taken most of the people who had the knowledge. Simon and Miriamele have lost a son to a deadly fever, and are deeply concerned about the behavior of Prince Morgan, their grandson and heir. They have reservations about their son’s widow and fear her influence has ruined him. They also fear for their very young granddaughter, Lillia.

There are other problems for Simon and Miri to contend with. Political unrest, lack of hospitality and rudeness by the King of Hernystir, trouble in Nabban, and rumors that the Norns are stirring. Simon, who has always been gifted (or cursed) with prophetic dreams, is no longer dreaming. A council is held, and it emerges that Binabik the troll also has concerns.

Prince Morgan is more than just a womanizing young noble, but he doesn’t know it. Jiriki and the Sithi will have a large part to play in Prince Morgan’s journey, as they did in his grandfather Simon’s journey to manhood. Whether or not Prince Morgan is the kind of man his grandfather is, remains to be seen.

The Witchwood Crown is an epic fantasy which will put some hoity toity literary purists off. It is literary, illuminating the internal lives of the many characters, and is centered upon how the perception that the king is dying has gendered plots and plans for coups among many factions. This lack of focus on one primary hero will put off the genre purists who need more noise and sixty-second sound bites in their literature. Those readers will find it difficult to follow the many threads.

Osten Ard is a place of contrasts. Dark, in many ways Gothic, negotiating the rough waters of this dark-age world is not easy. The three main cultures differ greatly from each other and are worlds of extremes. These contrasts drive the plot and frame the story in such a way the world of Osten Ard seems more real and tangible than this world. The room in which I read grows colder when the Norns breeze into the narrative.

In the years since the original publication of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams has matured as an author. His prose is beautiful, almost poetic yet not going there. Harsh, lush, and carefully designed with layers of allegory and subtext, some readers will find the narrative too literary, difficult to read. Williams has a large vocabulary and sometimes takes the long way rather than dumping you into the fray immediately. He isn’t afraid to use compound sentences, which makes it an adult read. Other, more avid readers, like me, will devour it, savor it, and think about the deeper concepts long after closing the book on the final page.

I give this novel five stars for its complexity, maturity, and sheer originality. A powerful narrative, this book left a different kind of mark on me as a reader than the original series did. That series is young and brash, detailing the early days of kitchen boy who became king. A young and brash author wrote that first amazing series. This book is mature, not only because the author has matured in the craft but because the king is older—it shows us who that boy became, what kind of man he is, and offers us a glimpse of who might succeed him.

I look forward to the next chapter in this very large story.


Tad Williams is a California-based fantasy superstar. His genre-creating (and genre-busting) books have sold tens of millions worldwide. His considerable output of epic fantasy and epic science-fiction series, fantastical stories of all kinds, urban fantasy novels, comics, scripts, etc., have strongly influenced a generation of writers. Tad always has several secret projects on the go. 2016 will see the debut of a number of them; March 2017 brings ‘The Witchwood Crown’, the first volume in the long-awaited return to the world of the ‘Memory, Sorrow & Thorn’ novels. Tad and his family live in the Santa Cruz mountains in a suitably strange and beautiful house.

You can find out more about Tad Williams and his books at www.tadwilliams.com  


Credits and Attributions

This review of The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams, as reviewed by Connie J. Jasperson,  was originally posted on Best in Fantasy,  on November 16, 2017

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Motivation, the Character’s Quest #amwriting

The rough draft is called ‘rough’ for a multitude of reasons. This earliest of manuscripts is where we are thinking out loud, finding the true story, so it is bumpy, uneven. We begin with an idea, a ‘what if,’ and as we write, an awesome cast of characters leap onto the page.

Sometimes the side characters are so great, they overshadow the person we originally thought was the protagonist. What do you do if you have chosen a protagonist, but another character suddenly seems to have a more intriguing way about him? You must make a decision–who will be the central character?

If, as you are writing, a different character than the one you originally thought was the protagonist comes to the fore, consider rewriting your beginning to reflect that change. If you are participating in NaNoWriMo and you are 26,000 words into it, don’t scrap it–simply continue forward, but insert a note to go back and change the beginning once November has passed. You wrote those words, and even though they will change in the next draft, they were hard-earned and count toward your official wordcount.

When you have a group of great characters, all with strong storylines, determining who makes the most compelling protagonist can be difficult. Sometimes you must write half a novel before you realize which character has the most opportunity to take full advantage of all the possibilities.

For whatever reason, this never happens in my fantasy work. It is when I am writing contemporary fiction that the story sometimes shifts in a direction I hadn’t planned and identifying just whose journey I am following is easier said than done. As the rough draft progresses, I have to keep in mind that motivation is the key to discovering both who the protagonist is, and who is the villain of the piece. Motivation is the character’s quest to fulfill his/her deepest needs.

  • Who among these people has the most to lose?
  • Which character do you find the most interesting?
  • Whose personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
  • Who will be best suited to take full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?

The character who best answers those questions must become the protagonist. If necessary, the story will have to be rewritten to reflect that change.

Most of us remember the “five Ws” of journalism. These five words that begin with the letter ‘W’ form the core of every story. Who did what? When and where did it happen?

Why did they do it?

As a reader, I dislike discovering the author is at a loss as to why their protagonist wants to do the task set before them. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story but motivation does.

Suppose we have a protagonist who realizes her marriage is failing. Anna is a well-educated, professional woman, a writer of paranormal fantasy. She is married to another writer, David.

What motivates her? David is strong, charismatic, egocentric, and brilliant. There is nothing he doesn’t feel entitled to, and he will do anything to achieve his goals. Although she is a best-selling author of popular fiction and is the person paying the bills, Anna has made a habit of catering to his needs.

At first, Anna wants to keep her marriage together and presents herself as whatever she thinks David wants her to be. She feels as if she casts no shadow of her own.

Once we know what the characters desire we know who the protagonist is and also we know who will be the best antagonist.

Now, let’s see who the other characters are:

Anna and David rent a secluded house on the wild Washington coast for the summer. They invite 3 companions to join them for the summer, as a working retreat. All five characters have deadlines, and that is their official reason for accepting Anna’s invitation. However, the four other characters each have their own agendas. Other than Anna, they each have strong personalities, are charismatic, and are used to a certain amount of privilege. At first, although it is subtle, each of them uses and manipulates Anna for their own purposes.

Every member of the cast has a secret, including Anna. With the revelation of each secret to the reader, the motivations for subsequent actions become clear.

Unless each character’s desires and needs are clearly defined, the events won’t make any sense. Without clear motivations, all you have are a bunch of drama queens cooped up in a house by the gloomy Washington North Pacific coast.

Once we know who has the most to lose and what motivates each character, we know which of them has the most compelling story. At that point, we have our protagonist. The second draft will be much easier to write.

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The Character Arc: Agency and Consequences #amwriting

My favorite novels are literary fantasy, a genre which has a character-driven plot set in a fantasy world. I love books where the prose has been carefully crafted, the growth of the characters is the central theme, the events are  the means to enable that growth, and the fantasy setting frames the story.

Thus, I am a great fan of Tad William’s work, in all its many incarnations. When not writing, I am currently finishing reading The Witchwood Crown, and I must say, his work never fails to move me. On Friday, I will post my review here.

Tad Williams’ work is brilliant because he understands the character arc, and the importance of agency and consequences. No character is allowed to stagnate,  a lesson I have taken to heart.

Because I love character driven work, some of what I write is literary fantasy. I have found that, for me, the first half of the book is easy to write, but beginning at the midpoint of my first draft, I begin to struggle.

For many authors, the rough draft is challenging because we are pulling the story out of the ether. The good news is that once the first draft is finished, we can get down to actually writing the book.

The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment and give it form on paper. When it is finished, the rough draft is basically made of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalogue of events: who did what, where they did it, and why.  We are beginning to know our characters, but in the original version, we may not have a handle on how to portray their reactions. The character arc is uneven and making the story seem real becomes a challenge.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character/protagonist over the course of a story. Stories that interest me have a strong character arc:  the protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events he/she experiences, they are transformed, frequently changing for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

The third quarter section of your story begins with the midpoint crisis. It is crucial because the seeds planted by the events of the first half must bear fruit here, forcing a visible change (usually a positive change) in the behavior and outlook of the protagonist and his/her friends. Sadly, some books fail to live up to their promise when they arrive at this point, and the reader gives up.

In a book where the storyline follows the hero’s journey, at some point in this third section, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. This is your opportunity to learn who they really are as human beings. The events leading to this place have combined to break the character down to their lowest emotional state.

The protagonist must emerge from this section remade as a stronger person, ready to meet whatever awaits them at the final showdown. And you must make it believable, done in such a way that it feels natural to the reader.

If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

The way to avoid predictability in a plot is to introduce a sense of danger, an unavoidable threat. How our characters react to that event should feel unpredictable because they have agency.

In many ways, agency is the ability your character has to surprise you when you are writing them and their reactions. They seem to drive the keyboard, making their own choices.

When we give our characters agency, an unavoidable threat removes the option of going about life as normal but leaves characters with several consequential choices, the final one of which will be made in a stressful situation.

I used the word consequential relating to the choices your characters must make. I chose that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?

Why would a random trip to a convenience store interest a reader if something out of the ordinary does not occur? After all—we go out for bread every day, and it’s not too exciting. Frankly, I’m not interested in reading about Nadine buying a loaf of bread. But make her the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give her options:

  1. She can hide and wait for the intruders to leave.
  2. She can decide to be a hero.
  3. What other options does Nadine have? What does she see when she looks around the store?

Whatever Nadine chooses to do, there will be consequences. If things go awry, she could become a hostage. If she goes unnoticed but tells the police what she knows, she and her family could be in danger.

Once she is in the middle of these consequences, Nadine will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread will only be one of them. She will have many decisions to make, and each choice will drive the plot.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story.

At the outset, giving my characters agency is difficult to write. This is because, in the rough draft, the protagonist and her motives are still somewhat unformed. What I keep in mind is faithfulness in following the hero’s journey and allowing her choices to force her personal growth.

In one of my current works-in progress, my main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. Her world has been shaken to the foundations, and she no longer has faith in herself or the people she once looked up to. To write this story, I must discover the answers to these questions:

  • How is she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes her pull herself together and just keep on going?
  • How has she evolved after this personal death and rebirth event?

In all my favorite novels, this low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey. It is the place during which she is taken down to her component parts emotionally, and rebuilds herself to be more than she ever believed she could be.

By the time you finish writing this part, you should have come to know your character and how they will react in any given situation.

Paying close attention to making this section emotionally powerful in your first draft will pay off when you begin the second draft. In the first draft, use all the adverbs and modifiers you need because you must get the idea down before you forget it.

In the rewrite, these words will be the guide you need to make the prose evolve into a greater, more polished version of the original.

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#FlashFictionFriday: If Life were a ’65 Impala

Sometimes  during NaNoWriMo, toward the end of the day I get into a silly mood, and doggerel like this emerges. Don’t worry, it will pass. It may be ugly, but it’s word count! I have owned three 1965 Chevy Impalas (all were used) and one 1973 Chevy Vega, which we purchased new.

While my Vega was never found burning alongside the road,  it was the least reliable car I had ever owned. The interior had gone to pieces in the first year, and the clutch cable regularly broke, leaving us stuck in second gear. We couldn’t afford to get rid of it because we were constantly paying a mechanic to keep it on the road!


 

If life were a ’65 Impala,

A land yacht of steel, guts, and glory,

She would run like a top,

And when we wanted, she’d stop,

We’d travel through life with no worry.

But life is a ’73 Vega

On fire by the side of the road.

The engine’s askew, the interior too,

It was a bad purchase, you know.

It’s nothing but dents, duct tape, and dirt

All held together with paint.

At times, life’s a rolling disaster,

A reliable runner it ain’t.

It stops on a dime half of the time,

And runs real fine ‘til it don’t.


If Life were a ’65 Impala, copyright 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

1965 Chevrolet Impala with a 300 hp V8 big Block Engine PD by Iv-Elouan Bruneau (Iebruneau at English Wikipedia)

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Day 8, #NaNoWriMo2017: The Detour

When I was planning my manuscript for NaNoWriMo and the month of November, I had intended to write nothing but short stories.

Unfortunately, the inspiration I had lacked for the rough draft of my current novel-in-progress (set in the Tower of Bones world of Neveyah) struck me at 2:30 a.m. on November 1st, taking us to the mid-point crisis in that story.

As a result, I have written the entire second quarter of that epic fantasy proto-novel, nearly 22,000 words in total over the last six days. But that is how NaNoWriMo sometimes goes for me. I plan to be a rebel, and end up following the rules.

On December 1st, I will copy those new chapters from my NaNo Manuscript and paste them into my original rough draft. Once that is done, the new words will bring the total up to around 60,000 words.

If all goes as planned, I will spend the rest of this month writing short stories, and won’t get back to that story until December 1st.

But as you may have noticed, things don’t always go as planned. When inspiration strikes, you must write, as some stories simply burn to be written. Write when you feel the passion, and you will have done your best work.

The creative process is different, from person to person. I use daydreaming and visual art to fire up the creative muse. With these prompts, I have little trouble getting submerged in my work.

As every writer knows, sometimes finding inspiration for what I am supposed to be working on can be elusive. But some random image or phrase will trigger my imagination. At that point I switch gears and write whatever that story is.

During most of the year, I usually have three manuscripts in various stages: one unfinished first draft, one in the second draft stage, and one near the finish line.  Every day I write new words on my rough draft first thing in the morning, unless I have an editing contract. By ten a.m. I move on to work on the others. Focusing on my rough draft first allows me to come to the more finished stories with a different, less biased eye.

At the end of the day, when my creative mind is tired, I find myself alternating between playing my game and adding a few words here and there to my rough draft.

But during November, my writing time is wholly devoted to writing new words. By the end of the day, my brain is fried, and my creative genius has died an untidy death.

As a result, some of my NaNoWriMo ramblings are brilliant—just ask me and I will tell you so. However, the majority of them not so much.

But every word I write can and will be recycled into something better, something useable, and something worth reading. In writing this stream-of-consciousness prose, I’m getting the ideas down before I forget them.

In 2015 and 2016, the manuscript I patched together for NaNoWriMo was like a quilt made up of short stories. This year’s manuscript will be a patchwork too. It will be made up of scenes and vignettes, parts of stories mingled with complete stories.

This jumble is like a bank, but instead of a place to keep money, it’s a depository of ideas and concepts for short stories, flash fictions, and essays. I will come back to this convoluted mish-mash of genres and prose again and again, whenever I need the core of a new story.

The first 22,000 words of this year have been different from the previous two years, in that my work has been a continuation of an established work-in-progress. However, I have now come to a stopping place.

Now I am experimenting with point of view through short stories. I thought of the perfect plot in which to use the little flâneur that lurks in all of us. Yes, I am leaving the fantasy genre for a brief stint in literary fiction. Besides the flâneur, I have an idea for the story of a woman, navigating the shoals of social ostracization because of her husband’s conviction for embezzlement.

Once those are done,  I will return to fantasy with an installment of Bleakbourne on Heath, and a short story set in Neveyah, the world where Tower of Bones is set.

As my homage to paranormal fantasy, I have the idea for another Dan Dragonsworthy story, set in the Drunken Sasquatch, the neighborhood tavern favored by Seattle’s ‘alternate’ population.

If I have time, Astorica, my gender-bent alternate universe, may see another flash fiction.

I have so many ideas and this month of madness is the time for me to get them all down. In fact, I’ve been talking to you long enough—I have to get back to writing!

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#NaNoWriMo Getting word count when you’ve fallen behind #amwriting

For some NaNoWriMo novelists, falling slightly behind becomes a death knell to their project. They feel there is no way they can make it up, that they are doomed, and therefore they quit.

In my experience, falling behind on your word count is the easiest problem to fix.

First, don’t let self-doubt creep in. This is human nature, but don’t let it defeat you.

Second, you must buckle down and write more than the minimum for a while. That is also hard, but if you catch it early, you can do it.

Do a little math. Figure out how many words per day you will need to write to make up what you missed. Add that number to your daily word goals. You might want to add a hundred or so words to that number, so you have a little wiggle-room.

Remember, what you are writing is a rough draft, so your story arc is going to be bumpy and uneven. It doesn’t have to be perfect so don’t fuss over making so. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough draft written in thirty days. So, every time you have fifteen minutes to spare, sit down and write as much as you can in that short time period. Spew your story as fast as you can in those moments before you are pulled away. With six or seven short bursts of writing, you can really rack up the word count, and perhaps make up the difference there.

We all must eat, so during NaNoWriMo, I am the queen of the crockpot and anything that can be baked in the oven. Think about it—once the food is in the oven, you will have at least half an hour of downtime. Set your laptop on the counter and write while things are baking/nuking. That is how I cook Thanksgiving dinner for my extended family—I start prepping food on Tuesday, and by writing every time I have a ten or fifteen minute pause in the preparations, I don’t fall behind. This also allows me to enjoy my family on Thanksgiving day, because most of the work is already done.

Yes, the vegan does roast 2 turkeys for the numerous carnivores, but everything else is plant based and homemade. Despite the extra work that Thanksgiving week adds to my life, I get my word count every day and still get my house ready for guests by using this method.

For much of my working life, I was a single parent, sometimes with three part-time jobs. My main job was as a bookkeeper, or working in data entry for corporate America, but though the 1990s I worked weekends and holidays as a hotel maid. I’m retired now, but although I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo, I was a secret novelist, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was writing.

What I did in those old days was this—I always took my lunch to work and wrote during my lunch half-hour. You don’t have to announce you are writing a book if you don’t wish to—I certainly didn’t feel comfortable doing so. If you want to spend your lunch time writing, politely let people know you’re handling personal business and won’t have time to chat.

Some offices will allow you to use your workstation computer for personal business, but most of my places of employment frowned on that. I brought a notebook and pen as I didn’t own a good laptop. By writing down all my thoughts and ideas, I had a great start when I finally did get a chance to write. If your work allows, bring your laptop or your iPad/Android. So you don’t get into trouble with the boss, sit in the lunchroom (if you have one).

I always wrote in the evenings while my children did their homework, which sometimes meant a lot of stopping and starting, but I did get some writing done. Some is better than none! You can also set aside a block of time on the weekend to make up some words, though that can be difficult, as setting aside an un-infringeable time on a weekend can become a hardship, especially if you have a young family.

But by writing in short bursts whenever you have the opportunity, you might get your first draft finished, and get that certificate that says you completed 50,000 words in 30 days.

One way to cultivate your emotional and poetic mind, and to improve your writing skills in general, is to write in the stream-of-consciousness style. This is unstructured, unedited writing. It reflects your (or your character’s) observations. Writing in this fashion mirrors the way internal thoughts in the human mind work – you are quickly processing thoughts and perhaps switching from one topic to another with a certain amount of abandon. Just go for it.

Remember what I said above? Don’t worry about perfection. The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough draft written in thirty days. In January or March, or whenever you go to rewrite your rough draft, you might be amazed to find that much of what you originally wrote has life and passion.

The point is to keep on writing even when you have fallen behind. Use whatever motivational tricks you need to encourage yourself, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Far more importantly than simply getting word count, the goal is to finish your novel.

And remember: you can do it.

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#FineArtFriday: Earthrise over Compton Crater

 

To write well, we need inspiration. Most of my inspiration comes for nature. That which I cannot visit in person is accessible through Wikimedia Commons. May today’s image inspire your writing.

Quotes from Wikimedia:

The Earth straddling the limb of the Moon, as seen from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter above Compton crater. The shadow in the foreground is from the crater’s central peaks, while the mountains just above it can be seen in the 10 o’clock position within the crater in this image or the 12 o’clock position in this image. Center of the Earth in this view is 4.04°N, 12.44°W, just off the coast of Liberia. The large tan area in the upper right is the Sahara desert, and just beyond is Saudia Arabia. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America are visible to the left.

The Earth is much brighter (higher reflectance) than the Moon, especially from this angle; the Earth was captured near noon while the limb of the Moon was just appearing from the shadows of night, so the Moon was relatively dim. In the opening image the Moon and Earth were contrast-stretched separately to bring out details on the lunar surface. The two contrast stretch makes for a spectacular image, but it may be misleading in a purely scientific sense.


Images and Attributions:

Earthrise over Compton Crater, Image by NASA, Goddard Spaceflight Center, University of Arizona, Public Domain

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Earthrise over Compton crater -LRO full res.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Earthrise_over_Compton_crater_-LRO_full_res.jpg&oldid=264624407 (accessed November 3, 2017).

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Pantsing vs. Plotting or Somewhere in the Middle #NaNoWriMo2017 #amwriting

A friend of mine recently said, “I did what some gurus suggested for NaNoWriMo and planned out my book. All the joy is off the idea now, and I want to do something different.” This is not an uncommon occurrence. For some people, planning the outline makes them feel they have already written the story and they lose their enthusiasm.

I am a plotter, but I am also a pantser. A great article on this subject can be found at The Write Practice.

Quote: Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything or plan very little.

Planning what events your protagonist will face is called plotting, and I make an outline for that.

“Pantsing it,” or writing using stream-of consciousness can produce some amazing work. That works well when we’re inspired, as ideas seem to flow from us. But for me, that sort of creativity is short-lived, unless I have a brief outline to follow, a road map of some sort.

Participating in NaNoWriMo has really helped me grow in the ability to write on a stream-of-consciousness level, but that only works for so long before I need a reminder of what my story was about in the beginning. My storyboard gets me back on track without making me feel like the creativity is already done.

One NaNoWriMo joke-solution often bandied about at write-ins is, “When you’re stuck, it’s time for someone to die.” Sadly, assassinating beloved characters whenever we run out of ideas is not a feasible option because we will soon run out of characters.

As devotees of Game of Thrones will agree, readers (or TV viewers) get to know characters and bond with them. When cherished characters are too regularly killed off, the story loses good people, and we must introduce new characters to fill the void. The reader may decide not to waste his time getting invested in a new character, feeling that you will only break their heart again.

The death of a character should be reserved to create a pivotal event that alters the lives of every member of the cast and is best reserved for either the inciting incident at the first plot point or as the terrible event of the third quarter of the book. So instead of assassination, we should resort to creativity.

This is where the outline can provide some structure, and keep you moving forward.  I will know what should happen in the first quarter, the middle, and the third quarter of the story. Also, because I know how it should end, I can more easily write to those plot points by filling in the blanks between, and the story will have cohesion.

Think about what launches a great story:

The protagonist has a problem.

You have placed them in a setting at a given moment, and shown the environment in which they live.

You have unveiled the inciting incident.

You know what they want, but you aren’t sure how far they will go to achieve it.

Now you need to decide what hinders the protagonist and prevents them from resolving the problem. While you are laying the groundwork for this keep in mind that we want to evoke three things:

  • Empathy/identification with the protagonist
  • Believability
  • Tension

We want the protagonist to be a sympathetic character whom the reader can identify with; one who the reader can immerse themselves in, living the story through his/her adventures.

But for NaNoWriMo, speed is everything. I need to get my 1,667 words every day, and I can’t take the time to sit back and ponder what to write next.

I find that this is where a loose outline helps me write quickly. Readers want the hindrances and barriers the protagonist faces to feel real. A loose guide helps me develop setups for the central events. This enables me to quickly lay down the narrative that shows the payoffs (either negative or positive) to advance the story: action and reaction.

Some authors resort to “idle conversation writing” when they are temporarily out of ideas.  If you can resist the temptation, please do so—it’s fatal to an otherwise good story. Save all your random think-writing off-stage in a background file, if giving your characters a few haphazard, pointless exchanges helps jar an idea loose. (However, for purposes of wordcount, if you wrote it, you can count it!)

One failing of NaNo Novels in their rough draft form is their unevenness. Try not to introduce random things into a scene unless they are important. Remember, to show the reader something is to foreshadow it, and the reader will wonder why a casual person or thing was so important they had to be foreshadowed.

Both over planning and under planning can lead to a book that is stalled and a writer who believes they have ‘writers’ block.’ For me a happy medium lies in a general outline, done as a brief storyboard:

What has prevented you from writing in the past? Did you get busy? Did you sleep in? Did you feel uncreative? These are mental roadblocks we all experience. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to develop the ability to work through these hindrances.

Remember, you are a superhero with a keyboard, slaying the monsters of indolence and lack of creativity.

My dear friend, author Stephen Swartz, had this to say on the subject of over planning: “The story is your ship, the NaNo your ocean. Let the keyboard be your wind! May metaphors drive you to new lands!”

I completely agree. Do a little planning, but write like the wind, and let the story take you where it will.


Credits and Attributions

The Pros and Cons of Plotters and Pantsers by The Magic Violinist, The Write Practice, http://thewritepractice.com/plotters-pantsers/ © 2017

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Developing Discipline #NaNoPrep #NaNoWriMo2017

Every author knows that writing is about so much more than merely laying words down on a page.  Most people with a minimal education can do that, and can even whack out a creditable paragraph or two. However, sustaining the momentum and carrying that vision through an entire novel is quite another thing.

Over the years, I’ve seen disparaging articles where people have expressed their scorn and disdain of authors who participate in Nation Novel Writing Month, mocking the notion of a “competition,” deriding both the authors and work that emerges from this month of madness and frozen pot pies.

They’re missing one important point: to write a novel one must begin a novel and make the time to complete it. It takes discipline to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Most people don’t have what it takes to commit to that kind of regimen. Participating in NaNoWriMo forces the author to sit and write a minimum of 1,667 new words every day. If the participant does only that, they will have completed a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I generally manage between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day during NaNoWriMo.

So, to the naysayers, I say, “Fine. If it takes a special month of writing and a group frenzy to get some people fired up about an idea they’ve had rolling around in their heads, who am I to complain?” I am a reader as much as I am an author. The more books that are written, the merrier I will be.

Here’s a short list of well-known novels to emerge from NaNoWriMo particpants:

  1. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. On the best-seller lists for over a year, turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, started as a NaNo novel.
  2. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. What eventually became The Night Circus began life in 2004, seven years before it was finally published, started as a NaNo novel.
  3. Wool, by Hugh Howey. Howey’s dystopian sci-fi novel is one of those credited with putting self-publishing on the map, started as a NaNo novel.

Authors all begin knowing very little about how to write something another person would want to read. But if you maintain the dedication you develop in November, you can learn how to express what your heart feels. Work at learning the craft as hard as you worked to get your wordcount, and you will develop that talent for storytelling.

I think of the many authors to come who will gain both discipline and love of the craft through participating in NaNoWriMo. Many truly talented people are now embarking on learning a craft, committing their time and resources to educating themselves about how to write a novel that others will want to read. Several years down the road, who knows what wonderful works of fiction will have emerged from this year’s madness?

I only know that I am always looking for a good book, and so I will be first in line, hoping to be impressed by a fresh, new work of art. Therefore, I volunteer as a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo. Every year we have new, young writers, with fresh, amazing ideas. But we also have many new older people who are writing their first novel, embarking on a dream they always had but never thought they could do.

The fact is, most people who begin a novel in November do not reach their goal of 50,000 words and never finish those novels. They do not have the discipline to sit down every day and dedicate a portion of their time to this project.

A great number of NaNo authors discover that doing NaNoWriMo is just like doing karaoke. They love to read, and they want to write the next Gone with the Wind, but their work reads as pleasantly as a tone-deaf drunk singing Wind Beneath my Wings. They are not talented writers, and their work isn’t stellar. Just because the rough draft was finished in thirty days and the author got the winner’s certificate of completion, it doesn’t mean that what they wrote was good. It just means they had the discipline to write it.

But despite the high number of would-be authors who fail to finish their novel, a few writers in each age group will continue writing after the month of madness is over. They will embark on the process of educating themselves in the craft.

These authors see the goal and are filled with the desire to finish what they started, knowing they will have to rewrite, edit, revise, and edit again to truly finish their book. When I talk to them and hear how fired up and passionate they are, I am proud to have been a part of their writing life.

Whatever gets a writer fired up and writing is fine by me, and we are all the better for the experience.

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