On NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is coming.

If you’re not familiar, it’s held every November, and it involves writers signing up on a website with a promise to write a novel between November 1 and November 30.  They have thirty days to try to write 50,000 words, and a community has grown up around it—a whole international society of writers who record and post their word counts, compete, and cheer each other on.

I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo.  But let me tell you about my perspectives on it: why it’s wonderful, and why I nevertheless don’t participate.

Why NaNoWriMo is GREAT:

  • Many writers struggle with motivation to write.  Being forced to make the time or else admit “losing” NaNoWriMo helps some.
  • Many writers do MUCH better if they have an audience of people expecting and hoping that they will succeed.  Since writing is by nature a solitary occupation but not everyone is a solitary person, having a community poised to watch your word count grow is rewarding.
  • No one expects a novel composed in thirty days to be Shakespeare.  Therefore, the pressure is off for those writers who constantly self-edit during the writing process.
  • The community provides access to so many other writers; novelists can find critique partners, like-minded folks, and friends.

Why I’ve never done it (and will never do it):

  • November is an unusually busy month for me most years.
  • I already write fast.  Writing a novel in 30 days isn’t a challenge for me because of my bat-out-of-Hell writing style.
  • I don’t play well with others when it comes to creativity.
  • I don’t tend to need encouragement.  I’ve got that pretty well licked; I never stop writing.
  • The last thing I need is another hastily written manuscript lying around for me to edit.
  • I tend to get easily roped into editing for less experienced writers if I think they need me.  Failing to put myself in a situation where I would definitely encounter them is an act of self-preservation.

If you’ve always wanted to write a novel but you couldn’t get off the ground, or you’ve started project after project but fizzled out, or you need a reason to dive in . . . do NaNoWriMo.  I have a ton of friends who find it really rewarding.

On Querying

If you want to sign with a literary agent to represent your novel, here are some thoughts and tips.

On Preparing to Query:

  • It should go without saying that your book should be complete, polished, and if possible, vetted by your critique partner(s) and/or editor(s).  Before you contact someone wanting to know if they want to help sell your work, your work has to be ready to sell.  (Yes, edits are inevitable once the professional part of your journey begins, but that’s no excuse for querying with a first draft.)
  • Draft a synopsis first.  You need one to two paragraphs describing your book; you might consider writing several, then sharing them with people you know and asking them which one they like best.  When asked to give feedback on a synopsis, most average readers will be vague and say they “like it,” but when given three to choose from, they tend to be better able to articulate what works for them and why.  Which is what you need to know.

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On Writing to the Market

I tend to write pretty non-traditional stuff.

I also have a natural tendency toward wordiness which makes my work difficult to squeeze into the publishing industry’s proverbial Size 8.

So when I have issues placing it, and I whine about it (good-naturedly, most of the time), sometimes well-meaning people tell me I ought to just try to garner some popularity by writing what’s popular at the moment.

“Wouldn’t it be worth it?” these people say.  “Isn’t it worth compromising a little in order to get a following and get attention for your serious work?”

Let me explain to you why I think this is kind of misguided.

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On Higher Education

Today I had an online conversation with a woman who observed that I did not have a Creative Writing or English degree and immediately started talking down to me as if I must not know the first thing about being a writer.

And yet an acquaintance who runs a magazine says that just about every author in the slush pile from a person who mentions having a writing-related degree in their cover letter turns out to be complete crap at writing.  (Colleen Lindsay and Nathan Bransford agree that these folks frequently query poorly or send surprisingly amateur work.)

I majored in Music Education for a year and a half.  Then I majored in Elementary Education and finished that degree.  I considered going for an English degree for about half a second.  I decided against it for many reasons, but the most important one was this:

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On Mary Sues

Mary Sue: a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional. [x]

“Wow, what a Sue!” is thrown around a lot these days in literary criticism.  It’s always insulting.  It always implies that the author did something wrong.  And if it’s applied to an amateur or developing work, it generally means the author needs to do something to reduce the “Sueishness” of the character.

The problem arises when any character who’s exceptional is labeled a Sue.  But wait, don’t we like reading about extraordinary people?  Having a character who’s truly unique in her world can’t be the mark of incompetence, can it?

Recently, in a completely unrelated-to-writing forum, I received a nice message from someone who appreciated one of my articles online, and she added this at the end of the message:

Also, your webcomic rocks. Actual plotlines and character development? Yes please.

After I thanked her, she said a little more about it, mentioning one of my characters in particular:

Too many stories—especially webcomics—are filled with cheap action and universe-spanning prophecies, but the whole thing is ruined by the one-dimensional cardboard cutouts the author pushes around. I’m especially in awe of how you manage to handle Ivy—with all her unbelievably Mary-Sueish characteristics—in a way that makes her realistic and likable. Seriously… how do you manage it?? I try to work with characters that have half her Sueishness and every time they wind up devouring half the story like some sparkly black hole.

So, I thought about it. Hey, how do I manage it?

The character she’s talking about is indeed in the red as far as Mary Sues go. I’ve been well aware of that for a long time. To give you some idea:

  • Author self-insert: When I named the character, she got my nickname (it’s not actually EITHER of our given names), and I didn’t realize it was going to stick to both of us. . . .
  • Unusual and attractive appearance: She’s biracial (half Chinese, half white American mutt) but somehow ended up with features you don’t often see come out of that combination: blonde hair, large green eyes. Annnnd is randomly missing the pinkies on her hands and feet and has pointy ears for no reason.
  • Has unusual powers that aren’t commonplace for the character’s race: She has an unexplained and unprecedented gigantic case of telekinesis. Why? Got me!

At this point in the webcomic story, my character was a two-year-old, so she’s too young to really do most of the Sueish things people in her situation are prone to doing (e.g., angsting, being sought after by people who are drawn in by curiosity or attraction or greed, making some kind of Epic Plot based around superpowers, etc.). But she’s still got a LOT of the warning signs of Suedom, and yet the compliment above suggests I’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls somehow. Well, what’s up with that?

Here is my somewhat rambly and surely incomplete guide to making your characters not suck, even if they are, by some definitions, Sues:

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On Speech Tags

Use “said.”

Did your English teacher ever pass out a handy worksheet of alternatives for the word “said” and encourage you to “jazz up” your stories with them?

Please, tell me no English teacher did this to you.

Sadly, I have heard from more than one person that English teachers actually did deliberately train them to “make their writing varied and interesting” by switching out boring old “said” for these clearly more interesting words like “jeered,” “growled,” or “expectorated.”

No.  Use “said.”

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On Publishing Scams

So you’ve written a book, or you’re writing one, or you’re thinking about writing one. You’re an artist. You’re a visionary. Or you’re at least very excited about the idea of creating something beautiful in writing and looking into getting it published. What do you do?

Ah, well, a lot of opportunistic companies out there are interested in you. Rather, they’re interested in your money, and in exploiting your idealism and naïveté to make you think you need their services. Or that their services are a legitimate, authentic road to becoming a published writer. Guess what? They aren’t.

I’ve written about The National Library of Poetry and how they try to rip off clueless poets by praising their poetry and then trying to sell them a book containing their poems (and others’ poems collected the same way) for exorbitant prices. These publishing and editing services are in the same camp.

There are many scams out there to try to trick writers into thinking it’d be prudent to pay for some service. Now, editing services exist. And I recommend having your novel heavily edited, even if you have to pay for it. But if you see someone charging reading fees for agent reviews, offering to take your money to rep you to publishers, or praising your work (sometimes without seeing it!) and offering you vague statements about their “connections” which they will put to use for you for a small fee, run. The websites Preditors & Editors and The Absolute Write Water Cooler are excellent resources for writers trying to research the legitimacy of any professional in the writing industry. But here are some specific things you should know about these misleading services.

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On Originality

“There ARE no new ideas.  Everything under the sun has been done.”

Sometimes we hear this from people who are defending trite rehashings/copycat stories/ripoffs of existing, well-known, popular works.  After all, there are really only a few story types that just keep getting retold, so why should we expect originality from writers?  Why not just let them lift whatever they like and get away with calling it an homage?

Because even established story types like the Hero’s Journey can be told in original ways.  Even traditional high fantasy can be Tolkien-inspired without reading like the author thinks Middle-Earth is a public-domain playground.

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