Youngblood Blog

Writing weblog, local, topical, personal, spiritual

ABNA Minefield after NaNo Haven?

2010 ABNA winner in YA fiction category: Amy Ackley's 'Sign Language'

I, along with several of my writerly-and-blogging friends, entered ABNA 2011 last week. The two-week entry period for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, sponsored by Penguin Group USA and presented by Amazon.com, with Publisher’s Weekly as Review Sponsor, closed last weekend.

The contest’s aim is to ‘publish and promote a manuscript by an unknown or unpublished author’, the winner being awarded a publishing contract with PenguinUSA, including a $15,000 advance.

That’s the carrot.

There are, however, several sticks that drive this donkey forward.

They’ve devised some unexpected hoops for us ‘unknown’ authors to leap through. And to brave those fiery hurdles, you need an iron-clad constitution, or at least the ability to meditate yourself out of those stress-filled moments of Angst before and after the contest’s several stages. It also helps if, in addition to your flair for putting pen to paper, you have a background in agenting, query letters, publicity and self-PR.

Which a lot of writers don’t.

Some of my writerly friends have been so psyched up –nerve-endings shattered, normal life relegated to broom closet– that we ended up sharing some inside information which may be of use to someone thinking of entering future writing and publishing contests. Though, the way I feel right now, I could be wrong.

If I write these lines BEFORE the judges read the ABNA entries and eliminate (most of) us from Round One (announcement due February 24th), then my comments can’t be seen as ‘sour grapes’, either by my writing friends or the judges.

As I see it, compared with the safe haven of NaNoWriMo, the annual creative writing competition which has run every year since 1999, ABNA is a minefield. It’s not difficult to see why. It’s not being run by writers or authors, but by the ‘Industry’.

"Off with her head" -- Disney Queen or ABNA reviewer?

O, skeptical veteran author who has ploughed her way through the mire set with explosive devices designed by agents and publishers to restrict the floodgates of queries and unsolicited MSS to a manageable flow, a readable number: you need read no farther. I commend you, but am not addressing you in this blog.

My thoughts are instead directed to the unsuspecting budding ‘unknown’, author of a work which may have been written in an ecstatic rush during last November’s NaNo, or one which took years to write, hours of editing, polishing and resubmitting; even a work you’ve already self-published, because nobody else seemed interested. These words are for the novelist who at best isn’t sure s/he has written something good, at worst wants to burn the MS; but in her heart –and in hazy days and insomniac nights at the keyboard– believes it will be the next world bestseller.

I’m comparing and contrasting. But I know I’m also talking apples and pears.

After the NaNo experience, you emerge feeling glued to the keyboard

NaNo was conceived 12 years ago by a non-profit group, the stellar Office of Letters and Light in San Francisco. Run by and for writers, NaNo loves its contestants, encourages them with profile pages which fellow participants can access, community posts that share tips and hints, and it stirs them up with frequent email encouragement. It even persuades volunteer group leaders –MLs (stands for Municipal Liaison, but means Motivation Leader)– to keep writers in geographical groups hard at it during the month of November. In essence, it succeeds in inspiring a large majority of its 200,000 participants (2010 figure, a phenomenal number) to write a novel of at least 50k words in thirty days. Those that make it –writing an average of 1667 words per day– are declared winners.

You emerge from the NaNo experience feeling your fingers are permanently glued to the keyboard.

Even if your family and friends have deserted you and you have forgotten how to cook, clean, or sleep, when you’ve written a NaNo novel, you feel you’ve accomplished something. You suspect you might just conceivably –with a little tweaking, triple edits and a couple of final rewritten chapters– throw your baby into the shark-infested waters of the real world of publishing.

ABNA –now in its third year– comes along conveniently in January (humanity in northern hemisphere at a low ebb, dreams in hibernation). It offers a brief window of opportunity for entry into its two fiction categories, young adult and adult, and you, the revved up, rewarded and real-world-rookie writer go for it. After all, you’ve got a new novel in your pocket (or hard drive), so why not?

If that describes your feeling of euphoria, beware: there are pitfalls.

There are several holes in the 2011 competition –not least the fact that 5000 adult fiction authors and nearly-5000 YA fiction contestants have now entered ABNA and been left hanging. No profile page like the friendly NaNo interface, no sharing. Not even a taste of comparing one’s entry with the other 4999 contestants in the same genre, no personal touch, no encouraging emails. All right. It’s a competition to promote professionalism in writers and project two of them to stardom. The contest homepage suggests you join numerous discussion boards and help groups if you need to know more. And the entry format is simple: an upload page for submitting your MS, its description (which goes on Amazon.com if you win), a 5000-word excerpt along with your author Bio, contact details and the pitch. That’s it.

Ah, there’s the rub. The pitch.

A pitch (as in ‘sales pitch’) is a series of short paragraphs which grab the reader/reviewer/listener and give a punchy version of your plot outline: not necessarily in any chronological order, so long as it ‘grabs’.

Round One, which closes February 24th, eliminating 4000 of those aspiring entrants in each category, is being judged solely on the pitch. A group of editors chosen by Amazon will select 1000 pitches they judge most likely to reveal an exciting new concept in the novel beneath. Not the excerpt, not the description, certainly not the author’s past achievements. A 300-word pitch.

And, as we all know, novelists are traditionally lousy at writing their own PR.

Most of the feedback I’ve heard is from (accomplished and innovative) writers who are placing little voodoo dolls of themselves on the desk next to their laptops and sticking pins in them.

‘My pitch sucks,’ ‘I can’t write a pitch for love or money’, ‘I’m going to fail Round One because I don’t know how to pitch my story’ are a few of the comments I’ve read. Sixteen pages of commentary and shared suggestions exist on the NaNo web community helping 2010 NaNo novelists to overcome lack of faith in their 2011 ABNA pitch. These are not first-time writers, not amateurs tossing a ball in the air to see where it lands. These are dedicated, passionate authors throwing themselves and their lovingly-crafted characters (MC, protagonist and supporting cast) to the wolves, oops, sharks.

Because, unmasked, that is what ABNA is. The publishing industry’s undertaker: the smiling, cravatted, pin-stripe suited facilitator, helping put the last nail in the coffin innocently provided by 8000 novelists. Some of last year entrants were so deflated by the reviews they received from ‘industry expert reviewers’ that they will not enter again this year. Some will never try another contest.

According to personal testimony, a few of this year’s potential entrants were so daunted by the prospect of writing a snappy bullet for their pitch, only to be turned down before a single actual word of their novel was read, that they decided against entering ABNA altogether.

They say only the strong survive.

Round One, above, eliminates 90 percent.

Round Two offers a little ray of hope to those 1000 lucky survivors. That’s when Amazon/Penguin editors and reviewers will get to read the fortunate contestants’ excerpts. Not the MS yet: just the first chapters. ABNA chose this to mean not a random excerpt which to another writer might show individual flair, style and voice, but the first 5000 words, i.e. the opening chapters, of your novel. This, they say, gives an insight into the novelist’s grasp of how to hold a reader from the outset. We’re getting closer to the agent-query process. Round Two will be judged on a scale of one (poor) to five (excellent) on ‘overall strength, prose, style, plot, hook and originality’ of the excerpt. Then on March 13, 2011, 250 novels will be chosen in each category to progress to the Quarter Finals.

Round Three: Publishers Weekly reviewers select 50 entries to move forward to the Semi-Finals. Announced April 25, 2011.

Semi-Finals April 26 – May 23, 2011
At this stage top excerpts in each category will be posted on the ABNA homepage where the public may view and vote for their favorite entry, but also where each contestant will be reviewed by a celebrity panel, ‘each consisting of at least one well-known author, one agent, and one editor’. That rather sums it up. Now the truth will out.

Finals May 24 – June 1, 2011
Three finalists in each category will have their complete MSS read and chosen by this select panel and excerpts of these six novelists’ work will be displayed on the ABNA homepage. The public get to vote for their own chosen winner –one finalist in each category. Panel reviews of the finalists’ work will also be posted.

Amazon celebrates the winners in both categories in an awards ceremony at a venue yet to be named after an announcement on June 13, 2011.

One blogger estimated the chances of being chosen as the publishing industry’s next top author as 0.02%.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. As the final rounds progress, others will be scanning, not just the ABNA website but the weblogs of entrants who made it through some of the hoops. These are themselves agents, editors, publishers representing other institutions, aware that ABNA may be missing out on some unique talents whose gems are slipping through the cracks. That raises the odds to at least 0.06%.

So all is not lost.

I say this vehemently to absolve any and all of my scribefriends who may or may not mention ABNA in their blogs this month. Nobody wants to bite the hand that (potentially) feeds. I take full responsibility for this blog opinion. Their blogs, here, here and here are talented, informative and mostly talk of other things. But IMHO the odds need to be counted, the truth told.

Agents whose blogs share an industry perspective on the current economical difficulties facing publishers are quick to assure us that, if our work is superb, our concept original and our writing has an individual ‘voice’, it will be heard by the right ear and our work will reach readers.

Readers: ah, them. The reader is, first and last, the audience we really write for. If we forget that amid the media hype, the punchy pitch, we forget who is really important. Without the reader, dear Reader, our writing is just tapping electrons into the ether.

NaNoWriMo helped me create something from the bosom of my Muse which surprises and delights me. Even if it needs another three months to develop it into something readable by another, I love it for the stretching effect it had on my psyche. I may be wrong, but the ABNA setup seems geared to do the opposite: to shrink and contract that flow of inspiration that lies within.

I am certain I shall be a NaNo participant next November. I am not so sure I feel like braving another ABNA in 2012.

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February 8, 2011 Posted by | authors, culture, fiction, novel, publishing, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Displacement Activity during NaNo month

FEATURED WRITERS CORNER

November is NaNo writing month

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by
– Douglas Adams

My last two blogs have featured talented — and busy — authors: the GuestBlog is such a boon when you’re feeling not quite writerly yourself.

Er, well, it’s not that I haven’t been writerly, I have. Just otherwise focused.

NaNo started on November 1st and won’t stop until November 30th and we’re not quite half way through the introductions yet. NaNo is when you abandon all hope of having a life, get up each day knowing you have an obligation to fulfill, fall into bed far too late into the wee hours because you know you won’t get a good night’s sleep otherwise, and generally find it difficult to communicate with your family — unless they’re on Facebook for a couple of minutes. Did I say eat? Whatever’s within reach. So long as it’s quick.

By now all leaf color is a leaf carpet

But November is also the month of Scorpio. That black and white personality, do or die, and if you die, don’t expect anyone to come and pick up the pieces — kind of month. Winter approaches. You can feel it in every breath. Watery autumnal sunlight, and where I live up here on the 57th parallel (cf Juneau, AK), light is gone from the day by 4p.m. Leaves are no longer pretending to cling to tree branches because most of the colorful ones are now carpeting the driveway. That kind of month. A time when one should be out there making the nest ready for hibernation through the next three months of dire weather and even direr temperatures.

And yet that’s the month a small group of writer-stroke-genius displacement activists chose to nurture the NaNo Bug.

Those of our critics who aren’t writers themselves say writing is ‘displacement activity’ from Life with a capital L. As a child, were we encouraged to write or were we encouraged to get an education which would slot us into a ‘good job’?

No displacement activity

Nevertheless I am writing. It’s what a writer is supposed to do.

NaNo was founded in 1999 by a looseknit group (I like the picture that conjures up, kind of like a quilting bee) of writerly types in San Francisco, CA. They chose to set aside the month of November — all 30 days of it — to create the bones of a novel. The ‘bones’ amounts to 50,000 words. Or writing a minimum of 1667 words every day. In order to nourish, challenge and encourage each other, certain perks, ‘gifts’, achievement stickers and carrots are used.

While the pain and self-immolation this exercise invokes might seem to be some people’s idea of lunacy, the Nano idea grew.

Gradually a body of supporters, themselves plunging into writerly waters for the marathon type-in, brought Nano fame. And purpose to November for writers. The month made the real world go away. Instead of the world of lethal freeze outside, your world turns inwards, into the novel or what the novel will become. You hand yourself over to an overlighting presence. You become just the fingers on the keyboard. The body on the bed.

NaNo’s acronym grew from the idea that November is now National Novel Writing Month and a website encourages the cotidien and foolhardy habit, suggesting you upload* a daily wordcount, so as to see your own (growing) stats and feel you are accomplishing something. There are free stickers and website widgets to egg you on, should you feel in need of a boost. And at the end of it, when you’ve passed the 50,000 word mark (some achieve 70,000-100,000. Hey, let’s not knock it), they proclaim you a Winner and you get a purple ‘winner’s’ accolade; plus the offer of a proof hardcopy of your book in print from Amazon’s CreateSpace.

But what happens to this human being who has committed her/himself to such a daily chore (sometimes a pleasure, sometimes a chore)? Does the Muse** visit every day and hold her/his hand through the ordeal?

Even if you don’t feel the Muse holding your hand every day, there are a couple of NaNo folks who do. They’ve taken on the volunteer job of keeping you at it. Been there, done that. They too, most of them, are sitting at their laptops in Peoria Illinois and Ashland Oregon and Walnut Creek California and (Rome, Madrid, London and Skye) pitching in again this November to finish writing their very own ‘new’ idea, plot, adventure, MS, WIP, exercise in writer’s-block-removal.

First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him
– Ray Bradbury

At the end of the 30 days, if you drag yourself kicking and screaming to the keyboard every day, and create a piece of work, long or short — ignoring edits, spelling errors, lack of thought-flow; just get it out there — there’s one thing you’ll have achieved. A 50,000-word story. It may feel awful, scratchy, patchy, unformed or uninformed, and half the characters may have glaring holes in their back-stories, but it’s the bones of your next novel, your very own WIP — the Work in Progress that will make you feel a teensy bit achieving.

It may take another year before it becomes fit to print, but that’s not the point. During the process, and especially in the middle doldrums — Week Two Blues — it’s the vision of a completed task that draws you on when you tell yourself the last thing you want to do today is sit down and write a chapter about some silly characters that won’t talk to each other.

That’s part of the clever NaNo trick. They must have learned it from Jack Kerouac. He pasted sheets of copier paper top-and-tail together and fed the roll into a typewriter carriage, stocked up with coffee and ‘uppers’ and wrote ‘On the Road‘ in three weeks.

I’m not suggesting the ‘uppers’. Besides, NaNo ‘writing buddies’ are quite good at keeping you going if you flag. Or Facebook. Remember what they say: if your Subconscious has been alerted and informed by your Will that it has to regurgitate something every day in November, believe me, the Subconscious does.

And it sends in the Muse.

You may not like Her. You may not even be able to identify with Her, but at the end of 30 days, you will have Her staring you in the face, handing you a story. And when you really have something finished — I didn’t say polished: that comes after — you really feel you have to do something with it! Because it’s your WIP and it’s all yours.

They say writers are the least likely people to market their own wares. Isaac Asimov said:

Rejection slips, query and form letters, and synopses, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil, but there is no way around them.

2010 NaNo in progress

Which brings me back to Displacement Activity. What NaNo does for writers is just such a way around the roadblock that Asimov thought inevitable. It physically takes over space and time and allows the writerly urge to come through. Displacement activity is put aside to make way for words. That means life functions, regardless/oblivious of eating, drinking, sleeping, making love, shopping, paying bills or stoking fires — or any other life chore, for that matter — take a back seat, offering space for the writer and Muse to get to know one another all over again. And ideally during the process, all distractions, such as rejection slips, plotlines, query letter seminars, agent/ editor suggestions or even how the story’s going to end (along with cell phones) fall into the file drawer below the supply of tea/coffee, twinkies/cookies, cheese bits, and granola.

The rest of the world can criticize you for making writing your Displacement Activity from Life. But by the time you’re past Week Two, the halfway hurdle, and you find you’ve got a story going, your characters are coming alive, even if you’re not quite on the home stretch, you (hopefully) don’t believe your activity is displacement at all. You’ve found a new friend.

So why am I here writing this blog? Must be Nano Displacement Activity. Sorry, dear readers and fellow writers, I got to get back. My NaNo Muse is calling.

* An exciting widget until year 2010 was the wordcount widget. You copy & paste your daily output as input to the NaNo page and it counted the result for you and pasted the glorious total as part of your personal and site-wide stats. In 2010 this feature will only become available to site visitors after November 25th when the widget will be available to participants to ‘verify’ their (completed) output/MS/novel.
**Some days She does; some days She doesn’t.

Ed. As evidence of Marian’s supreme NaNo Displacement Activity, she wrote the following little Drabble for entry in the December Drabble contest over at Burrowers, Books and Balderdash.

NOLA HOLA

She’d worked hard – her beads sparkled in December sunshine. Farmers market always busy on weekends, the tomato and squash guy in the next stall said, selling his pumpkins for pennies. Mark ’em down low was his recipe for getting home early.

Freezing, only her second time, she gotta stay to cover costs. Don’t come back without a Franklin, or I break your arm, he’d said.

That weirdo, watching from a doorway since lunchtime, came over, handed her a 1000 dollar bill.
‘Cleveland cover it?’ he asked, picking up the jewel case.
Passport outta Dodge, she thought.
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Thanks.’

©2010 Marian Youngblood
photo ‘Colourful beads’ by Natasha Ramarathnam
A Drabble is a story — a bullet, an idea, a character outline, a work of fiction that is exactly 100 words long: no more, no less.
December Drabble Theme at Burrowers, Books and Balderdash

November 13, 2010 Posted by | astrology, authors, culture, novel, seasonal, winter, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

‘Writing’s the one thing I can call my own’

Featured Writers Corner

Oftentimes we have no choice: the keyboard calls

Margaret Atwood once said:

“Writing is not a job description. A great deal of it is luck. Don’t do it if you are not a gambler because a lot of people devote many years of their lives to it (for little reward). I think people become writers because they are compulsive wordsmiths”

I think I would put it even stronger: we are compulsive wordsmiths, yes, but sometimes we are actually unable to put the pen down or — in this case in the 21st century — abandon the computer keyboard. We may, like my adorable blogging compatriot, Tara Smith, be compulsive people-watchers and take notes or store the info in our heads until we get a moment to write it down; or we may just be of the temperament that it takes us over, we have no recourse but to let it and we set aside somewhere, some time apart from our Other Life in order to do it. It drives us. It controls us. I am no longer fooled into thinking I have a choice in the matter.

Virginia Woolf said: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ That was an early 20th century view. Nowadays, all we ask is a tiny corner in the middle of the madness, so we and our Muse can be together for a brief (illicit) rendezvous.

As you probably read in my blog on John LeCarré, this little corner is my attempt to feature my favorite real-life struggling authors. By that I mean those of us who are continually pitting our wits against the ever-growing behemoth of the Publishing World: the world we writers are so NOT equipped to tackle and yet, as agents keep on telling us: we don’t get there unless we try. So in addition to being tied down with imaginary ropes and shackles by our Muse, our flow is constricted by being constantly reminded that to publish we must become marketers.

To refute this assumption, Barbara Kingsolver says:
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”

I present you with persistent blogger, Princess of Procrastination, ChickLit author of Cardiffella and my Welsh Sista, Tara Smith.

Featured Writer: TARA SMITH

When Marian asked me to guest on her blog, I immediately decided to do it without thinking about it at all. For those of you that don’t know me (which I’m guessing will be the majority of you), that’s very typical of me. I’ll agree to almost anything and I never think about the consequences. I over-commit myself, I allow myself to be persuaded into projects, and I tell myself that it would be rude to say ‘no’ (well, it would be rude to say ‘no’, especially when people specifically think of me to help them with something And I really don’t like to be rude).

Cambrian Princess, Tara Smith

Anyway, along with my Can’t Say No Attitude, I’m also a Procrastinator of the Highest Order. You would think that the two wouldn’t go hand in hand – indeed, they shouldn’t go hand in hand – but unfortunately they seem to be Partners in Crime.

So here I am, at the eleventh hour (24 hours before Marian’s deadline to be exact, and when you consider that I was asked to do this weeks ago, you can probably see how much of a procrastinator I really am) typing up this blog post.

Those of you familiar with Marian’s blog will have come to expect detailed, well thought-out posts which show care and loving attention to every sentence, so I should probably apologise because my efforts are definitely not of the same level at all. As with all writing, I’m a Fly By The Seat Of My Pants kind of girl, which means I rarely research and just dive right in, hoping against hope that I will have produced something legible at the end. I really shouldn’t call myself a writer at all, I’m far too haphazard in my approach to it.

But the thing is, I enjoy writing. No. Scrap that. I love writing.

It doesn’t matter if I am writing for my own blog, for other blogs, for my fan fiction stories, or for my original stories, I just love to write. Sure, I get frustrated more often than not when my Writing Mojo doesn’t do his job properly (my current Writing Mojo looks suspiciously like Jensen Ackles, by the way, and as he’s been so naughty lately I may have to punish him accordingly), but when I get into the flow of it, writing makes me about as happy as it is possible to be.

Writing, for me, is escapism from the busy life of a working mother. I only work part time, but add the 16 hours of my earning job to the endless hours of my ‘mother’ job, and there really aren’t enough hours to go around. Sometimes I think that if I paused for a moment, everything would come crashing down upon me, such is the balancing act that is my daily life. I don’t really have any hobbies (aside from an addiction to reading [and procrastinating] ), so writing is the only thing that I can do that is especially for me. My kids can’t get involved in it, my husband can’t get involved in it, and my cats can’t pester me about it either. A working mother (or any mother, for that matter) is spread so thin that sometimes she can forget all about herself, so for me writing is the one thing that I can call my own that is not accountable to anyone else.

It doesn’t matter if I don’t write for a while, it doesn’t matter if when I do write it is nothing more than the mad mutterings of a crazy person, the writing comes from me and me I don’t really have a current project as such, more a pile of unfinished projects that could probably do with a good dusting off (part of the problem of being a procrastinator is that you tend to be a starter and not a finisher, if you know what I mean). I’d like to say that I have written a novel. Well, actually I have written a novel, it’s just it’s nowhere near ready for publishing yet, so it’s technically a draft.

Soon to hit the bookshelves -- if the Muse is willing -- Cardiffella by Tara Smith

This draft was the finished product of last year’s NaNoWriMo challenge (National Novel Writing Month), and it was the first time I had ever written something so long in such a short space of time. You would think that after achieving 50,000 words in a month I would be able to go back and add another 10k and tidy it up a bit with no problem at all.

Alas, the bane of procrastination!

Still, with another WriMo coming up I am hoping that another month of sleep-deprived crazy writing will give me the kick up the butt that I need. Last year I wrote a Chick Lit comedy – which, let me tell you, was a complete surprise to me, as I had been sporadically working on a fantasy-based novel for a good number of years (yes, years: it’s not a typo. I’m not the most prolific of writers to be sure). This time around I’m thinking of taking another genre path and going for contemporary drama instead. I’ve been known –- despite my reputation for being slightly loopy -– to write good, solid drama over the years, and I’m thinking that’s what I should maybe do. If I do it, that is. Yeah, we’re a dithering bunch, we procrastinators, and can never decide what we are going to do until the last minute (hence this eleventh hour ramble blog post).

That’s the beauty of being a writer though, there aren’t any boundaries. Most jobs in the real world have a routine to them that borders on mind-numbing. Unless you are extremely lucky and have a job that you love, or you work in some sort of challenging academic field, your place of work pretty much fences you in and you have to deal with the same stuff day in, day out. I work in a newsagents three days a week, and although the tasks vary a little for the different days, it’s still the same things that I have to do one week after another. The only upside (or downside, depending which way you look at it) is that along with the regular customers that frequent the shop, you are almost always guaranteed to get a few new people every day. And for a writer, that is good news.

People-watching (or nosing at strangers; you decide) can be a fountain of inspiration if you do it properly. On the few occasions when I am not running around like a headless chicken with newspapers flying out of my hands, I’ll stop for a moment and observe a customer. It may only be for a few seconds, but in that short space of time I’ll have given them a name, an occupation, a relationship status, and a little back story.

Not that I’m a stalker or anything, you understand, I’m just a curious person (as in curious about other people, not curious myself. Then again, I suppose you could call me odd if you wanted to).

NaNoWriMo: writing every day in November

Anyway, that’s what I do in between counting the magazines and putting stock on to the shelves. You see, even when I’m supposed to be working, my brain is still in writer mode. Which is why I call myself a writer. It’s not something that you can make yourself do, you either are or you aren’t.

I’ve had people say to me over the years that they can’t understand how I can write stories from thin air, as they wouldn’t know where to begin. Others have commented on how I can fill blog posts with (mostly) legible words on a daily basis (though, to be fair, that was only during last October and November, which were the only two months that I managed to blog every day. . . *shifty*). But to me it would be inconceivable if I couldn’t write a few paragraphs about any subject in the world. I can’t understand what is so difficult to understand, if truth be told.

Writing, for me, isn’t a job. It’s isn’t a hobby either. It’s just a part of me, like my arms or my legs. I can go months without physically writing anything, but the storytelling instinct lurking inside me is never far from the surface. I could no more stop writing than I could stop eating (and I do love to eat, it has to be said). And let’s not forget that I’m just an ordinary thirty-something woman. I have a crappy job, two kids, a mortgage, and bills to pay (or not to pay some months, let’s be honest). I’m no J.K.Rowling or Dan Brown, I’m just me, Tara Smith, living my ordinary life for the time being while I sit on the pipe dream of becoming a published author.

Everyone needs something to hope for and to aspire to, or life would become stagnant. My writing dream may only ever be a dream, but it’s a darn good one that I’ll keep having until I stop breathing. I love to write. That’s it, that’s me. It’s what keeps me sane in my insane life, and it’s something that I’ll always do, no matter what.

And no-one can take it away from me, because it’s mine.
©2010 Tara Smith

That, folks, was TARA SMITH. Isn’t she fabulous?
OTHER featured writers soon to appear (or appear again) are:

Cathy Evans
Hart Johnson
Pete Madstone (May 2010)
Natasha Ramarathnam
Genie Rayner (October 2010)
Rob Read
Mehal Rockefeller (April 2010)
Catrien Ross of Energy Doorways
Tara Smith (September 2010)
Jim Vires (October 2010)

ED: Tara Smith is author of hilariously funny Cardiffella, a dedicated NaNoWriMo participant, working wife and mother and Blogspot blogger Princess of Procrastination. Enjoy.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | authors, culture, Muse, novel, publishing, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

18 Steps to Becoming a Writer

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already a writer. So the appended list is intended as a little tongue-in-cheek, because those in the field who haven’t yet plunged have miles to go before they sleep….

Author David Cornwell in Cornwall speaking to Jon Snow, courtesy Channel 4 News

There is one great role model still out there, however, and he gave a rare interview on British television (to Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow, thank you) on September 13th. In his eightieth year, David Cornwell — no you don’t know him by that name, but read on — will publish his 22nd book this week on September 16th.

Before I get to the steps to mastery of this mysterious gift — writing — I want to say that Jon Snow did a magnificent job: not only did he subsume his role as producer/director and questioning acolyte into the greater picture which his interviewee painted, but he seemed to enjoy every moment of it. His follow-up Snowblog had a telltale air of enthusiasm and excitement about it, as if his trip to Cornwall to see Cornwell had actually inspired him.

His opening line: ‘The night sleeper drew exhaustedly into Penzance station’ was a creative scene-setter. Well done Jon.

The octogenarian-to-be certainly inspired me. David Cornwell is, of course, in case you hadn’t guessed, the all-Brit deeply researched (by personal experience) spy thriller writer John Le Carré. He has lived in his clifftop home overlooking the wild Atlantic Ocean for nearly forty years. That kind of rootedness — plus his earlier career in the British Foreign Office — leads to writerly focus and concentration. And those, as we know, are the main ingredients in pulling off a masterpiece, the following 18 steps notwithstanding!

Scrivener storyboard: the 'greatest advance for writers since the word processor' Michael Marshall Smith

Step One: Decide you’re going to write a story.

Step Two: Decide it’s going to be brilliant. Imagine the response of your [teacher, classmates, reading group, agent] and how it will completely change the way they look at you.

Step Three: Open up Scrivener for Macs or Microsoft Word or, if you are really doing this for the VERY FIRST time, unpack the old portable typewriter and put a fresh sheet of paper in the roller and snap to. (I’m not the only one who remembers what that feels like).

Step Four: Stare at the blank white screen stretching on into infinity until your eyes begin to water and your brain hurts from the sheer emptiness of it all.

Step Five: Check your e-mail. If writing a novel, research agents for a couple of hours.

Step Six: Stare at the blank Scrivener/Word document again.

Step Seven: Realize you need music. Spend the next hour finding the perfect “mood” music for what you want to write.

Step Eight: Inspired by [insert perfect music here], click back over to Scrivener/Word document.

Step Nine: Change Facebook status to: [Your name here] is WRITING!!! Realize you aren’t on Twitter, and that anyone who is anyone is networking/wasting time on Twitter. Sign up for an account and spend the next two hours figuring out how it works and what the hell # means.

Step Ten: Stare at blank Scrivener/ Word document. Decide you need a title. Brainstorm for the next hour.

His 22nd spy thriller is launched this week

Step Eleven: Come up with a GENIUS title. Proudly type “The Scent of Green Papayas” at the top of the document, followed by your name. Happily consider how easily a story will come now that you have such an amazing, literary title.

Step Twelve: Take a four-hour break for snacks and naptime.

Step Thirteen: Refreshed, sit down and toy around with pen names for a while.

Step Fourteen: Realize to your horror that your genius title is actually the name of a Vietnamese foreign film you saw seven years ago.

Step Fifteen: Erase the title, pressing Backspace much harder than necessary.

Step Sixteen: Stare at the blank Scrivener/Word document until your eyes bleed.

Step Seventeen: Check Facebook. See that fourteen people have commented on your status, asking what you are writing. Feel both guilty and annoyed.

Step Eighteen: Slam your laptop shut and go to the movies. Tomorrow’s a better day for writing, anyhow.

See? You never knew writing was so easy!

This little provocative bullet was provided by Chuck Sambuchino in the Literary Agents Editor’s Blog.

it is far more relevant to hear from Le Carré directly: while the Channel 4 Snowblog does go into detail on the points of the Snow interview, as a ‘news’ interview, it concentrates on the spy stuff, its relevance in our 21st Century world. What stay with me, on the other hand, are Cornwell’s clear and lucid words on solitude and being touched by the Muse. His years of experience in handling spies and other British Foreign Office delicacies (when Britain was still called Britain) are merely a hook for the content of his books on espionage. What he said in this rare and insightful interview (probably his last; he said so himself) is far more important for budding — and successful — storytellers.

‘Popular writers have usually got one flag they can always wave. And it haunts them. It haunts me. Can I ever write another Spy Who Came in from the Cold? The answer is no, I can’t. But I can do other stuff.’ His latest title Our Kind of Traitor, will more than satisfy readers hungry for an exposé on current (London-centered) compromised politicians and a banking system’s feigned ignorance of money-laundered Russian cash acquired via offensive (and illegal) means.

For Le Carré the writing life, he says, is the only life he has. His imaginary characters are his friends. He admits that his walks around his home take the form of a reconnection with childhood. ‘I populate these hills with the characters of my imagination.’ His supportive and ever-present wife Jane does the donkey work — the typescripts — after David has used the dining room table as a storyboard: chopped pieces of edited MS scotchtaped, paperclipped and scribbled on, folded together or pried apart when a paragraph doesn’t work. [So he’s no advertising guru for Scrivener]. His mind, like his dining table, is a cohesion of scattered bits.
‘It’s all I know now. It’s that and my family. We have very little social life’, he admits gleefully.

Le Carré, pen-name for David Cornwell, forever guided by the Muse, his 22nd novel is published this week

He is the epitome of the non-planner. His works don’t have an outline, format or detailed chapter-by-chapter mission plan. He likes to go with the flow.

‘I don’t make plots in advance. I don’t make great march routes. I actually try to throw people into a messy life and see how they’ll sort it out — while I’m writing. So the whole adventure is one I share with the reader.’

To me, however, one of his most precious gems, dropped when the blogger-presenter and cameraman weren’t paying attention, was on the role of focus, solitude and attention given by the writer to his Muse. He used the ‘flag-flying’ of authors as a springboard, but his personal insight seemed to come as an afterthought, as if its relevance might not be understood by the current generation of writers influenced by ‘spin’, the ‘pitch’, that whole marketing morasse which a writer can drown in. It was a key thought behind his declaration that this might be the last interview he would give.

Talking about what one has achieved is very addictive, he says. ‘I’ve seen the best minds be wooed by the camera. It is exciting. I’ve been there myself. But it deprives one of one’s essence’. He describes his final interview as ‘most candid and honest’; says only through solitude, in allowing the fusion between the word and the mind to coalasce, to filter through from that place of inspiration to typeface on the printed page, does true connection — and joy — emerge.

That’s the gift. And talking about it disperses and fragments it.

So, in maintaining forty years of silence (on camera) but by allowing his words to flow in print, Cornwell has not only been true to his Muse, but to his reader.

That, in my humble opinion, is true dedication to the art.

©2010 Marian Youngblood
It seems right that soon-to-be-octogenarian David Cornwell (b. October 19, 1931) should feature before a series of talented author/writer friends are showcased here over the next weeks on this blog. Each one is dedicated to the artform. Each has a tale to tell. I hope you enjoy. And if you are perched on that branch, uncertain if you should dive in, go ahead. The medium’s lovely. And the water’s warm.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | authors, culture, Muse, novel, publishing, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

November is Writing Month

National November Writing Month

NaNoWriMo: National November Writing Month is a worldwide phenomenon

It’s NaNoWriMo. Loads of people are doing it. It just takes a little time, discipline (yes, I know) and a desire to create a novel – of medium length, 50,000 words – in 30 days. During National November Writing Month. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000 word) novel by midnight local time on November 30, 2009.

It’s not the first time writers have pulled all the stops out and thrown their lot in with the Muse, but I believe the organization behind the idea is creating an ‘umbrella of achievement’ which is hard to resist.

Besides, won’t it be nice to read your own hard-typed flow when the 30 days are up and you can slip into ‘edit’ mode?

That’s what NaNo suggests: don’t stop to edit as you go along. Take the keyboard into the bath or into bed if you have to, but just keep punching the keys until something like one-and-a-half-thousand words are on the page. Then you can stop for that day. And add some more tomorrow.

Some people knew about this ahead of time, but even if you were one of the 21 people in San Francisco who took part in the first NaNoWriMo ten years ago in November 1999, it is no help really, because everyone starts afresh at the beginning of the month – no WIPs (works-in-progress) allowed.

This is how NaNo puts it:
‘On November 1, begin writing your novel. Your goal is to write a 50,000-word novel by midnight, local time, on November 30th. You write on your own computer, using whatever software you prefer.

‘This is not as scary as it sounds.

‘Starting November 1, you can update your word count in that box at the top of the site, and post excerpts of your work for others to read. Watch your word-count accumulate and story take shape. Feel a little giddy.

‘ Write with other NaNoWriMo participants in your area. Write by yourself. Write. Write. Write.

‘If you write 50,000 words of fiction by midnight, local time, November 30th, you can upload your novel for official verification, and be added to our hallowed Winner’s Page and receive a handsome winner’s certificate and web badge. We’ll post step-by-step instructions on how to scramble and upload your novel starting in mid-November.

‘ Win or lose, you rock for even trying.’

Well, it’s a little more than that:

November has 30 days: so 1650 words x 30 = 49,500 words, with a little bonus of an extra 500 if you are in your stride.

While some of us are already a week into the project, there is no reason on earth why you can’t sign up right now and join us. One of the best reasons is, even if right now you don’t think you’ve got a novel in you, you have. And with half the agents and editors and publishers on the East and West Coasts watching the site, there is a little more of a carrot dangling before our glazed authors’ eyes than the usual solitary typewriter-bashing which goes on at all hours of the day and night anyway.

We’re technically currently at day number 7 (Europe just moved into day 8, but we’re talking local time here). Worldwide writing is split into regions: like United States : Illinois : Chicago or Europe : Scotland : Elsewhere or Europe : Elswhere (mind boggles). You can choose which region you wish to be affiliated with and you can pick two or more regions if you like: so you can be Europe : Elsewhere as well as Europe : Finland, for example.

By the end of the first week of writing worldwide, some of the wordcounts are already looking quite impressive:

United States :: Washington :: Seattle is in the lead with a total of nearly seven million words written (6,952,796 to be exact).
Canada :: Newfoundland is in at 221st place with a wordcount of 473,031; Europe :: Northern Ireland has 438,876 and counting.

At first I thought I didn’t have another novel in me – I’ve been struggling a little lately just to get the right combination of synopsis, query letter and presentation on my completed novel ‘Shasta’ in front of the ‘right’ agent, editor, publisher. But by midnight on November 1st, I decided: what the hell. There is something about the concept of allowing words to flow despite oneself, without the inner editor getting too much of a controlling finger out to wave in one’s face, that makes the NaNoWriMo appealing.

We have a great author and go-with-the-flow guru to emulate.

Jack Kerouac decided in the late ‘fifties to write what turned out to be his masterpiece ‘On the Road’. He had an idea that if he psyched himself up to writing all at one go, he’d be able to put on paper (days of steam-driven typewriters, remember) all the lovely sidetrack thoughts that go along with a main thought: the flow that his work shows so magnificently.

Kerouac and the Muse: he wrote 'On the Road' in three weeks.

He had a manual typewriter – not even electric. Computers were things they had in SciFi novels. Or in the basement in Langley, Virginia. He sat down in his pad outside Big Sur, CA and for three days scotch-taped together pages and pages of 8 x 11 paper (that’s old style, non-decimal, for those that may not understand) until he had a roll of paper on the floor that approximated a very large footrest or paper cushion.

In those days ‘uppers’ were available over the counter in drug stores. He laid in a supply of those, plus several pre-ground bags of coffee, a percolator, milk and sugar and some pretty basic food – I heard it was mostly bread and butter with maybe some salami or jam or jelly to spice it up a little. And he started.

In three weeks he’d written ‘On the Road’ and we all know how that worked out.

So now you see why it might be worth your while dipping your toe into this NaNoWriMo thing? The world is poised, fingers on typewriter and computer keys from Vladivostok to Tierra del Fuego, with some pretty amazing places you’ve never heard of in between. And they’re all bending their heads daily over a little keyboard, from which miracles might appear.

If Jack could do it, there is absolutely no reason on earth for the rest of us not to try.

November 7, 2009 Posted by | authors, culture, Muse, novel, publishing, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Grammar Train derailed; or 31 rules to write by

Grammar train derailed

Grammar train derailed

If you believe you and the writing Muse are in tune, then you probably don’t need to check this list.

But for some of us, schooled in the ancient art of grammar, punctuation, dependent clauses, appropriate use of the subjunctive, gerunds versus gerundives and all that old stuff, it is refreshing to see the rules haven’t changed, but that some of us choose to break them. Especially those of us writing novels which we hope to publish. Sigh.

Dialogue or no dialogue.

Character building; adverb-death; all those helpful suggestions provided by the Masters will not guarantee you a publisher, editor or even an agent. But it’s worth it to keep on trying.

Don’t get lost in demanding that Americans return to English. Actually it is we who branched out to create less-predictable verbage; authentic American is truly Shakespearean.

Or bury yourself fighting for spelling worldwide to be standardized. It’s a battle you won’t win.

When all else fails, this list is worth remembering.
And keep your tongue firmly in your cheek.

1. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

3. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat).

6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.

7. Be more or less specific.

8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.

9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.

10. No sentence fragments.

11. Contractions aren’t necessary and shouldn’t be used.

12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

14. One should NEVER generalize.

15. Comparisons are as bad as clichés.

16. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

17. One-word sentences? Eliminate.

18. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

19. The passive voice is to be ignored.

20. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.

21. Never use a big word when a diminutive would suffice.

22. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.

23. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas.

24. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.’ Also ‘Carpe diem’. [If you have to look it up, good for you].

25. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.

26. Puns are for children, not groan readers.

27. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

28. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

29. Who needs rhetorical questions?

30. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

And the last one…

31. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

Sent to me by my FB friend and fellow blogger Rayna Iyer (Coffee Rings Everywhere) from Mumbai, who has just begun her first full-length novel. Wish her well. It’s the way to go!
http://coffeeringseverywhere.blogspot.com/2009/10/grammer-police.html

Which of these rules do you follow? Which ones do you break?

Oh yes – Adverb Death: a must if you hope to break into agentdom! and the hallowed precincts of the publishing world: She mutters with feeling.

October 27, 2009 Posted by | Muse, publishing, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment