Writing Advice

I think it might be magic…

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If I believed in magic that’s what I would tell you writing is.



The firing of specific synapses, the chemical cascade that transmutes the scent of a particular perfume into a fifteen hundred word short story, the fall leaves into rhyming poetry, your brutal breakup into a seventy thousand word novel.

It’s an ancient magic, recalled from distant cold nights huddled around fires, trading tales of news from far off lands, keeping the shadows subdued and enchanted. It’s ritualistic: reliant on special pens, specific desks, a certain walking route, a routine we know by heart, that sweet annihilation of reason, a sip of wine at midnight, or the writing sweater we refuse to wash.

We seek out other’s magic rhythms too, the successful among us, we gather at their feet and beg for their secrets. Do you rise early, before the sun? Do work in the morning, or the afternoon? Have a light lunch? Take a stroll at 3pm exactly? Stay up late? Because we’ve heard that’s a sign of greater intelligence. And they kindly share their magic recipes with us; their steps to plot and puzzle, to know your characters deeply, meaningfully, to personify your settings, objects, animals, plants. They tell us of their habits, their secrets, and we absorb them, make them our own.

That moment of inspiration is magic as well; a conversation overheard out of context, a furtive look on the face of a passerby, a thing out of place in an ordinary setting. It would strike like lightning if that wasn’t so cliche. Instead it’s a burned finger on the stove, numb with shock but unforgettable.

And finally there’s a flurry of magic words, scrawled on paper or composed on the blank screen, a flashing cursor moving endlessly ahead of letters forming perfect incantations, designed to cast a spell, a trance. And when it’s over we awaken, unsure of what we’ve done, feeling a satisfying loss, an emptying out. A bruise on our knee we never noticed before. How did that get there?


Maybe it’s unhelpful to say it’s magic though.

Maybe it’s too easy.

It’s a craft, you say, a practice, a discipline.

But I think there’s something worthwhile in believing in magic, just for a second, even for an unbeliever like me. Because magic is the world of make-believe and that’s where we, as writers, want to be. Magic reminds us of the unknown, the yet to be invented, the mystical, the sacred, the beautiful. Magic reminds us we are all connected to our imaginations, to our memories of things that never were.


Also, maybe magic can allow us to believe in ourselves.

 To believe that moment of inspiration will come again, even if it’s been gone for years. To believe that we have a whole universe inside of us that’s waiting to be written, that we are connected to those ancient ancestors of ours who told stories because that’s what humans do. Maybe believing it’s magic could help us when we’ve hit the wall, because with magic we can walk through walls, or move them, or fly over them on our broomsticks, or turn them into cotton candy and eat our way through. Maybe if we believe it’s magic when things get hard we can remember why we opened that document to begin with, why we put our pen to paper.

Maybe magic can be our placebo, the pill we take to tell ourselves our the headache is all in our heads.

I think it might be magic, so go on, write me a spell.

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Writing an outline

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I’ve decided to write an outline for my next book.


It’s a weird feeling. Usually i just dive headfirst into a novel, emotions in front, ready to do battle. That approach has served me well. I’ve gotten three books out of it, books I like, books I’m proud of. 



So why the outline?


Because I’m tackling something new: science fiction.

I wrote a short story based on a concept I learned about in an astronomy class I was auditing at U of T and I loved the idea so much I knew I had to make it into something bigger. But the thing about science fiction is that it requires…science. And to make my science fiction even remotely scientific, I need to do some research. Also, because my story will be set in a time that is beyond ours it requires a little world building. I’m working from the outside with this concept because it’s an idea about the universe itself, not about a single character, which is my usual approach.

I have to say I’m a little bit intimidated by the idea of the outline. It makes writing a book seem more like work. I write outlines for corporate clients, web videos and projects. I know when I finally sit down with it I’ll get into it and things will be fine, but right now it just seems liked a daunting proposition.

So why do I feel as though writing should be a purely emotional pursuit? It seems like a foolishly romantic notion: this idea that I should be some poet in a coffee shop spilling my guts in a moleskin notebook. It’s also unrealistic; I like structure, order and a good understanding of my direction in life—so why shouldn’t I like it in my writing?

Maybe I think an outline will restrict me. But it would be an imaginary restriction, because if I make it, I can destroy it. Maybe I think it will be too formal, that I will get bored of it if I have my whole path charted for me. Maybe I think writing is more exciting when it’s a mystery. But if that were true then I wouldn’t need to know the ending before I start a story…and I always know the ending before I start.

So where is the resistance coming from?


Writing a new genre is daunting, I’ve only written two or three pure science fiction stories before. Writing in a new format is daunting too. An outline is a new skill that I have yet to master.

But ultimately I think it will be good for me. The fear of trying new things has never stopped me before.

So watch your back outline…I’m coming for you.


P.S. Any tips or hints on good ways to outline a novel would be appreciated. If you have any just drop them in the comments section!

Inspiration Series

Inspiration Series – Jennifer Pendergast

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If you follow a well-known religion, I imagine it’s easy to answer the question “What do you believe?” At least it’s easy to give a brief answer, even if it is far from complete. For me, there hasn’t been a short answer since I started really thinking about what I believed, and really being honest about it.

And the same is true when I try to answer questions about my inspiration for writing. In her calls for submissions to this series, Star referred to the “almost spiritual” nature of inspiration, and that phrase really struck a chord for me.

The simple answer to where I get my inspiration from is “my head”.  My ideas can come as dreams, daydreams or random thoughts; they often arrive as phrases or concepts, sometimes characters and very occasionally as plots or stories. But where do those things come from? Your guess is as good as mine. I refer to The Muse as a shorthand for something I don’t really understand, in much the same way I might occasionally refer to God, although I don’t picture any particular entity when I use that word.

For me, the interesting thing is not the arrival of the original idea, but the process that turns it into a story. With the possible exception of dreams, my initial ideas are no more than snippets, in need of a great deal of development before they will become even the shortest stories.

When the writing flows best, it feels like a sort of transcribing, perhaps a stream of consciousness, although my writing would never be described as that by a reader. I write stories like I write non-fiction, by just letting the words flow, seeing where they take me, and then tidying them up into something more coherent after the fact.

Some writers talk about “Movies in my mind”. I have no mind’s eye – I could not, for example, give you a reliable physical description of someone I know well, let alone someone or something I’ve imagined. But when a story flows well, this transcribing does come close to something like a movie in my mind, or perhaps a radio play: sounds, words and emotions, but no pictures.

When the writing isn’t flowing, I try to write anyway, and then it’s more about joining the dots, working out where I want the story to go and how it’s going to get there. This is how I write when I’ve drawn up an outline first (something I think has advantages and disadvantages, and which is worthy of a post of its own). Writing to an outline feels much less natural, but it’s still an organic process, because the outline never has the richness and detail of the writing itself, and eventually the characters, places and storylines still take on a life of their own.

One place I both do and don’t get inspiration is real life, and in particular the real people I know. Anyone who knows a writer has probably wondered if they’ll end up in a story, or even asked to, and I can’t answer for other writers, but for me they answer is mostly no, but with a little bit of yes.

As a rule, I find real people far too restrictive. I want to write fiction, not fact, and I want to write the stories The Muse gives me, not the ones I’m already living. And that’s before you get only people’s feelings. If I wrote a character even loosely based on someone I knew, I’d be too worried about upsetting them, or getting things wrong, to really enjoy the writing process. Obviously there will always be name overlaps or relationships that mirror those in my life, but I choose names because they fit a character, not to link them to a real person. I normally say if a character has your name, you can guarantee they won’t have any other facets I particularly associate with you.

On the other hand, I can’t deny that I occasionally use an anecdote or characteristic from someone I know, to flesh out an established character who I’m clear it would work for. Real life, whether an overheard conversation on a train, or an old memory of my own, can inspire elements of a story, even the story itself. Very occasionally I go so far as to play the ‘what if?’ game in my stories, and to wonder what would have happened if a single moment in my life or someone’s close to me, had gone another way. I imagine that’s a game all humans play, but as writers, we get to play it out on paper.

Jennifer Pendergast writes principally for the love of the story, but is gradually building her portfolio and seeking publication of her short stories whilst polishing several draft novels with a view to publication in the longer term. She was delighted when two of her stories were featured in the Canadian edition of Reader’s Digest. Her weekly flash fiction and thoughts on writing can be found at her blog www.elmowrites.wordpress.com.

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Afraid to Speak

ImageI am currently writing a book that is a mix of both fiction and non-fiction.  In the book both Ben and I discuss gender and sexuality and offer our opinions on defining men and women and our own sexuality.

This scares me.

  Everywhere you look there are writers getting in deep shit for writing something contentious, for writing their true feelings or even for tweeting the ‘wrong thing’.  It’s a big bad world out there full of millions of people ready to leap on you for the smallest ‘misstep’.

This clearly isn’t new.  Before the legions of internet trolls and angry groups of activists there were people with pitchforks and torches and before that there were beheadings and scallopings and all manner of painful torment for people who just wanted to express themselves.

I certainly wouldn’t go so far to compare myself with great philosophers who have been murdered for speaking up, but I do know some of my opinions and feelings will be contentious and that worries me.

I’m not one to stay quiet, I never have been.  It’s caused me no shortage of stress of course and on many occasions I’ve been verbally assaulted for my views.  But I just can’t shut up.  I feel the need to say how I feel, say it loud and write it in books and try to get them published so everyone can read them.  It’s kind of a little self destructive I guess.  I mean I could pick something nice and safe to write about, couldn’t I?  But no.  I have to be interested in the things people get riled up about.  I choose to write about sex, gender, abuse, psychopathy, drugs, death.  I choose to write about topics that scare me or make me uncomfortable.

When I’ve really piped up and shared my feelings and thoughts I’ve been called many horrible names and had people go off on me, cease listening and just overwhelm me with their anger.  I’ve even been called a murderer because of some of my views.  But still I go back for more.

I don’t want to be afraid to speak but I am sometimes.  I’m only human, I care about what other people think of me and I don’t want to offend.  But I also want to be true to myself, I want to be honest in my writing and I don’t want to shut up just because the trolls might come banging on my door.

So what’s a girl to do?

Write.  Just keep saying what I want to say.  Because what other choice do I have?  I clearly want to venture onto contentious ground and if I didn’t I wouldn’t be me.

So here are my rules for self expression for those who want to speak up and are afraid to do so:

1) It’s alright to express yourself no matter what.
2) It’s alright to change your mind.  The things you have said in the past might not apply in the future.
3) Feelings are subjective and oftentimes neither right or wrong.
4) Try not to fret over people who refuse to listen or understand your perspective and feelings.
5) Philosophy and practicality are two different things.  It’s alright to discuss things from a top down view.
6) Just say it.
7) If you’ve changed your mind don’t be afraid to admit it.
8) Write, write, write!

How do you get past the barriers of being afraid to speak?

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The truth about me & NaNoWriMo

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My official word count for NaNoWriMo is 53,383.  The first 30k was completed in 7 days at the beginning of the month.  My initial goal was 30k because I decided to co-write a book with my Mother-in-law where we each take on 30k for the month.  When I finished my portion of the thing, I sat around moping for a couple of days – this unbelievably ridiculous state of mind I get into when I have finished one project and lament I will never come up with another idea again – then struck upon a fresh idea for a book and decided to go for the NaNoWriMo gold by writing another 20k on the new project.  

Great success!

I made it, with time to spare, but the differences in the process of two books were astounding.  The first book had a basic outline, a plot element for each chapter, a handful of characters and a direction when I started out.  It went smoothly and I barely batted an eyelash in the struggle to come up with a plot.  The second book started out with a concept and that’s it.  Despite the fact that I know the ending of the book, I still have no clue where I’m going with it and the tension is waning because of that.


So now I’m taking a break to reexamine the plot of book two and I decided to also examine my experiences with NaNoWriMo.  It was more illuminating than I thought it might be.  

So here’s the truth about me and NaNoWriMo.

I heart structure

I never thought I would say that.  I never thought it was true, but it all makes sense now.  My desk is sparse, I hate stuff and clutter.  I work best on one story/project at a time.  I took a test the other day that said I was a bit more right brained (organized/logical) than left brained (chaotic/creative).  After all this time of thinking I was so damn free wheeling and intuitive, here I am hearting the hell out of structure.  

Well shit.

Plotting is my least favourite part of writing a book, but it seems once I have the basics, I can easily string everything together. If left alone to my own devices (with no structure) I will meander like crazy and get nowhere fast.  

Who knew?


I guess I did, a little.  I guess in a way it’s lucky I like structure.  My desire for order has allowed me to be a successful freelancer for years and helps me to organize my thoughts and life easily.  But on the flip side I look to people who are able to be completely free and chaotic with a little bit of envy or at least great admiration.  Unfettered randomness is something I would love to be able to achieve, but I have trouble with it.  I can’t just let things fall as they may, I have a desire to pick them up and organize them if they are just scattered about.  

I suppose the grass is always greener isn’t it?

I’m a competitive bitch

It all started when I was young.  I was a figure skater and I competed fervently for medals.  I loved me my gold.  And when you’re young they say it’s not about winning or losing but I don’t think I ever really bought into that crap.  It is about winning and losing sucks.  

So now of course, every time there is a winning condition set for something, I’m on it like a woman possessed, teeth bared and ready to kick ass.  

Who am I competing with?


Well in this case no one in particular, but I still feel that thrill of competition which – if I followed it to it’s fullest extent – would probably allow me to tear down anyone in my path to get to the finish line.  It’s brutal and bloody in my mind.  It’s a chaotic mess of stress and holier-than-thou thought patterns.

Holier than who?

I don’t know…thou.  Whoever thou is in the moment.

I’m not proud of it but in a way I don’t want it to change because it really drives me to get shit done.  When engaged in competition I become a brutal bitch of a doer.  Definitely productive, if not completely healthy.

I have carpel tunnel

Never has it been more apparent then when typing around 4,300 words a day.  

Damn it sucks.  

Deadlines stress me out

For mostly the entire week I was writing my 30k I was stressed.  It’s possible it’s because my MC is a psychopath of course, but I think it was more than that.  I was putting a lot of pressure on myself because I wanted to see just how fast I could do it.  So literally every moment spent now writing I felt stressed.  I felt like I ought to be writing.  

I feel that way just naturally when I’m not working on a project (or even sometimes if I am) but in the case of NaNoWriMo it was massively amplified.  Now in a way it’s good, because I know I will work like hell in the future when I have actual real deadlines, but I kind of wish there was a way to magically undo the stress of it all.  

I’m not satisfied with less

I think I would be kicking myself if I hadn’t done the full 50k.  I’m not satisfied with halfway to the prescribed goal of a thing.

I felt compelled – even if I didn’t realize it at first – to push my word count forward.  It got me a good head start on my new book admittedly, but in retrospect it might have been good to figure out an actual plan before I started it.  Luckily I’m not too far in that if I have to slash and burn a little, I won’t be completely heart broken.

So there you have it.  The truth about me and NaNoWriMo.


I learned a lot more than I thought I would.


So the question is: will I do it again?


I’d like to say the answer is no.  I mean when I have an idea for a book it rarely takes me longer than a month to write the thing.  Plus I’m hoping to get my actual career as a published writer going soon which will give me all the incentive I need (as if I’m lacking).  

But in the end, I might just concede that my competitive nature will flare up when word of next year’s NaNoWriMo hits the twitterverse and I might not be immune to the allure of something I can potentially ‘win’.  

Because even if it’s not a real competition, I certainly found a way to make it one in my mind this year and I can’t see that part of me changing anytime soon.

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Don’t settle

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Ben and I had a great idea for a book a little while ago.  It seemed like it would be perfect, right up my alley.  We decided we would make a plan for it, unlike the last book which was a bit of a free-for-all, so we sat down and worked it out.

We figured out the whole story, plotted the chapters and I was completely, terribly uninspired.  It was confusing, because the concept was interesting, the characters were compelling, but my my interest in the book was painfully flat.  I hated it.

There’s something about making a plan that makes me feel like I ought to like what I’m doing.  Like I would be a flake if I just called a timeout and changed horses mid-stream.  It’s a weird feeling.  I guess it’s partially to do with the investment of time, we spent a great deal of time coming up with the story, discussing it, being excited about it.  But as the idea of actually writing the damn thing drew near, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

In the end I finally said ‘I hate it’ out loud and we gave it up, put it aside.  Maybe I’ll like it in the future, who knows?

When I’d finally accepted the fact that I didn’t give a fig about the book I was going to write, Ben and I went for a walk on the beach and worked out a new book in about half an hour and I was instantly inspired to go home and start writing.  I am now ten thousand words in and going strong.

The point is sometimes things don’t fit and here’s a solid piece of advice that can be applied to absolutely every aspect of like (including writing): don’t settle.  A story should reach out and grab you, bite you, shake you, gnaw at you in the night.  I always say to Ben that I know it’s a good story when I get up in the morning and don’t want to go back to sleep because there’s too much to write.  Writing should propel you, inspire you, make you cry and laugh and all those good things about living.  If your story isn’t doing it for you, don’t force it.  No matter how much time you invested in the outline or world or making a new language for the alien species on your world it doesn’t matter because it will feel flat and lifeless unless you love it with a passion.

I want to write things that I can’t wait to write more of, that I need to write, that I love to write and I’m not willing to settle for anything less.

Screw settling, write it like you mean it!

Tell me about a time when you refused to settle.

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This month’s achievements

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For the month of June I participated in a blogging challenge created by the awesome Michelle Goode from WriteSoFluid.com.  You can check out my interview about the challenge on her site HERE.

Overall the challenge was amazing.  I did end up missing a couple of days, but I managed to nail down most of them and I’m pretty happy with the outcome.  I loved having the daily inspiration and I definitely hope she creates another challenge like this so I can participate again.

Looking back on the month a lot has happened (it always surprises me how much can change in a month).  I had a couple of goals that I outlined when I started the challenge this month and I thought it would be good to take another look at them to see how they worked out…

1) To finish my novel to the point of sending it to beta readers.

Holy cow!  I did it!  I’ve sent my novel out to around ten people and I’m so nervous about it, but now that it’s out there I can’t take it back!

2) To get at least one more client for my burgeoning freelance corporate copywriting career.

I have one in the works, not set in stone, but definitely a good possibility.

3) To finish my query letter for my novel and find at least five agents to query when the novel is ready to go.

I have definitely finished a rough draft of my query letter, it still needs a bit of tweaking and some more personality, but overall, it’s getting there.

4) To decide on my next novel (at least a basic story).

Ben and I have started plotting out my next novel, this one is going forward with more of a pre-defined structure as an experiment in how I work best (to outline or not to outline).

5) To maintain the highest possible level of awesomeness.

Always.

Wow!  I honestly didn’t think I would have achieved all my goals.  Some are a little up in the air, it’s true, but most of them are rock solid.  Sweet.

So what have I learned?
Setting goals it cool, kind of like making lists where you can look back and tick them off and it’s super satisfying.  I’ve also been inspired by my month to stick to blogging more.  I definitely won’t be able to do it everyday, but it’s good to know I have enough to say to be able to blog almost everyday for a month.  Very promising.

So a big thank you to Michelle Goode for being my muse this month!
How about you, what were your goals this month?  Did you achieve them?