November is an awesome month. I look forward to it every year, and not because of Turkey day and not because it’s fall. Nope! I look forward to it because as soon as the first comes around I have a perfect excuse to avoid all responsibilities, like feeding children and cleaning house.
November means it’s also National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and gives the chance to complete a novel-length work (50,000 words) in 30 days. You can join your local region for write-ins and miscellaneous writing support, or even hook up with your writing buddies and have a friendly competition on who can get to the 50,000 word mark first and/or the fastest. The options are endless.
Writers around the world use this time to kick their inner editors to the curb to push out a frantically written, thrown together novel in 30 days or less. This is the perfect chance to hone those skills and write something that could be the next best-seller, like Night Circus.
But there’s no pressure.
Just sit back, have fun, and let your muse take control. You may want to have some icepacks on the side though, fingers don’t like the abuse!
A caution to be heeded: NaNoWriMo is very addicting. Side effects include, but are not limited to, sleepless nights, sore fingers, euphoric highs, bankrupt coffee industry, disgruntled children and spouse, dirty house and laundry, sense of immense accomplishment, and others. Participation in this activity is voluntary and upon sign up, you agree to the pros and cons and will not hold anyone other than yourself accountable for undesirable counter measures taken in order for your attention to be gained by anything other than your novel.
Disclaimer: This is a fun, informative, and slightly fictional post. My children are not harmed or neglected during the month of November and are quite convincing when they want attention from me. The fingers, however, are another story…
I realize that many of the writers in the KWA have found their personal strides. But I am a writer still exploring my creative voice. As both a writer of fiction and a poet, there are several books that I return to time and again to refuel and bring zest to my work. Hopefully a suggestion here will bring you some inspiration as well.
Each of these books is available for sale, but for ease I linked each book cover image to the Amazon listing. Please keep in mind that many of MY copies were borrowed from the public library, but I highly recommend supporting Wichita’s own Watermark Books.
Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke
“Seek those [themes] which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty—describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory.”
These letters are available in a variety of translations, the best of which is the M.D. Herter volume. The advice shared with a wider audience in 1932 remains timeless. A writer doesn’t have to be a poet to appreciate the sentiment that writing is difficult and that writers should find the courage from within to continue.
Writing Down the Bones
by Natalie Goldberg
Goldberg is my favorite writer for practical writing advice. She combines her Zen practice with her devotion to daily writing, and the result is gracious encouragement for every writer. One of the early chapters, “First Thoughts,” describes the daily writing exercise, even down to choosing a pen that gets you excited about writing.. Goldberg believes you must write through the bad results to get to the good. And writing everyday is the ticket.
The Artist’s Way
by Julia Cameron
This book literally describes a course of action that aspiring artists and creative people can execute to unleash their own creativity. On a week-by-week plan, The Artist’s Way retrains the brain to look and see the world in new ways, which will begin to feed into the creative life. While written more for the ‘artist,’ each week’s efforts are beneficial for writers. For example, toward the end of week 2 [in the chapter “Recovering a Sense of Identity”], one exercise is to “List your five major activities this week. How much time did you give to each one? Which were what you wanted to do and which were should? How much of your time is spent helping others and ignoring your own desires?” Sometimes acknowledging what keeps me from working on a project motivates me more to manage my time differently.
The Art of Fiction
by John Gardner
If you write fiction, you must read this book. I had written stories for years before I realized that I was making some basic mistakes by violating the reader’s sense of psychic distance. I am embarrassed to say that I was also quite happily attached to clichés. Gardner essentially breaks down elements of a story, providing great samples and examples of what works AND what NOT to do. Ironically, there are popular genres where certain things Gardner determined were errors are actually acceptable forms—like in Romance, readers accept the easy slide between one point-of-view and another.
Tell us what YOU read!
This list is not exhaustive. There are many other books available to inspire the writer within. The best resources are often other writers. What is your must-have book? Tell us about it in the comment section below!
A Poet and a writer, April Pameticky tries to find balance between her professional life as a writer, teacher, wife, and mother. Her chapbook of poetry, Sand River and Other Places I’ve Been will soon be released by Finishing Line Press.
Catch up at AprilinWichita.
Our July Program on The High Concept Pitch really educated members on the Dos & Don’ts of ‘pitching’ our work to readers, agents, and publishers. HB Berlow led the program. Then several participants whipped up their own “pitches” on the spot.
The following excerpt is from HB’s article in the August KWA newsletter. For full text, access the newsletter as a PDF by going here.
The primary purpose of the Pitch is to convince somebody of importance that your work is worthwhile.
For the professional Pitch, there should be some basic elements for the potential agent or publisher to be made aware of.
Identify the Genre and the time period, especially if it is not contemporary.
Beyond the conflict/basic story, you have to be able to identify exactly what about your novel is different from others in the same genre. A murder mystery contains a murder and the discovery of the perpetrator. Is your story different because of the “detective” or because of the “murderer?” Is there an element, like illness or familial relation that causes this to be unique? This element is the Hook.
There should also be a Comparative. Show how your work is similar to successful works of your genre. You must be careful not to identify it so closely to that greater work so as to avoid sounding too haughty or egotistical.
Even more difficult is the Elevator or High-Concept Pitch.
Whereas the standard Pitch is three or four paragraphs and closely resembles a query letter, the High-Concept Pitch is everything mentioned above…but in one sentence.
There are two reasons why crafting a Pitch is so important. The obvious is that you may encounter someone who could make your publishing dream come true. That will be a rare opportunity but a golden one as well. Make sure you are ready. Additionally, it will force you to focus on your work, identify its absolute essence. We love our work, as we should. Too often we gush over it until it resembles Niagara Falls. It would be better if it resembled a softly flowing brook.
Finally, be enthusiastic and energetic about your Pitch. Someone who listens to you and recognizes that YOU are not into it will not be into it EITHER.
Samantha LaFantasie put together a great list of internet resources:
Writers talk about inspiration and where story ideas come from; characters and their names and quirks and personalities; locations and locales, whether they are gritty or exotic; where the story is going and how to get there.
Writers talk about agents and publishers and query letters and pitches; self-publishing versus traditional publishing; their blog or their web site or their Facebook page or their platform.
Listen to a writer’s conversation and you’ll hear the words “genre,” “voice,” “style.” You will hear impassioned mention of favorite authors, struggles with editing and revision, and the next writing conference or organizational meeting.
What you don’t seem to hear is any mention of the work week, a pending vacation, how the family is doing, a great new recipe. These are mundane items, to be sure. But writers are Human. They live as others, paying bills and taking out the garbage. They do laundry and mow the lawn.
It is that Human aspect that seems to blend into the background when the Art and Business of writing takes the lead in any conversation. This is ironic considering that the Human experience is so prominent in good writing.
N.M. Kelby’s book “The Constant Art of Being a Writer” intimately outlines the ongoing process of writing, from inspiration through marketing and the myriad steps in between. There is much truth to the word “constant” in the title.
But consider that it is important to contemplate the other side of the equation. Are you a writer who deals with his life or a person trying to become a writer? Is it necessary to differentiate? Should you separate these two entities or merge them into one?
We do not live in an age of patronage from wealth purveyors of art, grants and scholarships notwithstanding. The majority of writers are spouses and employees, possibly homeowners with family and friends, a series of responsibilities that determine our continued existence and functionality within society.
No one denies the fantasy: Wake up. Have some coffee and breakfast. Settle in for a bit of writing or research or editing. Make appointments. Send query letters. A little blogging. A little social networking. No clock to punch for someone else. Perhaps, one day, it will be so.
In the meantime, we must acknowledge, develop, and integrate the Human and the Artist into one being. We must recognize that our experiences and daily routines inform our writing by giving us the detail that enhances our stories. The dialogue we hear is spoken by our characters. The grocery store or shopping mall we visit becomes a locale in our scene.
Alternately, developing our sensitivities and sensibilities, allowing our imaginations to soar and accepting a creative impulse, will most certainly make us better people and more fully realized Human Beings.
This is the Complete Writer.
H.B. Berlow studied filmaking and creative writing at the University of Miami in the 1980s and was involved in the Boston Poetry Scene in the mid 90s. He has been a member of KWA since 2007. He was recently the featured writer on Keyhole Conversations, Writers Who Cook. His novels, Kansas Two-Step and Quick, are available at Amazon, Smashwords, and Lulu. H.B. also blogs at The Tikiman Says…
A writer rarely has the opportunity to just wallow in the writing, to enjoy it like chocolate covered strawberries. Most of us feel obliged to our writing, serving the story or poem, and each effort requires a ‘product,’ an outcome that serves a purpose. Maybe it will be the next scene or chapter, maybe we’re adding to our chapbook of poetry.
I was recently invited on a Writing Marathon at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine. The experience reminded me to take joy in my writing.
Writing Marathons come in many forms, all with the central tenet just to write in a continuous burst with no censoring or internal critiquing. Digital forms of this include the writing challenges shared on Twitter, where followers across the country stop, drop, and write for a set time. At its most extreme form, National Novel Writing Month is a Writing Marathon.
For me, however, getting away from my normal writing workstation can really break down a rut, especially visiting a place as lovely and verdant as the Bartlett Arboretum. Sitting at my home computer makes me feel like I need to get some ‘work’ done. And writing doesn’t always have to be ‘work.’
A location Writing Marathon can force me outside of my normal expectations, and can make me open that inner writer’s eye and take note of my surroundings. I’ve also learned that what at first can seem like a fruitless description on the grassy hillside can later inform my description of setting in my latest Work in Progress. Rather than squishing me into ‘guilt mode’ for wasting time, Writing Marathons are fun!
The format for a location Writing Marathon is simple. Start with a group of friends, writing materials (I prefer paper and pen to keep things simple), and a location (I’ve been in both urban settings like Oldtown in Wichita, as well as more ‘natural’ settings). Then simply follow this form:
10 minutes of continuous writing (actually, all ‘writing time’ is meant to be continuous)
Writers share (this should be done with no feedback from listeners. It’s too easy to slip into critique mode, and this has a tendency to squish the freedom of just writing. Listeners are encouraged to simply say “Thank you for sharing.”)
15 min write
20 min write
25 (or sometimes 30 min) write
For our particular time at the Bartlett Arboretum, writers brought and enjoyed a picnic lunch after our morning of writing. It became a wonderful time.. Members agreed to share some of what they wrote. If you would like to see samples from the participants, visit April in Wichita. I have found that the seemingly random ramblings of my journal later become diamonds to mine for my own poetry. But a Writers Marathon isn’t just for poets. Members of our group included a science fiction writer, an essayist, and a playright. And the material produce reflected our own media preferences.
Future Writing Marathons will be arranged for this summer. If KWA members are interested in participating, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.