Still Writing on Wednesday

and every day since the first of the year, when my Hundred Word group started a new challenge.  Today is Day 39, and while some of us have skipped a day for one reason or another, we’re all still at it.   The group started on March 10, 2007, so we’re only about a month short of our fifth anniversary.  Some members have dropped off along the way, but we’ve added a few new ones this year.

The challenge we began five years ago was to write one hundred new words a day (on a work-in-progress–blogs, journals, and shopping lists don’t count) for one hundred days.  Over time we’ve each adjusted that a bit to suit our circumstances, usually allowing a certain amount of editing or plotting to substitute for writing new words.  Sometimes that actually amounts to cutting the total word count, but that’s okay. 

I started a new project on New Year’s Day, working title Jinn on the Rocks, and I’ve managed to produce fifteen pages so far.  Not much of an accomplishment, but without the challenge I’d probably still be thinking about it.   I’m ony beginning to figure out where this story is going–no, that’s not true.  It’s a romance.  It’s going toward that Happily Ever After ending we all love.  But it started with a totally unexpected goblin, who surprised both the heroine and me by popping out from behind a headstone in a quiet cemetary, bringing a new assignment for my changeling heroine.  Meanwhile my hero, the jinn of the title, is trying to get out of a landfill, a task complicated by the fact that he doesn’t know how he got there, or even where there is.

Meanwhile I’ve done some editing on Bathtub Jinn.  Technically I finished the book on Thanksgiving weekend, just in time to send it off to this year’s Golden Heart® contest, but it still needs work.  The ending is there, but it needs expanding, and every time I read a section to my wonderful critique group, I find (or rather they find) something to improve.  This week we read chapter 18, and I definitely have a couple of clunkers to fix.  Bathtub Jinn involves a trip through a markedly warped Land of Oz, complete with some thoroughy nasty winged monkeys.  (Watch that movie again–there are some seriously scary bits. It’s not all Lollipop Guild and Over the Rainbow.)  So when I saw this sign at Half-Price Books recently, I couldn’t resist.  It’s now hanging in my writing alcove.  If I don’t go write my poor hero out of his predicament (and into a worse one) those monkeys may just come after me!


And a Happy New Year!

I don’t think I wrote my New Year’s Resolutions down last year, but I’m probably making the same ones again this year (and they will be here to haunt me on January 1, 2013).

Write More:  Our Hundred Word group starts a new challenge today.  We have eight or ten people participating this time.  The loop started on March  10, 2007, so we’re coming up on five years.  We’ve had people drop off and come back, and a few new ones join over the years, and I think everyone who has participated has benefitted.  I know I’ve been taking a holiday from my novel writing since I “finished” Bathtub Jinn over Thanksgiving weekend.  Without the impetus of the Hundred Word Challenge, and the definite starting date of January 1 (what could be easier to keep track of?), I’d probably drift along for another month.  As it is, I have a lot of editing to do on my existing manuscripts, but I think I’ve also got the opening of the next project.  In my head.  Next step, get it on paper.  Tonight.

Read More:  My friend Cheryl Bolen teases me a lot about my addictive book collecting, but that doesn’t slow me down.  I read 43 books in 2011:  16 romances, 7 mysteries, 9 science fiction novels, 6 mainstream novels, and 5 nonfiction books.  I bought at least twice that many, but that’s neither here nor there.  Back in the day, when I wasn’t working full time, I read a lot more.  Now I come home through Houston traffic and put my feet up in front of the TV set.  It’s harder to get lost in a book when you find yourself analyzing story structure and point of view, watching for typos and grammatical errors, and generally thinking more like a writer than a reader.   I’ve become a multiple-book reader in the last couple of years.  Right now I’m reading a mystery on paper (currently located on the shelf above my bed), a user’s guide to Facebook (I’m still resisting, but the book is on the coffee table in the living room), a mainstream novel by a friend (on my Kindle, currently on the coffee table but often carried in my purse), and a book on conflict and suspense in writing (also on the Kindle).  Those will be the first four books on my 2012 list.

Lose a Few Pounds:  Or at least stay healthy.  I lost quite a bit of weight a few years ago, and about ten pounds have found their way back.  My jeans are getting tight. 

Contest judging has been keeping me busy,

and it won’t let up for a while.  I have three favorite RWA chapter writing contests that I try to judge regularly, and they all land in my inbox in the fall, one after another over a couple of months.  Six weeks to judge four or five entries sounds like a generous amount of time, until you remember, once again, how much time each entry can take.

Judging is worth every bit of the effort, and the rewards come in several areas.  It gives you a fascinating view into the broad range of writing in the entries, both in terms of content and level of expertise.  You see everything from new writers to seasoned pros, from people  in desperate need of feedback and advice to writers so talented and polished you can’t believe they don’t already have fourteen books on the shelf.

You learn to recognize problems that are much easier to see in other people’s writing, and hopefully to apply the knowledge to your own work.  You learn to offer constructive, helpful advice rather than snarky, destructive criticism, and now and then you get a note back from an entrant thanking you for an idea that turned her manuscript around.

Most of us judge contests because we have gotten so much out of entering them over the years.  No one else in my small critique group writes romance or enters writing contests, so I have to remind them now and then that I don’t just send my manuscripts off for the adrenalin jolt that accompanies a placement among the finalists, a certificate, or the occasional small check or piece of jewelry.  The real prize is always the chance to land your entry on the desk of a final judge who is an acquiring editor or agent.

But there are other rewards as well.  A bit of validation is always nice.  A bit of name recognition is welcome.  And, most important, I’ve found new friends through contests, most of them long distance, women I may never meet in person unless we manage to attend the same conference.  I’ve gotten to know contest coordinators, and I’ve made friends with writers after finding my name next to theirs on lists of finalists.  Being a Golden Heart finalist this year brought me  a flood of new friends through the Starcatchers (this year’s “class” of GH finalists) and the Golden Network (the online RWA chapter for Golden Heart finalists).

This year I’ve been helping to recruit judges for the West Houston RWA Emily contest.  Pointing out how easy the process is these days, all done by email, makes me think back to the time, not many years ago, when we spent hours printing out multiple copies of contest entries, toting them to the post office, and trying to figure out how much postage to put on our return envelopes in case the rates changed before the finalists were announced.

Now I won’t even consider a contest that requires hard copy and snail mail, not that there are many of them left.  But I have to wonder how much we’ve contributed to the financial woes of the post office by moving our contests into cyberspace.

Critique night at my local RWA chapter

has become an annual tradition.  We call it Chocolate Critiques, but the refreshments are optional.  Most of our members have regular critique partners or groups, but this event serves a particular purpose, the evaluation of the first two pages of a manuscript, the all-important hook.

In order to finish at a reasonable hour, we limit entries to the first eight or nine received.  Members email their pages to the coordinator, who removes the author’s name and emails the files to someone with access to a copy machine.  Along with the two-page manuscripts, we print evaluation forms with 1 to 10 rating scales for several points:  Opening Hook (does it grab your attention?), Characterization (do you know this character?), Setting (do you feel a sense of place?), Tone (is this romance? mystery? young adult? or whatever is appropriate for your group). and Do you Want to Read More?  No strict rules, though: we write on the manuscripts, circle numbers on the scales, make notes on the evaluation sheet, whatever seems best.

Last night we had three readers, published members of the chapter who took turns reading the openings aloud.  Then we took a few minutes to go over the pages, mark them up, fill out the evaluation sheets, etc.  No discussion, and signing is optional.

This is a different approach than most writers use in their regular critique arrangements, and it can be quite useful.  This time around we did nine openings.  I didn’t have a horse in the race last night (not that we include any element of competition), but last year I picked up some good suggestions for fine-tuning my opening paragraphs.

This year’s batch varied in content and quality, as you might expect, but all were serious efforts.  I thought one or two started about a page too early, and one did not seem to be in any particular point of view (but it wasn’t quite omniscient either).  We didn’t have much trouble figuring out that the story about the professional basketball player came from our only male participant.  Young adult and/or paranormal stories were popular this year.

In a relatively small group like ours, we find ourselves guessing at the identities of the writers, not always successfully.  The process can remain as anonymous as the group, and the authors, prefer, and it’s a particularly good way to try out something very different from your usual style or genre.

Adapt the Chocolate Critique method to your own writing group, small or large, any or all genres.  You may find help with your own manuscript, and who knows what you’ll learn from someone else’s.

Getting my writing back on track has not been easy.

When I learned back in March that Paper Hearts had made the Golden Heart® Finals, I kept going on my work in progress, Bathtub Jinn,  for a few days, largely because I was in the middle of a love scene.  Those don’t come easily to me, and I didn’t want to leave one unfinished.  So I toiled away over my notebook for a few evenings until the scene came to its logical conclusion.

Then I decided I’d better read through Paper Hearts again, in case an agent or editor asked for it.  That took me through the middle of April.  Surely I was entitled to a little break, although by then I’d started blogging–that should count for something, shouldn’t it?  Maybe it does, but it isn’t getting Bathtub Jinn finished.

So yesterday, when I had a day off, I typed up the languishing love scene, updated my scene chart, and printed those pages out.  160 pages, 41,000 words, half a novel.  My critique group met last night, so I printed out the next run of pages for that: pages 121 through 127.  Oops–if I don’t get this manuscript moving again, my critique group will catch up with it.

Many of my romance-writing friends critique with other romance writers, which has its obvious advantages and often works extremely well.  I can point to more than one local group that has managed to get all its members published over the years.  But I belong to a small mixed group–none of us write the same genre–and that has advantages as well.

Barbara Ewing, the only other woman in our group of five, is a mystery writer at heart (her novel Till Murder Do Us Part is available at Amazon), but she also writes short stories and is currently working on a biographical project about her mother, an aviatrix back in the day when pilots of any description were unusual.  She’s our sharp-eyed line editor, and a terrier when it comes to rooting out cliches.

Carl Miller writes mainstream fiction, and has published two books (Belize and Panama) based on his family background in Central America and two (Stroke and French Quarter Danny) about the world of competitive pool.  He’s great at keeping track of plots and watching for those potholes our characters sometimes drive themselves into (even if he does insist that the black cat in my current story is really an orange tabby).  Carl’s been working on and off on a philosophical project, but he hesitates to read it to us because we start arguing about the content instead of the writing.

Jim Stanton writes elegant tales often set in his home state of Indiana, spooky and atmospheric, with a bit of Bradbury and a touch of King, and in his current project a whole lot of Lovecraft.  He’s very good at asking why our characters do whaqt they do, particularly in those embarassing spots when the only answer is, “Well, I thought it made sense when I wrote it.”

Our non-fiction writer is Charles Russell, whose biography of Elise Waerenskold, a Norwegian woman who settled in Texas in the 1840s, was published in 2006.  He’s now working on a biography of Elise’s husband.  Charles always opens his remarks with, “Now, this is only my opinion,” and then gives us all spot-on suggestions.

We try to meet every other Monday night (Jim travels for business, Carl covers pool tournaments for several magazines, Charles is retired and travels for fun), as we have been for the last few years, and we’ve seen several manuscripts through to completion.  We each have strengths to contribute and lessons to learn.

And I figure if I can entertain this diverse group with a romance, I’m doing something right.

My critique group laughed at me last night,

thank goodness.  Humor is so dreadfully subjective.  That may be why some of my contest results have been so strange.  I’ve had my share of East German Judges who seem to hate everything, but I’ve also had honest comments from well-meaning readers who simply did not share my sense of humor.

Fortunately the members of my critique group find the cast of my current project, Bathtub Jinn, amusing:  the good-hearted incubus, the smart-mouthed talking cat, and the confused woman who has just learned that she’s not exactly human.

I don’t write jokes, although I hope my dialog is funny, and I don’t write slapstick, although one of my heroines once spent the better part of a chapter trapped in her own corset.  I try to put my characters into situations where their unique worldview and attitude are their best defense.

Humor is not only difficult to write, it’s difficult to write about.  I’ve picked up books on the subject of writing humor from time to time, some helpful, some not.  My all-time favorite is The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus, which I just pulled off my bookshelf.  I haven’t read it in quite a while, and I need to read it again.

Vorhaus discusses many aspects of humorous fiction, including the comic premise and a plot skeleton he calls the comic throughline, although its usefulness is certainly not limited to comedy.  But his description of the comic perspective has stayed in the back of my brain, the idea that a character doesn’t see herself as funny.  It’s her view of the world, the way she processes life, that makes the reader chuckle.

I’m definitely going to read The Comic Toolbox again.  And in the meantime, thanks to Carl, Barbara, Charles, and Jim, for laughing.