Rebooting the Group

Joe’s Post #171

So, can you reboot a writing group? Refocus it? Get its writers writing, again?

It turns out, *spoiler alert*, you can.

On June 13th, we all met and made our declaration of writing intentions. While not as impressive as the declaration of independence or a declaration of love, it did allow us to find a way back to writing, albeit via a winding, and somewhat meandering path.

I don’t think a single one of us went home and wrote 50 pages. But, we did get writing done. Myself, I managed to get 32 pages done, mostly (due to my horrific tendency to procrastinate), in the last week.

But before that, I spent time going back to the basics. Working on my characters, helped by my writing friend and published author, Sean Slater.

Here’s what I learned in this part of the journey

  1. More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    I found that if I had a picture of my character, a whole ton of things fell into place for that character. When I looked at my protagonist’s sister, the one he rushes off to Europe to save, I saw a beautiful woman who didn’t like to smile because of her teeth. And from that, I built not a plot device, but a real person.

2) A book is defined as much by the villain as the hero. It’s something I’ve worked on a lot in the past, but it’s something I REALLY worked on this time around. Again, it started with an idea, I added a picture and then spent two days writing his life story, his fears and hopes, and his hidden secrets.

3) I stopped stressing about drafting the PERFECT opening line. I know it matters, I do. I get that. But I can spend weeks, I kid you not, trying to find that perfect line and still fail. So,  I let got of that and just wrote.

4) I signed up to attend the Surrey Writer’s Conference, and while that alone didn’t inspire me to write more, there is an editor there who may just be looking for the exact type of book that I’m writing. So that inspired me. (So, if you’re thinking of going, know that we’ll be there. At least 3/5 of the 5/5/5).

5) Like playing tennis after not playing tennis for 25 years, it’s hard to do. You get rusty. Nothing flows. There’s lots of sweating and swearing. But if you keep at it, you’ll get better. Faster. Stronger. Like the million dollar man. Personally, I’m not there, yet, but if I keep at it, I have to believe I can get there.

So that’s a quick update.

siwcWho’s going to Surrey this year? Who wants to buy me a drink so I can pitch my novel without it sounding like this, “it’s a story, ah, about, um, a guy, who does this, err, thing and stuff gets in his way, so he has to, you know, do more stuff?”



To go or not to go

Joe’s Post #153 —

headerThat is the question.

I’m talking about the Surrey Writer’s Conference. Oct 23rd -24th.

It’s a toss-up this year. Pros and cons.

So I did what I do when I can’t decide.

I make a list. And drink. Here’s the list.

the authors

My best writing buddies, The Five

Top 6 Reasons to Go

  1. I could pitch 2 books to an editor who’s interested in my genre.
  2. There are 3 agents there I could take to about my books.
  3. 9/10 times I get inspired.
  4. The food’s pretty good.
  5. I love to learn and there’s always something to learn.
  6. My best writing buddies are there.


Top 5 Reasons Not To Go

  1. don maassDon Maass is NOT there. See #3. He is my biggest inspirer.
  2. No Chuck Wendig, so that means I won’t spend 2 hours laughing my ass off and I do love to laugh my ass off.
  3. It costs a lot of money at a time that I don’t have that money.
  4. Most of the agents showing up don’t want to look at the books I write, or I’ve pitched to them and they’ve rejected my brilliant stories.
  5. I can’t find a full day of things I want to do. There’s a bit Friday and Saturday, but that’s a huge cost for basically 2 half days.
  6. My best writing buddies will not be there. Joe sad.

I tell ya, it’s a tough call. Not that there aren’t some great people there, not that there aren’t a few good workshops, and it’s always amazingly well organized, but this year, I may choose not to go. The weight of the list is clearly on the No side, but then there’s #1 on the Go side.

Is it worth it?



This day we write


Silk’s Post #127 — Last week, for the first time in our collective effort to blog our way to writerdom, four of the 5writers missed our posts. Ouch.

It’s time for me to step up to the booth and say my confession. Bless me, readers, for I have sinned. It’s been four weeks since my last blog post. I throw myself at your mercy. I’d welcome the chance to clear my conscience by saying 20 Hail Shakespeares. If it were only so easy!

But redemption doesn’t work that way for writers. As much as I cherish that writing flame within, being a devout, practicing writer really requires only one thing. And it requires it absolutely, as an article of faith.

You must write.

Even if it’s shit. Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if your life is full of good, or bad, distractions. Even if you question your calling and are struggling to believe in yourself. Even if you’re overcommitted and all your time is spoken for. Even if you’re bored or uninspired. Even if your routine is disrupted. Even if you’re so consumed with guilt about your lack of productivity that you’ve gone into avoidance mode. Even if you’re too stressed, or too sad, or too worried, or too tired to care. Even if you’re consumed by some other seductive passion that demands your attention. Even if you fear your words have left you.

You must write anyway.

Or forget being a writer. Do something else. Find another route to spiritual, emotional, intellectual fulfillment.

Harsh, I know. The truth often is. And we sensitive creative people may wither in its presence. Or do the opposite: rebel, catch fire, grab the beast with two fists, bay at the moon.

Start writing again, just to prove nothing can stop us.

I sat down to write this post without having any clear idea of what I wanted, needed, to say. I just knew I had to explain to myself why I haven’t blogged in a month, or touched my manuscript in far longer than that.

My first stream of thought, unsurprisingly, was the litany of reasons why I’ve put off writing. As I enumerated and examined them in my head, disruptions that had been posing as perfectly good reasons were unmasked, one by one, and revealed to be mere excuses. Just a lot of blah blah blah.

And what I concluded was that none of that matters. The road to hell – to no one’s shock, I’m sure – really is paved with good intentions. No wonder it has so many potholes.

A few years ago at the Surrey International Writers Conference, we were treated to one of the most inspiring keynotes I’ve ever heard by bestselling author Robert Dugoni. It was his own becoming-a-writer story, and he told it like a song – or maybe a hymn – the narrative given power and energy with a repeated chorus: This Day We Write. SIWC has adopted the refrain, with Mr. Dugoni’s blessing, as its own mantra.

As T.S. Eliot famously said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal”, so I have no compunction about appropriating This Day We Write as my blog title. Repeating it, with appropriate devotion, is a penance that can save lapsed writers.

We need these rituals in our passion play.

Being a writer is, in a way, the simplest of jobs. You just write. You learn and develop craft with every word, every sentence, every book. There’s really no other secret to it.

The 5writers’ road to salvation will begin here. We’re planning a writing retreat, hopefully in June. The agenda is as simple as this vow: This Day We Write.




Keep your promise to your readers

Helga’s Post # 106: During our recent downsizing from house to condo I was forced to part with a multitude of boxes containing heaps of notes and articles about writing. I lovingly and dutifully collected this treasure trove over years at writing workshops and conferences. I had even hoarded term papers from writing classes of my university years.

A painful process, judging what to keep and what to shred. Most of it went to the shredder. I did not want some dumpster diver getting his hands on my early manuscripts, basic though as they were.

I still recall some of my creative writing classes at Simon Fraser University, and the first year I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Like a dry sponge I absorbed every word of dispensed advice! I made copious notes of everything my professors and workshop leaders offered. More importantly, I believed every word from my classes and conference workshops. Passionately.

Then came the second year of the Surrey International Writers’ conference, and the third, and more after that. They turned out to be still interesting, but much of the information was by now repetitive, and quite a lot of it contradictory. The most obvious that most of us are familiar with: Always outline. You can’t ever finish a novel without. Never outline. It will stifle your writing. Each camp has its devoted disciples.

Gradually, I sifted through all the learning from my early writing years and applied what sounded most practical for my style. Not only ‘applied’, but relied on it. But here’s the rub: I got increasingly stuck trying to squeeze the multitude of ‘rules’ into my writing. I tried to use them all. I spent more time trying to write to the ‘rules’ than letting my story flow. After a while I felt like getting buried in an avalanche.

Until I realized that it wouldn’t work for me. Time to change tactics. To find a better way.

I am not suggesting that new writers should disregard writing rules. Every writer needs some rules. But the key is to be selective. Just as some writers absolutely have to outline, it would stifle the writing process for others. We need to apply the rules that suit our individual style and preference. Cherry-picking, rather than one-size-fits-all.

Nonetheless, some cardinal rules apply that have stood the test of all writing styles. Take those related to starting your story. Mountains of books have been written about the pivotal ‘First Chapter’. If it doesn’t start right, nobody will read your novel. Those rules are ironclad. Ignore them at your peril.

Some of the cardinal rules that have been most useful for me are also the most basic. They continue to serve me well. Here they are, in a nutshell:

Start your story with an action scene. That applies to all genres from romance novels to thrillers. Start with the ‘real’ tension and conflict. Don’t start with the main characters reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing something.

First chapters are a bit like speed dating. A reader knows within a few minutes if they will be interested enough in your story to continue. They might hold a really good book in their hands, but your story has to grab them or they’ll drop it and never buy another book you wrote.

Avoid backstory on your first pages at the fear of torture. Don’t spoon feed your reader with detailed explanation. Let them guess – less is more. Use dialogue instead of narrative. And by all means, use conflict. Ideally the main conflict of your story should be clear at the end of the chapter.

In my early attempts at writing I made the mistake of introducing my protagonist in a way to ‘force’ my readers to like him/her. I did this either by ‘telling’ a heroic quality early on, or by giving her/him some kind of flaw, counting on the reader’s empathy. Reading through my first manuscripts I notice how hard I tried to have my readers ‘like’ my main character in the first few pages with all kinds of backstory, when instead, I should have focused on an action scene to keep my readers turning those crucial first pages.

Consider this: Your first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they can expect to get. Without going into details, or worse, backstory, the reader should know the main conflict of the book and have some sense of the main character’s personality.


Headhunters: How did we get from this…

Keeping the promise to your reader is of utmost importance. We can all think of a book or movie that broke that promise, and we feel cheated at having wasted our time. For example, I watched ‘Headhunters’ on Netflix the other day, a movie based on Jo Nesbo’s book by the same name.

I was intrigued the way it started: Stylish Scandinavian setting and actors, beautiful house and art exhibits, great theme (high-end art thefts to support a lavish lifestyle), all the right things. Our protagonist gets in trouble, finds his wife cheating him, etc. But then the theme gets derailed and confused.

.... to this ?

…. to this ?

Suddenly I find myself watching a horror movie, with some disgusting scenes including when he has to hide inside the dump hole of an outhouse. All the way, deep down, and then we are forced to watch him emerge in glorious detail. And on it goes for most of the film. So where’s the theme? Suddenly the lavish lifestyle is gone, and all we get is blood and disgusting other stuff. To me, this is a good example of a broken promise. If the film had started differently, fine, I knew what to expect. But that way I felt kind of cheated. As an aside, book reviews praise this standalone work by Nesbo. I assume the filmmakers used his theme as a platform for the gory version.

After all the lectures and conferences I’ve attended over the years, the first and most useful rule then, is this: If you’re writing a murder mystery, don’t start your first chapter like chick-lit. Or vice versa. Set the tone and stick to it.

Once you got your first chapter down and you haven’t lost your reader, things will get easier. And more fun.

(Until you get to the sagging middle)

How to give like a writer


Silk’s Post #113 — I always get a little misty when I hear Christmas carols. I think the sound of music is directly hard-wired to our memory banks. I can’t hear “The Little Drummer Boy” without choking up.

It transports me back to a cold, crisp Long Island night years ago. We’re bundled up in boots and scarves, music sheets in hand, the big fir tree in the town plaza winking with coloured lights, singing our hearts out. It’s probably a composite memory, a montage of Girl Scout carolling, school concerts, the car radio in the background of holiday double-dates, the soundtrack for trimming the tree on Christmas Eve.

Age of innocence stuff.

What I especially loved about “The Little Drummer Boy” (written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis) was its magnificent humility. It was, and is, my favourite carol by far. As all know, it’s a story set in the Christian nativity scene, where a poor drummer boy, who has no gift to give befitting a king, is asked to play his drum as his tribute to Jesus. No gold, frankincense or myrrh. No angels with golden trumpets. No soaring religiosity. Just a kid who knew how to play a drum. That was his gift.

What it means to me is this: if you have a gift, share it. 

This multi-faith season of celebration seems a perfect time to think about what everyone with a gift for writing can share with others. Maybe it’s something you can wrap up and hand to a loved one, or maybe it’s something you can give to many people over time. But if you are lucky enough to be a writer – to be a lover of words – then it’s worth thinking about how you can proactively share your gift with others.

You know I’m going to have some ideas on this … so here are 8 great ways to share:

1. Give books to kids.

If you have children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews, make sure they have books to unwrap every holiday season. Start, if you can, before they know how to read. Engage the adults in their lives to read to them, to make sure they fall in love with storytelling. As they grow, keep their library shelves full. Find out what kids at their age level are reading now. Challenge them to read up a level. Introduce them to the classics. Feed them non-fiction that expands their understanding of the world. Keep them engaged in reading, from nursery rhymes up to YA fiction. Give video games and sports and other time-sucks a run for their money by making sure kids have every chance to become life-long readers. And maybe even writers, someday. (Of course, giving books should be at the top of the list for friends and family of all ages!)

2. Be a volunteer writer.

Every single non-profit organization in the world needs to communicate. Whether they’re raising money to cure cancer, recruiting volunteers for community service, or reporting to members about events, these organizations all run on networks. And words are the glue that hold those networks together. Hey, it’s not literature. But writing is essential to meeting the goals of all these groups. If you have a gift for writing, you can contribute hugely to the success of whatever organization you wish to support. And you also get the opportunity to prove that newsletters can be entertaining and effective, that volunteer-run websites can have pro-quality content, and that even email blasts can be worth reading. And you thought writing a novel was challenging?

3. Write something for someone you love.

Okay, we’re writers. We all want to be read – preferably by millions of people. But sometimes an audience of one is the most important of all. The obvious example is literature’s rich trove of love poems, but there are many other gifts of writing you can give to people you care about. Write a story for your children or grandchildren. Write a family history or a memoir for the generations to come after you. Write about a trip or occasion shared with friends. Now add pictures. Now publish it using iPhoto or Shutterfly or Snapfish – there are lots of resources that are extremely easy to use and economical that allow you to create and print beautiful one-off books of memories. These books are incomparable gifts from the heart.

4. Write book reviews.

In this digital age, when many books are e-published and purchased online, reviews of books by readers are critical to commercial success – especially for writers who self-publish or aren’t yet famous. That’s why so many writers are constantly on the search for reviewers beyond family and friends. Taking the time to write thoughtful reviews of books for websites like Amazon and Goodreads, or on your blog (or someone else’s), is a gift to the author and the writing world as a whole. Reviews written for the wrong reasons – gushes of false praise for a friend’s book, or undeserved and destructive criticism to satisfy some weird urge – do not count as real gifts (at least according to me). But writers who are generous with each other in providing sincere and intelligent reviews online will be rewarded in kind.

5. Write for other writers.

There’s an incredibly rich array of great writer-to-writer blogs (this will be a topic for a future post). Generous writers who share what they’ve learned with other “emerging” writers are creating a new kind of community. We’ve tried to do our bit with 5writers5novels5months, and our purpose has evolved over the past couple of years. It began as a bit of a madcap writing adventure when we challenged ourselves to each write a novel in 5 months, back in 2012. The blog idea was something of an afterthought. Maybe we could engage people to follow our progress. Maybe they’d like to read our resulting books. It was fun. But what we learned from the exercise was that the act of blogging became an education in itself. Instead of our readership disappearing after our 5 month challenge, it continued to grow as we kept writing about our successes and failures as we pursued the dream of becoming published writers. And from our comments, and the great online friendships we’ve made with other writers, we know that, as we’ve shared what we’ve learned, we have also helped others. Even if you don’t blog, your comments on others’ blogs contribute to this community, so join in the conversation.

6. Get involved with literacy.

There are literacy organizations in many communities, from big cities to small villages. Wherever you are, you can probably find an opportunity to volunteer to help promote literacy – and thereby reading. Remember, without readers there’s not much of a market for books (or any kind of writing). And what a sad world that would be. There’s a historical name for it: The Dark Ages. Whether you can teach, coach or contribute in some other way, consider getting involved with efforts to promote literacy. It’s one critical issue in which all writers have an obvious stake.

7. Teach and promote the writing arts.

Hundreds of writers’ conferences, workshops, festivals, organization-led events and other activities are held every year. Often, speakers and workshop presenters are paid. Often they also have some skill, service or book to promote. Wouldn’t you love to get to that elite point in your writing career? Sure. So would I. But these folks are likely not getting rich at it. And there are thousands of other contributors to activities that promote the writing arts who volunteer their time backstage, or provide workshops or presentations without pay. (A great example is the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, with their amazing team of volunteers). Do you have a teachable experience, a skill or some advice that would help develop better writers? Look for an opportunity to share it (and be prepared to spend probably more time than you ever imagined developing a great program).

8. Share your library.

And by “share”, I pretty much mean “give away”. If you’re like me, you’ve already run out of room for the ever-growing lifetime collection of books you’ve got squirrelled away in every possible corner of your house. And perhaps basement, garage and attic. I’m long overdue for a big book giveaway. Okay, I can’t part with many of them for various reasons, both practical and sentimental. However, hundreds of books sitting on my shelf are doing no one any good. Books are meant to be read, not stashed. So join me in finding a good channel for sharing … and purge. It might be a fundraising book sale, an organization that promotes literacy, or some sort of local library. Get your previously-enjoyed books in circulation and you’ll be promoting reading. Always a good thing.

Like “The Little Drummer Boy”, writers have a unique talent to share. While our main focus is, and should be, sharing our own stories in published form, there are other ways to give that can make a real difference.

And here’s an absolutely knock-out a cappella version of “The Little Drummer Boy” carol by Pentatonix. Give yourself a gift – and a lift. Click on the link.

Happy holidays to all!


Chaos theory for writers


Silk’s Post #109 — One of the light-bulb moments for me at this year’s Surrey International Writers’ Conference came during the terrific panel discussion, “Edge of Your Seat Tension” with bestselling mystery/suspense authors Chevy Stevens, Hallie Ephron and Robert Wiersema.

The inciting question was a perennial one: do you outline your stories before you write them? (The debate between OPs and NOPs – or planners vs. pantsers, if you will – never ends, does it? It’s the Mobius loop of writing.)

Three heads nodded in unison, well, figuratively anyway. Yes! They all outline!

Damn. The buoyancy leaked out of me like a deflated balloon. I hated to hear this endorsement of the dreaded outline, especially from these admired writers.

Why? I am outline averse. I’ve tried traditional outlining a few times and never could stick it out to “the end”. I’ve flirted with all sorts of other plot planning schemes – from the formulaic to the esoteric – and I just haven’t found a method yet for anticipating my way through the entire sequence of a novel-length story from start to finish.

I lack that crystal ball in my head. Damn. How do these people do it?

Then one of them (Robert, I think) gave the game away. He always writes an outline, he said, and then always departs from it fairly quickly. I had a vision of a happy train jumping the track and chugging off across the hills and dales toward some unmapped and unscheduled magical station. A railroad relative of the Hogwart’s train, perhaps. Hallie chimed in with her own admission of outline abandonment. Chevy noted that her publisher likes her to stick to an outline. She sounded a little sad about that, I thought, like a kid who has to stay inside and finish her homework before she’s allowed outdoors to play.

This was all very liberating. Pantsers unite!

But wait. These writers do still outline, even knowing their stories are, more likely than not, going to skitter off in some unanticipated direction later. Why do they do it? I sensed I was still not off the story structure planning hook (in fact, I’m now immersed in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which seems a promising approach for naturally organic writers like me).

But I’ve been thinking about the tangled and dense issue of story planning for a long time, and there’s something that still bothers me about outlines. Something I’ve struggled to put my finger on. Something opaque that should be obvious, but isn’t (at least to me). Tonight I think I may have just conjured it to the surface.

It’s about predictability.

All writers (and readers) know that predictability on the page is a story-killer. A stone cold murderer of suspense. A fast track to boring oblivion.

But prediction is exactly what an outline seeks to do. It’s supposed to be a roadmap to a pre-determined destination. Just follow the map, strewing words about as you go, and you have a book. You don’t want the resulting book to be predictable for the reader. Yet the outline should do exactly the opposite thing for the writer.

Or should it?

We’re all familiar with the “Butterfly Effect”, a key element in scientific chaos theory. This charmingly named phenomenon comes from the title of a paper presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972 by Edward Lorenz, titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” (Eat your hearts out, all you writers out there trying to come up with a catchy title for your new book.)

In more scientific language, Lorenz’s theory is defined in Wikipedia as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic non-linear system can result in large differences in a later state.” Basically it means that predictability goes out the window when many different forces begin interacting with each other in complex ways. Wikipedia goes on to note:

The butterfly effect is a common trope in fiction, especially in scenarios involving time travel. Additionally, works of fiction that involve points at which the storyline diverges during a seemingly minor event, resulting in a significantly different outcome than would have occurred without the divergence, are an example of the butterfly effect.

( Note: This is not all there is to chaos theory. In fact, it’s the simple-to-understand part. Understanding the rest of it probably requires two or three high level university degrees in mathematics.)

To my own (admittedly non-scientific) mind, chaos theory’s application to plotting practically jumps off the page. After all, what is storytelling, if not a “deterministic, non-linear system” for examining the unpredictability of cause and effect in the great saga of human behaviour?

And maybe that’s why outlines so often collapse somewhere along the way to getting a story written. It is hellishly difficult to predict all the twists and turns – the chaos – that will result from the interactions between all the characters and elements the writer brings to life on the page.

Perhaps a good story should be capable of surprising the writer by jumping the tracks envisioned in an outline. At that point, what’s a writer to do?

a) Drag the story out of inconvenient chaos and back to the original outline?
b) Stop writing and do a new outline?
c) Go with the flow?

Chaos theory for writers would suggest that c) is the best answer. Maybe writing is an art, not a science, but the best stories are the ones that reveal some kind of truth about the real nature of life. And life is both messy and precise at the same time.

Just like the unpredictable act of storytelling.

Cheering on NaNoWriMo mojo


Silk’s Post #108 – This year, I’m just an observer. Sitting in the bleachers with my binoculars, watching the ambitious competitors run the NaNoWriMo marathon. It’s awe inspiring. And terrifying.

For those of you who are not familiar with the phenomenon called NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated – it is an annual mass writing event that takes place every November in which participants commit to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That’s 1,667 words per day. Every day. For a month.

It’s unthinkable. It’s audacious. It’s intimidating.

Why in god’s name would anyone sign up to do this? There must be a huge prize, some kind of write-it-on-my-tombstone glory involved. Big bucks! Medals! Guaranteed fame!

But no.

There is no podium. No gold, silver and bronze medals. Not even those awkward little bouquets that the victors don’t know what the hell to do with. Because this is not a hierarchical competition designed to deify the most elite of the elite after a brutal process of elimination, leaving the rest of the striving masses gasping and heartbroken on the field.

In the writing world, we leave that job to the agents and publishers.

To win NaNoWriMo, an entrant must do but one thing: make the word count. Fifty-thousand of them, or about 200 double-spaced pages of 12-point type. There is no limit to the number of NaNoWriMo winners in a given year. The entrants compete against the clock, against the calendar, against their own writer’s block, against procrastination and self-doubt, against the desire to eat and sleep and have a normal life during the month of November.

But not against each other.

And they cheer each other on along the way, tweeting encouragement, trading jokes only writers could possibly appreciate, blogging survival guides and pep talks and tactical hints.

30-days-in-the-wordminesDon’t you love it? I do. Think about it: a cooperative competition where everyone can be a winner if they put in the time and effort, and everyone supports everyone else. Writer, “Terrible Minds” blogger and irreverent icon Chuck Wendig even published 30 Days in the Word Mines, which he calls an Advent calendar for NaNoWriMo madness.

Does this not sound like the way the whole world should be run? Damn right.

I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo for several years – vaguely aware. I’m not proud of the fact that my curiosity took so long to kick in, but it wasn’t until this year that I overcame my (mostly wrong) assumptions and educated myself about this crazy writers’ race with the laughable name.

My first reaction to the whole concept was … yeah, right! I’m gonna write a whole novel in November. And in December, I think I’ll take up rocket science and fly to Mars.

Contrary to my previous impressions, I now know that NaNoWriMo: a) is not a stunt, like some crazed reality show, b) is not just for unpublished and/or amateur writers, c) is not a quixotic quest, but is achievable with good planning and preparation, d) actually leads to some high quality, publishable novels.

In fact, once I started reading about it on the NaNoWriMo website, I couldn’t stop. Talk about a page-turner. I read the non-profit organization’s entire archived history, year by year, from its beginning in San Francisco in 1999 as a kind of 21-writer “noveling binge” to the 2013 competition, which drew 310,095 participants.


Then I read the list of published “Wrimos”, as they call the happily obsessed writers who complete the mission. “Since 2006, dozens of novels first drafted during NaNoWriMo have been traditionally published,” I read. “Countless more have been self-published.” I was shocked to note that I had read, and loved, two of the “featured Wrimos” just last year – Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, both bestsellers – and I recognized many of the other titles on the very long list of published works.

Mind blowing.

This year I was unprepared to enter the competition, since I didn’t really wake up to NaNoWriMo until I attended this year’s Surrey International Writer’s Conference in late October where I became infected with the buzz. But I met some of the players and, as a Twitter fledgling, am following the #NaNoWriMo community.

And that community has some kind of mojo. Rah Rah Rah Sis Boom Bah … Go Wrimos! 

I’m rooting for all of you crazy, creative people.


Graphics courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

Is productivity only measured in words?

Karalee’s Post #93

siwc2014For the next four days our 5Writer member Silk will be attending the Surrey International Writer’s Convention for her annual mixing with authors, agents and fellow writers. This year Silk has a bent for learning more about publishing and social media as well as attending lectures on the craft of writing . And of course, much information is exchanged among the attendees after hours in the bar and at dinner.

Joe will join her on Friday to do much of the same and  I’m sure they will fill us in on their experiences next week.

In the meantime I will encourage them to tweet #surrey2014 about exciting news or such and I may join them for a drink one evening. The conference will be exciting and tweets are already rolling:

Hallie siwc2014







sean cranbury siwc1







kc dyer siwc2014







Sean Cranbury, author and presenter has shared his work re social media if you want to check it out.

I’m not attending as I’ve dedicated my time and funds to the Writer’s Digest course I’m taking: 12 Weeks to a First Draft. That brings me to a quick discussion on productivity.


 According to the MW dictionary, the word PRODUCTIVE means:

: doing or achieving a lot : working hard and getting good results

: producing or able to produce something especially in large amounts

: causing or resulting in something


To me writers inevitably measure their productivity in their word count. Is productivity only measured in words?

Undoubtedly that is what matters in the finale since words are what our end product is. But before The End is achieved, there is so much behind the scenes work going on before, during and after our first and subsequent drafts until the book is ready for publishing.

My course has me looking at many aspects that go into making a great story. It’s not simple characters, settings and plots, but rather layers of depth that create a complex story with compelling characters and plot lines. That means a lot of time spent on ‘What if’s’ and looking (deconstructing) other books to see how other authors achieved their goals for an unforgettable story.

This week my mind-mapping  has continued and expanded to include sub-plots and how my protagonist and antagonist can become more emotionally complex, which also makes the main plot more complicated too.

I am having LOTS OF FUN and making great progress in my story. To me I have been very productive this week, albeit much of my work hasn’t directly added to my word count. It’s work that is very important, the backstage work that Silk talked about in her last post. This has to be mastered too in this craft of writing that we have chosen to do.

So this week my productivity has been:

  • most of my mind-mapping has been completed
  • character development, setting and plot lines are being layered in
  • Word count: words cut 760; words added 1600; total in first draft 2500
  • Hours in my office: 30
  • Times I journaled my progress: 0. I suck at this and need to follow-through even if only to see if it helps. I won’t know if I don’t try it.
  • Pies eaten: 1/4 pumpkin. My favorite and there’s so many pumpkins right now….
  • episodes of Orange is the New Black watched: 0

If anyone is preparing for NaNoMo and want good advice, read Jami Gold’s blog on this topic. She talks about tracking two types of  arcs: a story/plot arc and a character/emotion arc. I found this blog also helpful in developing my own story and not only for the one month go-for-it for NaNoMo.

Happy writing!

Moment of truth


Silk’s Post #90 — Tomorrow (Tuesday) the 5Writers will get together to talk about where we go from here as a writers group. Over the four years that our current membership has been together, I think it’s fair to say we’ve all learned a lot about writing. But we’ve learned even more about ourselves, and about the value, challenges and rewards of collective creative effort and mutual support.

It has been an incredible experience – one that I would encourage other writers to seek.

What have we actually accomplished? I can only testify to our progress since I was invited by colleagues I first met at the Surrey International Writers Conference to join the group in 2010 – after our founder moved on to bigger and better things as bestselling crime thriller author, Sean Slater. I missed those first, inspiring days. But since 2010, here’s a brief recap of our evolution:

For two years, under the optimistic banner “Future Bestsellers”, our focus was a regimen of critiquing each other’s first drafts at a rate of 30 pages per month. We were all roughly in comparable stages of our projects. We put a lot of work into each critique, typically providing margin notes, summary comments (usually anywhere from 3 to 6 pages), and a face-to-face presentation/discussion. Thus were 10 books fully or partially critiqued. And we weren’t shy about it.

This feedback was critical to me. You might say it tore the veils from my eyes and forced me to look at my own work in a different way. Some sessions I would leave with soaring spirits, others with a heavy heart. But because of the caring and supportive environment our group has cultivated, and the honesty and intelligence of its members, I always left a meeting feeling that I’d learned something of great value that would help me become a better writer.

In retrospect, I believe that the even more important lessons were learned when critiquing the writing of others. It’s so much easier to see what works and what doesn’t work in someone else’s manuscript than it is to see it in your own. But if you have an open mind and are honest with yourself, you’ll recognize those same characteristics – both flaws and successes – in your own work. It’s a revelatory process.

But routine can be an enemy of creativity. So, two years ago, we decided to re-invent the group through the 5writers5novels5months challenge, which we launched on September 5, 2012.  This began with the wild idea – dreamed up virtually on the spot – to each write a novel in five months, and blog about the process. If you’ve been following us for a while, you know how it went. The mission to complete five novels on deadline was partially accomplished. The mission to start a blog that might be interesting to writers and others has been a whole education in itself, and, I think, a pretty successful venture. The mission to create a learning experience was absolutely accomplished, culminating in a fantastic, week-long writers’ retreat in Whistler, BC in June 2013, where we delivered full-book critiques (and ate a lot of candy bars).

But the publication mission is still to be accomplished for the 5Writers.

Over the past year, we’ve each pursued our own writing agendas and kept blogging, while a number of other priorities have kept the 5Writers extraordinarily busy. But now, the break’s over. We’ve come up with a number of ideas for again re-invigorating our group and challenging ourselves as writers. We’re ready for a new phase. We’re getting fired up. We all want to go that final mile on the road to publication.

And that new plan starts tomorrow. A meeting of the minds. A celebration of how far we’ve come, and a re-commitment to how far we still need to go. A new jolt to our comfort zones. And hopefully … a moment of truth.

Stay tuned!

How to get the Big Mo on a small scale


Silk’s Post #87 — See if this sounds familiar. You’re pushing the shopping cart down the supermarket aisle when a friend sidles up to you and gives you a hug.

“So how’s the book coming?” Your friend is smiling, genuinely interested, maybe even proud to have a friend who’s writing a book. This isn’t a challenge. It’s an affirmation.

“Um … good, good.” You grin and shrug. “Not quite as far along as I’d like to be, but … you know.” It feels like a challenge.

“I can’t even imagine,” your friend says. “Where do you find the time? It would take me a year!” Your friend obviously thinks this sounds like an extravagant (and maybe ridiculous) time commitment, little knowing that many writers would kill to turn out a finished book in a year.

“Well, you just have to chain yourself to the desk and grind out that thousand words a day,” you say. At this point you’re hating yourself. A thousand words a day? When was the last time you did that for a week straight?

“Hey, I’m dying to read it,” your friend says. “When do you think it will be published?”


Since there’s no answer to that well-meaning – but loaded – question, you find yourself suddenly attracted to the two-for-one sale on industrial size cans of plum tomatoes at the end of the aisle. Better to rush off with apparent purpose than to get yourself deeper in this charade, or slink away ignominiously like the fraud that you are.

And you know that your encounter is not likely to prompt a wildly productive writing session when you get home with the groceries. It’s more likely to prompt the consumption of an entire tray of brownies. You skip the plum tomatoes and head for the bakery section.

Every writer, I assume, has had such moments at one time or another. You’re in a trough. Forward progress on your current project has slowed, or stopped altogether. Your partly-finished manuscript sits expectantly on your computer drive, awaiting your return and giving off what looks like a faint radioactive glow every time you walk past the door of your dark office.

You’ve lost the Big Mo – the elusive and magical momentum that feeds on itself and keeps the words flowing.

How do you get it back?

I’d love to tell you I have a sure-fire recipe. If I did, I’d have at least three finished third drafts out there hunting for glory in agent land – instead of one sprawling first draft that needs a lot of work, one half-finished first draft that might have some promise, and one new story concept with a (pretty good) opening chapter. Oh yeah, and approximately 85,000 words of blog posts.

But since this is a problem I’m trying to wrestle to the ground myself right now, I’ll throw out some ideas anyway. Maybe some of them will work.

The first thing is to try to understand what the Big Mo really is, and where it comes from. Originally a sports term, it refers to “behavioural momentum” that comes from victories or other affirmative experiences, and confers an advantage on the team (or political party, or economic cycle, or social movement) that has apparently “caught fire”.

The Big Mo is both real (delivering actual results) and ephemeral (in that it seems to be sustained by nothing more than confidence, hope and belief). It can be a powerful force one day, and the next day collapse into a pile of ash when it burns through all its oxygen. But sometimes it persists for a long cycle and, if continually reinforced, momentum can become resistant to change.

Newton's Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Newton’s Cradle. Credit: Demon Deluxe (Dominique Toussaint).

Like Newton’s Cradle, it can appear to become perpetual.

Generally, the phenomenon of Big Mo has been thought of as a large scale mechanism, something that applies to collective behaviour. Psychologists have studied it, even developing a methodology for calculating its impact. Economists have based market theories on it. Politicians have built campaigns around it. Technology has created the social media tools to both stimulate and record Big Mo. Even physicists have gotten into the act, likening it to aspects of quantum field theory. And some of the most hilarious and quirky superstitions in the world of big-league sports arise from players’ attempts to keep their Big Mo streaks alive (never more charmingly portrayed than in the movie Bull Durham).

The question is: can this “networked” phenomenon be achieved on a small scale? Like for an individual writer? Well, why not? “Behavioural persistence” theory is apparently now being used in the development of drug rehabilitation programs, harnessing momentum to counter the prospects of relapse. (Okay, it’s not a pretty thought, but there are probably some uncomfortable parallels between addicts and writers that I won’t go into right now.)

So … since writers seem to love putting things in lists, here are my completely unproven but patently reasonable suggestions for writers who need some momentum. Warning: some of this is harsh. But you want to finish that book, don’t you?

Silk’s Top 10 Strategies for Getting Your Big Mo Back

1. Purge the filler. Examine what you actually do every day (besides writing) and make a list of your personal time wasters. I know you have them. Everyone does. Angry Birds. Television. Web surfing. Anything even slightly obsessive, even cleaning. Find ’em and just stop doing them. Or put yourself on a time-waster diet. An hour or two a day, tops. Wow! Now you suddenly have all the time you need to write!

2. Try, try, try to write on a regular schedule. This, for many of us, is the hardest thing to achieve. But most of us work (or once worked) at something that required us to be somewhere every day at a certain time and place to do a certain thing. This is no different. If we’re honest, there are three main reasons it’s hard to schedule writing. First, we put other’s needs and demands ahead of our own; we let everything in the world crash our writing schedule. Second, we don’t really think writing is an imperative, or at least not more important than, say, washing the windows or catching the latest Anthony Bourdain. Third, we use every possible excuse to avoid writing when we feel secretly afraid of failure. Okay, maybe this is just me. But you have your own hang-ups, I bet. Writing on a regular schedule is not a cure for them. But it’s a trigger for momentum, purely through discipline.

3. Every time you get a good chunk of writing (or outlining or research) done, reward yourself. If you’re able to get into the habit of writing on a regular schedule, that means you deserve at least one reward per day. This isn’t a game. We all need that positive reinforcement. It’s what builds Big Mo. Make it something that counts. Today I rewarded myself by registering for the Surrey International Writers Conference in October. Tomorrow, maybe all I’ll get is a brownie, but that’s okay. I love brownies. (I recommend against rewarding yourself with a full bottle of wine every day; see earlier reference to parallels between addicts and writers.)

4. Amplify your momentum by being part of a larger group. Big Mo is described as a group phenomenon for a reason: we get energy, positive reinforcement and contact highs from other people on our team. (Isn’t this what sports, politics and religion is all about?) Writing is an isolating profession. Even if you’re an introvert, even if you think your work is “not good enough”, even if there are all kinds of obstacles to doing it, you need to commune with other writers. Find a writers group. Can’t find one? Start one. (If it weren’t for my 5/5/5 friends, I probably would have given up long ago.) Go to workshops or classes or seminars and rub elbows. Go to writers conferences. Yes, they’re basically trade fairs that sell books and advice (and hope) to writers. Go anyway. (Surrey International Writers Conference, here I come for the 7th time!) You’ll meet people like you. You’ll come home energized. I guarantee it. Writing requires faith. Become part of a writing congregation.

5. Read, read, read, read, read. Reading is never on the list of time-wasters. Reading is learning. Reading is like drinking water for a writer: you can’t live without it. Read about writing. There is so much in print and online it isn’t funny. Even if you don’t always learn something new, you may see something you already “know” differently, and reading about writing will keep your head into writing, simple as that. When you’re not reading about writing, just read good stuff. Your favourite authors. Different genres. Fiction. Non-fiction. Everything. Learn from it all, good and bad. When you just can’t face writing your own stuff during your “scheduled” writing time, read instead. It might inspire you.

6. Cultivate your curiosity. Curiosity is an attitude of openness and engagement. It feeds imagination. It keeps your senses constantly on the lookout for novelty, insights, revelations and surprises. It stimulates the brain and the heart. It keeps you from getting bored, and boredom is a momentum killer. Incurious people are dull, and dull people don’t write interesting things.

7. Practice flexibility and adaptation. If you have to have a certain chair and a certain coffee mug and all your pencils and pens lined up north to south before you can settle down to write, you’re in big trouble. Many books encourage writers to set up their writing space to suit their work style on the theory that this leads to higher productivity. Can’t argue with that. But then there’s what I call the “bomb shelter problem”. If you’re not home when the bomb drops, your shelter is useless. People have busier, more mobile lives than ever. Keeping a regular writing schedule is harder – sometimes much harder – when you’re away from your own domain and daily routine. So you have to learn to adapt without fuss. Write in the hotel room or the airport or on the boat. Don’t wait for things to get back to “normal” to resume your writing schedule, because by then the Big Mo will be down the drain, like your tan.

8. If you really hit a wall with your main project, write something else. Writer’s block is real. So is burn-out. Sometimes your brain just needs to fall back and re-group before it’s ready to scale that particular wall. But keep writing anyway. Do a blog post. Write an essay. Try a poem or a short story. Write in your journal. Just keep writing. Attack the book again after a rest from it. A short rest.

9. Make your peace with your non-writing friends and family. Some people who are close to a writer are incredibly supportive, both in word and deed. Then there are the more normal people who want to be supportive … as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them too much. Living with a writer can get lonely. People understandably get a bit testy about missing meals, say, or having to build their own schedule around your work. Maybe they’d like a little more of your attention, or would appreciate your calling more if it resulted in some published books and income. It’s hard for a non-writer to understand what drives us, and to share our solitary writing life. Everyone’s situation is different, but two goals are pretty universal: that the people closest to you feel they have some personal stake in your writing, and that you don’t neglect their needs and wants. Fair’s fair.

10. Stay healthy. Be happy.  All that advice they give you about a healthy lifestyle applies double to people who spend a lot of time in front of a computer thinking their brains out. Eating right, keeping your body moving, spending time outdoors, getting some R&R, sleeping well, having some fun, maintaining your relationships and social life with emotional intelligence. You’ve heard it all. Take it to heart. I can’t remember which writer it was who claimed he wrote every single day of every single year, except his birthday. Somebody successful, rich and famous. I’m in awe of that level of obsession. But most of us need to have an actual life to keep up our Big Mo as writers. So, besides being good to the people around you, be good to yourself.