Reading for writers

I hear it all the time. If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader. It’s logical, but apparently not considered necessary by some aspiring authors. I’m not sure how a person can know how to write or what is worthwhile to be written if they don’t read extensively. But what should we read, and what’s considered extensive?

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I included the above photo in a 2011 post, displaying how-to books from my bookshelves on the topic of writing. Did reading them make me a better writer? A successful writer? I don’t think so. I learned what other people said I needed to know and do. Trying to apply what I learned — trying repeatedly — has been a step in the right direction, but it’s hard work, and I still have a long way to go.

More than craft books about writing, what’s important to read is well written narrative by successful authors … in any genre, but especially in the one we are trying to write. We need to be able to recognize good writing before we can hope to produce it.

Reading isn’t an option for writers, it’s a requirement; and it isn’t an either/or thing. If you read at the expense of actually writing, you’ll defeat yourself before you start. You don’t have time to do both, you say. Make time. Yes, I know it’s hard, but nobody promised being a writer would be easy.

An article on Hugh C. Howey’s blog earlier this week talked about the dream of becoming a professional writer. In “So You Want to be a Writer“, he suggested the goal is attainable — that a lifestyle of “sitting in your underwear, hearing voices, talking to people who are not there, mumbling to yourself, Googling how to dispose of bodies and the firing rate of an uzi submachine gun” can be achieved, provided we’re willing to do certain things.

There are ten points Howey offers as priorities we need to consider if we want to be successful at writing, and perhaps make a living at it. I wish I could reproduce the whole article here — it’s that good — but, of course, I can’t. Here’s an excerpt:

“…here’s the #1 secret to success and a career of working in your underwear: You have to work harder than anyone else. Period.

“Look around. What are other aspiring writers doing? That’s your ground floor. Your minimum. That’s where you begin. Double that. I promise you, this is the easiest path to success. What follows is specifics. But this is the general rule: Work harder than anyone else. If you don’t have this as your benchmark, you are going to have to rely on too much luck. And this blog post isn’t about the luck, it’s about how to minimize your required dosage.

“Let me tell you about my luck. I was lucky in that I started writing when a whole lot of people were working a whole let less. The amount of effort required to make it as a writer today is in some ways greater, even as the tools of access have lowered the barriers to entry. Yes, barriers are down. And yes, the castle courtyard is now more crowded. So you’ve got to do more than your neighbor. [Below], I’ve ranked the priorities I believe you should have and how to approach them. Anyone who follows this list has a great chance of making a living as a writer. I don’t say this as someone who saw it work for me; I say this as someone who has studied the hell out of this industry and profession, who has taken a very large sample of those trying to make it and those who are making it, and finding out what the latter group has in common and what separates them from the former.”

The rest of the article contains the other nine priorities, and I highly recommend you click over — here — to read the rest. I’m going back to read it again myself. I think it should be compulsory reading for all aspiring authors.

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What’s your philosophy about writers and reading? What have you read lately that is helping to make you a better writer?

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Runaway!

We saw a good number of hills and highways while travelling over six mountain passes on our Christmas trip. Lots of curvy and sometimes steep roads, most of them slick with either packed snow or ice. I was thankful our truck was equipped with good snow tires … but I know it takes more than good tires to navigate a challenging road.

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Periodically we encountered heavily loaded transport trucks heading up or down the mountains, their hazard lights flashing a reminder that they were moving at a very slow speed. Professional drivers understand the risk of steep grades, particularly going downhill. They know that if they accelerate over a specific speed, they could end up with an uncontrollable, runaway truck.

Highway construction over mountain passes provides for that possibility by building in ‘runaway’ lanes — easily accessed escape routes. They are practical, necessary safeguards to get a runaway vehicle under control.

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They led me to think about how authors cope with runaway stories, and with characters that seem to take over and speed away in unintended directions.

Does this ever happen to you? Perhaps if you’re an extensive outliner or a dedicated plotter, you manage to keep those renegade characters under control, but I’m not always successful. Secondary plot lines balloon into independent stories; unimportant characters keep reappearing in too much detail; scenes pop up without any purpose. Words ramble on, covering a page but saying little.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

In principle, I want to give creativity free rein and worry about tidying up  the messiness during revision. In fact, too much freedom often turns my story into a runaway vehicle — one that crashes and burns and cannot be salvaged. In a Hemingway-kind of revelation I’ve learned I have to maintain some kind of control during the journey. At some point I must pare down my wordiness to the basics of good structure and make every sentence carry the story forward at a controlled pace. During revisions I can elaborate and decorate as might be needed, but during the initial writing I have to stay focused on reaching my destination. There won’t be a suitable runaway lane to rescue me if I let my writing speed out of control in a pointless direction.

How do you control your storytelling and keep it on track? 

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Saying goodbye to favourite seasons and characters

Now that the windstorm has died, we’re left with bare branches. I can envision their earlier colour, once burgundy, then scarlet, now strewn as a blanket beneath. The forecast is for frost tonight.

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This is the part of autumn that makes me wistful. I love all the weeks of lingering warmth and glorious colour, and am always reluctant to see them end. Mind you, there have been compensations. We enjoyed a toasty fire in the family room fireplace last night for the first time in months. I’ve also been cuddling into a cozy afghan while writing this week. Oh, and the bins of winter wear came up from the basement recently and I’ve re-discovered my favourite sweaters.

Nevertheless, I hate saying goodbye to what has become familiar and comfortable. I’m SO not an adventurer, at least not in real life. In fiction it’s a different matter. A new season suggests jumping into a new story, and that aspect is always exciting.

But am I the only one who hates to say goodbye to make-believe characters when their story comes to an end? After creating them and spending months being an integral part of their lives, loves, and struggles, it’s hard for me to cut them loose and send them off into the world on their own. I want to follow them.

That has to be why sequels and series are so popular. At least in a sequel I could continue with my favourite characters into their new adventures and conflicts. So far, my stories have all been the stand alone kind, but there’s a growing community of people within them that wants to return. During this month’s NaNoWriMo endeavour, I’m trying to finish another independent novel, but I’m already thinking ahead.

There are whispers on the wind from earlier characters, begging me not to abandon them. Hmm … something familiar to help disperse the chill of the approaching new season. :)

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To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven”

[Ecclesiastes 3:1]

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Starting another new month, and NaNoWriMo

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There’s nothing realistic about the premise of National Novel Writing Month, i.e., that “the world needs your novel”. No, it doesn’t. It isn’t likely to need the 50,000 words that will spew uncontrolled from the chaos of my less-than-organized mind.

But I need them, and I need NaNoWriMo. I need the discipline to force those words out of my head, onto a page, into a manuscript where they can then be rearranged and revised into something resembling the story I’ve been imagining.

So now that November is here, I’m once again committed to participating in NaNoWriMo for a month of BICHOK (the acronym for Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard). My name on the NaNo website is Wildwood Gal, if you’re looking for a buddy. I may cheat during this first week because I have a completed manuscript that requires another read-through and minor revisions before I’ll be ready to start something new; but you can be sure I’ll be working on words every day, all month.

What’s your project during this new month? If you’re writing, are you taking part in NaNoWriMo, or do you have a personal goal? 

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Everything Writing

This week my life is all about writing. Oh, I write pretty much every day, but there’s a special focus on it right now.

On Tuesday I joined my daughter, Shari Green, for an evening hosted by the Golden Ears Writers in Maple Ridge. She and her fellow authors Denise Jaden and Dawn Ius Dalton took part in a panel-style workshop on ‘Ideas and Imaginings: Finding and developing story ideas and exploring the world of re-tellings and re-imaginings.’ Such great insights and so many good ideas emerged!

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(Denise Jaden, Dawn Ius Dalton and Shari Green)

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Now Shari and I are at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, a long weekend that is always the highlight of our writing year. For our very introverted souls, it’s both exhilarating and daunting to be a part of the hundreds-large crowd of literary peeps — big name authors and writers of all levels of experience, editors, agents, publishers and screenwriters — and be immersed in everything writing for three (very long) days.

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With several dozen workshops and presenters, keynote speeches, book signings and banquets plus all the hobnobbing in between, it provides a huge dose of information and inspiration, boosts our creativity and rejuvenates our writerly souls. It’s also exhausting!

It will be good preparation for November and the annual NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) marathon  — our zany effort to produce 50,000 words in thirty days.

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With it following a week after the conference, we’re always more than ready to creep into our solitary spaces and start prepping for a month of concentrated writing. Then, with the arrival of November, more times than not, we manage to hammer out a rough draft of a complete novel.

So I guarantee you won’t see much of me around here for the next few weeks — there won’t be a lot of musing and mental meandering time — but I’ll pop in with periodic updates. Let me know what you’re up to, too, and I’ll offer encouragement where I can. Any new projects? Are you finishing old ones, revising, mulling, or deep in tearing-your-hair-out frustrations? Let me know. We can console each other. :)

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I have miles to go…

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(Consider clicking on photos for a larger view.)

In round numbers, we drove about 500 miles on a weekend in mid-July, then 600 more on a round trip to our Cariboo cabin in early August, and another 1000 to the Kootenays and back in the past couple weeks. I am always awestruck by the seemingly endless miles of wilderness in our province, and how long it takes to get anywhere.

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Although he was speaking of a winter landscape, Robert Frost said it well:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep, 
And miles to go before I sleep.
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It takes time and effort to travel any major distance, whether it’s a journey by car or by pen. Wherever we’re going, we must stay the course or we’ll never reach our destination.
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A novel of 90,000 words may take one writer only a few weeks, and another, several years. The speed doesn’t matter as much as the consistency of effort. (There’s a lesson for all of us in the story of the tortoise and the hare.)
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As mentioned in my previous post, I abandoned the journey on a short story this month, not so much because I wasn’t enjoying the writing, but more because the effort lacked purpose. Not to say I won’t ever finish the story. One day I might, but I’ll need a better reason than to meet the deadline for a contest of dubious value to me.
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I want to feel passion for a story — a yearning to record and share its characters and their message. I want to immerse myself in the creation of words that will transport me into and through their world. A novel-in-progress is beckoning me to put aside less challenging distractions and get back to work.
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A journey awaits.
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I’m curious. What motivates you to write?
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Labouring on Labour Day

The internet reminds us that traditionally, “Labour Day was an occasion to campaign for and celebrate workers’ rights during parades and picnics organized by trade unions.”

At my daughter’s home, however, there’s been a whole week of labouring. A new wood stove was installed, a fence is under construction, there was painting to do, and firewood to cut.

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Labour Day itself became a time to labour in her garden.

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The existing much-too-narrow fifteen inch strip of flower bed that edged a stepping-stone-and-ornamental-gravel path beside the garage was an annoyance. Most plants didn’t do well in the limited space against the foundation, and those that survived spilled over into the walkway.

We put our imaginations to work and decided that the cement stepping stones would be better sunk into the adjacent grass. Then one set of the wide wooden beams could be removed, leaving space for a generous garden bed.

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Initially it sounded like a relatively simple task, but my hubby is quick to point out that every job I think up for him ends up requiring more time, energy and money than we expect. This one became a major endeavour. Since there were no existing evergreen shrubs, all the plants were removed in favour of a more seasonally balanced design, and the ornamental rock was raked out and collected for use in a different location.

The various aspects of the job took the combined effort of four of us! My hubby relocated the pavers; our son-in-law used his chain saw on the discarded wooden ties to cut them down into end pieces for the new bed; and both men worked for hours to lever huge rocks out, one of which was retained for decorative use in the final landscape.

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Then it was time to haul in a truck-‘n-trailer load of topsoil and shovel it into the new bed, and make another side trip with quad and garden trailer to add a load of compost — both to be mixed together with a rototiller and raked smooth. And finally it was time for daughter and I to make a trip to the nursery to select suitable plants for this Hardiness Zone 3 location, followed by an afternoon of planting. There is still a top dressing of bark mulch to be added.

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I suppose I should have expected the job to be more than a quick dig-and-plant event, but as a minimally knowledgeable gardener, I think I approached it in much the same way as a novice writer tackles a first novel. On the surface it sounds easy — just find an idea, do a bit of planning and plunk the words on a page until the job is done.

Some people may be ‘natural’ gardeners or storytellers, but I now have much more respect for the professionals who work full time to make a successful career with what they do.

My Labour Day job isn’t done yet. Excuse me while I go water the new plants. Then I’ll be heading for the bottle of Tylenol. :)

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Do you enjoy planning and planting a landscape, or are you more of a plunk and putter kind of gardener?

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