A blog about writing . . . and a lot of other things

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to Write a Novel

Since NaNoWriMo begins tomorrow, I figured I'd offer some tips on how to complete a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

  1. Write.  I know this seems fairly obvious, but you wouldn't believe how many "writers" fail because they don't actually write.  
  2. Don't worry about quality.  During the month of November I've written some of the most awful scenes you can imagine.  I've written scenes where my main character has long internal monologues about how difficult it is to write.  I've even written scenes where my characters sit around and play icebreakers.  The truth is, these scenes can help you move to a place where you can write something good. You know what the best thing is about these terrible scenes, though?  They can be deleted in December.
  3. Keep writing.  Writing a novel is like eating the proverbial elephant -  you write it one word at a time.  Don't think about how many words you have to write or how far behind you are.  Just keep writing.
  4. Avoid distractions.  Are you sensing a theme here?  If you are going to finish this novel, you need to be writing.  That means that this isn't the time to take on a new project - remodeling the kitchen, landscaping the yard, teaching yourself to crochet - no matter how fun it sounds.  It's time to write.
  5. Do take breaks, though.  You need to bathe.  You need to eat.  You need to hug your children and clean the bathroom and walk around a bit.  You probably even have to go to work.  You can do all these things and still succeed.  I've successfully completed NaNoWriMo while parenting two toddlers and going to school full-time.  It can be done.
  6. Take chances.  I'm not saying you should drive too fast or go snowboarding.  I'm saying you should let your story fly free.  You were planning to write an epic saga of one family's struggle against famine in Ireland?  It's okay to go ahead and turn it into a horror novel if that's the direction the characters seem to be headed.  The Irish epic would have been tedious, anyway.
  7. Don't be afraid to ask for help.  Last year I got stuck and asked for help on Facebook.  My heroine was just wandering in a meadow.  It was beyond dull, and I had no idea what to do with her.  My friend Meagan suggested ninja pirates.  I let my main character get kidnapped and thus was born one of the best characters in the book (according to Jacob).  And now I have a novel with both space ships and pirate ships.  How cool is that?
  8. Don't be afraid to write while on narcotics.  So maybe you're not firing on all cylinders.  Apparently it's still possible to write some compelling narrative.  I imagine this advice isn't useful to most people, but I'm glad I went ahead and wrote through the fog last year.
  9. Throw in some healthy competition.  My brother and I generally do NaNoWriMo together.  On the website we are buddies and can see how many words we've each written.  It is a big motivation when I see that he is 5,000 words ahead.  I can't possibly let my brother beat me!
  10. Write some more.  You're feeling fat from Thanksgiving and exhausted from Christmas shopping and just realized you're still 20,000 words short of your goal?  Sit down and write.  It's not too late until December 1st.  Last year I wrote more than 12,500 words in the last three days alone.  

Thursday, October 25, 2012


It's almost that time of year again.  The weather may be getting colder, wetter, and windier, but I'm warming up to start one of my biggest exercises of the year.

No, not Christmas shopping.  That doesn't start for another month at the earliest.

Not "No Shave November," although I've been known to participate in that, too.

What I'm excited about today is National Novel Writing Month, commonly known as NaNoWriMo.  Every year hundreds of thousands of people commit to writing a 50,000-word novel during the month of November.  Is it an impossible task?  By no means!  I have successfully written more than 50,000 words three separate years.

Amy's NaNoWriMo Timeline:  

2004 - Untitled Romance Novel:  I set this one in the town where I now live, although at the time I lived in Portland.  It's actually a satire of romance novels, and I like to think it's great comedy, but it probably sucked.  This one will never see the light of day.

2005-2008 (also known as "The Dark Years") - I didn't do NaNoWriMo, but I did raise two toddlers to school age while going back to school and becoming a CPA.

2009 - Ravenswood:  This paranormal young adult novel has been revised and critiqued to death.  Some of you have read it at one point or other.  It has been shopped about, but not lately because it has no ending thanks to my latest, unfinished revision.  I know how it'll end, but I have to actually write it.

2010 - I did start a novel this year, but not only did I have sinus surgery during the competition, but I also had a difficult plot idea involving Russian spies.  I know very little about Russians and even less about spies.  It's not the 1980s, anyway, so Russian spies don't sell.  Had I finished it, this novel also would not have seen the light of day.

2011 - Blue:  Despite having major surgery and being mostly unconscious for a week of NaNoWriMo, I fought through and succeeded!  This book remains completely unedited.  I haven't even read through it.  Isaac, on the other hand, has already read it twice, and he and Jacob maintain that it is my best book yet.  It starts as a dystopian novel (I've never claimed to be original), but then I send my characters off-planet and it gets a little Anne McCaffrey-esque.  Eventually I turn the main character into a superheroine because that's how you get to 50,000 words in just a few weeks.  Now that I think about it, I loved writing this one more than any other.  I really need to read through it and start the revisions.

But I can't start revisions now because it is almost time for 2012 NaNoWriMo, and this year is going to blow all prior years out of the water!

2012 - Untitled: This year's book is also going to be a young adult novel, this time set in an imaginary post-war society.  I could tell you lots more about it because I have characters and setting and even major plot points, but I'm not going to tell you.

Do you feel the excitement?  NaNoWriMo is loads of fun, and at the end, if all goes well, you have a book that you wrote.  That's pretty cool even if the book is lousy.

Who is with me this year?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Looking on the bright side

I was just reading my cousin's blog, and her optimism in the face of a very unpleasant experience was so overwhelming to me that I just have to share it with you.  Some of you already know that she was diagnosed a couple of months ago with breast cancer.  She's young and healthy, so it's quite a shock.

Although most of the news throughout the process has been good, recently she found out that she will, in fact, have to have chemotherapy.  This is a blow.  Chemotherapy is never pleasant.  However, she has a great attitude, and I am encouraged by her strength.

Here's her take on it:

I've had to remind myself today of some of the positives in all of this.

  • That this is happening in the fall/winter months. I feel like I would be sad missing out on so much summer fun. 
  • I have health insurance which goes right along with my job and wonderful co-workers who have been so supportive of me. 
  • I'm thankful that I have already been considering cutting my hair...now I can get rid of all of my split ends! I've also heard that sometimes your hair comes back in different, like curly, or something fun like that. 
  • I have a wonderful team of doctors taking care of me.
  • I only need 8 chemo treatments, it could be worse. 
  • I have excellent friends who are riding Chevy for me while I'm out of commission. 
  • And finally I have wonderful family support. 
I'm sure there are SO many more things that I should add but I'm tired and can't think straight anymore. :)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A few things I miss

Times have changed, I've gotten older, and as I stare at a proposal for a new furnace to replace the one in our garage that is apparently just moments away from killing us all in our sleep, I'm inspired to think back to a simpler time.  A time before cell phones and sodium restrictions and central heating that they tell me requires regular maintenance.  A time of wonder and innocence.  

A few things I miss:
  • The smell of a card catalog.  I can't describe it - and I was probably allergic to it - but I miss it.
  • Eating an entire pizza and not really thinking much about it.  Although if I'd thought about it then, I perhaps wouldn't have to think about it nearly as much now.
  • Wondering about things.  There is no more mystery; now you can Google anything.  Granted, what you learn from the Internet might be utter rubbish, but at least you can pretend it didn't come from your own head.  Unless you are my friend Ben who updates Wikipedia to include stuff he makes up.  
  • Going for long drives.  Considering that the price of gas is around 16-20 cents a mile (in my vehicles), you have to really want to go somewhere.  And, yes, I do think of quick drives to the store in terms of how much the gas will cost me.  I'm an accountant!
  • Photocopying body parts.  Nobody does this any more because it's wasteful.  It's sad.  I remember all those lovely black and white printouts of smooshed faces and hands and I weep that my kids may never do something so silly.  Oh, who am I kidding?  Kids can always find new ways to be silly.
  • Writing letters.  There used to be something so exciting about going to the mailbox, wondering what news it will bring.  Now the most exciting thing the mailbox brings are bills that I haven't managed to pay electronically   A lot of magazines are even going digital, abandoning the post office, which is left sadly delivering piles of junk mail.  There must be hardly any postcards for the mailmen to read any more.  
  • Experimenting with Jell-O.  Okay, I'm lying.  I don't miss this at all, and I'm glad that it mostly died in the 80s.  My mom used to fill orange-flavored Jell-O with grated carrot (I'm guessing because they are both orange).  It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't terribly good, either. (I love you, Mom!)  I'm just glad she didn't ever do meaty aspic.  
Whenever I make lists like this, I'm struck by how few things I actually miss and how silly most of them are.  The truth is that a lot of the changes are good.  For example, email is a great way to communicate - fast, free, and easy to attach pictures to.  And I didn't actually need a photocopy of my cheek, anyway.  

So I will be thankful for what I have, accept the inevitable furnace replacement along with the rest of my adult responsibilities, and leave you with one important lesson: Remember to change your furnace filters!  

Monday, October 15, 2012

A pointless way to end a rainy Monday

The first thing I remember about the "World Wide Web" (a term you never hear anymore) was the humor.  When I started college in 1994 we'd all head to the computer lab and log onto the Internet and look up jokes.  Lots and lots of jokes.  That was in the days before every company had a website, before the Internet was for research and socializing and shopping.  There probably was porn, too, but I went to a Christian college, so that would surely have been blocked from any student foolish enough to look for it.

Even today the Internet is still a fantastic place for humor, and tonight I thought I'd share a couple of things that have been making us laugh this week.

If you haven't seen the reviews on any of the following products on Amazon.com, take a moment to look at them now.  They are an excellent example of humor crowdsourcing.

Don't forget to look at the photos that users have uploaded, as well.  I love the effort people put into this stuff just for a joy of it.

My kids keep asking me to let them watch the Bad Lip Reading videos for "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games" again.  Every time I watch them I laugh out loud.  I already shared these on Facebook, but if you didn't follow the link from there and aren't one of the 12 million plus who've already watched them, here's another chance.

I hope something I've posted tonight helps you end your Monday with a smile!  (Or, if it's too late to cheer up Monday, I guess it can be used to raise your mood on a different day of the week as well.)

Friday, October 12, 2012

My dysfunctional relationship with cars

So I got in another car accident this week.  It was probably the mildest car accident I've been in, although the one where I rear-ended that guy on the freeway because a spider was crawling on me was a pretty minor one, too.  That one felt less minor because it was officially my fault.  According to the claims adjuster, the spider was uninsured and couldn't be held liable.
Wasn't the Mazda pretty when it was brand new?

This time a truck was turning left out of a gas station and didn't see that I was already occupying that space on the road.  Luckily I saw him coming and swerved into the right turn lane.  That's why it was a mild car accident that requires replacement of a car door and some touch-up painting rather than the "Jaws of Life."

Our cars have been in a lot of accidents - many of them all by themselves while legally parked.  My little Mazda alone has now been in three car accidents - this last week's, the spider one, and the one where we got rear-ended by the kid in the Jeep in which I got whiplash and the poor kid cried while his drunk friend remained unconscious.  The only side of the Mazda that hasn't been replaced now is the passenger side.  

Even though the Mazda is coming home soon with one side all shiny and new, the truth is that its days are numbered. Why?  Nothing personal, you understand, but it has nearly 100,000 miles on it, has had to have several thousand dollars of repairs over the last couple of years, and more importantly, it doesn't meet our needs any more.

The only one of our car accidents I took pictures of, probably because
this one was so awesome.   The Subaru was slaughtered in dark of night
only inches from where the Mazda - only a few weeks old - was parked.
It will be the end of an era.  From the days of our old Honda Accord hatchback we have always been a family that loved small and zippy.  The Mazda is the zenith.  Bright blue with plenty of horses, the little guy has been intensely fun to drive.  Mazda isn't lying about the whole zoom-zoom thing.  I love driving that car.

When the time comes, our little blue Mazda will be replaced by something  less fun to drive.  It will have all-wheel drive, probably have an automatic transmission, and it might even be a small SUV.  I might as well hang a sign on the back saying, "I have abandoned my youth."  The truth is that getting in and out of the low-slung Mazda wrenches my knee nearly every time and working the clutch in traffic can be awful.  Zoom-zoom has a price.

We aren't buying a new car yet, though.  You know how I mentioned in my last post that we'd done Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University?  I didn't spend all that time getting out of debt just to jump into another car payment.  We're going to wait until we can pay cash for a car, and that's going to be a while.  

It's hard to be patient and wait, though.  It's hard when I had to spend another $1,200 on car repairs last month.  It's hard when my knee complains every time I get into the car.  It's hard when I'm in a little blue Mazda (without side airbags) staring down a large Chevy truck aiming right at me.  It's hard when everybody else is driving shiny new cars that they financed and my cars have developed that "old car smell."

But I'm staying strong.  And I'm watching this because it helps me remember why I'm waiting:

I wish you safe driving.  Keep your eyes peeled for those big Chevy trucks, and watch out for spiders, too!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Personal Finance

Last month, Brent Hunsberger wrote about Oregon's new financial literacy standards in his "It's Only Money" column in The Oregonian. Although I'm pleased that Oregon has reinstated these standards, they don't really have teeth.  There are no required competencies for graduation and nothing much to ensure what is taught.  The bottom line?  It's not enough.

But it's the parents' job to teach their kids about personal finance, right?  Sure it is.  It's also the parents' job to teach their kids about personal responsibility, hard work, and healthy sexuality.  How do you think that's going?

From a strictly personal finance standpoint, we're failing miserably.  In Oregon, almost one in five families are on food stamps.  Nationally, 46% of Americans carry a balance on their credit cards.  That's pretty bad considering that the average interest rate on those credit cards is nearly 13%.  I could keep throwing depressing statistics at you all day, but looking them up is depressing to me, too.  Instead, just think about people you know.  Think about your own personal finances.  What have you taught your own kids?

My point of bringing up this topic is not to depress you.  I want to spur you into action because there are things you can do.

First, talk about money.  I realize that it's a big no-no, but I'm sure you're aware that not talking about sex doesn't prevent young people from having it.  It's the same way with money.  Even if we don't talk about money, it manages to get spent and squandered.  Be open and honest about it and you might be able to make some healthy decisions with it and help other people to make better choices as well.  Or perhaps you'll just talk each other into spending more.  That happens, too.

Second, learn about money.  Perhaps this should come before talking about money, but you need to break through your reticence to talk about it before you can learn about it.  There are a lot of resources out there, but one great way to learn about personal finance is through Financial Peace University.  Feel free to disagree with Dave Ramsey on his politics, his religion, or even his financial philosophies, but his program is good, and it has helped a lot of people to get control over their finances.  I went through FPU and paid off all my debts and it has given me a lot of peace. Further, even though I'm a CPA and know a lot about money, FPU helped me to understand how to better approach talking about money with my family.

Third, get involved in helping others.  Whatever your political slant, it is in everyone's best interest for our citizens to be financially healthy.  There are many problems with our economy, but an actual lack of wealth has never been one of those.  America is still rich.  We just don't know how to handle those riches.

How do you get involved?  There are a number of ways.  For example, if they haven't already, you can encourage your church or organization to offer a Financial Peace University class.  

You can also support or volunteer for an organization like Financial Beginnings.  Financial Beginnings is dedicated to educating young people about finances so that they don't find themselves in the financial messes that so many of us have.  It operates in Oregon and Southwest Washington and provides free financial literacy classes to schools and organizations.  It provides all the curriculum at no cost and sends a volunteer instructor.  If you are a teacher or affiliated with a school, please set up a Financial Beginnings class for your kids.  I've taught several classes for them over the years in a variety of different schools.  I've taught at a small Christian school, at an alternative school with a guarded gate, at the high school I attended as a teen, and at the high school here in the town where I live.

There are two things that I've learned from my work with Financial Beginnings.  First, that the kids need to learn what I'm teaching.  This is not review for them.  What I teach, whether it is insurance or budgeting or credit, is foreign to them.  That horrifies me because financial literacy is vital.  No matter where they go in life, young people need to know how to handle money.

The other thing I've learned is that the hour or two I spend with them is not enough.

Get involved.