Books for Writers: Writing Down the Bones

Whenever I face a writing roadblock, I turn to my bookshelf for help. Most recently, in an attempt to overcome my self-doubt, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. There are a lot of things I can share about this book, but I will focus on the things that were most helpful for me.

Goldberg emphasizes writing as a practice, one that we should live out daily. She attunes daily writing to a runner who warms up before a race: just as a runner must stretch and warm the muscles, the writer must stretch and warm up the voice. It’s part of what Goldberg calls “composting.”

“Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”

Writing down our observations, thoughts and memories is what leads us to our poems, our short stories, our settings, our characters. Not all of what we write will be good or usable but that’s why it is practice. Write about everything, write whatever moves you to put pen to paper. This is one bit of inspiration I am trying to incorporate into my writing life.

Another great takeaway from Writing Down the Bones is the importance of detail. Details breathe life into our stories. Goldberg says to be specific: “Give things the dignity of their names.” Details bring us into the present, into the moment. Plus, she adds, “Tossing in the color of the sky at the right moment lets the piece breathe a little more.” She goes on to say, “It is important to say the names of who we are, the places we have lived, and to write the details of our lives. …We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.”
The short chapters in Writing Down the Bones can be read sequentially or not, as they all stand alone so that you can open to any chapter and read it if you wish.

If you are feeling stuck, unsure of yourself or uninspired, open to any chapter that is of interest to you. You are sure to find inspiration within this book’s pages.

 

My all-time favorite book on writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. You can read my post about it here.

Writers, what books have been most helpful to you?

Floor Plans and Visuals in World Building

There are lots of ways I plan and generate ideas when I’m building the world of a story. When I’m working on a novel, I get a notebook where I can jot down everything from outlines and timelines to characters sketches and scene ideas.

I’ve heard of many writers who doodle and draw in their creative process. While I like visual inspiration,  I am no artist, so my brainstorming usually takes written form – journal entries, letters and scribbled questions.

One thing I do like to see a visual of is a layout of my character’s home.

floor plan

When I am building the world of my characters, it often starts with the place where they live. Do they live in a studio apartment, a townhouse, a mansion? How many rooms does it have? Is it spacious or cramped?  How is it decorated?

In the days when Internet was dial-up, I used to look through home and garden magazines and department store catalogs to find images that seemed to reflect my characters’ tastes in bedding, curtains, furniture and gardens. I would clip them and save them in folders that I could revisit when I needed help describing something or setting the scene.

Pinterest has since replaced my magazine clipping and is a fun way to collect ideas and inspiration. (see my post on Pinterest for Writers, Readers and Bloggers)

I found websites that let you design floor plans for free which can be a ton of fun but mostly, I don’t have the patience for all that. All I need is a rough sketch to help me visualize things.

Sketching a floor plan usually comes somewhere in the middle of the creative process for me. I’ll have a vague image of the space in my mind as I’m writing, but eventually I get to a point where I like to see how everything is connected. Once I draw out the floor plan, it helps me to understand where my characters (physically) are as they move through the rooms.

After I have a solid grasp around the layout of the rooms, I can focus on the details like the  arrangement of the furniture and the location of windows and doors.

Then I turn to visuals like Pinterest to think about the decor and how it reflects the character’s personality and tastes.

Slowly, it all starts to come together. I no longer have characters walking around in white-washed rooms, they have a leather couch to collapse on to and a copper tea kettle on the gas stove to make a warm beverage.

Writers, do you create floor plans when you’re world-building? Do you sketch or draw as part of your creative process? What sort of visuals do you use to inspire your stories?

What does “Write What you Know” Really Mean?

We’ve all heard the writing advice: write what you know.

If taken literally, this bit of wisdom can be perplexing. If we only write what we know, how can we pursue new places and things in our stories? If I only wrote what I knew, all my stories would be about a middle class white girl in the suburbs.

So what does this advice really mean?

A few months back I came across a blog that shared this video, and it has really stuck with me. Take a look:

Gervais says, “Being honest is what counts. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary is so much better than starting with the extraordinary because it doesn’t really connect…”

I think what Gervais is touching on here is that it’s the intimacy with what we know that comes across on the page. We must start with the details: the smell of tea and lavender. These are the (perhaps seemingly mundane) details that breathe life into the world of our story. The sensory details, the specifics we pull from our everyday lives are the things that make our stories feel real, they are what our readers connect with.

Natalie Goldberg writes, “…using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believably and truthfulness. It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build.”

Our experiences are the basis for our stories, they are what we bring to the table as writers.

Anne Lamott said, “…good writing is about telling the truth.” She also said, “When you tell the truth it turns out to be universal.”

We might believe that unless we have overcome some great hardship, endured a tragedy or experienced a wild adventure, our lives are uninteresting. But hidden in those seemingly mundane experiences of our everyday lives are the secrets we thought we’d never tell anyone, our fears we believed would make us freaks or outcasts – these are the universal truths we uncover in our writing.

For example, I’m currently reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and there was a magical moment where I learned I was not the only socially anxious English major to have had a fear of college dining halls:

“In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you, (And the ones you can’t Google.) Like, where does the line start? What food can you take? Where are you supposed to stand, then where are you supposed to sit? Where do you go when you’re done, why is everyone watching you? …”

From chapter 2, Fangirl Copyright 2013 by Rainbow Rowell

And all the time I’m reading this, I am thinking, Yes! I thought I was the only one! I thought I was the only socially awkward person with these irrational fears but here is this author, writing about it as if she pulled the thoughts from my mind.

Perhaps Rainbow Rowell had these fears too or knew someone who was brave enough to share those fears with her. Those are our truths that turn out to be universal.

This is the intimacy, the truthfulness, I am always trying to achieve in my writing. Moments like this are why I write (and why I love to read.)

What is your take on this advice? What does “write what you know” mean to you?

What’s in a Name? Finding the right Names for your Characters

In my last post, I shared that getting to know my characters is my favorite part of the writing process. I find one of the most difficult parts of developing characters is picking their names. There are many factors to consider when deciding on a name – the character’s personality, their age and the era they live in. I often end up changing a character’s name several times in the draft writing processes because as I get to know them, I find the name I initially picked for them just doesn’t suit their personality.

Character NamesIn my early writing days, I picked a name for a character simply because it was a name I liked or because it sounded pretty. But after a while, it just sort of fell flat. It didn’t fit the character. Now, I take more time in the naming process because I like their names to have meaning, to say something about them, to contribute something to the story.

For example, in my previous novel about three generations of women, the last name was particularly important because my three main characters would share it. I chose Winters, taking into consideration the connotations of the word. Winter can be beautiful, yet cold and stark, reflecting the beauty of my protagonist while also depicting her mother’s harshness and lack of maternal instinct.

Here are some places you might look for name inspiration:

  • The Social Security Administration – This baby name database  from the Social Security Administration lists the top 100 male and female baby names for each decade since the 1880s. Determine when your character was born and, if in the U.S., you can look at top names by decade. This is a great way to find age-appropriate names for your characters.
  • Yearbooks – Blow the dust off your own yearbooks, or visit the local library which might have decades of yearbooks available to search. Another great way to find from the right era.
  • Baby Name Sites – Websites like BabyNames.com are great tools to search for names, their meanings and origins, and reference name lists. Does the meaning of your character’s name reflect their identity or conflict with it? For fun, try the Random Renamer or find an online random name generator!
  • Phone books – If you can still get your hands on a hard copy phone book, open to a random page and pick a name. Or browse until something inspires you.
  • Name Origin Sites – I often spend so much time choosing a character’s first name, I forget to give them a last name. Consider your character’s heritage and family background. I have used this website Behind the Name which allows you to look up surnames by origin and meaning.
  • Newspapers – Scan headlines and newspaper articles to see if a name jumps out at you.

As you find names you like, be sure to write them down!

Some other things to think about when naming your characters: Give your character a nickname. Was your character teased in school? Do they despise their full name and instead go for a shorter nickname? Nicknames can be a useful device. In my previous novel, my main character was called Kate by her friends, but her mother only ever referred to her by her full name, Katherine. I used this as a way to portray the distance in their relationship.

Be wary of giving central characters similar sounding names or names that start with the same letter. As different as your characters may be, giving them similar names can be confusing for readers. I also try to avoid names that are awkward to pronounce. As a reader, names that are unpronouncable can pull me out of a story. Try saying your characters names outloud to see how they sound. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.

As I plan my NaNo novel, I’m trying to carefully pick the right names for all my characters so I don’t have to change them later on.

How do you choose names for your characters?

Six Techniques for Getting to Know your Characters

When I get an idea for a story, it almost always starts with a character. My favorite part of the writing process is getting to know my characters. I like to know their background, what makes them tick. I want to know what makes them happy, what they fear, what keeps them up at night and what they carry with them in their pockets.

Whether your story is plot focused or character driven, well-rounded characters are essential for any story.

Characters can bring a story to life. A good character can feel like an old friend by the time we finish a book – they are what keep me coming back to books I love again and again.

Here are a few ways to get to know your characters:

Character Sketch – When a character comes to me, I usually only have a vague sense of them, while the details are fuzzy. Begin with the basics: their age, where they live, hair and eye color.  Describe their features.

Then start thinking about the details of their appearance, their likes and dislikes. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What style of clothing do they wear?
  • What kind of music, books or movies do they like?

Go deeper into thinking about your characters’ personality. Ask:

  • What are their regrets and their dreams?
  • How would other characters in your novel describe them?
  • What sort of first impression they make?

Give your characters’ strengths but don’t forget to give them flaws. Perhaps your protagonist is ambitious but self-involved and critical. No one is perfect, and a too-perfect character will fall flat. We all have vulnerabilities, our characters should have them too.

Pick their Astrological Sign – I’m not a big believer in horoscopes, but I love to assign my characters an astrological sign. Is your character a creative, quiet Pisces or a playful, risk-taking Leo? Years ago, I purchased a book called Your Star Sign Life Coach by Lorna MacKinnon. I use this book to look at each astrological sign’s strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes to help flesh out my characters. This book also breaks down parenting styles and relationship behaviors that help me to think about what kind of parent my character would be, or how they are in a romantic relationship. Always stay true to your character when picking their sign, but use these traits to think about them in a more meaningful way.

Freewrite or Journal – Freewriting is an unstructured way to learn about your main characters. Write journal entries from the perspective of your protagonist. You can keep it simple, reflecting on the character’s day or go deeper. Write a letter from your central character to the antagonist. How does your main character feel about him or her? Did something happen between them in the past that will add to the tension in the present narration of your story?

Write a short story – My last NaNo novel actually began as a short story that evolved into a novel-length work. Thinking about your characters or your story on a smaller scale can be more manageable and less overwhelming before trying to write a whole novel about them. Is one of your minor characters still a bit fuzzy for you? Try writing a short story from their perspective. Think about your main character’s history or backstory. Craft a snapshot of your character with a defining moment that shapes him or her. You may end up with some usable material for your novel!

Find their celebrity likeness – In NaNoWriMo’s past, I have found celebrities who resemble my characters and pin their pictures to a Pinterest board dedicated to my NaNo Novel. Selecting a celebrity lookalike for my characters is fun and it helps me to imagine my characters and more accurately describe their features.

Pink Ballet SlippersTake a walk in their shoes – In college, I took a beginner ballet class to get to know my main character, who was – you guessed it, – a ballet dancer. I could have done all the research in the world about ballet, the structure of the classes, the life of a dancer – but I learned more in that semester than I could have in a year of writing and researching.

Get into the psyche of your character by participating in their hobbies and getting to know the things they enjoy. Take advantage of free or inexpensive classes in your area. Is your character a fantastic cook? Take a cooking class and learn techniques for chopping and sauteing. If participating in a class isn’t an option, ask the instructor if you could simply sit-in on and observe a few classes and explain why – it’s worth a shot.

You can do this on a smaller scale, too. Does your character drink herbal tea? Trying drinking a steaming mug of tea while writing from their perspective. Get involved in networking groups in your area or follow blogs about topics your character might find of interest.

Like any relationship, the most important factor for me in getting to know my characters is time. I can’t learn everything there is to know about them overnight, or even in a month. But slowly, as I write about them and as I go about my day and they appear in my thoughts, they reveal themselves. This is, by far, what I love most about writing.

What techniques help you get to know your characters?

Book in a Month – Preparing to Write a Novel in 30 days

Writing a novel in thirty days can seem daunting and overwhelming – it is!

I have participated in NaNoWriMo for the past three years. The first year, I lost. The second year, I won. This past year I lost again. If there is a pattern going here, perhaps this will be my year to hit the 50,000 word goal again. Winning NaNoWriMo is a challenge in  itself, but the real challenge comes afterward, trying to clean up the mess of those frantically written words to make them into a workable novel.November - NaNoWriMo

There are different methods for writing a novel in only a month. Some people are “pantsers” just flying by the seat of their pants, while others are “plotters” planning their NaNo Novel ahead of time.

I typically take a combination method –  I plan as much as I can prior to November,  then go with the flow once I hit a road block or reach the end of my outline.

I don’t want to spend a month writing gibberish, just so I can say I wrote 50,000 words. I’d rather take some time to prepare, with the hopes of turning out something I can work with in the weeks and months that follow NaNoWriMo.

With November 1st approaching and many people participating in the 30 day challenge to write a 50,000 word novel, I thought I’d spend offer a few methods for preparing to write your novel in a month:

Get a Notebook – When I’m working on a novel, I like to keep a notebook where I can write down all my notes and ideas related to that story. This keep me organized so that everything is in one place. I try to keep it with me so that if inspiration strikes, I can scribble down that line of dialogue before it escapes me. These are a few things I keep in my notebook:

  • Outlines
  • Backstory and notes
  • Location and setting details
  • Scene ideas
  • Characters sketches and details
  • Timelines  tracking dates of important events

Find the time of day that works best for you to write. We all have a time of the day we are most productive. For me, it is in the morning but I have found ways to make writing at night work for me too. During NaNoWriMo, finding even ten or fifteen minutes to write can make all the difference in meeting my daily goals.

Get into the habit of Daily Writing (if you aren’t already) Once you have found a place in your schedule where you do your best work, make that your time to write everyday. You can actually train your brain to get creative at a certain time. Get your brain in the habit before November 1st so you can reach those word count goals.

Research – Do your research before you begin writing your novel so that you don’t waste any valuable writing time doing research. Don’t fixate too much on accuracy at this point, you can flesh out details and make corrections later. If you’re writing a book in a month, you don’t have time to waste on the small stuff. Get the big picture for now, and jot down areas that you will need to do more research on later.

Write the jacket copy – We’ve all imagine our book in print and on the shelves. If your novel got published, what would the jacket copy say? This is a fun way to not only get excited about your story, but also to summarize your story and demonstrate who the story is about, what the main problem is, and where the story is headed. If you’ve got these main ideas in place, you’re in good shape to start writing. If this seems too overwhelming at the beginning, start by writing a one sentence summary.

Map out your story idea and summarize the essential scenes – Right now, you’ve got an idea. In order to write a novel, you have to have at least a general idea of where the story is going. Start brainstorming about what might happen to your main character. Write just a single sentence describing ten key scenes that will drive the story forward.

I do believe writing a book in a month is possible with a bit of preparation. It’s all about getting your ideas and the words onto the page in that first thirty days, then spending the next thirty (or sixty or ninety days) rewriting, editing and writing some more.

How do you prepare to write a book in a month?

I’ll be sharing my progress throughout November! Subscribe to my blog for NaNo updates and follow me on Twitter @JenniferK220 for helpful hints and inspiring quotes in 140 characters or less!

Is NaNoWriMo Worth it?

There are naysayers, who claim that writing a novel in just 30 days is a cheap tactic – that the writing that results from National Novel Writing Month is terrible and that it doesn’t encourage good writing.NaNoWriMo

I disagree. Yes, the writing that results from frantically writing 50,000 words in just 30 days can be awful but that is why the next 30 or 60 days that follow NaNoWriMo should be for rewriting, and revising. Once those 50,000 words are finished, the work is not done! That may put you on the right track toward a complete novel, 50,000 words does not a novel make.

For those who don’t agree with NaNo, and for those who have thought about participating but might be on the fence, here’s what makes NaNoWriMo great:

  • It encourages daily writing habits. The naysayers say that REAL writers should be writing every single day no matter what, not just during the month of November, and to a point,
    I agree. I do try to write every day and I believe that A Writer Writes. But many writers know what a difficult goal this can be to attain. NaNoWriMo gives me a goal and a deadline. Does it make me less of a writer to get excited about Nano when I should be writing everyday anyhow? Absolutely not. The excitement of NaNoWriMo reminds me not only why I write but why I need to do it every day.
  • It encourages setting word count goals. 1,677 words a day is not a daily word count goal that typically works for me and my writing routine. In November, I set everything else aside to write as much as possible in order to make that 50,000 word goal. It helps me set my sights higher and learn that I can write 1,700 or even 3,000 words in one day if I really focus and make the time for it.
  • It’s a great method for us writers to get out of our own way and get words onto the page. Writing a novel is an overwhelming, time consuming and – at times – daunting task. With a word count goal and limited time in which to reach it, there isn’t much time to stress over details. Instead, we must plough through and worry about the details later.
  • It allows us to explore an idea or a set of character without taking up too much time. With only 30 days to write a novel, NaNoWriMo is a great time to flesh out that character that has been in the back of your mind for a while or try out that plot you’ve been thinking about but weren’t sure where it would go. Writing quickly allows to explore ideas and see where they take us. When an idea doesn’t work out, I don’t feel too bad at the end of the month for only have spent a few weeks working on it. It feels good to know I tried without wasting months and months of my time. And on the flip side, if you like where the story is going, you have a draft of a novel in the works!
  • It helps us connect with other writers – During November, I know there are a whole lot of other writers out there who are going through the same thing I am and trying to reach the same goals. I love the sense of community NaNo offers, whether it is a virtual community through the NaNo site and social media, or a local community through write-ins.
  • It encourages writing for all one-day novelists NaNoWriMo reinvigorates us writers who are supposedly at this everyday while also invigorating young writers who could be playing video games or perusing Facebook but are instead trying to write 50,000 words in thirty days. Nano encourages people, young and old, to attempt their first novel, regardless of whether it ever gets published. For those who decide to try their hand at writing during National Novel Writing Month, even if they fail or they write 39,543 words of garbage they did something probably few of their friends would even attempt.

What are your thoughts about writing a novel in 30 days? Is it worth it or is it just a cheap tactic for wannabe writers?

If you will be participating in NaNoWriMo, please comment below! I’d love to hear from you and keep up with how you are doing in November!