Question of the Month: NaNoWriMo, Who’s winning?

It’s day 20. By now you’ve written 33,336 words of your great American novel. You’re on the home stretch. You’re ahead by 3 words. You’re still in the race. You’re winning, right?

If you’re like me, probably not, although I know some writers participating in *NaNoWriMo this year have reached their goal of 50,000, or are really really close. But not you, you’re still slugging away at that mountain of words wondering why you let so and so talk you into this messy frustrating confusion when you’d rather be thinking about turkeys and Christmas trees. But you can’t because you have to stay focused on characters who won’t behave and plot lines that wander off into the desert and disappear. You’re tired, frustrated, and hate the project you’re working on. Or you’re behind in your word count and looking for any reason to stop writing and return to the real world.

Before you do, give yourself credit for attempting such a daunting task in the first place. Writing takes discipline. Writing every day takes a great deal of discipline. In a perfect writer’s world every morning you would rise to an already prepared healthy breakfast and a pot of coffee. You would write all day without distractions. You would retire at night with a ream of polished words, a real page-turner ready to meet your publisher. But in the real writer’s world you have to prepare the healthy breakfast, feed the pets and get the family off to work and out the door, maybe vacuum the rugs, or even put in a day’s work at the office before you can settle down and write. Squeezing enough time to generate 1,666 words a day is a chore in itself so why bother?

Because you’re a writer. Stories buzz around your head dying to be told. Because when you’re not writing, everything seems in a constant state of chaos.

If you’re stumped and ready to throw in the towel, here are some suggestions that may help you reach your NaNo goal this year.

Write from a different point of view. Or write in a different tense. Mixing it up might lend new energy to your writing.
Kill your internal editor. Now is the time to write. You can edit later.
Do some free writing if you can’t think of anything to write. Just the action of moving your fingers releases something in the brain allowing you to move forward.
Don’t stop to do research. Add asterisks. When your draft is done, you can fill in the blanks. And, you might discover that a date or fact you thought was important no longer is.
If you’re feeling low or depressed talk to other writers or read the pep talks provided on the NaNoWriMo website. Visit their “procrastination station” for inspiration.
Don’t delete, don’t edit, just keep writing.

So it’s November 20. Ten days to go. You’re 2,000 words behind. Thanksgiving is just around the corner and it’s easier to focus on the green bean casserole than keep your fingers and brain moving. But look how far you’ve come. You’re in the middle of your book where things usually tend to get messy anyway. It would be so easy to quit.

But instead of giving up, dig deeper. Time travel back to October when NaNo sounded like a great way to whip out a draft of your story. Capture some of that creative energy then sit down and start writing.

Because you can do it. You’re so close. You’re almost there.

-Bonnie Dodge

*NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. On November 1, participants begin working towards writing a 50,000 novel by 11:59 on November 30. It’s free and a fun way to write a novel. For more information visit NaNoWriMo.org.

 

‘Hauntings from the Snake River Plain’ book signing and reading

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Thanks to all who attended the reading and book signing for HAUNTINGS FROM THE SNAKE RIVER PLAIN Oct. 26 at  Barnes & Noble in Twin Falls.

Authors who attended included Jay Michaels, Sherri George, Loy Ann Bell, Bonnie Dodge, Patricia Santos Marcantonio and Giselle Jeffries.

Taking those extra steps will make you crazy, but they’re worth it.

I have neared the mouth of madness. I have sat on the tongue of crazy.

And it’s all because I’m working on getting it right. Taking those extra steps to make sure my writing is the best it can be to quote the Army slogan.

This work entails printing out the manuscript, not once, but twice, sometimes three times because reading the print version helps me catch stuff I can’t always see staring into a computer.  This also helps me find when I have used a phrase or word over and over.

This means going through and getting rid of adverbs, and declaring war on passive and vague words like there, was, am, it, must, could, and try, among others.

Reading the story for content problems, such as closing gaping holes in plot and that your characters stay in character. Making sure the theme is consistent and your symbolism isn’t overt. Ramping up the conflict in each scene, be it emotional or action. Searching for clichés.  Being on the lookout for the times I have changed the name of my characters in midstream (Come on, haven’t you done that?)

Let your critique partners have a go at your work to suggest improvements and what you did right.

One other thing I do is beat back the impetuous urge to send out my first and second draft because I think the work is done.  It isn’t. Maybe geniuses will have the perfect novel after two passes. I can’t.

Despite the craziness of rewrites, the more you work on your piece the better it becomes.  That makes the madness worth it.

Patricia Santos Marcantonio

Dixie Thomas Reale – “Mush”

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Our friend and partner Dixie Thomas Reale succumbed to cancer September 1, 2013. One of a kind is an overused description, but in Dixie’s case, it was true. She had a great sense of humor, a fierce will, and loved to tell stories. Here is one of our favorites, published in Voices from the Snake River Plain.

MUSH

It was war, and I would wait until it grew mold. I didn’t care. I’d show her! When Mama said we couldn’t leave the breakfast table till we finished our mush, my sister Jose and I made vomiting sounds.

Mama had sugared and creamed our oatmeal to make it tempting, said it was “Goldilocks’ porridge,” but we weren’t convinced.

“You’ll eat. That’s final,” she warned.

Mama had read an article about the health value of oats and decided her children would eat some every morning. I wanted Cheerios like my cousin Alice ate in her daffodil-colored breakfast nook with the plaid on the wall. The more Mama pushed the gruel, the more determined I was that I wasn’t going to eat it. I would have Cheerios instead.

Daddy looked out the window, studying the rose bush on the far side of the yard, resolved to not hear us. We sat on our bench along the wall, gagging and giggling while our parents ate.

“You’ll stay there till you’ve eaten it, bowl and all,” Jose mimicked.

She whispered that she’d show Mama, but I could tell right off she didn’t have the guts. She gave up and ate her mush a few minutes after the family left the table. I guess she realized she was gonna be stuck there for a long time. Not me, I had my mind made up. Maybe Mama could make me sit, but she couldn’t make me eat.

The rest of the family went about their morning while I fidgeted. Nine thirty, ten o’clock, still I waited. Mama wasn’t going to give in and neither was I. It was a beautiful spring morning. I wanted to go outside, run through the grass, roll down the hill, climb around in the hayloft, and rub the fur on Calico’s back till she purred.

Although Mama didn’t intend to be, she was helpful. When she took a stack of dirty dishes to the kitchen, I grabbed my chance. I sneaked across the room and dumped the cereal out the window. It dribbled down the spiked leaves of the irises planted below and puddled on the ground around the lilies of the valley and violets. I hoped nobody would notice.

When she returned to the dining room my bowl was empty. I was beaming. “Such a good girl! See, it’s not so bad,” Mama said. I ran off to play.

The next day I dumped the mush on the irises once again and congratulated myself on my clever solution. By day three I couldn’t ignore the blobs of dried oatmeal clinging to the purple flowers and the puddled mud and sour milk underneath. Mama spent a lot of time in her flower garden, she was sure to see. I’d better not dump it there again.

So I called Pedro, my puppy. He came to me through the flowers, wagging his whole back end, he was so eager. I leaned out the window and held the cereal down for him to reach. He gobbled all the mush. Back inside, I set the empty bowl on the table. I could go on like that forever, no one suspected a thing. It was too easy.

I was cocky. The family had barely finished breakfast the next morning when I whistled for the dog, leaned out the window, and held the dish down to my little buddy stretching up on his hind legs when—whop! Right on my behind. I was jerked back inside, sitting at attention, the mush in front of me. Somehow Mama had grabbed it before any spilled.

I was miserable. I’d observed that when my sister dropped a crust of bread on the floor she didn’t have to eat it. When Daddy spilled the serving bowl of corn Mama scooped it up and wiped the tabletop with the dishrag. I tried it. Only one little spoonful dripped out of the bowl. I gagged down the rest for the sake of the experiment. It worked. I didn’t have to eat the dribbled stuff. The next day I got bolder. I carefully placed two large globs right beside my fork. Again I didn’t have to eat the slopped part. That was the answer.

I decorated the room. The entire bowl was drizzled and splattered one spoonful at a time across the mahogany tabletop, the wall, the bench, and onto the floor. There was so much of it that gray puddles ran into one another making small lakes. Once Mama saw the mess she scraped it back into the dish and slung it in front of me. Now it was cold and slimy, had a faint flavor of English wood oil, and smelled a bit like floor polish.

“You will eat this,” she said.

I sat there wretched and alone, sequestered with my punishment, till the rest of the family came in for lunch. And still I lingered with my gruel while they ate sandwiches and soup.

The day after my spilled mush episode I woke to an empty house. The family had gone to the berry patch to pick blackcaps. The cursed bowl waited malevolent and disgusting. I lolled on my seat playing with a strand of hair, studying the ceiling, my head hanging backwards over the edge of the bench.

How could I get rid of this stuff without eating it? I was tracing lines on the bottom of the dining room table with my finger, pretending that I could write, when suddenly there it was. I got on my knees to examine it. A little shelf designed to store extra leaves was built into the bottom of the table, and it was empty. I patted it to be sure. The bowl fit that shelf like the two were made for each other. I was out of the house in seconds.

The dog episode had taught me one thing—patience. I made sure I waited a while after the family left the breakfast table to hide my mush. When Mama asked what I’d done with my dish, I lied sweetly.

“I washed it and put it away.”

“What a big girl,” she said.

It never occurred to me that Mama would eventually run out of cereal bowls. In my child’s mind she had an endless supply, but one day she asked Jose if she had broken any while washing dishes. I didn’t care that my sister might get the blame for something I had done. She was four years older and liked to boss me around. Besides she caved in over eating the mush. It would serve her right. I didn’t volunteer any information and was too young for Mama to suspect I’d know anything.

My plan worked wonderfully until one morning Mama was cleaning house, trying to track down a sour odor in the dining room. There they sat, lined up like guilty children waiting to be spanked, on my little shelf. Ten rancid helpings of fuzzy, rotten mush.

I truly believe if it hadn’t been moldy, Mama would have made me eat every bite, she was that mad. But the next morning at breakfast a brand new box of Cheerios sat in the middle of the dining room table and mush was never mentioned again.

Live life or write? You can do both

You must know the feeling. The urge to write is so powerful you want to shut everything and everybody out to work on your story.

At those times, life often seems to get in the way. Your husband wants you to see something cool on TV. An old friend wants to catch up. Your children need you. Your club is meeting and you’re the host. There is one family crisis after another after another.

When the writing is going great, I am tempted to shut my office door and state in my best Greta Garbo voice “I must write.” I feel frustrated by all the interruptions because they remove me from that cool writing zone.

But I learned how to live the life and write. I talk on the phone and visit with friends. See what my husband thinks is so cool. Help my kids. Do crafts. All the while, I have finished novels and screenplays.

I know you are saying “How can I get anything done if I do all that?”

You can.  Write when you are not going to be bothered. Early in the morning. Late at night. When the kids are sleeping or husband is out fishing. Take a notebook or laptop everywhere and write when you get a chance. That’s what I did. I made time for the writing. I made time for life and all it brings. If you are dedicated you can accomplish it. I can still be passionate about life and writing without one robbing the other.

Without making time to listen to the laughter and dry the tears, without the phone chats about love and life, without the crisis, without the hugs–what in the hell do we have to write about?

–Patricia Santos Marcantonio

Bonnie Dodge places 3rd in annual Kay Snow Writing Contest

Bonnie Dodge won 3rd place in the annual Kay Snow Fiction Writing Contest at the Willamette Writers Conference In Portland, Oregon, with her entry, The Bones of Pele.

The winners of the 2013 Kay Snow Writing Contest are:
Fiction
1st place – “God is Pleased to Hear the Children Pray” by Ruby Murray
2nd place – “Coyote Calls Down the Gods” by Bruce Campbell
3rd Place – “The Bones of Pele” by Bonnie Dodge

Showing vs Telling Workshop September 14, 2013

Writers of all levels are invited to “Writing on the Rim.” The free event will be held 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 14 at the Twin Falls Center for the Arts, 195 River Vista Place, Twin Falls, Idaho.

A short workshop on showing vs telling will be followed by writing prompts and conversations about writing. Participants can write and share their stories and become inspired.

The event is sponsored by the Magic Valley Arts Council and The Other Bunch Press. For more information, call Carolyn White at (208) 734-2787 or Patricia Marcantonio at (208) 420-5946.

Question of the month: How can I write when I’m so dreadfully stressed?

Join the parade! This is what I’m doing. As long as I’m halfway up the wall I’m going to grab a foothold, brace myself, peek over and take notes. I might get some unique insights that would otherwise be lost in the fog of forgetting.

Let me tell you about stress. A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. At first my brain was in a muddle of confusion, I was scared and didn’t know what to do. Then it came to me. This is one of the GRAND ADVENTURES of my lifetime — I will probably not be back this way again in this existence anyway. A quick ride in the ambulance from my house to St. Benedict’s. Then a life flight from Jerome to St. Luke’s in Boise. I’d never been in a helicopter. The trip was exciting in a strange way. My mind kept drifting toward the source of life. The closer I approached the nugget of consciousness as we know it the more vivid my insights grew.

I saw infinity in all directions — matter, time, space, motion, wind, electricity, sound and entire worlds. I saw creation across the face of the deep when God stretched forth a hand and flung stars into the big bang and said, “Let there be light.” I realized I am stardust drifting forever in the cosmos, both infinitely conscious and unconscious. I am everywhere and nowhere all at one time.

One evening a thunderstorm rolled through Boise. I was on the ninth floor and I got an unusual display just outside my window. Since it was Independence Day, I thought it was pyre-techniques. Then it occurred to me what it was — I’d heard of but never seen ball lightening — absolutely beautiful in an awe inspiring way. It looked like twin fire tornadoes turned sideways. I looked first through one then the other when they lumbered past my window. Brilliant burning vortices — maws opened to the black depths of creation.

I saw birds and other animals both large and small, eating and being eaten in turn. Everyone eats. I glimpsed where I am ultimately going, and guess what — I’m already there. Although I’m not in any big rush to get back to the little spot where my life slipped through to this side when I was born, I know all I will have to do when the time comes is slide back down that life thread and figure out how to get back through the pin hole-divider to where I need to be. We are part of infinity. And infinity by definition is forever. There are no beginnings or endings in eternity. Infinity goes on and on forever in all directions, in all times, and all ways.

That is what I saw when I grabbed a handhold, braced myself against the wall and wrote notes. It doesn’t take much effort and the results are absolutely amazing. Who knows what you might see over your fence.

So next time you are making excuses about not writing because you are too stressed, think of the possibilities. You will be amazed at what you will see if you take the time to peek and write notes.

When Cleopatra faced her ultimate end I think she said it best, “I have immortal longings in me now.”

-By Dixie Thomas Reale

Are writing conferences worth the money?

I just returned from a writing conference where an attendee asked, “Are writing contests worth the time and money?”

“It depends,” the presenter said. “Is it a well-known contest? Will you get any feedback?”

I could say the same thing about writers’ conferences.

Most of the writers I know have more than one job: they work to pay bills, and they also write. Digging up a couple hundred bucks to attend a conference, not to mention making time to go, can be daunting. It’s too expensive. It’s too far. The kids need braces.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve organized writers’ conferences so I know how expensive they are to host. I’ve also been the writer staring at a brochure, trying to justify squeezing money from an already tight budget. 

But I am a writer. How can I improve if I don’t mingle with my peers?

Other professionals—accountants, attorneys, bankers, and lawyers—attend conferences and workshops to stay current with their industry. Why shouldn’t I?

I’ve been writing a fair amount of time, and I’ve attended many writers’ conferences. Some were good, some not so good, but I always gleaned something, even if it’s something not to do—like answer a text message in the middle of a presentation. Besides the current information on craft and submissions, what I find even more valuable is a word most introverted writers hate, “networking.” As writers, we sit alone in our office creating great stories, and now we are expected to extend our hand, introduce ourselves and tell everyone what we write. It’s painful, but where else but writers’ conferences can you discuss the craft of writing with other serious writers? We know they’re serious because they’ve spent the kids’ lunch money (just like we did) to attend.

Maybe the biggest reward for attending writers’ conferences is the energy that percolates from the meeting rooms, filling the halls and building with palpable enthusiasm, propelling us home eager to finish our novel or book of poetry. As Mastercard says, “Priceless.”  

Only you can decide if entering contests or attending conferences is worth your time and money. Before you decide, I would encourage you to look at writers’ conferences as opportunities to grow your career and improve your craft. Take a risk; put yourself out there. Ask questions. After a session, thank the speaker. Shake his/her hand and ask for a business card. Network. Talk about what you love most, writing. And in the meantime, get busy saving those pennies.

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Lance Thompson at the 2013 Idaho Writers and Readers Rendezvous talking about log lines.

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Alan Heathcock talking about originality.

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Alvin Greenberg and Doug Copsey

Prompt your writing

It never does get any easier. Writing, that is.

Sometimes, your writer’s brain feels like last week’s laundry. Sometimes, your fingers just refuse to move. Sometimes, you wonder what the heck you’re doing trying to tell a story.

What to do?

Try a writing prompt.  I’ve been writing longer than I like to admit and these are valuable to stir me up. I like to call prompts another word—exercises. You exercise your body, so why not your craft?

My critique group and I have yearly retreats and use writing prompts for fun, for challenge, and for practice. Each year, I flesh out at least two short stories from the prompts, which basically give you something to write about. Sometimes you might have to write a scene with no dialogue, or all dialogue. To put yourself in someone’s shoes, or emphasize a specific emotion.  They’re good when you need a kick in the pants.

Where do you find such prompts? They’re all over the place. Writer’s Digest.Com usually posts several for you to use.  Recently they posted a column that you’ll find at http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/7-creative-writing-prompts-to-spark-your-writing?et_mid=612162&rid=22058720

Here is an example of one of the prompts. “You and your three closest friends decide to go camping. You arrive and set up camp nearly three miles away from where you left your car. Late that evening, as you sit around the campfire roasting marshmallows, one of your friends reveals a deep dark secret that turns what was to be a fun weekend into one of the scariest weekends of your life.” This one already has me intrigued.

Any good writing book will also contain prompts. One of the best I’ve found is “The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop” by Danell Jones. I love this book because it offers writing “sparks” on everything from character development to the senses. Glimmer Train also has several books to prompt your pen or computer, as the case may be.

So flex those gray cells and stretch that imagination with a prompt.