Tag Archives: Word count

From the Archives: How the Life of a Writer Resembles a Bee

To celebrate the one year anniversary of my blog (March 13th), I’m publishing select posts throughout the year under the title “From the Archives” for those who may have missed them the first time around. Next up…

 How the Life of a Writer Resembles a Bee

On this journey to becoming a published author, I’m discovering that the life of a writer resembles a bee, a very busy bee. I’m not referring to a queen bee or a drone, but a worker bee.

Honey Bee in Sunlight
Honey Bee in Sunlight (Photo credit: Scott Kinmartin)

The worker bee buzzes from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen to make honey, but that’s not her (yes, a worker bee is female) only job. She builds the honeycomb and keeps it clean. She makes wax. She cares for the babies and protects the hive. When she finds a good source for nectar and pollen she buzzes back to the hive and communicates the good news. She is a social creature that shares her discoveries for the benefit of the hive. She collaborates with others to make something sweet. She is a very busy little bee.

So how is the life of a writer like a bee?

The days when a writer could simply collect thoughts and ideas and write a novel (as if writing a novel were simple) are long gone. No, writers, that is not your only job. You need to do your homework.

  • Read books on the art of writing.
  • Read books on formatting your manuscript, query letter and synopsis. I’ve read a dozen or so over the last few years and recently ordered several more.
  • Read the top rated novels. I started a project over a year ago to read the Modern Library’s Top 100 novels and recently merged it with Time Magazine’s Top 100.
  • Read current bestsellers.
  • Read books within your genre.
  • Read books outside your genre.
  • Research the submission process.
  • Research agents too. Read their blogs and get to know their likes and dislikes. After all, you hope one will represent you some day.
  • Read the blogs of authors they represent.
  • Read those authors’ books too.
  • Read…A LOT.

Of course most of you know that already, but did you also know that you are expected to market and promote your work? I’m sure visions of book tours and interview flash across your mind as you think, “Uh, duh. I knew that.” Let me rephrase that then. Did you know that you are expected to market and promote your work before your book has been published?

I didn’t know that. I neglected to read anything on social media. I skipped those chapters in the books I read. That comes later, after you’re published, right? Wrong. A writer needs to create a buzz, a following, prior to becoming published. In this technology driven world the best way to do that is through social media. Agents are more likely to take a chance on you if you can show that you have a presence on the internet.

Take a lesson from the honey bee. She visits several different sources (species of flowers) to make honey. Writers should do the same when writing and publishing a book. Don’t trust just one source for information. Read about the mistake I made doing this in my post, Word Count for Novels. Be social, like the bee. Flutter among the cyber flowers (blogs, online forums, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, author and agent websites, etc.) and make friends. Collect all that you have learned and create something that, like honey, lasts. Then go back to the hive (the internet), do the crazy bee “waggle dance,” and share what you’ve learned.

If you don’t have a blog yet, start one. I know. It’s a little intimidating at first. Creative people tend to be more introverted so this “social media thing” can push us out of our comfort zone. You may wonder if anyone will be interested in visiting the microscopic spec in cyberspace that is your blog. If you are like me, you may feel more like a bumble bee: poorly designed for flight. Sure, it may be a little difficult to get off the ground at first and you may wonder if your paper-thin wings can support your awkward body. You may fumble a bit, but remember:

“Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway.” Mary Kay Ash

Defy physics and reason and soon you will be soaring high. Plus, I’ve learned that writers, by nature, are generous people. The followers will come.

Oh, and by the way, my name means “honey bee.” So, you see, I have been a very busy bee, indeed.

Against Idleness and Mischief

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skillfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labor or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.

Isaac Watts

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The Writing Book That Helped Me Win NaNoWriMo

Yesterday I discussed my strategy (for lack of a better word) at the kickoff of NaNoWriMo and how ill-prepared I was to write a novel. I was following in the footsteps of King and Bradbury. Silly girl, so out of your league. I had written a novel by the seat of my pants before. Surely, I could do it again. Nope, it wasn’t going to happen, certainly not in the time frame allotted. 

Maybe King and Bradbury didn’t need to plan their stories, but somewhere in those brilliant minds I believe there was a plan, just not documented. For us less talented people, we need guidance, a model and that is just what Larry Brooks provides in his book Story Engineering. I created a model in Excel based on what I learned from the book. I merged it with my timeline, so it’s a little too intricate to share in this post, but I searched the web for a summarized version and found one here.

As you can see, there are certain milestones that should occur at predefined (but not rigidly set) points in the story to increase the dramatic tension and keep the reader engaged. The book goes into a deeper level of detail. If you read it and follow the model you won’t be at a loss about what to write and when. The model provides the structure to set the right pacing and tension for your story. If you deploy one of these milestones too early or too late, you risk losing the reader.

Are you still not sure you need a model? I didn’t think I did either until I hit that wall. Here is what Brooks has to say on the subject of organic writing:

“Many writers just sit down and write without a recipe. A story may or may not emerge, and that lucky writer may or may not be cognizant of the presence of the various structural elements and storytelling presence—the recipe—required.”

“While organic writers are often loath to admit it, the very drafting process they advocate is nothing other than a process of searching for and blueprinting their story, one iteration at a time, until they arrive at a solid sequential structure for it.”

“King’s approach—known as organic writing or, in some circles, pantsing (for seat-of-the-pants storytelling)—may actually work for some, but that’s only if a) you know what you’re doing to the extent that you don’t need to plan out your story; b) you somehow stumble upon the proper structural sequence and intuitively meet all the criteria for the various essential components; and c) you’re willing to complete the inevitable rewrites that come with writing without a story plan.”

“Those published writers who, like King, just start writing their stories from an initial idea do so using an informed sensibility about, and working knowledge of, story architecture. And yet, this is the default approach for nearly every new writer and a startling percentage of established ones, published and non published alike.”

Brooks provided many analogies in his book to emphasize this point. Here are a few:

 Recipe Analogy

“Consider a chef preparing a gourmet dish as an apt analogy for writing a story. First, the chef acquires all the ingredients called for in the recipe. There are basic principles to follow (eggs Benedict, for example, doesn’t fly without eggs, ham, an English muffin, and hollandaise sauce); still, there is room for the chef to play with the recipe to make it his own creation.”

Architecture Analogy

“Just as an engineer relies on an architecturally sound blueprint to build a structure that will bear weight and resist the elements—a vision and a plan based on proven physics and structural dynamics—writers can benefit from approaching the craft of storytelling armed with a keen command of the literary equivalent. It’s unthinkable that an engineer and an architect would meet at the construction site one day and just start digging holes and pouring concrete.

Writing is no different. We build our stories on a foundation of structurally sound principles. But from there we depend on something less definable and teachable to elevate our work. To raise it to something that publishers will buy and readers will consume and embrace.”

Human Body Analogy

“Human beings bring only a handful of facial features to the blueprint of how we look—two eyes, two eyebrows, a nose, a mouth, a pair of cheekbones, and two ears, all pasted onto a somewhat ovular-to-round face. That particular blueprint doesn’t often vary much, either. Interestingly enough, this is about the same number of essential storytelling parts and milestones that each and every story needs to showcase in order to be successful.

Now, consider this: With only these eleven variables to work with, ask yourself how often you see two people who look exactly alike. Where we humans are concerned, the miracle of originality resides in the Creator, who applies an engineering-driven process—eleven variables—to an artistic outcome.”

There are seven billion people on the planet. How often do you see two people who look exactly alike? Yet we all have the same basic structure underneath. His model provides the basic structure of every successful story without limiting the writer’s creativity. Brooks tells us “with some isolated and therefore irrelevant, exceptions, every published novel or produced screenplay delivers on each of the Six Core Competencies described in this model, at least to some degree. Even if the author doesn’t recognize it, or happened to back into them after multiple drafts. And even then, the really successful ones take them to a level of integration that defies definition. That become artful.”

So what are the six core competencies?

  1. Concept-The idea that evolves into a platform for a story.
  2. Character-Every story needs a hero. We don’t need to like him, but we do need to root for him.
  3. Theme-What your story is illuminating about life.
  4. Structure-What happens and in what order.
  5. Scene Execution-A story is a series of scenes with connective tissue and guidelines to make them work.
  6. Writing Voice-The suit of clothes that delivers the story to the reader.

The list only touches the surface of what is covered in the book. Maybe, like me, you had a basic understanding of the core competencies. I’ve read dozens of books on the craft of writing, but this is the first one that provided clarity on how it all worked together. This book will take your understanding of the writing process, story structure, and hopefully your writing, to a higher level.

To learn more about the competencies and how to deploy them properly in your novel, you will need to read the book.

 

How I Won NaNoWriMo

Yesterday, I discussed my, ahem, “strategy” for NaNoWriMo. Okay, you can stop laughing now. Seriously, stop. It’s embarrassing. Okay, are we done yet? Let’s move on people.

Yeah, it didn’t work out so well for me. But, I did win. See that image in the blue box on the right of my blog? At 50,004 words, I won by a hair.

Here are my daily word count statistics from the NaNoWriMo website:

NaNoWriMo StatsSee how I was churning out words every day, with the exception of my day of “cleaning” out the cobwebs (literally and figuratively) on day seven? I was on a roll. I was going to finish early! Somewhere around mid-month, I scheduled a celebratory wine tour with my husband to take place on November 30th. It would be my reward for winning NaNoWriMo. Presumptuous, I know, but I felt confident {key phrase coming} at that point.

Then I hit a wall and didn’t write anything for four days (the 20th through the 23rd). It felt like I was gasping for my last breath as a writer. On the fourth day I turned to Story Engineering by Larry Brooks for oxygen. Reading his book was like breathing in the fresh air. I had read dozens of books on the craft of writing up to this point, but found the formula for writing a good novel was nonexistent or esoteric at best. You just had to plug away at the keyboard every day and eventually something worthwhile would emerge. Some of these books have been praised by me in posts on this blog (Words of Wisdom on Writing from the King and Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury).

Like them, I was a panster. We don’t need no stinking model! Both King and Bradbury professed that there was no magic formula to writing. Here is what they had to say on the subject:

“Plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” Stephen King, On Writing

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” ― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

I found their books inspiring, stirring to a writer’s soul, and while they provided loads of helpful advice, there was no specific advice about how to write a novel. I didn’t think it existed, until I read Brooks’ book.

After reading the book, I knew exactly what to write next. I came back with a bang on the 24th, but then took time off to celebrate my son’s birthday on the 25th and Thanksgiving with the families on the 28th and 29th.

I woke up early on the 30th and wrote feverishly for a few hours. As I was nearing the 50k mark, I began to imagine that my computer would somehow blow up and the work would be lost forever. Even the copy on the jump drive would somehow magically disappear. Once I noticed that my word count had surpassed 50,000 words, I hastily pasted the story into the NaNoWriMo site and validated my word count. MS Word showed the total word count at 50,048. The NaNoWriMo validation check clocked it at 50,004, just a few words over the required minimum. I had done it. I actually wrote 50,000 words in a month.

This is how I felt:

 

 Tomorrow, I’ll discuss what I learned from Brook’s masterful book.

A Review of My Strategy for NaNoWriMo

It’s been ten days since the end of NaNoWriMo, and after giving myself some time to digest the process, I’ve decided to share what I learned during those thirty maddening stimulating days of writing. I thought I was prepared to write. Heh. Heh. Heh. {Shakes head} Bless her naive little heart.  

I had a story idea. It’s an idea that’s been with me since 2009. Actually even earlier, but that’s when I first scribbled the idea on a slip of paper. It’s the story I’ve wanted to write, but could never seem to wrap my head around it.

So, the first novel I cut my literary teeth on was a romance. I chose it because the story structure seemed pretty straightforward. In very simple terms, they meet, obstacles tear them apart; they’re reunited, and live happily ever after. Because of this I was never at a loss about what to write and when. I created detailed character descriptions and a timeline that evolved as I was writing, but I didn’t plan ahead. I was a “panster”, an organic writer, in every sense of the word. After I had finished writing the novel, I learned about Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet (more about that in a later post). I plugged my story into the formula and realized I had somehow managed to write a story that followed proper story architecture. Score! Well, not really. There are other issues with it, so the novel is currently collecting cyber dust on my laptop.

But anyway, given that experience, I thought, “Pfft. Plan schman. I got this, man. Besides, developing a plan will hinder the creative process. I’m going to tackle that story.” Here was my strategy {shakes head again}:

  • Develop character profiles.
  • Have a general idea (undocumented) of the story.
  • Write stream of consciousness.
  • If you have trouble with a scene, just write the dialogue and go back in and add the details later.
  • Resist the urge to correct as you go along. Vanquish that inner editor!
  • Don’t worry about how messy the house gets (I failed at this one, though. Read on.)
  • No rules, just write!

Yeah, I think that about sums it up. I’m not sure because guess what, I didn’t write it down {shakes head once more}.

I started to have doubts about my ability to write 50,000 words in one month, but received a Pep Talk   (click on the link to read the post) on the eve of NaNoWriMo that restored my faith. On day one, I bolted out of the starting gates writing 2,729 words, far above the 1,667 daily average to meet the goal by month end. I continued at this pace for the next several days, averaging about 2,400 words per day for the next eighteen days.

There was one rare exception during this time period where I didn’t write a single word. I somehow found it necessary to clean my entire house from top to bottom including cleaning out the refrigerator, the oven, organizing my kids’ closets, and even rearranging the attic (yes, you read that right). But I viewed this as necessary to the creative process. After all, sometimes the best ideas come to me while performing some mundane task like washing the dishes.

The next day I was happily pounding the keys of my laptop again, turning in high daily word counts. I was going to finish early! Ha! This is so easy!

 And then…BAM!

I hit the proverbial wall on day nineteen. I struggled to write one word. I remember I had written a total of eighteen—that’s right, 1-8— words in the first hour. I buried my head in my hands. Oh, the agony! With great effort, I managed to write 545 words that day, but the stuff I wrote was complete shite. For the next four days, I didn’t write one single word (yes, I know that’s redundant, but it’s intentional for dramatic emphasis). I was going to fail.

As a writer, I went from feeling like this:

Meme Best Day Ever 

To this:

Rapunzel Failure Meme 

My poor muse didn’t know what to make of me. Yeah, that’s him sitting beside me, looking utterly frustrated. 

And then I picked up Story Engineering by Larry Brooks {clouds part, angels sing}. Hallelujah! I’d discovered the holy grail on writing. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you how I won NaNoWriMo.

How the Life of a Writer Resembles a Bee

On this journey to becoming a published author, I’m discovering that the life of a writer resembles a bee, a very busy bee. I’m not referring to a queen bee or a drone, but a worker bee.

Honey Bee in Sunlight
Honey Bee in Sunlight (Photo credit: Scott Kinmartin)

The worker bee buzzes from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen to make honey, but that’s not her (yes, a worker bee is female) only job. She builds the honeycomb and keeps it clean. She makes wax. She cares for the babies and protects the hive. When she finds a good source for nectar and pollen she buzzes back to the hive and communicates the good news. She is a social creature that shares her discoveries for the benefit of the hive. She collaborates with others to make something sweet. She is a very busy little bee.

So how is the life of a writer like a bee?

The days when a writer could simply collect thoughts and ideas and write a novel (as if writing a novel were simple) are long gone. No, writers, that is not your only job. You need to do your homework.

  • Read books on the art of writing.
  • Read books on formatting your manuscript, query letter and synopsis. I’ve read a dozen or so over the last few years and recently ordered several more.
  • Read the top rated novels. I started a project over a year ago to read the Modern Library’s Top 100 novels and recently merged it with Time Magazine’s Top 100.
  • Read current bestsellers.
  • Read books within your genre.
  • Read books outside your genre.
  • Research the submission process.
  • Research agents too. Read their blogs and get to know their likes and dislikes. After all, you hope one will represent you some day.
  • Read the blogs of authors they represent.
  • Read those authors’ books too.
  • Read…A LOT.

Of course most of you know that already, but did you also know that you are expected to market and promote your work? I’m sure visions of book tours and interview flash across your mind as you think, “Uh, duh. I knew that.” Let me rephrase that then. Did you know that you are expected to market and promote your work before your book has been published?

I didn’t know that. I neglected to read anything on social media. I skipped those chapters in the books I read. That comes later, after you’re published, right? Wrong. A writer needs to create a buzz, a following, prior to becoming published. In this technology driven world the best way to do that is through social media. Agents are more likely to take a chance on you if you can show that you have a presence on the internet.

Take a lesson from the honey bee. She visits several different sources (species of flowers) to make honey. Writers should do the same when writing and publishing a book. Don’t trust just one source for information. Read about the mistake I made doing this in my post, Word Count for Novels. Be social, like the bee. Flutter among the cyber flowers (blogs, online forums, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, author and agent websites, etc.) and make friends. Collect all that you have learned and create something that, like honey, lasts. Then go back to the hive (the internet), do the crazy bee “waggle dance,” and share what you’ve learned.

If you don’t have a blog yet, start one. I know. It’s a little intimidating at first. Creative people tend to be more introverted so this “social media thing” can push us out of our comfort zone. You may wonder if anyone will be interested in visiting the microscopic spec in cyberspace that is your blog. If you are like me, you may feel more like a bumble bee: poorly designed for flight. Sure, it may be a little difficult to get off the ground at first and you may wonder if your paper-thin wings can support your awkward body. You may fumble a bit, but remember:

“Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway.” Mary Kay Ash

Defy physics and reason and soon you will be soaring high. Plus, I’ve learned that writers, by nature, are generous people. The followers will come.

Oh, and by the way, my name means “honey bee.” So, you see, I have been a very busy bee, indeed.

Against Idleness and Mischief

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skillfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labor or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.

Isaac Watts

Use Adverbs in Moderation

What did I do when I thought my novel wasn’t long enough (refer to my post on Word Count)? I went shopping. No, I don’t mean the mall. I went to Lolly’s Adverb Shop and I filled my cart. Still don’t know what I’m referring to? Watch this.

Didn’t make it through the whole thing, huh? Yeah, me neither. Sorry about that. I hope you don’t have that tune stuck in your head all day.

So I tacked on the adverbs (did I just admit that?), especially in the first three chapters. {CRINGE} Oh the horror!

Despite what we learned from watching School House Rock as kids, adverbs aren’t exactly a writer’s friend. Some well-known authors aren’t fans either.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King, On Writing

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” ~Mark Twain

I’m not saying you should avoid adverbs altogether. A few sprinkled in your writing make it more interesting but use them sparingly. Overutilization can bore the reader. If the removal of an adverb weakens the intended meaning of the sentence then consider using a better verb.

So, what is an adverb? The short definition: a word that modifies a verb, adjective, other adverb or phrase and typically (yep, that’s an adverb) ends in –ly. But there’s more to it than that so look up the formal definition and check this out:

http://www.momswhothink.com/reading/list-of-adverbs.html

In addition to increasing the adverb count, I went on incessantly (LOL) about the setting and the characters and blah, blah, blah. I did the one thing that I don’t like to read in other novels. Anyone read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Great book, right? How many of you wanted to toss it after the first twenty pages or so? I wanted to torch it. I had just left the world of finance. The last thing I wanted to do was read about it. I suffered through it because I heard it was worth it but I came close to giving up.

If you are an aspiring author like me, do yourself a favor: chill on the adverbs and the lengthy descriptions. It slows down the action. It can cause the reader to lose interest and if the reader is an agent, well…that really, totally, truly, seriously (okay, I’ll stop) sucks.

Need ideas on how or when to eliminate adverbs?  Visit http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/eliminate-adverbs.aspx

Word Count Guidelines for Novels

Seems simple enough, right? You finish writing your book and then glance down at the word counter at the bottom of the screen and voilà: there it is! Uh, no, it’s not that easy. You need to make sure the word count is right for your genre. What?

Yes, there are guidelines about book length and they are specific to each genre. I thought I had confirmed this by doing {alert: key word coming} a little research on the internet. Okay, in my defense there is not a lot out there, thus the reason for this post. What I read indicated that my novel should be about 120k words. If it were any less than that, an agent wouldn’t even look at it. What’s that? They can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true? Oh, I guess I didn’t mention that I’m a French model.

These guidelines are especially important for those who have never been published before. New authors need to develop some “street cred” before considering going beyond these word count boundaries. For example, you shouldn’t write an 800+ page YA novel (well, unless you’re J.K. Rowling). What publisher would take such a risk on an unknown? BTW, JKR’s first novel was just over 300 pages (about 75k words). It all comes down to numbers, people. It costs more to print a longer book which can eat away at the potential profits (and I thought I’d left my nerdy past behind me).

There are many ways to confirm the word count that is suitable for your novel. Take a lesson from me. Look at more than one website for guidance and consider the source. Is it reliable? Can’t find anything online? Study books that have sold in your genre. Can’t convert pages to word count? Use an estimate of 250 words per page to get a general idea. Look at the success stories on querytracker.net (a wonderful little tool, by the way) which lists the genre and word count for each success story in the website’s database.

Biggest take-away? Don’t just read what I’ve learned about word count or any other topic I post. I’m a newbie, remember? There, that’s my disclaimer. Do your own research! I’m not an expert. I’m just providing some food for thought. Here are some helpful posts to get you started.

http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post

http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2009/07/word-count.html