November 1st, the official beginning of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).  This is my sixth year participating and I’ve won every year.  Yay me!  So, I’m not nervous like a lot of other writers.  I don’t have that will-I-or-won’t-I feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I will.

Still, my laissez-faire attitude means that I haven’t prepared as much as I should.  Since the old NaNo rules have slacked, I haven’t focused as much as I would like.  It used to be that you had to start a brand new fresh novel in November.  Now, you can work on something you’ve already started.  Since I’ve already started a ridiculous number of novels, the hard part was deciding which novel to focus on for the month.

Every time I picked a novel, it dulled and something shinier caught my attention.  I became quite dizzy.  It may be that I don’t stick to just the one novel this month, even though I really wanted to do that.  Could be that I go back and forth between a few.  But that’s no different from what I do every day.

So how do I make November special?

Well, there’s 4 The Words, which is an online writing tool–basically a way to turn writing into a role playing game.  I’m writing this first draft in 4 The Words right now.  Every November, they find a way to make writing that much more fun.  They craft a special area, special monsters (you defeat the monsters by writing so many words in so many minutes), and special virtual prizes.  The influx of new quests and adventures always bumps up my word counts in November.

I also have my “nemesis” from Michigan.  Four years ago, the cities of Chicago and Detroit decided to pair up against each other and, if you wanted, you could be assigned a nemesis, someone who you competed with for the highest word count.  I liked my first year nemesis, but my second year nemesis really kicked it up a notch.  I’ve kept him.  This will be our third year competing–the tie-breaker year!

Really, though, November, for me, is a celebration of writing, particularly the joy of writing a first draft, when I don’t have to worry about how it’s all going to turn out. Well, technically, I don’t have to worry.

For all you writers out there.  Get out there and put words on the page, characters on the screen, or dots and dashes on the telegraph.  Tell your story!

Music of Sentences – OCWW Week 4

The final installment of Fred Shafer’s series of lectures on the Music of Sentences was every bit as good as its predecessors.  He threw down some serious grammar terms that took me a while to decode.  Participial phrase?  Sounds like something I should know.  For those of you out there (like anyone is reading this) who don’t know a participial phrase, it’s a phrase with an “ing” verb in it.

Example:  “He stared at her, imagining his callused hands around her delicate throat.”

In fiction writing circles, writers are always encouraged to write active sentences.  Active sentences are (and this is overly simplified) Subject-Verb sentences.

Example:  “Hank grabbed her by the throat.”

Same concept in the passive voice example:  “His hands grabbed at her throat.”

Fred did not encourage us to write in the passive voice.  In fact, he didn’t mention it at all.  But it got me thinking about the passive voice.  Every once in a while, I want to write something in the passive voice.  If I’m really honest with myself, it’s more often than I should.  So, I took some comfort in thinking that in finding a variety of rhythms in sentences and paragraphs, there is a place for the passive voice.  Better to be used sparingly, to be sure, but a place nonetheless.

I also thought about another craft concept:  writing tight.  Writing tight refers to getting rid of unnecessary words, adjectives and adverbs are particularly loathsome to some writing scholars.  I, myself enjoy a nice adjective.  See what I did there?  I used an adjective to modify the noun adjective.  Is it wrong to find myself clever?  Probably it’s just wrong to put it in writing.

Anyway, it occurred to me that blindly writing tight could totally ruin the rhythm of a story.  Not every sentence should be cut down to the essentials.  That doesn’t mean that writers shouldn’t use “sprint” instead of “ran quickly”, but it does mean that sometimes, it’s okay to “almost laugh” or “grin wildly”.  Sometimes, extra words serve a purpose.

Fred also talked about the importance of variety within the story, that the rhythm of the writing should change as the story progresses, to keep it fresh.  I’m sure that I don’t do this.  But with the examples, I can see how it’s done and how it can be an effective tool for invoking emotion and keeping the reader engaged.  Pretty cool.

He also broke out a quote from Jay-Z’s book, Decoded.  Fred is not the kind of guy I expected to quote Jay-Z, which made it all the more delightful.  The concept, of course, was about music, but it applies to writing.  Jay-Z talked about beat and flow.  The beat is a constant, the meter of the music.  He compared it to time, which doesn’t vary.  Then there is flow.  Flow is the phrasing in a song, how sometimes it’s right with the beat, and sometimes it’s stretched out or condensed, or slightly off.  Flow, according to Jay-Z is like life.  Flow is what is done with time.

Applying Jay-Z’s concepts to writing, I think of it like the timeline of the story, is the beat.  The sentences, the phrasing, the chaptering all correspond to the flow, the way the story unfolds bit by bit.

So, I think I’ll listen to a little Billie Holiday, jazz phrasing royalty, and write me some sentences.


The Music of Sentences – OCWW Week 3

Another great session by Fred Shafer regarding the rhythm of sentences.  The biggest takeaway from this week’s class was the idea of breaking the proper rules of grammar for effect.  Now, I’m already doing that to some extent.  Sentence fragments and I are close friends.  I love me some one word sentences and whatnot.  However, I’m pretty diligent about proper punctuation (to the best of my ability, that is).  But Fred showed us a Lauren Groff example that had a bunch of punctuation no-nos:  sentence fragments. comma splices, run-on sentences, and more.  There were commas missing and grammar was set aside for the sake of rhythm.  The author decided that she wanted the sentences to flow a certain way and put the rules of grammar aside to achieve it.

Now, you have to be good to pull that off.  Am I that good?  Probably not yet (except for the aforementioned fragment thing. I am so good enough for that).  But that concept alone opened up a lot of possibilities in my brain.  Fred pointed out that it was important to remember that fiction writing isn’t like other kinds of writing.  There are rules, but they’re a lot more bendy than in other kinds of writing.

Bendy is good!  I’m looking forward to breaking some rules in service of a story.

Music of Sentences – OCWW Week 2

Fred Shafer’s second lecture on The Music of Sentences was another good one!  The main thrust was on the importance of creating variability and unpredictability to sentences.  If every sentence is around the same length, it becomes predictable and boring.  Boring is not the fiction writer’s goal (unless you’re Jane Austen and you’re writing a Mr. Collins).

I’ve been aware of varying sentence length, and it is something I’ve given focus in the past, but this lecture took it to the next level.  Thinking about sentences like they’re music unearthed some further depth.

It also made me think about comedy.  Comedy has “the rule of threes.”  Jokes, lists, and setups often come in threes.  They build to the third thing, saving the best, most dramatic, for last.  Since the human brain loooooves patterns, this pleases us.  Patterns can also be used by not fulfilling the third or taking the third thing and doing something unexpected with it.

“She loved his rough hands, his deep voice, and his five-alarm tofurky chili.”  See what I did there?  That third thing didn’t exactly go with the first two.  Surprise!

I love it when a couple of concepts come together.  Having a pattern and fulfilling it or breaking it works beyond comedy.  Changing up the words, tone, sentence length, and weaving surprises into sentences and paragraphs can enable writers to hit the next level.  It can help make stories come alive and engage the reader.  Very cool stuff.

Fred also had us look over some passages from writers who particularly excel at good sentences:  Tobias Wolff, Grace Paley, Lauren Groff.  It’s interesting to see when/how other writers made their sentences purposefully short or purposefully long.  There’s actually quite a lot of leeway in sentence construction.  Seeing the possibilities and the freedom is pretty awe-inspiring (and at the same time overwhelming).

I’m looking forward to playing around with some of my own sentences.  Fred also recommended finding authors/novels whose rhythms and sentence structures could be emulated.  Sort of like doing a cover in reverse–new material, but done in the vein of a master.  According to Fred, the structure is something that the reader isn’t likely to notice, unless looking for it.  Nevertheless, the structure, the way the sentences are constructed certainly affects the reader.

The layers and levels of writing never cease to amaze and intimidate me.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…writing is hard!

Music of Sentences – OCWW Week 1

The Music of Sentences

Fred Shafer, the perennial opening act for  Off-Campus Writers’ Workshop (OCWW) did not disappoint, again, this year.  In the next four weeks, we will be exploring voice and the construct of sentences.

Voice is something that most of the writing instructors I’ve heard speak find hard to define  For me, I think of it as the personality of the narrator.  For a first person story, there is no difference between the character and the author, since everything is told through one lens.  In third person, there can be more than one voice.  If the work is in close third, where the reader is in the thoughts of one character at a time, it can work like first person.  If the work is a more distant third or omniscient, then there can be an outside voice as well (author’s voice.)  Regardless, there is something magical between the page and the reader and that magic is the voice, the personality of the story.

I want to share a few of my favorite quotes from the lecture and talk about what they mean to me.  This isn’t meant to represent the class, just my takeaways.

“By the mouth for the ear:  that’s the way I’d like to write.” (William Gass from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.)


“…a good sentence speaks even to its maker and that we often recognize our own mediocrity, even when we pretend not to.” (The Hidden Machinery:  Lessons on Writing by Margot Livesey)


“Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear.” (One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty)


Though the written word seems to be made to be read silently, there is something about reading aloud, even in one’s own head that makes a work more rich and full.  I’ve often heard the advice to always 1) print out the novel and make edits from the written page, not just onscreen.  2) read the work aloud, find where the language trips and what doesn’t sound natural (particularly useful for dialogue).  Today’s lecture really hammered home point #2.

In my own writing, I write what I hear in my head, so the lecture and the quotes really spoke to me.  I’m not one of those writers who crafts a sentence, I simply vomit it out.  Words pour out of me, and then later I go back to shape.  I’ll notice too many short sentences, so I’ll add a longer sentence or squash two sentences together.  I’ll realize that I’ve basically restated something and cut a sentence.  Sometimes the scene sucks and I pitch it all.  Sometimes I’m charmed by my own work and don’t change a thing (this is not a frequent occurrence.)

I’ve had conflicting feelings about my approach to writing.  Words fly on the page, and that’s good.  But the revising is a bitch.  Not that I have much choice over it–I’m not interested in fighting nature to find a different writing style.  What I do works, so better not to mess with it.  I’ve always felt pretty comfortable with voice–the way my characters’ personalities are shown on the page.  The reason for that, I’m thinking after today’s lecture, is that when I channel a character, when my brain is firing out a story, a description, some dialogue, I’m listening in my head.  Maybe I’m lucky and I’m somehow finding a special rhythm unconsciously.  I really, really hope that’s true.  Craft is sooooo much easier when it comes naturally.

Whether it comes naturally or not, sentences and stories always need to be scrutinized and polished.  I’m looking forward to next week when I hope we’ll delve more into the how to find and play with the rhythm of sentences to serve the story best.

Writer’s Police Academy

This year was my third go-round with the Writer’s Police Academy, held in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I love this mind-blowing event and have committed to going every year for as long as they have it.

As you might imagine, it’s a 4-day seminar where writers get to learn about real life police and rescue procedures and concepts. It is every bit as awesome and fun as it sounds. I was lucky to meet a lot of fun writers from all over, too.

My classes this year include: Microscopic Murder’s Greatest Hits (where I learned about killer bugs, bacteria, viruses, and fungi.  The creep factor is high, which is always a thumbs up), Force on Force (where I got to partially gear up like SWAT and shoot a paintball handgun at a target.  Five for five center mass ain’t no joke.  Then we ran through a building shooting paper bad dudes), Truth or Lies: The Art of the Interrogation (my favorite class. Paul Bishop is a masterful presenter), Room Clearing-Stairs (learned how the SWAT people move and the completely daunting task of how to approach stairs when there’s dangerous people to find.  There was a lot of geometry-like things to consider and it hurt my brain). And that was just the first day full day!

Second day classes: Confined Space Crawl (firefighters use this tri-leveled trailer course to practice getting through tight spaces with all their gear with dangling wires and uneven surfaces,.  I wanted it darker and actually tighter, but it was pretty cool), Taser Training (got to shoot a taser at a cardboard target and someone volunteered to get tased in the leg.  Take away: comply, because you do not want to get tased), Behavioral Clues at Crime Scenes (all about serial killers, false suicides, real suicides, and I learned about mud eroticism, which I now can’t unlearn), and then I was going to a ballistics class, but the instructor wasn’t available, so they let me do PIT driving.

PIT needs its own paragraph. It stands for Precision Immobilization Technique. Basically, I learned how to bump another car and make it spin out. It was bad ass. Since I’ve been back, I keep thinking about doing it as I’m driving around Chicago. So far, I’ve refrained. It’s hard though, as I don’t want to lose the skill.

There were special presentations, too where I got to pepper spray (inert) a cardboard target, learn about forensics (which included seeing Luminol in action), and forensic drawing. Jeffery Deaver gave a keynote speech which I enjoyed, too.

There were so many law enforcement professionals on hand, happy to answer any questions anyone had (and although they all said there are no stupid questions, I think we all know that there are). We got to see firefighters put out a (practice) fire, witness a dive team rescue, and I got to see a practice car fire.

I’m sure my writing will improve with what I’ve learned, and the experience is so exciting and inspiring. Sometimes being a writer is delicious fun!

2018 Goals

Someone told me they had a writer friend who had a goal of a million words this year.  My first thought, was “that’s crazy”.  My second thought was “me, too”.  I love goals like that.  But then the math is about 2800 words a day.  I could do it, but then when would I have time to edit?

Then my friend suggested I could do half.  500,000 words in 2018, which is almost 1400 words a day.  Doable.  That will leave me enough time to edit, too.  I won’t use all the words I write this year (not that any writer keeps everything they write).  But it will be good lubrication for my writing brain and a fun goal.

The next goal is to get a short story published this year.  “Love in the Crow’s Nest”.  I’ve polished that baby so many times, it should be a diamond by now (but isn’t).  So, I’ve got to find some time to cut it down, get it lean and mean, and try to find it a home.

My biggest, most important goal is to finish “The Color of Trauma”.  The rough first draft is already done.  My critique group is helping me work through the draft.  There won’t be enough time to get through all of it with the group by the end of the year, but I hope to get far enough to finish on my own.  I want to get that baby published!  My goal is to have it pitch ready by the first week in January 2019.

I’ll have smaller goals that will pop up, too.  I always do Camp NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in April and July and the actual NaNoWriMo in November.  But those are foregone conclusions and so not very goal-like for me.

Wish me luck, oh great beyond (that’s still what the Internet feels like).  2018, I hope, will be a very good writing year.