Tag Archives: Writing

53,550 Words

I am finally coming up for air after thirty days of writing, writing, writing during NaNoWriMo, also known as National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of people all over the world are hunched over their laptops, tablets, computers, notebooks, journals, and phones, all trying to crank out 50,000 words in just thirty days.

I tried NaNoWriMo last year, but thanks to a) not having any real plot in mind and b) landing in the emergency room courtesy of some unfortunately seasoned green beans setting off my food allergies, I stalled out at 23,000 words. But still–23,000 words. Which is a lot of words, especially when I remember the days in high school where having a week to write a 250-word essay didn’t seem like enough time.

NaNo-2015-Winner-Banner

But this year was magic. I won, knocking at 53,550 words by midnight on November 30. And as wonderful as having drafted about 80 percent of a novel might be, I am coming of of the process with some really important life lessons and moments of self discovery.

  1. In real life, I waste a lot of time. I truly wondered if this was the year to try NaNoWriMo again. We were hosting two big events at the museum and tearing down and setting up our major exhibit space. I’m also part of this year’s Leadership Franklin County class. These are all awesome things, but it means that I’m already pretty worn out half the time. But the reality is that when I get home, I can choose to while away my time in front of the television, or I can choose to spend some of that time writing. You can guess which of those two is easier.
  2. Writing every day really is important. NaNoWriMo’s goal is 1,667 words a day. Some days, I all but fell asleep in my chair when I hit 300 words. On other days, I wrote more than 3,000 and had to force myself to stop so I could go to sleep. No matter what, touching that novel EVERY SINGLE DAY was what kept it real, kept it fluid, kept it moving. Those few times when I came back to it after missing a day  were the hardest, because it takes time to reconnect with the story’s soul if you’ve let it drift out of reach.
  3. Understanding the central theme of my story helps me keep it moving better than knowing the plot. When I was in high school, I took a summer workshop with a professional storyteller. She insisted that a good story had a central theme you could describe in one or two words. It isn’t the plot, but that nugget of truth that drives the plot. And while I was making dinner one night, the word CONFINEMENT rang through my head and suddenly it was like flashes of light and rainbows and unicorns were dancing in circles around my novel and I was no longer flailing my arms for a life preserver of a plot. I was in the boat and the current of truth was taking me where I needed to go.
  4. Tell the truth. This comes straight out of Stephen King’s miraculous book on writing. No matter what you’re writing about, for a reader to care about the story, it needs to ring true, even if that truth is painful or icky and makes you a little queasy.
  5. Be accountable. The best thing about NaNoWriMo is that it forced me to set a goal and hold myself accountable to meet that goal. I touched base with one of the regional Kansas NaNoWriMo online communities almost every day. I posted my word count almost every day. And I took a few minutes every evening to cheer on other writers who were doing the same thing. It kept me going, it kept them going, and a whole lot of us made it to 50K.
  6. Writing is exhilarating. Writing is also hard, frustrating, teeth-pulling, brain-grinding, gut-wrenching, and tear-inducing. But when it’s 12:30 in the morning and the you can barely type fast enough to keep up with the story that’s pouring our of your thoughts, it’s absolutely glorious.

November is over; my novel is not. But for the first time in three years–three years that include two abandoned drafts of novels and hundreds of hours researching true crimes for which I don’t think I have enough to write entire books about–I am finishing a draft. And that’s a glorious thing.

 

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My Writing Process Blog Tour: Insomnia, Procrastination, and Weird Conversations in Public Places

You may have seen some of your favorite writers blogging about how and why they write, and author and Twitter Superhero Jami Gold just handed the baton to me. So…

What am I working on?

Depending on the day, I’m working on everything, nothing, moving toward my goal with a project, or sidetracking myself with something else. I was once asked to speak to a group of high school students about writing and wanted to impress upon them that writing is everywhere, and that the need to create the right narrative exists in everything from leaving a note for a colleague to posting on Facebook.

The really big projects I’m working on right now:

  • Researching my next historical true crime (which is proving to be challenging, because the murders I’m researching all happened in places that require field trips to other counties)
  • Researching and writing for my blog
  • Periodically kicking around a novel that made it to 80,000 words before I realized I wrote myself in a corner and my characters exchanged voices and now I don’t know what to do with it
  • Handling much of the social media communications at my new job with the Old Depot Museum (and a new blog coming soon!)

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

A lot of true crime is journalistic in nature. I really want my work to read more like a good story, and part of that is getting into the heads of everyone who witnessed the events. Florence Knoblock’s murder changed the way an entire town behaved and the way other people in other towns thought about Coffey County, Kansas. When I was writing Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder, I wanted readers to understand how even remote townsfolk were pulled into history as witnesses, jurors, experts, and avid newspaper readers. It wasn’t just the history of a murder, it was a snapshot of Kansas in 1925 and 1926.

I’m really interested in “microhistory” — not just big textbook history, but the history of a postcard or a building or a farm. For example, Sheriff Frank Hunter, the Knoblock murder investigator, was also dealing with bank robberies, car thieves, and the installation of  Burlington’s first-ever stop signs during the trial. All of these things impacted him as a person and as a sheriff. Multiply the personal stories by the number of individuals involved and you start to see how very rich and complex the narrative becomes.

Why do I write what I do?

Believe it or not, I started out wanting to write romance. I’m a big romance reader and I especially love light and funny romances. But my writing was never convincing. I just didn’t have the voice for it.

I started writing historic true crime almost by accident. I discovered the Florence Knoblock story when a folder fell at my feet when I was walking through the stacks of the public library where I worked, and the next thing I knew, three years passed as I researched the story. I remember how surprised I was that a murder story that occupied the front page of several newspapers for nearly a year almost completely vanished from memory. It was hidden away on newspaper reels in a county museum. I wanted to pull that story together and give it back to Kansas and preserve it for future generations. One of the most awesome things a reader told me was that the book inspired her kids to start talking to their grandparents about what life was like “back then.”

Every time I wander down a back road and discover Santa Fe Trail ruts or an old cemetery or the shell of an old building, I want to share that experience and sense of wonder with other Kansans. Traditionally, we’re either beat up by the press (and not necessarily without cause) or we’re forgotten entirely. Our Kansas ancestors were a gutsy and amazing bunch, and we should honor and celebrate them, warts and all.

How does my writing process work?

Well, the research goes like this:

Something catches my eye. And I dig at it like a dog after a bone and then something shiny distracts me and I research that for a while. I’m a living, breathing example of XKCD’s cartoon called “The Problem with Wikipedia.” I know I’ve found the right research topic when I’m living it, dreaming it, and what-if-ing it all day long. I walk around muttering through the holes in the story as I examine yogurt labels at the grocery store and I don’t fall asleep for hours because my brain is in hyperoverdrive while processing data I’ve collected. I get frustrated when I hit dead ends and just as I think I’ve wasted a boatload of time and money on an undoable book a tiny breadcrumb falls in my lap and I’m back on track.

And then I drag the people around me into the process as I bounce ideas off of them. I sometimes forget that not everyone wants to discuss the details of slicing throats with old razors over dinner. My husband has told me he sometimes wishes I had a button that says, “It’s okay, I’m a writer.”

The writing goes like this:

Repeat the first three sentences from the research portion. I’ve written my best blog posts when something shiny caught my eye in a moment of frustration with the book. Or when I was supposed to be packing because we were moving to a new town.

What no one prepared me for was how emotionally hard it can be to write a true crime book. Every time I sit down to write, I’m getting inside the heads of people whose hearts are aching and whose souls are weeping. I’m empathic by nature, so when other people hurt, I hurt, too. Swimming in all that sorrow–even decades-old sorrow–can be really hard. After a few hours, I have to come up for air and breathe in some sunshine.

The editing goes like this:

I am periodically impressed with myself as a read my draft, but mostly, I get a sinking feeling in my gut as I realize how much work needs to be done before this book is ready to show to anyone else. Then I procrastinate by telling myself that I NEED to do many responsible grownup things: scrub floors, dust, vacuum, clean bathrooms, rearrange my desk, make sure all of the books in my office are in order, water my plants, wash the laundry, and go outside and weed the flower beds. Eventually, I sit down and get to work.

I’ve noticed that I do better writing in the afternoons, evenings, and wee hours of the night. Editing, though, is a daylight project. Metaphorically, I think I need the harsh, truthful light of day to see the real flaws.

And now, to pass the baton:

Besides being a writer, Jennifer Mueller is one of the most fascinating ex-Kansans I know. I hope she’ll clue us in on her writing process.

And if any other writers would like to participate, here’s an open call to blog during the next week. There are four rules:

  1. Acknowledge the person and the site who invited you into the tour (that’d be me and you’d link back to this post).
  2. Label your post as part of the My Writing Process Blog Tour.
  3. Answer these same four questions about your writing process in the post.
  4. Nominate and link to up to three people to participate who would then post their answers the week after yours.

Let me know if you participate! I’ll add a link to your post.

Encouraging the next generation of Kansas writers

A few weeks ago, Mrs. Jenkins, a teacher at Ottawa High School, invited me to speak to her class about what it means to be a writer. Completely flattered, I said yes and then spent the next few weeks wondering what I would say. Luckily for me, Mrs. Jenkins’ class developed a fantastic series of questions. Some of my favorites:

  • What is your favorite piece of work you have written?
  • How long would you say it takes to write a book?
  • Do you wish to become a professional writer like James Patterson, or is it just a hobby?
  • Is anyone in your family not supportive of you being a writer?
  • When did you decide to become a writer? Why?

These questions really got me thinking about the writing process and reminded me why I love writing. Even on the days when I delete twenty pages because I realize the story is moving in the wrong direction. Especially on the days when I figure out which direction the story should go.

So, just for fun, here’s the presentation I put together so we all have something to stare at in the event that I can’t remember what I was going to say.

Writing Presentation – Ottawa High School

We’ll have a good time. I hope. At least, I hope no one falls asleep.