Writing School Boot Camp

Less than two years ago I stumbled onto a Midwest writing conference called SMIAH. I’ve talked about it before on here because it has a ton of fun writing contests. But back then I didn’t know anything about it. I was a writing professional, but a total newbie to writing novels. When I saw that one of my favorite authors, Traci Hunter Abramson, was the keynote, that was enough for me. I signed up last minute and bought a plane ticket to Kansas City.

It was my first real introduction to the fiction writing world. I’d never even heard of the big Storymakers writing conference in Utah, or that, along with Indie Author Hub, they sponsor this other, more intimate writing conference. At any rate, I went, not knowing a single person there. It turned out to be an exhilarating and life-changing experience for me. Not only did I meet authors of books I’d read, all the author instructors were eager to interact and teach me their craft. 

Because of the small size of the conference, I got to have real conversations over lunch, in the hallway, and when we went out to dinner together. Everyone was interested in sharing their knowledge and helping me on my journey. For the first time I came away thinking that becoming an author might actually be possible. I felt accepted and connected. I’d found my people, and they’d left me bursting with motivation and inspiration for my writing.

This month I’d planned to attend the large Storymakers Conference in Provo. Of course I had to cancel my travel plans due to COVID-19, but instead of cancelling the conference, the incredibly dedicated volunteer staff switched gears to offer a virtual conference instead.

The benefit of this was that we didn’t have to choose a class to go to for each break-out session–we could go to all of them! That’s almost 100 amazing, mind-blowing writing classes! My husband is back to work, so it hasn’t been easy to devote the time to this, especially since my kiddos don’t finish online schooling until June 12th. I’ve also had to pause my own writing projects to take advantage of this training, but it’s been worth it. I’m about 85% through the presentations, and I’m chuck full of ideas to make my work better. In fact, if my head explodes, you’ll know why.

Quarantine Update

A month has zipped by since I last posted, and while many in my writer circles have suffered creative blocks due to the stress around us, I have managed to dig in, simultaneously attacking 3 different projects. I may be the only one in the world right now wishing for more hours each day! The best part is that I hope to have an announcement about one of them very soon!

Here in Michigan, we are in one of the worst areas for COVID-19, with the peak on April 3rd almost reaching 2,000 new cases in 24 hours. We have been trending down since then, with only 576 reported yesterday. In our county alone, overall there have been over 4,000 cases with more than 400 deaths so far.

Watching friends suffer through the disease has been heartbreaking. We have been able to stay in our home and backyard for all, but trips to the grocery store. And even then, we don masks and gloves like most everyone we see now.

My husband has a job that does not translate to remote work, and has had a temporary pay cut while we wait for it to be safe for him to return. This has been a stress and a blessing as it has allowed me to focus on my work while he shares the weight of food preparation and the kids’ online schooling.

The world is on pause. Nobody knows what to expect in the coming weeks and months. Some say even years. We all hope and pray for healing. Meanwhile we adapt and learn and draw closer than we’ve ever been before. With trials come humility, compassion and unity.

A Little Detour

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels the word “pandemic” is almost unreal, the stuff of the distant past or post-apocalyptic novels. And although real pandemics are sprinkled throughout history with a macabre regularity, even the more recent outbreak of H1N1 with over 12,000 U.S. deaths in the first year did nothing to prepare us for COVID-19.

The fact that one little microscopic organism can shut down so many parts of the world in such a short amount of time is astonishing. None of us could have imagined that this common fictional disaster would become our reality.

We utter new phrases like ‘social distancing’ and ‘flatten the curve” on a daily basis without batting an eye. And even though our life has radically changed with fear and illness and unemployment, technology is softening the edges. A large percentage of people can continue to work from home, and although our children’s schools are closed, they are developing new distance learning skills and continuing their educations. The best part is we don’t have to wallow in isolation. We can connect with friends and family through social media, FaceTime and video conferencing.

The writer’s community is thriving online as well with online critique groups, webinars and virtual conferences. Just before the outbreak arrived in Michigan, I attended a one day Children’s Non-fiction Writing Conference in person. Hand sanitizer and elbow bumping was prevalent, but in a way it seemed excessive. I obviously didn’t realize at the time how dire COVID-19 was, and how our lives would be changing.

The conference was fantastic and opened up a whole new avenue of writing for me. Who knew that children’s non-fiction wasn’t boring anymore! 🙂 My mind was opened to all the super creative ways information can be presented.

Life right now in lockdown mode is simpler and fuller. I love having everyone home*, and while I have continued editing my MG** sci-fi novel, this week I have taken a slight detour to try my hand at drafting a MG non-fiction book. And I’m having a blast!

I feel a bit guilty enjoying social distancing as much as I am. But you have to understand. I have six kids at home right now, and so the logistics are always tricky. Our new daily life means no shuttling kids around, never a lack of workout partners, many hands for food prep and household chores, and we have plenty of people to play board games or basketball or stage an epic laser gun battle. Stocking up on food and toilet paper is common practice around here, so that hasn’t been a stress either. With my creativity having a good romp on my newest detour, my routine couldn’t be better. I really think it will be hard to go back to “regular” life.

Now I know this may come across ignorant, like I have blinders on. I get that COVID-19 is real and scary, and that brave people all over the world are out fighting it. I’m incredibly grateful for their dedication and sacrifice. My youngest child has T1D, and it would be a nightmare if he were to contract this virus. But there’s no reason to focus on what might happen, when there is so much to be grateful for now.

*Except my college daughter, whom we miss! She’s hunkered down with Grandma right now.

**Just a reminder: MG stands for Middle Grade, which is the target audience of ages 8-13.

Novel Novel Structure

The title of this post may seem like a typo, but it’s not! 🙂 I just finished reading Bickham’s Scene & Structure, and I am totally geeking out about this cool new tool in my writer’s box. Coming from a background of writing poems, essays and flash fiction, the elements of structure in novel writing are totally novel to me. Now that I know about them, it is making it a ton easier to edit.

A lot of the concepts I had already incorporated intuitively in my chapters, but when something wasn’t quite right, I could sense it, but not know exactly how to fix it. Now I know! And it has given me so much more confidence.

A writer friend suggested I read this book months ago, and I wish I had stopped everything and done it right then. But honestly, there is something about the word ‘structure’ that bores the tears out of me. And the actual book is highly conceptual and written like a textbook. If the concepts hadn’t been so earth-shattering and applicable, I never would have made it through. Bickham does include great examples that helped me extrapolate how to apply the concepts.

Anyway, if you are starting down the novel writing path, and you don’t know what I’m talking about, read Scene & Structure! I found this graphic online because I’m not the only author who’s been rocked with this revelation. Swain was Bickham’s mentor, I believe, so I’m sure his book is great too, although I haven’t read it yet.

The Best Birthday Present

Today may be my birthday, but this weekend I gave myself the best present ever. I finished my first novel! It came to a grand tally of 71,194 words, and an additional 10k words of research, pre-writing and character development. That’s about 325 pages!

Actually when I say I gave myself this marathon of words as a present, that isn’t totally true. I could never have done it without the support and encouragement of my selfless husband and fantastic kiddos. They pulled extra weight around here and cheered me on every step of the way.

The other misconception is that this actually means I’m done with my book. Au contraire! Most books are rewritten 6 to 10 times before being published, and so I know this is just a beginning.

But, as one of my favorite authors likes to say, I’ve shoveled all the sand into the sandbox with the first draft, and now I get to sculpt and mold it into something awesome.

A Vote of Confidence

Interruptions are everywhere this week with doctor appointments and half-days at school, but I am getting words in every chance I get. It is so easy to let a lack of progress raise doubts as to my ability to finish this book.

As luck would have it, my award certificates and prize money from a writing conference I attended last fall finally came in the mail. My kiddos were very impressed, and it has helped me push away the doubts.

It was just the vote of confidence I needed!

I actually attended two writing conferences last fall, before NaNoWriMo. Both of the conferences were extremely helpful. The Rochester Writers Conference was local, but its writing contests are open to all. The other one, SMIAH–Storymakers Midwest Indie Author Hub, was in Kansas City.

SMIAH has a number of mini-writing contests, open only to conference attendees. The prizes were small, but I challenged myself to enter as many as possible. You can’t win if you don’t enter, right? As you can see below, I did very well. The best part was that I learned a ton pushing myself to meet the demands of the contests, and as an added bonus, it gave me a lot of visibility as an author at the conference, which led to invitations to join much-needed critique groups.

SMIAH 2019 prizes & certificates

Another result of my contest winnings was that I have been asked to serve on the SMIAH 2020 Committee, and oversee the contests. I won’t be able to enter their contests this time, but I am excited to be able to help other writers get that same vote of confidence in their writing!

*One fun side note: This was my second time going to SMIAH. I won a number of their contests in 2018, as well. One of which was to help name the keynote speaker, Heather B. Moore’s, next book. I won, and the prize was that she would use my name for one of her characters. At this last conference, I just happened to win that very book, pictured above. So, if you read All for You, look for Sarah Lynne. 🙂

Out of Hibernation

After the intense focus on writing for November, it was a beautiful thing to switch it up for December and focus only on family, Christmas, and lots of good food. But, now it’s January, the decorations have been put away, my guests have gone home, and this week the kids are back to school. Time to come out of writing hibernation!

I have to admit, my first steps out of my bear cave have been filled with trepidation. I knew I was at a tricky part in the story. What if I couldn’t figure out what to write? How was I going to tie up all the loose ends? I have found that I can be an excellent procrastinator.

Monday I intentionally took it easy and let some antibiotics battle a sinus infection. Tuesday I finally got around to reading the last few chapters of my story, and then instead of continuing on, I made writing goals for the year. The good thing was that in them, I decided to re-invoke NaNo with a 2,000 word daily goal until I finish my first draft. Starting, tomorrow, of course. 🙂

Yesterday was the day, and it took me half the day to get around to sitting down and writing, but I did it! I got my words in, and now I’m rolling.

This morning I was dead asleep when something in my dream was so humorous that I laughed out loud and woke myself up! Have you ever done that? I’m not sure I have. The bonus was that I could remember it all, and it gave me a great idea for some character development in my story.

I guess even my subconscious is back in the game! 2020 is going to be the best year yet. Happy New Year!

First Time NaNoWriMo Winner!

I just won NaNo! What’s that you say? Why yes, it is the very last day of the month, but that’s not what counts. What matters is that I set this goal to write 50,000 words in one month, and I did it!

My local writing group knows I love to start new stories. I’m really good at first chapters, and even seconds and thirds. Short stories, poems, essays? Totally! But I’ve never attempted a whole novel. I’m easily distracted with shiny new story ideas.

The more I learned about fiction writing and novel structure, the more I wanted to give it a try. Then the doubts set in. Could I write an entire novel? Did I have the stamina? The perseverance?

I owe my success today in large part to a local writing conference I attended where a presenter taught how to set goals and make them happen. Namely it came down to making an actual contract with yourself, setting up rewards and consequences, and recruiting people to check on you throughout the process. The stick, and the carrot, for all us little bunnies.

This worked beautifully for me, and since I won, I don’t have to go scrub out my husband’s work car. Yes, the stakes were high! 🙂

My husband and my kiddos were also a huge part of making this happen. If I succeeded, there was a reward for the kids too–a fun night out, so that helped, but I think they would have done it anyway. Carving so much time for writing out of my days wasn’t easy, and they really picked up the slack.

The best part is that this last week my kids, ages 6-15, have literally begged me to read them a chapter or two from my manuscript each night before bed. It is an upper Middle Grade book, designed for ages 10-14, so it has been perfect to share with them. Their enthusiasm reminds me why I’m doing this.

My word count goal for this novel is more like 60,000 words, as it is science fiction, so I still have about 10,000 to go. And lots of editing! But, I never would have been motivated to push myself this far without the NaNo challenge.

Now that I’ve established a daily writing habit, I plan to keep it up. Perhaps not for as much time, but every little bit gets you one step closer, right? December is going to be a recovery month, filled with family, white sparkly Christmas lights and hot cocoa!

All the Feels

Something that has surprised me during this NaNo experience is how emotional writing a novel can be. Sure, I’ve poured my heart into my writing before. I know the power of words. But never before have I been with the same characters for 47,000 words. All in the last four weeks I’ve laughed with them, cried with them, and felt the adrenaline rushes, right alongside them, on their adventures.

When I first started exploring fiction, I didn’t realize what a story was about—that it really boiled down to conflict. In a nutshell, there’s a person with a goal, and something keeping them from that goal.

The problem comes when you grow so attached to your characters that your natural instinct is to protect them. Authors have to fight that instinct. Authors have to be mean. 🙂 Authors have to tear their characters to shreds, so they can give them the chance to pick up the pieces and become better people. The story is in the journey, not the HEA (happily ever after).

While everyone is out shopping Black Friday deals today, I’ll be here at my desk helping my characters conquer their inner demons and overcome the destruction their choices have brought about. Two days left of NaNo and only 3,000 words to go!

Antagonists, Traitors & Villains, Oh My!

I passed the 40,000 word mark today and am nearing the All is Lost moment–that’s the point in the story when your main character is devastated and everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong.

It wasn’t until today that I realized I didn’t have my villain nailed down well enough to do him justice in the story. I’ve had to take a step back and work out some of the nitty gritty.

Now I’ve got a villain that is much more fleshed out with a backstory, motivations and character arc all his own. It should make writing his character much easier!

This is the last week of NaNo. Everyday is a struggle to get all my words, but I just keep pushing, and scene by scene, I work it out.