Pencil to Paper

The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

If It Hurts, Write About It February 27, 2013

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 7:54 AM

I had a fight with a very good friend yesterday. It was over the internet, which in some ways is better, some ways worse. No matter the medium, I ended the day upset, tangled, and sick to my stomach. I can’t stand arguing with friends and family.

It wore me out, in other words, and all I wanted to do was curl up with some hot chocolate. I did so, but after quelling my distress-induced stomachache, I did something else. I wrote.

Writing is many things to me. It’s fun. It’s a career I hope to purpose. It’s a device to survive dull times. But it has also always been a catharsis. I have dashed out angry prose, classically teenage anguished poems, even a few lines of an enthusiastic play. Strong emotion, particularly negative, wants to get out of me and onto paper. This frequently manifests as crappy poetry. I remember scribbling down something about the presumptions of Zeus after the third Clery report of an assault popped up in my email and something inside me snapped. I remember playing with double voice structure as I struggled to convince a friend not to end her life. Last night, I produced twenty or so slanting lines in a purple and white notebook.  They were angry, maybe, but not fiery anymore. More tired. I was tired. Despite my attitude toward the occasional internet troll, I do not relish conflict.

Still, I’d written something. That meant I’d taken all that stress and ickyness and made something with it – maybe not anything good, but it was there. It’s still there,tucked between my alarm clock and a box of almonds.

Better than nothing, anyway.


February 20, 2013

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 7:54 AM
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(Sorry I’ve been missing for a while. I had a rough week or two of exams and papers, and this fell to the wayside. I’ve also been contemplating changing this blog’s structure a bit, but I’ll wait on that until I have more free time.)

They say the best thing you can do to improve as a writer is to write. That is definitely true. It’s like anything else – practice makes you better. Imagine you have some kind of writing muscle in your brain. You need to keep that toned!

Reading is also a good way to improve your writing. It shows you what works, what doesn’t, what you like, what you don’t… we frequently learn through imitation, and picking up snatches of other people’s styles can help us discover our own.

There’s one thing I don’t see a lot of people encouraging that I think is really helpful: editing.

No, I don’t mean editing your own work (although that helps too). I mean looking over something by someone else. How can you do this? It’s easier if you’re in school. I’m in a creative writing class where we workshop each other’s stories. I’ve also become a reader for the undergraduate literary magazine, which means going through lots of submissions to find the decent ones. In both of these scenarios, I get to look at what writers do well and what they don’t. Even better, in discussion I hear other people’s opinions on the same things. Yesterday we debated the merits of a rather grating meta narrator and agreed that anyone using the phrase ‘a single tear’ needed to be thrown into the reject pile. Having disagreements over a piece is good too. Sometimes I can learn more about what doesn’t work, or sometimes we simply have different tastes. In the end, though, I pick up a lot about what makes writing ‘good’. Then I can take those lessons and apply it to my own work.

I’ll tell you one thing – I’m far less nervous about submitting to our literary magazine next year.


Skip a Year… or Two… or Five January 27, 2013

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 2:17 PM
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I’m going to continue my character-based woes today with an interesting little exercise. Believe it or not, I picked this up from fanfiction writers. I’ve seen it used a few times and snagged it as a character development tool.

The idea is to create the written equivalent of a scrapbook. Pick a decent time frame in your character’s life, and then chop it up into segments. The examples I saw used 5, 10, 15, and 20 year marks. Depending on how old your character is, this can be adjusted.

The gist of the exercise is this: for every ‘milestone’, write a quick little scene. Drop in on their tenth birthday party. Graduation when they were eighteen. Whatever on earth they were dealing with at twenty five. You name it. Imagine that their life is a hallway, and you’re sticking your head through various doors to take a peek. (Girl in the Fireplace, anyone?) This will help you flesh out their backstory.

Now, I get frustrated with writing that doesn’t make it into the final product. I spent time on this and now no one will read it. What a waste of time! Complaining aside, it is helpful to know more about your character than you put in. Their pasts shape their actions and reactions way down at the subconscious level. It’ s important to understand them. If you do, your readers will feel it, and your characters will seem a little more real.


Secondary, not Two-Dimensional January 19, 2013

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 4:01 PM
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Secondary characters are my fatal flaw. Or maybe not ‘fatal’ flaw. I have a whole host of flaws raring to go, jostling in line to see which one gets to trip me up next. Right now, it’s this.

See, the dilemma of secondary characters is obvious from the name. They’re secondary – out of focus, not the most important, not major. It’s easy to brush past them.

Then we hit a snag – the second word. They’re still characters. Their secondary status may mean that they’re not narrators or heroes, but they’re not filler like the minor parts either. They need to have personalities, quirks, and objectives of their own.

This is where I trip up. I’m preoccupied with the main characters. Their epic battles, quests for identity, etc. are what I’m concerned by. Who cares if the kid who runs interference has dreams too?

They need to be fleshed out though. Hollow secondary  characters are like poorly painted backdrops in a play. If you’re caught up in the story, they look ok. Once you start paying attention, though, you realize how flat and washed out the story-world is. It’s fake.

I am very guilty of this. My secondary characters only show up when the plot demands. They pretty much disappear when they’re not in my main characters’ lives. It’s annoying, it’s wrong, and it’s something I need to pay more attention to.

The best way I’ve found to address this problem is to pull secondary characters into the limelight. I’ll rewrite – or just re-imagine – a scene or a day in their shoes. While my main character is off getting herself killed, what is this secondary character doing? What do they want? How do they feel about being dragged into the thorny entanglements of my plot? It’s not their story, after all. Doing this helps me figure out how to treat these characters, and sometimes it opens up fun new plot threads.

So what’s your current pet peeve? How do you handle it?


Fiction and Creating a Better World January 13, 2013

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 9:37 PM

A few days ago, I ran into this comic. It’s kind of upsetting (particularly if you own cats) but I really liked it. What I found most interesting was a line near the end:

“I paint portraits of fiction, sometimes to cope, sometimes to escape, and sometimes just because it makes me happier to constantly think of a bunch of crazy made-up shit. But, sometimes fiction is not necessary. Sometimes real life has happy endings too.”

Throughout the comic, whenever something bad happens, the narrator imagines a whimsical, preferable alternative. As he says many times over: “This is not what happened, but it is how I like to remember it.”

I think a lot of people start writing to run from something. It might not even be something bad. I know that when I was younger and bored, I’d make up a story. Lots of people do. I was simply one of the ones that took a step further and wrote it down.

Fiction allows us to live in a world of our own creation, one where we make the rules. (Although sometimes I resent being constrained by the very rules I set up. C’est la vie.) It gives us the illusion of control, and sometimes it makes life a little easier to bear. When times get rough, we  can escape into a world where we call the shots – even if it can be frustrating for its own reasons.

Now writing isn’t always somewhere to hide. It can also just be a fun world to play around in, a break from mundane reality, a place where we can do whatever we feel like. That’s what’s so great about it, and why I keep coming back – no matter how many times I lie on my floor and scream “I hate this” in despair.

Writing makes us all powerful (or close enough). In a world that is so often beyond our control, it’s nice to get a little power back.


Beyond NaNo: Using December Well December 1, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 8:09 PM
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December can be a rotten month. If you’re in high school or college, it means finals and papers. If you live in a continental climate, it also means cold winds, gloomy skies, and an air of complete desolation. If that’s not enough, holidays and visiting relatives provide plenty of distraction from whatever you’re actually supposed to be working on.

But try to fight this. One of the most important parts of NaNoWriMo is that it gets you writing regularly. Now that November is over, it’s very tempting to let those good habits you’ve built up slip away. Don’t let them! Over the last thirty days, you learned to cram writing into every spare minute you had. You learned to think plot, characters, and dialogue in overdrive.You learned to be a writer 24/7. You shouldn’t lose that!

Set your November novel aside. It may be worth salvaging, or it may not be. Either way, it needs time to stew. Now pick something else up. A short story idea, perhaps, or a manuscript that needs editing. Even another novel if you’re really daring. Then enlist those writing skills you’ve honed. It’s December now. You don’t have a word count or a deadline. You can go slower and write with more of an eye for quality. Or – if you enjoyed that mad rush of excitement – you could keep racking up words. Whatever you decide to do, don’t let this last month go to waste.

Keep writing.


What’s the Point? November 3, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 8:58 AM
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On the second day of my sixth NaNoWriMo, I was confronted with an interesting question. What’s the point?

It started with a conversation on a friend’s Facebook wall. He explained that even during NaNo he tries to write his best, because otherwise he’s wasting his time.

This is very different from my approach. I see NaNo as a crazy free for all, a chance to write junk and not care. (I was distressed this year to find myself writing even worse than usual, probably because I’m out of practice. Hopefully I’ll warm up my writing muscles soon. Otherwise this particular mess is destined for a Viking funeral.)  I see NaNo more as a practice exercise. I never write any of the books I really care about in November, because I know I”ll destroy them.

What are we practicing then? my friend asked. Typing?  Clearly not good writing techniques, if the whole point is to abandon all concerns of craft and execution.

Typing is good. My typing speed and accuracy ballooned after my first NaNo expedition. But I think NaNo’s biggest help to me was confidence. It showed me I could finish a book. It was possible. That gave me the strength to finish stories and even a book outside of November, which I never would have done beforehand. A novel was a horrifyingly huge moutina in my path, seemingly insurmountable, but NaNo helped me climb it.

I feel like even if I’m writing junk, I”m still improving. It’s like when you’re running and having an off day, you’re still building muscle. Writing every day gets both your body and your brain into a schedule that says “Yes. I should write every day.” If I do this right, I might be able to keep that pattern going after November ends.

So yeah – I’m not someone who strives for greatness or even readability with my NaNo efforts. Even so, I believe it’s worth my time.

What do you think? What mindset do you go into with NaNo? Are you hoping for a good product or just having fun?