Wednesday, July 8, 2015

My vegetarian failure

Recently I decided to try eating vegetarian again. While I've been cutting back on meat, I'd still been eating it at least every other day. I decided to see what happened when I cut it out entirely. I tried this back when I was in my early 20s and it didn't go well. I was lethargic, sad, and "fuzzy", problems which instantly disappeared when I started eating meat again.

But this time I was coming into it with more knowledge. I understood the importance of B12, iron, and protein, and made sure I was eating a balanced diet including fruits, veggies, eggs, beans, dairy, and whole grains. Last time I got a physical my numbers were all in the good/excellent range, so I wasn't worried about coming in with a deficiency.

The first couple of days were fine. Then last night I got extremely emotional and collapsed into a crying jag. I felt overwhelmed with sadness. I wrote it off and went to bed, only to find I had real difficulty getting to sleep. Today, when I tried to work, I found I couldn't concentrate. I had persistent brain fog that interfered with my ability to get things done. Since I knew I'd had these problems when I stopped eating meat before, I decided to pick up some lean beef for lunch and see how I felt afterward. Even as I went to the store, I was berating myself. I was lazy and undisciplined. I was a bad person for not being able to do this.

Very shortly after a meaty lunch, these depressed feeling lifted entirely. I'm still tired from sleeping poorly last night, but I'm no longer wanting to cry or having negative thoughts, and the brain fog has lifted.

This is frustrating, since philosophically I agree with a vegetarian diet. But when I try to implement it, the physical side effects keep me from maintaining it. If I had the time and resources to work closely with a doctor and dietician, I'm confident we could craft a meat-free diet that met my individual nutrition needs. But I don't have the free time or money to put that level of attention on my diet right now, when a simple, occasional addition of meat, meets all my needs.

I came out of this experiment with a couple of takeaways: 1) I am incredibly grateful to have access to a diet that meets all of my nutritional needs while keeping me balanced. I have a greater appreciation for, and consciousness of, what I eat. 2) I have renewed respect for my vegetarian and vegan friends who are able to make that diet work for them. I'm sure some of you have run into sticking points. But, whatever your reasons, eschewing meat and animal products was important enough to you to power through them.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Go to Camp!

I've written before about Camp Nanowrimo, the spring and summertime "lite" version of Nanowrimo. Rather than rehash, this week's tip is: go check it out! Camp starts tomorrow, meaning there's still time to hook up with a camp of motivational writing buddies. Once again, I'm writing as richuncleskeleton if you care to stalk me there.

I'll be bulking out the latest draft of the novel I started during April's camp. See you there! Happy writing!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Breaking Apart Familiar Phrases

One of the joys of writing fiction is the chance to play with language. While much writing advice centers on storytelling, characterization, and so forth, what about the choices you make with the individual words you use?

For example, there are some phrases in English that are so well-worn that we tend not to think of the words that form them on their own. For example, "unrequited love". "Unrequited" simply means "not reciprocated". So why do writers tend to use it only in this instance? For that matter, why not have someone requite an action once in a while?

Another one that stands out to me is "vim and vigor". I hear vigor on its own all the time, but never vim. I'd cut this phrase down anyway, since vim and vigor have essentially the same meaning, so using both is redundant. Why not just use "vim" on its own?

Next time you're going over a piece of writing, search out these overused phrases. How can you break them apart to form a new and unique construction? Give it a try. It'll warm the cockles of your heart.

Which phrases always stick out to you when you're reading?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What is an "adult"?

I'm currently having a conversation with some friends in my spiritual community about what it means to be an adult. Here's the context. I was in a group that the church structures for people up to age 35. I connect strongly with my friends in that group, and the life issues they're going through. Problem is, I just turned 36.

There is an idea behind this age division. The under-35 group is designed for individuals who are still coming into their adulthood. By 35, it's assumed you've hit certain life markers: you're in a stable, traditional career with a 401K, and you have a single committed spouse/life partner with whom you're raising the children you're assumed to have. Once you've gotten that all figured out, congratulations! You get to leave the "practice adulthood" group, and join the real grown-ups. (Okay, none if that is explicitly stated anywhere, and it's a snarky overstatement. But in discussing this division with people, these seem to be the underlying assumptions people are working with.)

But here's the issue. I consider myself a "full-on adult", and have for the past several years. Meaning, I've gotten a pretty good handle on the big life questions (who am I? How do I go about this whole life thing?). But I've continued to associate with the 35-and-under group. Part of the reason is because I wasn't seeing a big age gap between myself and other people attending. If the age had been shifting down toward 19- and 20-year-olds, yes, I'd feel awkward being part of the group, and wouldn't continue. But I kept seeing faces of friends that, while a few years younger than myself, were experiencing similar life issues. I have friends older than myself who are still living the way I am, but almost none are in my congregation. While I see myself as an adult, in communicating with other older adults in the church, I often feel a disconnect.

A big part of that is, the way I'm an adult isn't typical for a lot of older church members. I'm never going to have kids. The way I make a living continues to change, and I may never have a "traditional" career. While I'm married, my relationships continue to have fluidity in them. I probably won't have the same concrete markers I see in older members of the congregation, and that's okay.

The thing is, I notice this about other people around my age range. A lot of us are maintaining a fluidity to our lives that isn't associated with past expectations for adulthood. I'm a grown-up. I'm just not "doing grown-up" the same way as members of the congregation who seem to be considered "more adult".

There are ways to address this. One might be introducing new generation-focused groups. There are many spiritual groups for Baby Boomers, helping them move through their advancing life stages. Perhaps our spiritual community could introduce a group for Gen X/Y/Millennials. Rather than imposing past expectations for adulthood on the current generation that's hitting its early to late thirties, recognize that we are adults. Our adulthood just might look a little different, and that's okay. By forcing sharp cutoffs, there could be an unintended assumption on the part of older church members that we're somehow "doing adulthood wrong".

I love my spiritual community, and will continue to be an active member of it. As other members of the under-35 group "age out", I'm interested to see the new face our church will take on.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Writing Outside

Here in Ohio, spring is finally in full bloom. What better time to get out and enjoy the sunshine? With that in mind, for today's tip, I'd like to return to a post I wrote some time ago for Writers Fun Zone, on the joys and benefits of writing outside.

Take care, have a great Tuesday, and happy writing!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Marcon 2015 schedule

Once again, I'll be a panelist at Marcon, the Columbus sci fi/geek/nerd convention. Here's my schedule:

Friday, 8:30pm: Care and Feeding of a Writer's Group. Myself and other panelists will discuss what it takes to find and maintain a writer's group that motivates you and aligns with your goals.

Saturday, 1:00pm: Ask The Editor. I'm really excited about this one. Marcon has given me 75 minutes, all by myself, to let you ask anything and everything you want to know about editing. How I chose manuscripts from the "slush pile" for a bestselling publisher, how to make an editor more likely to accept your story, how to work with an editor and what to look for when you're self-pubbing. Anything and everything you want to know about the wide world of editing!

Saturday, 5:30: Self-Publishing Your Novel. I'll be speaking mostly from the editor's end of the self-pubbing equation on this one.

If you're in town and headed for Marcon, I hope to see you at a panel, or just wandering the halls!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Constructive Critiquing: Giving a Critique

Last week we talked about how to receive a critique without wanting to crawl under a rock. This week, we're looking at the other side. How do you give a constructive critique?

First off, what do I mean by constructive? To me, a constructive critique is helpful to the writer by pointing out places where the story can be stronger, plus noting what the writer has done well. A good critique honestly evaluates the strengths and opportunities of a story. A sign you've given a great critique is when the writer thanks you afterward, especially if they say the critique makes them feel better about how they can make their story even better.

Providing an honest critique that results in a writer wanting to hug you or buy you a drink afterward (yes, I've had this happen!) is a high bar indeed. But there are a few tips to keep in mind for a healthy critiquer/critiquee relationship.

First off, remember that you're not just pointing out what doesn't work in a story. To provide an honest evaluation, make sure to note what the author has done well. Sure, if you're slogging through the first two pages about the weather and they have no relationship to the story, it's important to let the writer know that you had trouble getting into the narrative at that point. But if the action picked up afterward, be sure to let them know the moment you were engaged, and why. If, after the weather interlude, they created a character who instantly drew your sympathy, tell them!

When you are pointing out areas that need to be strengthened, be sure to communicate that in a kind and helpful way. Stating, "This part sucks," is both unhelpful and unkind. Why didn't that part of the story work for you? Making "I" statements is useful here. "I had trouble following who was speaking in this section," is a statement that's both specific and helpful.

You can gain a lot of useful knowledge that strengthens your own work by evaluating the flow and style of others' stories. But remember that the critique is not a competition. Especially if this is someone you've swapped manuscripts with, keep in mind you're not comparing their story against yours, to determine whose is "better". You've both agreed to provide insights as both a reader and fellow writer. Ideally, both of you will come away feeling like you have a clear path to make your story stronger, and an enthusiasm to take on the needed changes.

Both before you make your first comment, and at the end of the story, as you're reviewing what you've written, take a breath. Keep in mind the vulnerability this other person has shown you by trusting you to help them with their work. Do your comments respect that vulnerability?

When have you been challenged to provide a critique that's both honest and kind? How did you manage it? Did you ever feel like you gave a poor critique?

Happy writing!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Constructive Critiquing: Receiving a Critique

One of the hardest parts of writing for many authors, especially ones who are new to sharing their work, is receiving critiques. Even that word--critique. It sounds harsh and unforgiving, like a schoolmarm with the world's tightest pinned-up hair bun, pronouncing her judgment upon you and finding you wanting.

As Nita Sweeney put it, receiving criticism of your writing can feel like a contact sport. When you're putting out your work for the first time, there can be a lot of vulnerability involved. I've described it as strutting nude in front of strangers, turning around, and saying, "Huh? Huh? What do you think?" For some writers, it's too much. A stinging critique can keep them away from pen or keyboard for months, even years.

But with the right mindset, and the right group of people providing feedback for your work (a topic which I'll address in a later post), receiving a critique doesn't have to feel like having a molar pulled. Here are a couple of points to keep in mind.

First off, when you're receiving a crit from an editor, writing partner, beta reader, or whoever, before you look at it, take a few deep breaths. Remember this: your work is separate from your value as a human being. Regardless of what this person has to tell you about your story, you're still a wonderful, valuable person with many fine qualities. Yes, this might sound silly, but the harshest critiques of my work early on left me feeling like I had no right to keep sucking in air, let alone thinking I could write a story. But that's bull. You're still a good person.

Second, remember the purpose of the critique. Ideally another person has taken the time to review your work and help you learn how you can make this story the best it can be. But tone doesn't always come through on the page. Maybe you had ten pages that were tightly written and captivating, but  because the reviewer didn't find a problem and wanted to keep reading, they didn't comment on all the good stuff. They only noted the stopping points. This character acted unreasonably, or the pacing was slow there. And even when a reader notes what you did well, it's in our nature to only hear the worst criticisms. But a critique is not a personal judgment. It's an outsider's take on how to make your work its best.

Note above, I said "ideally". In some cases it may not be true that a critiquer has your best interests at heart. If someone with an axe to grind reads your work, they may make cutting comments. And sometimes, a well-meaning reader may not know the basics of a constructive critique (again, a topic I'll address in the future). In these cases, when you get an unhelpful, even hurtful, critique, remember that this is one person's take. And if that person is out to cut you down, are you going to let it work? Are you going to let them have that type of control over your reaction? When someone's a weenie, do your best to thank them for their time and not react negatively to their face, and especially not online. If they're truly out to hurt you, they want you to get mad and feel defeated. Also, if they're really unhelpful, think hard about if it would be helpful to show that individual your work again.

On the other hand, when someone does make a valid point about where your story needs strengthening, it's easy to say, "They're just jealous and out to get me!" My general rule is, assume good intent. Even if they are down and dirty haters, you can't get in their heads and know that. Take what you can from a critique, rewrite your story, move on, and learn who you can trust with your work.

What advice do you have for accepting criticism?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tuesday news!

I have two big pieces of news to announce:

1) At long, long last, Super Sargasso is now available on Amazon for the Kindle! If you prefer, you can still buy it on Smashwords in various formats as well.

2) On my editorial site, along with content and copy editing, I am now also providing ebook formatting services. Check my Services page for pricing and details.

As I mentioned last week, this month I am all wrapped up in Camp Nanowrimo. And for the first time in my Nano history, at the end of Week One, I am still on par with my word count! Of course, Camp has the very un-Nano rule that you can set your own word count for the month. Since I always crashed and burned when I was up against 50K, for this month, my goal is 30,000 words.

I also changed my game plan by going in with next to no outline. And the skeleton of the one I had before I started has already strayed multiple times from its original form, in the most unexpected and delightful ways. This month, I'm letting go and discovering the story as it comes out. And it's a great feeling!

How are you shaking things up this month?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tip Tuesday: The Power of Groups

Nanowrimo, once limited to the dreary month of November, now gives writers three opportunities a year to unleash a creative writing frenzy in a group setting (officially). In addition to the original worldwide event, writers can also participate in Camp Nanowrimo, in April and July. I'll be participating with the same fantastic group I worked with last July, starting tomorrow.

Working with a group can be great to stimulate creativity and word count, for a few reasons:

1) Inspiration. Especially when I'm working with writers who are more productive and successful than me (as is the case with my group), I'm inspired by watching their word counts climb day after day.

2) Focus. Setting aside a limited time period to accomplish a lofty goal takes away the wishy-washiness of "maybe" getting around to writing. When I'm committed to a group all working toward that goal, the focus is increased. Plus, I've told all these people I'm going to finish, which leads to point 3:

3) Peer pressure. Everyone else is doing it, and doing it successfully. Now they're watching me, and I've made promises.

If you're looking for some writing motivation, it's not too late to join Camp Nanowrimo and find a writing cabin for the month of April. Good luck, and good writing!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Good characters create story

The other day I reached a sticking point on my work in progress, and couldn't figure out where I'd gone wrong. I'd sketched out my scenes with end goals in mind, and had my hero navigating through the obstacles one by one. Here was my outline with the events neatly laid out. Here were the words on the page, sitting there like dead fish and boring the hell out of me.

That's when I realized I'd committed a mortal sin of writing. My character, the one who the story is supposed to be about, wasn't making the story. He was sitting lifeless in a contrived stew of events. No wonder I was bored!

Chuck Wendig has written a couple good articles about character agency. Per Wendig, agency is "a demonstration of the character's ability to make decisions and affect the story." In other words, story isn't an external factor that happens to characters. Good characters make the story, through their actions, reactions, strengths, and weaknesses.

The most frustrating part of my block was that I had created a rich character with lots of struggles, both internal and external, and tons of investment in the central conflict. And nothing of that was coming out on the page. He was sitting inside this cardboard structure of events, watching, his own actions having no effect whatsoever. He could have gone off on a vision quest in the middle of the scene, and the story would have stayed the same.

I broke my block by doing some free writing. Why was my character essential to the events happening in story? (Hint: up to this point, he wasn't.) How could I rewrite the scene so that it was more difficult for my character? What would his true, unique reactions be to these events? How would they change the outcome of the scene?

Turns out, introducing a different character who made his life harder would be a better way to go. It would bring out the parts of him that had been hiding under a pile of dreck, and bring life to the story again. So that's what I'm working on today.

Next time you run into a wall, where events seem to be spooling out without your character having an effect, take a step back. Get to the essence of who that character is. Now, spin the scene. What events would make this scene harder for this particular person? List some possibilities. Go with the strongest one, and try a hundred words in that direction. If that's working, try a hundred more.

Did this exercise work for you? How do you bring life to your characters and story when you get stuck?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Integrating Dialogue and Action

Recently a writer asked how to make his dialogue more interesting. He found having characters speaking, interspersed with "he said" and "she said", felt repetitive. Yet these dialogue tags are necessary for a couple of reasons. They show us who is speaking and provide a break in the narrative. While ideally dialogue tags are supposed to be invisible (the eye runs over "he said" and "she said"), just like any other overused convention, they can become tiresome to the reader.

But effective dialogue does much more than delineate the speaker. How can you balance the need to know who’s talking when, without the text becoming boring?

Let's look at an exchange that uses only dialogue and simple tags:

"Did you talk to Gino?" asked Starla.
"Naw, haven't seen him yet," said Cinnamon.
"Better watch out. He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad," said Starla.
"Right now I have bigger problems to worry about," said Cinnamon.

What does this exchange tell us? Two individuals named Starla and Cinnamon are talking about a man named Gino, who wants his money. But a lot of information is missing. Where are they? What's happening? Also, the identical structure of each paragraph (dialogue followed by "said [name]" or asked [name]") becomes wearing on the eye. And there's no action, just static dialogue. Boring.

Here's that exchange with more information worked in. Notice also how additional cues are used to show who's speaking:

Starla leaned over the old coot's chest, reaching her arms around to the bar on either side of him. She shook her shoulders lazily. Tuesday lunch was the worst shift, and Denise was a jerk for sticking her and Cinnamon with it. So petty.

The gin-soaked geezer was paying attention to her assets, not her mouth, so she might as well discuss business. She called over her shoulder, "Did you talk to Gino?"

"Naw, haven't seen him yet." Cinnamon craned her neck around to face Starla.  She waved her backside at the twenty-something bling factory on the neighboring stool, her long legs stretched out in front of him.

"Better watch out," said Starla. "He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad." The geezer exhaled his martini breath at her and reached out a shaking hand. Why did they ever think that was a good idea? She slapped it away.

The fellow with the bling opened his wallet then turned it upside down and shook it, shrugging. Cinnamon rolled her eyes. "Right now I have bigger problems to worry about."

Now we have a much more complete picture. The addition of action (Starla leaned, reaching, shook her shoulders) provides movement to the scene. Starla and Cinnamon’s actions also show us that they’re at work, and the nature of their profession. From the visual cues (the bar on either side of him, the neighboring stool), we see the setting. And sensory details (exhaled his martini breath) pull us further in.

We also get a sense of the characters’ attitudes toward their work and current clientele. Starla shakes her shoulders lazily. Cinnamon rolls her eyes at the guy who’s stiffing her.

By including Starla’s thoughts, we also establish that she’s our point of view character. (Denise was a jerk. So petty. Why did they ever think that was a good idea?)

The shift in action makes it clear who’s speaking throughout. In place of a typical dialogue tag, in paragraph two, Starla calls over her shoulder. This adds more action. All this, and “said” only appears once!

Note that you can go overboard with description in dialogue. Depending on the pacing of the scene, sometimes a few quick exchanges with no interspersed action can work. But if you feel like you're watching a ping-pong match when your characters speak in long, uninterrupted blocks, try and break it up.
Dynamic dialogue incorporates action, setting, thought, sensory details, and more to create a rich reading experience. Next time you’re hung up on “said” and “asked”, look for ways to work in these elements.

How do you add vibrancy to your dialogue? Where do you get tripped up? If you have a question about writing you’d like me to answer, shoot me an email at faithvanhorne [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks for reading!