Wednesday, December 17, 2014

December Hiatus

What is it about this time of the year?  Maybe it's the ten bazillion things going on.  I am taking vacation after Christmas, and I have so much going on before Christmas, and I realized I have missed the last nine days' worth of posts...sigh.  So, I am officially declaring December a hiatus month.  I'll start posting again on January 5th.  I hope everyone has a joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Monday, December 8, 2014


Image courtesy of foto76 at
Ah, the haiku.  Doubtless, you’ve all heard of it in your English classes, whether that was yesterday or years ago.  In its Anglicized form, it is a poem consisting of three lines.  The first and third lines are five syllables each, and the second line is seven syllables.  Katya Sabaroff Taylor offers a really great into to haiku on her website, Creative Arts and Healing:

“Each Haiku is a tiny world of its own. Whether the poem is about a flower opening its petals to the sun, a woman looking in the mirror, or a cat playing with an old garden hose, Haiku often offers an “aha” moment to both writer and reader, as we become “one” with the image and its levels of meaning.

Haiku Structure:

This is a haiku                   5
in seventeen syllables        7
one revelation                    5         

Haiku can be lighthearted, bittersweet, philosophical or joyous."

On writing haiku, she says:

"Let yourself tune in closely to nature and the seasons, to city streets, to a pot of rice sending out its fragrance from the stove. You have a kindred relationship to animals, trees, people, the stars, moon, and rain. Look around you, what do you see? What holds meaning for you, at this moment now?"

It’s all pretty philosophical and deep, right?  This can make haiku seem kind of intimidating.  Haiku doesn’t have to be, though.  My introduction to haiku was actually a funny humor website that my sister found when I was younger.  Haiku about Spam.  Not email spam, but SPAM Spam.  You know, that weird stuff that nobody eats but everybody still sells it? 

Here are a couple of the gems from that.  Sadly, I don’t know who wrote these.

Twist, pull the sharp lid
Jerks and cuts me deeply but
Spam, aah, my poultice

Clad in metal, proud
No mere salt-curing for you
You are not bacon

And who dares mock Spam?
You? You? You are not worthy
Of one rich pink fleck.

To this day, these still make me laugh.  Really, haiku can be about anything.  If you want to deepen your understanding and appreciation of haiku, write about something fun and familiar.  Here are some more awesome examples of haiku – I like these, since they are Lord of the Rings based.  Many years ago this website called The BarrowDowns had a haiku contest.  This one by Alan Lensink was my favorite:

If Sam kept the ring,
Barad-dur would have flowers,
Mount Doom, potatoes.

I like it because it’s funny, but at the same time, it’s a wonderful exposition of Sam’s character.

The reason haiku is so good for poetic expression is that you are forced to choose your words wisely.  You have to condense your entire thought for a poem into seventeen syllables.  This means that each word must be packed with meaning. 

Maybe a demonstration will be helpful.

The most important part of writing a haiku is understanding the thought you want to communicate.  If you have a thought in mind, that’s great.  If you don’t, then allow yourself to draw from the moment.  My haiku was drawn from a project I was working on today.  I was having trouble figuring out this post, and so I worked on another project instead: rendering tallow.  I didn’t expect to find poetic inspiration doing this, but I did. 

That’s the thing about poetic inspiration.  Sometimes it’s intentional, other times, accidental.

So why was I rendering tallow? I make soap, and tallow just happens to be one of the best fats for a hard, high-lather bar.  Also, tallow is usually free.  You go to your local butcher to find it.  It sort of goes like this:
You: Hi, can I have a massive lump of nasty cow fat?
Butcher: Sure! I was gonna throw it away anyway.
You: Awesome! I now have a chunk of fat bigger than my head!
As you might imagine, it’s a very messy process.  You have to chop up this solid chunk of fat and cook it slowly until all of it is liquefied but the gristle and nasty sinewy stuff.  The result is this golden brown liquid that’s actually kind of pretty.  When it cools down, it’s solid and creamy white in color, sort of like shortening. It’s glossy and fairly attractive, as far as fat goes.

Anything is pretty compared to raw tallow, though.

I found myself thinking, “It’s really neat how this ugly, horrific junk turns into this pretty gold color, then makes such lovely soap.  Who thought something so disgusting could make something so awesome?”

That was when I realized that I needed to write a haiku. 

Yes, about cow fat.

But remember that haiku can be about anything.  Some of the best poetry takes something seemingly insignificant and captures its essence through the power of the written word.

So, my central thought for the haiku was, “this gross fat turns into something awesome.”  I ran through several possibilities.  There were many aspects I could focus on: the messy fat turns into something I can use to clean, or the changing process itself.  I bounced around a few words in my head – impermanence, which is related to change, but I rejected it as it didn’t really fit. I played with short phrases – hard white fat, shimmering golden oil, ugly fat – and I liked all of them.

This is the difficult part: condensing the essence of your thoughts into seventeen syllables while still using poetic language.

Slowly, the first draft congealed.
Ugly, hard white fat
Shimmering golden liquid
Something to clean with.
It didn’t feel right, plus, I really wanted to emphasize the change.  This worked especially well with the word ‘golden,’ since the old alchemists were always trying to figure out how to transform lead into gold. After counting the syllables of various combinations, I tried this: 
What transformation!
Hard white fat, golden liquid,
Something that will clean.
I didn’t like it.  I liked the idea of the second line, as it really highlighted the contrast. I did not like the word ‘something.’  It was far too weak and ate up two whole syllables. I realized that the bit about cleaning a) was too ambiguous and b) didn’t really fit the overall concept.  I was trying to combine the thoughts of messy stuff making something that cleans with the thoughts of the changing process. 

Haiku only has room for one thought at a time.

So, I needed to change that last line.  I tried this:
What transformation!
Hard white fat, golden liquid,
Into bubbly soap.
The concept was better, but the whole thing didn’t really flow.  I also wasn’t sure I liked ‘bubbly’ as the descriptor for ‘soap.’  I also thought that rather than saying “what transformation,” I wanted emphasize how dramatic the change was.  I swapped ‘such’ for ‘what,’ and changed the exclamation point into a colon.  This made it clear that the first line was, “Hey, the following is a really big transformation, so pay attention.”
Such transformation:
Hard white fat, golden liquid,
Into lovely soap.
This still didn’t work for me.  The first line was great, and the second line was great, but the third line was ‘meh.’  Also, it didn’t really have any kind of syntactic flow.  I toyed around with adding ‘then’ to the second line, but realized I’d be a syllable over. So, I changed ‘liquid’ into ‘oil.’

‘Oil’ is only one syllable, despite the fact that it might sound like two.  This is because ‘l’ is a “liquid” consonant.  Imagine the same word but with a “stop” consonant, like ‘t,’ and you can tell that it is only one syllable.  Also, I checked the dictionary, and it said that ‘oil’ is only one syllable. So, you know, that settles it.

Anyway, linguistic debates aside, I now had one extra syllable in line two to work with.  I realized that ‘then’ didn’t really work so well, since the hard white fat was transforming to golden oil, then into lovely soap.                                                                                                     
Such transformation:
Hard white fat to golden oil
Then to lovely soap.
I knew I was close now.  But it still needed tweaking. ‘Lovely’ wasn’t working for me.  I decided to use alliteration for poetic effect – alliteration is when two or more words in the same phrase start with the same consonant sound.  I chose ‘sudsy’ instead because of this.  That, and ‘sudsy’ seems mellifluous to me.  Then, there were the grammatical considerations.  I felt that the phrase really needed a pause, so I added a comma to the end of the second line.  I also un-capitalized the first word of the second and third lines.  This is a personal choice.  Some prefer to capitalize every line of poetry; others capitalize only where grammatically necessary.  Some don’t capitalize at all.  It all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve.  Since I wanted to emphasize that this was all one connected sentence, I decided to un-capitalize ‘hard’ and ‘then.’ Normally, I would add a title to a poem, but since this is a haiku, it doesn’t really work.  A title has the power to color the whole meaning of a poem, and that’s basically an extra few words in haiku.  It’s cheating.  You have seventeen syllables, and that’s it.

The final result:

Such transformation:
hard white fat to golden oil,
then to sudsy soap.

This took me less than forty-five minutes to compose.  It wasn’t a huge effort.  It’s simple, really.  Nothing grandiose.  But haiku isn’t about the grandiose.  It’s about the moment, the single fleeting thought.  Remember that haiku is Japanese in origin, and a lot of Japanese (and Eastern in general) philosophy focuses on the impermanence of things. It’s fitting then, that the haiku is brief and momentary.

Now, there remains the question of how to read haiku.  Do you pause at the end of every line?

Not necessarily.  As in reading all punctuated poetry, you pause where the punctuation indicates it, just as if you were reading a sentence.  When you read it out loud, inflect it (inflection is the tone of voice you use) like you would normal speech.  Before a comma, raise the pitch of your voice ever-so-slightly.  At a period, drop the pitch, just like when you speak normally.  

Some poetry, including haiku, does not use any punctuation, in which case the end of a line is as good a place to pause as any. Without punctuation, however, you as the reader have the freedom to decide where to pause.  What flows naturally?  Try reading the poem with different inflections and caesuras (a caesura is a poetic pause) and see what you like best.  You might even notice that the way you read it out loud changes your interpretation of the poem’s meaning.

Haiku is very open to interpretation in general.  If you didn’t have the context of my tallow haiku, would you have known what I was talking about?  If you had never eaten Spam, would you interpret those silly haikus the same way as someone who has?  Or if you never read or watched The Lord of the Rings, would you ‘get’ the haiku about Sam?

Remember: fleeting, impermanent thoughts.  That’s what you should be thinking when you approach haiku. This was the essence of a moment in the poet’s mind. Not all of our moments are fancy.  They range from silly, like the Spam haiku, to very serious. When you read haiku, try to understand the essence of the moment being presented. 

Share your thoughts on haiku in the comments.

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Friday, December 5, 2014

It's About Time

Image courtesy of digitalart at
When it comes to being a writer, you have to deal with time management issues a lot.

If you’re a younger writer, in high school or college, you already have a lot of demands on your time.  Classes, homework, and extracurricular activities occupy a significant amount of your attention. Then, if you live at home, there are the chores that your parents insist you help out with.  If you’re at college, eventually you will have to deal with the fact that your dorm room is so messy that you couldn’t swear in a court of law that Jimmy Hoffa is not buried under your pile of junk. Plus, you probably have some friends or family who want to spend time with you, or your favorite show is on, or you want to catch up with all of the latest posts on lolcats or FunnyorDie.

If you’re an older writer, you probably have a full time job. You might be working on a post-graduate degree.  Possibly, you have kids.  You are solely responsible for taking care of your residence (unless you have a significant other or kids, but they make almost as much work as they help out with).  You have to do all or some of the shopping.  If you have a family or a significant other, there’s good chance that they’ll want to spend time with you, or your favorite show is on, or you want to catch up with all of the latest posts on lolcats or FunnyorDie, or, if you’re really sophisticated, you want to read the news.

Then, there are all the other things you want to do or might already be doing.  Say you want to get into an exercise routine.  Well, that’s at least another 30 – 45 minutes out of your day, or an hour if you’re taking some kind of class.  Maybe you want to pick up a musical instrument.  That’s an additional 30 minutes per day, if you really want to put practice into it.  Maybe you want to spend more time reading. If you want to get through a book in any decent amount of time, that’s going to be at least an hour a day, and maybe three or four hours on the weekend.

All of this in sixteen hours a day.  That’s already pretty stressful.

And you want to be writing on top of all of that?

When it comes to writing, I think that I and several of the writers that I know allow our writing to fall by the wayside before anything else.  Writing isn’t necessarily a priority, and even some of things we have to do are easy by comparison.  Exercising can be difficult, but you sure don’t have to concentrate as much while you’re doing it.  If you’re in school or work, you spend close to eight hours working your buns off on things that require a lot of concentration.  That can leave you drained.  What are you going to choose after that? Writing, or lolcats?

Probably lolcats, if that’s your thing.

Clearly, writing is difficult to make time for, at least once the thrill of a new project has worn off.  Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’m speaking from my own personal experience and nobody else deals with this.  But I’m operating on a pretty strong hunch that I’m not the only one.

So how do you make time for writing? The same way you make time for anything else.  This requires planning ahead (something I’m not terribly good at). 

First, set a goal of how many hours per week you’d like to work on your writing. The most important thing here is to be realistic.  If you have forty hours worth of school, work, or whatever, don’t set a goal of twenty hours a week on writing.  Depending on how busy you are, ten hours might still be too much. But if you can swing it, five hours will still get you quite a long way.  Try to budget some time every day, but if you have a specific day where you have more free time, plan to do the bulk of your work that day.

For example, let’s say that you have a lot of time on Saturday mornings, most of which you spend sleeping in.  Get up earlier (but still later than you wake the rest of the time) and put in two hours of writing between when you wake up and noon.  If your goal is five hours a week, now you only have to divide 3 hours between the other six days. That’s only thirty minutes a day. How much time do you spend dinking around on the internet?  Probably more than thirty minutes.  If you normally spend an hour on the internet, cut that down to 30 minutes and use the other 30 minutes for writing.

It’s not about abandoning other activities in favor of writing.  It’s about balancing out the other ‘time wasters’ like video games, internet browsing, or whatever your favorite time-suck activity is.  As the old saying goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  You don’t want to take away your favorite activities, or writing will not be fun anymore.  But if you cut down on some of your favorite things to make room for writing, you will still be able to have fun and you’ll be more likely to actually write instead of putting it off.

Now, five hours is not a magic number.  The truth is that ten minutes of writing a day is better than no writing.  (I’m always trying to convince my guitar students of this when it comes to practicing their instrument.)  If you can only swing 60 minutes for the whole week, that’s better than none.  It will take you much longer to get projects finished, but if you hadn’t been writing at all, 60 minutes is in fact infinitely more.  One minute a week would be infinitely more.  Math is fun like that.

If you want to make more time for writing, it can be done.  It’s not about finding time for it, it’s about making time for it.  And no amount of time is too small, unless that time is zero.

You will eventually finish something in ten minutes per week.

It is impossible to finish something in zero minutes per week.

On the other hand, if your schedule varies, you might put in no minutes one week and 10 hours the next.  This is okay.  Nevertheless, you need to plan ahead.  Planning ahead can be a pain, but won’t it be worth it in the end?

Develop these skills now, while you’re young.  You won’t regret it.

How would you describe your current time management skills?  What would be a realistic goal for you to set, and how could you divide that based on your current schedule?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Word of the Week: Mellifluous

Sometime yesterday evening, I became aware of the day of the week. "Oh," I thought. "Well, so much for Word-Craft Wednesday."  I'm still getting back into the swing of things after NaNoWriMo, so sorry about that.  Anyway, I definitely didn't miss Word of the Week Thursday. For the curious: somebody used this word on one of my favorite shows, and I had to go look it up.  Then I thought, "Huh.  This is definitely going to be a Word of the Week!" So, here you go!

Word: mellifluous

How you say it: [muh-lif-loo-uhs]

What it is: adjective

What it means: 1.) sweetly or smoothly flowing; sweet-sounding:
a mellifluous voice; mellifluous tones. 2.) flowing with honey; sweetened with or as if with honey. (Definition courtesy of

[Side note: the second definition of the word is far less common, and you should consider whether it is really appropriate for your writing or speech before you use it. Check out this post for more on using vocabulary words well.]

Use it three times and it's yours! Using a word three times can help it stick in your memory.

The professor's speech was so mellifluous that everyone listened to sound of it rather than paying attention to the words.

Everybody loved Peggy's yeasty, mellifluous bread.

The choir's mellifluous singing sent chills down Sara's spine. 

Share your three sentences in the comments!

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Monday, December 1, 2014

...and I Feel Fine

"Apocalypse" courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at
Well, NaNoWriMo is over, and I came in with 43,039 words.  

In other words, I didn't make it to my goal of 50,000.  In the end, I chose not to do the final push. At the beginning of November, imagining this scenario would have caused me to react like it was the impending apocalypse.

However, I had my reasons for throwing in the towel.  It had gotten to the point where my writing had deteriorated.  I was just putting words on the page to be on the page. My characters were offering snarky commentary on the plot, had lapsed into modern vernacular, and nearly every word that I wrote offered nothing to contribute to the story.

I had reached maximum creative capacity.

I think that it is important for a creative artist to recognize one's limitations. For me, I certainly could have finished it out, but I knew that at this point, I wouldn't be able to get back into the creative groove.

I didn't want to have words on the paper that added absolutely no value whatsoever.  Up until the end, what I had been writing was of questionable quality, but was definitely of value to the story. It was in fact editable.  What I had started writing toward the end?  Not so much.  It was editable in the sense that I could highlight it and delete it. In my mind, that's not worth putting down in the first place.

Nevertheless, I did succeed in writing out the plot of my story, covering all the points on my outline (though the last part was not very detail heavy). Of my 43,039 words, I have about 42,000 that are editable and rewritable.

At the end of October, I had none.  That's a pretty incredible accomplishment.  A week ago, the thought of not finishing was really depressing.  I basically felt like not finishing was the end of the world as we know it.

But I didn't finish.  And I feel fine.  In fact, I feel great. I'm proud of myself.  I learned a lot of lessons about my writing life that I think will really aid me in the future.  I will be able to apply them on a much smaller, less extreme scale.

Did you participate in NaNo? Did you reach your goal?  If you didn't, did you still get something valuable out of it, and why or why not? Also, 10 points to anyone who gets the "and I feel fine" reference.  Share your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

I thought that I would share a few things that I am thankful for:

Image courtesy of debspoons at
The fact that November is almost over, because NaNoWriMo has given me a sound thrashing, including carpal tunnel and a sleep deprivation induced immune system crash.

Ibuprofen and arnica gel, for helping with the carpal tunnel.

Acetaminophen, guaifenesin, pseudoephedrine, orange juice, and bed rest, for helping me with the resulting cold due to said immune system crash.

The fact that even though I'm struggling to finish on time (I have only 41,549 words) I have lots of support and encouragement from family and friends.  (I might actually manage to get there, too.  I really want to, considering how awesome the winner's t-shirt is.)

My amazing husband, who has believed in me throughout this whole process and has refused to let me give up.

However, I am especially thankful for my readers and the 1229 hits that I have on this blog!  I know it's small potatoes as far as blogs are concerned, but it means a lot to me.  Thanks to everyone who stops in and reads! I hope that everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving, and if don't happen to be a U.S. resident, I hope that you still have one heck of an awesome Thursday!

As a side note, I hope to be back to regular blog posts by Wednesday of next week.  I thought about Monday, but I think I'll still be recuperating from a last-minute NaNo sprint. 

What are you thankful for?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Article on Mythic Scribes

You may or may not have noticed that I have a link to Mythic Scribes in the sidebar.  They are a wonderful site with great writing advice for fantasy writers.  They also have friendly, supportive forums where writers can connect.  I definitely recommend them.

Today, however, I'm going to recommend them even more, because I have an article published there! Check it out!

What Writers Can Learn From Soaping

The title is pretty self-explanatory.  :)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Just Write

Image courtesy of Graur Codrin at

Dear readers, I realize did not post yesterday or last Friday, and I apologize for that.  I have been under a huge amount of stress, which NaNo has compounded. I've been struggling to keep up with the word count--as of this moment I am only at 28,274 by the Microsoft Word word count algorithm, which has been consistently lower than the NaNo word count algorithm. Par for today is 30,000.

So, I'm not drowning, but I'm swallowing a lot more water than I'd like to be.

I honestly wish I had some good, elegant writing advice today, because I need it.  The reset button I blogged about last week has become more like a snooze button on my alarm clock--I guess you can overdo anything.

But I do have some brutal, unappealing advice:


You can preface or follow that with an expletive if you are so inclined. The expletive helps if you're really angry or frustrated.  Technically, expletives don't have to be vulgar words, so go ahead even if you're not the swearing type.  An expletive is just something you say instead of something else; e.g., screaming "BLANK!" when you've stubbed your toe, instead of saying, "Ow. I have injured my toe and am in considerable pain." That's right. "Darn," "heck," "phooey," "shoot," "son of a biscuit," and other variations thereof are still expletives.

My preference throughout this has been "Write; just flipping write."

Regardless how you phrase it, it's times like these you just push through, like that time you had an essay that was due the next day at school and you started the night before.  You manage to get it done, because not finishing it is not an option.

Adopting this attitude can be good even when you are not doing NaNo--you have to be flipping determined that your work will be finished.  It won't be finished if you don't keep working on it.  So even if all you do is sit down and write one sentence, you have written.

Writing is what matters.

One sentence a day might take you a while to finish your book, but what if it was one sentence every waking hour?  That's approximately sixteen sentences, right?  This sentence right here is the twenty-sixth sentence in this blog post (if I counted right, and you count sentence fragments as sentences, too).

In two days, you would have a respectable amount of writing--and certainly more than you would have before.  If my counting is accurate, this whole blog post (excluding the invitation to subscribe at the bottom) is 36 sentences.  At a rate of one sentence per waking hour, this would have taken me two days. Imagine what that would amount to over the course of a year.  Writing is always one sentence at a time--so just focus on finishing that one sentence.  Finish one more.  But only focus on the one at a time, or you'll drive yourself batty.

Just write.

Even if you swallow a lot of water on the way, all that matters is that you get to the other side of the swimming pool.

Share any thoughts in the comments. 

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Word of the Week: Excoriate

It's time for another awesome new vocabulary word!

Word: excoriate

How you say it: [ik-skawr-ee-eyt, or, ik-skohr-ee-eyt]

What it is: transitive verb (used with object)

What it means: 1.) to denounce or berate severely; flay verbally. 2.) to strip off or remove the skin from. (Definition courtesy of

[Side note: to “flay” something is to remove the skin from it—used of animals, not fruit.

You can see that there is a significant difference between these meanings. The second meaning literally means to remove skin; the first meaning is a figurative use, as if you are saying things harsh enough to remove their skin.  The context will tell you which sense is being used.] 

Use it three times and it’s yours! Using a word three times can help it stick in your memory.

When her father saw the report card, he excoriated her until she cried.

His hand was excoriated when it was caught in the sanding belt.

Presidential debates consist of two dishonest politicians excoriating each other in front of an audience.

Share your three sentences in the comments!

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Filler is Killer (In a Bad Way)

Image courtesy of Charles Rondeau at
I’ve been musing a little bit about the importance of a certain element in writing. Obviously, I have kind of had to turn off my internal editor whilst NaNo-ing, but once I’m done and it’s time to get back to editing, I’ll really have to focus on it. (21,870 words as of noon today!)

It’s also something you need to focus on while you’re drawing up an outline, if that’s your thing.  Not all people like to outline (I occasionally do out of necessity).  If you’re a free spirit (like I usually am) then sure, let your imagination run wild, and just write whatever the heck you want.

It’s funny that I say I’m a free spirit, when a few posts ago I mentioned that I have a neurosis about writing the book in order.  Well, I mean that I like to have a general idea and then just let the story happen.  When you write like this, however, it’s easy to forget a key element in literature:

Every scene must have a purpose.

What do I mean by that?  I mean that you can’t just throw in a scene because it’s “cool” or “inspired by life” unless it adds something to the story.  I stumbled across a great blog post by Karen Sandler, the author of Tankborn, called “Give Every Scene a Purpose.”  She had this to say:

“[A]lthough real life is full of the trivial and mundane, there’s no room for the unimportant in fiction.

In real life, all sorts of things can happen. You try to start your car and your battery is dead. So maybe you’re late for work and get a chewing out. Or you happen to meet a friendly stranger at the supermarket and you chat for the few minutes you wait together in line. Or when you get home from the market, you discover you got regular coffee when you meant to get decaf. Or perhaps you spend days at your father’s care home (as I did earlier this year) as he’s dying.

Could these things happen in your fiction story? Of course they could, whether you’re writing a realistic or speculative story. But here’s the big difference. All of those events, from the mundane (chatting up a stranger) to the life-changing (the death of your father) would have to have a purpose in your story. They should not, must not be there just to fill space on the page.”

I was researching this topic, because this sentiment has been echoed by countless storytellers. I was trying to see if I could find an original quote from somebody like Twain or Hemingway, but I was really fortunate to find Sandler’s blog instead.  It really tied in with what made me want to write this post in the first place: “filler episodes” in television shows. You know, a throw-away episode that doesn’t really have much to do with the rest of the season, and is simply there because the network ordered X number of episodes, and the writers only had enough plot for Y episodes.

Yes, television shows are certainly not books, but as a form of storytelling, they can teach us a lot about the way that storytelling works, and particularly about each scene having a purpose.  I feel as though we can liken episodes of a show to scenes in fiction.

One of my favorite shows, probably of all time, is Burn Notice.  I have liked a lot of shows, but one thing I loved about it was that there was never a single episode that did not connect with the season’s overarching plot.  A lot of television shows are formulaic, and Burn Notice certainly had that—there was a side plot where they helped a ‘client’ in every episode—but it felt so fresh every time, because of the connection to the ultimate goal: getting Michael back into the C.I.A.  Even the subplots connected with the whole, in that they offered significant character development.  That character development, in turn, made the overarching plot that much more significant, because you had developed a deeper attachment to the characters.  I loved Burn Notice because it never had any “filler episodes.” 

Likewise, your story should not have filler scenes.  That’s what makes Sandler’s point so great, because she emphasizes that scenes “must not be there just to fill space on the page.”

Must not. 

Anytime somebody uses language like that, it’s pretty absolute. Usually, I avoid absolutes—but in this case, it is spot-on.  Scenes shouldn’t be there just because “Oh, hey, this is cool.”  They shouldn’t be there because “This is the kind of realistic thing that happens!”  Unless, as Sandler points out, the scene further drives the plot forward:

“For instance, the battery going dead might mean that your main character gets to work late and discovers a police cordon around her office building. Then she sees the bodies wheeled out, including that of the mass murderer who just killed her boss and several co-workers.”

The battery can’t go dead just because it seems like the kind of thing that would happen.  It has to go dead to further the plot.  Give every scene a purpose.  Don’t waste space writing things that don’t connect to your story.  Why? I think that Sandler sums it up very nicely:

“Because here’s the thing, here’s the reason every scene must have a purpose. It is the nature of books and stories that as a reader reads, they are accustomed to noticing what happens to the characters. They are used to tucking away unusual events and to consider them important. If you describe your character brushing her teeth every morning, but that never factors into the plot, it will irritate your reader. Brushing teeth is trivial…unless it’s not. Unless that’s how our character is poisoned. Or that’s part of her OCD routine (maybe she has to do it at a set time and for a set number of strokes each day).

Your reader is going to notice those little details. She’s going to want her payoff later in the story. Make sure she gets it–or hit that delete key.”

This is such a great point, and I can attest to it first-hand.  It is really, really obnoxious to have things happen that aren’t connected to the rest of the plot.  The show that really drove me to write this post is Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  (I have already freely admitted in various places on the interwebs that I watch kids’ shows.  What can I say? I am young at heart.)

I can already imagine people saying, “Well, it’s a kid’s show. Of course it’s not going to give every episode a purpose.  I mean, Spongebob doesn’t have that.  Get a life, lady.”  Well, ordinarily, I agree with those sentiments.  But do you know why I started watching TMNT in the first place?

During the first season, almost every single episode was connected to the overarching plot.  There are perhaps two that could be considered fillers.  That was what got me hooked on the show.  That and the fact that Master Splinter is completely awesome.  The second season was a little less compelling.  I kept watching, hoping that it would get back to that really focused style, but more and more of the episodes were merely fillers.  There were some awesome episodes, don’t get me wrong, but I felt like the quality of the storytelling overall had slipped.

The third season is what prompted me to write this.  There have been four episodes thus far this season and I am really getting sick of the filler.  Only two of those episodes were really connected with the action of the overall narrative, and even then, each of those seemed to have only a few minutes that really did.  Of the four episodes, I have liked one.

If Nick isn’t careful, they might lose my viewership.  I never watched TMNT as a kid, so I have no lifelong emotional commitment to this.  Not to mention that Splinter hasn’t appeared in a single episode this season.

That’s the risk in having filler in your story.  You might lose your reader.  Filler is obnoxious in television shows and even worse in fiction. It’s so obnoxious in television (which is passive rather than active entertainment) that it prompted me to write this post.  Reading takes far more investment than watching television—it requires an active participation of the mind and imagination—so if I’m going to put the effort into reading something, I want it to fit into the plot. 

This is one reason many dedicated fans of The Lord of the Rings try to forget about Tom Bombadil.

Don’t get me wrong; Tom Bombadil is cool.  He adds to the depth of the milieu (the setting of the story), gives us a little bit of opportunity to learn more about the expansive history of Middle-Earth, and also provides a little character development for the four hobbits.  In addition, the section of the story sets up why Frodo’s sword proves to be marginally effective against the Ringwraiths.

But if you completely cut out 90% of that entire scene, it wouldn’t make a hill of beans difference as far as the plot is concerned.  Sure, the writing is cool, and the history is cool and all, but a lot of people (die-hard fans, even) roll their eyes at the mention of Tom Bombadil. 

I get how hard it can be to say goodbye to a scene.  As I’ve been editing my work in progress over the last year, I’ve had to look at certain things, shake my head, highlight it all, and hit the delete key.  It’s heart wrenching.  You did all that work—it was so beautifully written—it was your favorite passage—

None of that matters.  If it doesn’t further the story, it has no place.  Them’s the breaks.  Because the last thing I want is for one of my readers to feel about a portion of my book as I have about this season of TMNT.  Or Tom Bombadil.

But if you’re desperate for words during NaNo, then by all means, use all the filler you want.  Be aware you are going to have to pare a lot of it out later, unless you can give it a definite purpose.  As I said at the beginning of this post, you kind of need to turn off that internal editor during NaNo.

If you’re not doing NaNo, though, do take a moment to consider why you’re writing a scene.  Don’t over-analyze, but ask yourself if this will connect clearly with the overarching plot. 

Learn from other storytelling media: don’t have filler scenes in your finished product.

Do you agree that every scene needs a purpose?  Why or why not? Share your thoughts (and let the TMNT and Tom Bombadil flaming begin) in the comments. 

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Monday, November 10, 2014

The Reset Button

Do you like this? I made it myself! You didn't know I was so talented, did you?
As of Sunday evening, my NaNo word count is 17,000! I am honestly stoked...this is the most writing I've put out in quite a long time.

However, one thing I've noticed is that over the last three days, I have been experiencing major creative burnout.  If it weren't for the deadline hanging over my head, I probably wouldn't have gotten anything done at all.

In the past, even while not doing NaNo, I have suffered from this burnout. It’s something like you’re bored, or just uninspired, and every word you type feels useless and stupid.  I remember mentioning my burnout on my favorite writer’s forum a couple years ago, and someone said, “Maybe you need to write something else for a while.”  Of course, I didn’t want to write something else, and I stubbornly held out—as a result, I got almost nothing written. 

Well, then I started writing just fun, frivolous projects that had nothing to do with anything in my novel, and I got really absorbed in those for the better part of a year.  I have found that in doing that, I sort of hit a ‘reset’ button that allowed me to get into NaNo in the first place.  NaNo has actually made me excited about my story arc again. 

The writer’s mind, I think, like a messed up electronic device, needs to have a reset button.  Obviously, in the writer’s case, this does not erase all information.  Instead, it gives the mind a break.
So, when I started to feel burned out this weekend, I figured that I needed to hit the reset button.  I knew I had a deadline, so I knew that I couldn’t just keep hitting it, like hitting a snooze button on your alarm repeatedly during finals week.  So I gave my mind two hours or so to be creative in other ways.  I thought about my frivolous writing projects.  I engaged a totally separate part of the creative mind by playing my guitar. I got some exercise.  I took a nap.  I worked on a blog post (not this one, actually). 

It made going back to my novel so much easier.  I mean, way easier.  I was able to defeat my burnout.  It did make me wish that I hadn’t hit the reset button so much over the past year, but maybe it was something I really needed.

Don’t be afraid to hit ‘reset.’ It’s not as if your writing project is going to think you are cheating on it. Creativity fuels creativity—so while not be creative in a different way for a little while?

Do you think that it's counter-intuitive to do something else in order to finish your writing project? Share any thoughts you might have in the comments. 

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Friday, November 7, 2014

Blinking Cursor Syndrome

Making your workspace fun helps when you feel stuck.
Well, I'm at 11,390 words for NaNo as of Thursday evening!

Yesterday was a very rough day for me, inspiration-wise.  I had a very bad case of blinking cursor syndrome. It's very similar to blank page syndrome, except that it's far more annoying.  With the blank page, you feel at least some sense of being justified with your mental freeze.  There's a huge, blank space, and that can be kind of intimidating.

Blinking cursor, on the other hand, is worse in that it seems to be mocking you. "Ha ha! You've written all of this and now you're stuck! Loser!" Each additional blink seems to be another cry of "Loser!" from the impudent cursor.

In the past, I've allowed this to conquer me.  But today, I had a word count to meet, darn it.  So you know what I did?

I made my work space as fun as I could. I turned on my favorite tunes with a good, solid beat.  I lined up a few of my miniature My Little Ponies on my laptop. 

Then, I shut my eyes and just started typing.

It was amazing how once I didn't see the cursor anymore, once I didn't have the challenge staring me in the face, that the words finally started flowing.  Now, I made all kinds of typos, but that is easily fixable.

When I finally opened my eyes, I had fun My Little Ponies to look at, and the awesome beat of my favorite music just kind of kept the fun going.

Suddenly, I was just on a roll and kept going until it was done.

So yeah...just some random thoughts from me.

What helps you with blank page, blinking cursor, and other related syndromes? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Word of the Week: Prosody

Well, it's that time of the week again! (NaNoWriMo update: 9,501 words!)

Word: prosody

How you say it: [pros-uh-dee]

What it is: noun, cannot be pluralized.

What it means: 1.) the science or study of poetic meters and versification. 2.) a particular or distinctive system of metrics and versification; Milton's prosody. 3.) Linguistics. the stress and intonation patterns of an utterance. (Definition courtesy of

Use it three times and it's yours! Using a word three times can help you remember it. 

A high score in a poetry class depends on a solid understanding of prosody.

The poems of Dr. Suess and Ogden Nash have a somewhat similar prosody.

When the stranger spoke, his prosody made it seem as though he had never heard another person speak before. 

Share your three sentences in the comments!

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Not Editing (At First)

The Elements of Style is an excellent resource, but don't use it at the wrong time.
Firstly, for those who are curious, my current NaNo word count as of Tuesday evening is 7,752.

Secondly, for those who were enjoying (or dreading) my parts of speech series, I will be putting them on a hiatus until November is over.  I apologize for the disappointment (or happily announce the reprieve) that will surely accompany this news.

I really amuse myself sometimes.

Anyway, as last week's post was all about the importance of knowing how to edit, the title of today's post might surprise you somewhat.  The topic might surprise you even more.

You shouldn't edit your work while you're writing it.

This is another of those lessons from NaNo that I'm experiencing firsthand. I always knew about this 'rule' of thumb, but now that I have to crank out so many words, it has completely hit home.

However, even before I really got started on NaNo, I was reminded of this fact by the lovely Sarah McCabe, author of the blog Falling into Mythopoesis. (Her blog is a wonderful resource for writers of fantasy.) She left a very thought-provoking comment on my post. She wrote:
Agreed. All writers should have editing skills. Though usually they shouldn't be employed at the same time as our creative skills. ;)
This reminded me of the important rule (if you can even call it a 'rule') of "You shouldn't edit your work while you're writing it." 

This is because, while it's fine to pay a little attention to your sentence structure and the like, and make sure that you're not making gross syntax errors, trying to edit your work while your write makes writing painfully slow and discouraging. You are better served by 'turning off' your internal editor and simply letting the words flow out of you.

Even if you happen to make those gross syntax errors.  I have been known to type so furiously (even in the past) that when I go back later, not only have I misspelled words (and I pride myself on my spelling skills) but sometimes the sentences make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

This is fine.  This is great, even.  It allows you to edit a little more creatively when you do go back to edit (don't edit while you're doing it, remember?). I do try to keep things at least a little orderly so that when I do go back, editing isn't so challenging, but it definitely slows my writing down.

I don't have time for that during NaNo. Actually, it was really funny yesterday.  As I was pounding out sentences like a maniac, I was sort of aware of the fact that every single two-independent-clause sentence was separated by a semicolon.

Every. Single. One.

No sentence structure variation is a pretty poor style choice.

Guess what?  Who flipping cares at this point?  I'm getting the story written. I am not going to waste my precious time going back to fix it.  After NaNo, I will edit this and make sure it is stylistically gorgeous. I'll probably even find dozens of misspelled words--perhaps a few homonym errors and the like--but who cares?

I think I'm going to do all of my creative writing like this at first from now on.  It'll easily double my output, and I can go back to edit it.

Grammatical and stylistic skills are crucial to have, but they don't mesh well with the creative spirit.  Learn all you can about grammar and style, but forget some of it when you're writing at first. Turn off that internal editor, that internal critic, and just write. 

Write on!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Totally Random Tuesdays: NaNo Update!

All right, y'all.  I haven't gotten started on today's word count, but I am up to 6,304 words as of yesterday evening.  Of course, if you follow me on twitter (@ALSVossler), you already know this. I nearly up until midnight working on it. I pushed myself yesterday more to finish a scene in my outline than I did to get to my word count goal (which I exceeded by nearly 800 words).  Now I have only two more scenes in this 'act' of the novel, one of which should be relatively short.  I say should because my writing always seems to get away from me and ends up being way longer.

All in all, I am pleased with myself.  Of course, an auspicious beginning does not necessarily mean a fortunate ending, so hopefully I don't lose my momentum.

Happy writing to all those who write--even if you're not doing NaNo!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Out of Order

I'm writing like a woman possessed; my cat Phoebe is trying to possess my coffee.
My first NaNoWriMo weekend has been an eye opener for me. I always knew I could crank out a lot of words. When I first embarked on this story arc, I wrote at least a thousand words a day in a fury of inspiration.  It was as I progressed that things really slowed down.  I would get bogged down, still having ideas for what was ahead, but because I didn't know how to get from point A to point J, writing would come to a standstill for months.

So, after the slow-going process of the last several months, it was pretty exhilarating to crank out all the words that I did between Saturday and Sunday: 3,507 words! Whooohooo!  My arm is actually sore from patting myself on the back.

However, NaNoWriMo has kind of opened a new horizon for me as writer.  I decided to try something that I haven't really done before: write a part of the story out of sequence.

[dramatic music plays]

For some writers, this is not exactly a big deal.  But even though I've always been a very spontaneous "Meh, doesn't really matter whether things happen systematically or not" kind of person, for some reason I have this hang-up about writing the story out of sequence.  I don't even do outlines, usually. In fact, I really hate outlines. There have been times in the past where I would jump forward and write, well, maybe a snippet scene or just a brief sketch of a scene so I won't forget it, but I actually refused to develop the scene further until I actually got there in the storyline.

Oh, I'd have flashbacks and flashforwards, but only if they were specifically part of THE PLAN.  Yes, even without an outline, my stories have to written in a certain order.  Certainly, spontaneity is allowed and even hoped for, but only if it's spontaneous at the right time.

But, to kick off my NaNoWriMo novel, I did the unthinkable.

I started writing the end first.

[A woman screams in the background.]

All of this, and I wrote an outline for this novel.

So why the change of heart?  Well, I realized that I was going to have to pound out as many words on the keyboard as humanly possible in 30 days.  Without an outline, I figured I'd get lost and wander around like a stray homing pigeon whose homing abilities have somehow been removed (I should get 100 points for writing the worst simile ever). I need to stay focused.  And honestly? I've had the ending for this in mind, like, ever since I got the idea for this story (well over three years ago).  I'd never written it, because, you know, it would be out of sequence.  But, I figured that this would be something I would be able to write very quickly, since I've been scheming and plotting (hah) it for years.

So, I wrote a scene out of sequence.  And the world actually kept spinning.

I now realize this is something I should have tried a really long time ago. It has been awesome, and it's even helping me plan the things that are going to come prior to this scene.  If things need to change, then I can make a note of it and then change the ending scene.  Not a problem.

It has been so freeing.  So, if you're trapped in the must-be-in-sequence mindset, and find that you can't seem to get any writing done because of it, try jumping ahead to a scene you already have and really want to write. Obviously, you'll insert it into the story in it's proper place, but try writing it now instead of waiting until "you get there." I had been given this advice before and refused it out of hand.  But now, I see that this advice is really good.  At least give it a try once.  Even if you don't like it, the world won't stop spinning!

Do you have any hangups about writing things in order?  How willing do you think you would be to try writing scenes non-sequentially? Share any thoughts or questions in the comments. 

Because of NaNo, posting might be erratic during November.  If you don't want to check back every single Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday just to see if I've posted, use the form in the sidebar to subscribe. You'll get any updates from me sent straight to your email inbox!