Weekend Websites: BookLamp.org and Whichbook.net

Surfing Amazon for something—well—novel can be a daunting task. How do you really know if the book you choose is something you’ll like once you get past the “Look Inside” snippet? Libraries offer tons of books as well (without the need to plunk down money on an unknown), but those tomes don’t come with labels telling if the plot suits you.

Okay, sometimes it is fun to pick new books simply because they look interesting, but if you want to make a less random match, these two sites may be useful. Each helps you find something new in a unique way.

BookLamp.org (still in beta) does for books what Last.fm and Pandora do for music. Once you register, you select a book you enjoy from the list, and the site analyzes the dialog, word density, pacing, and other factors to determine other books you should read. The selection is limited, though expanding, and the site makes you choose from a rather unwieldy drop-down menu. But the graphs are fun.

booklamp

The other site, Whichbook.net, takes a more user-centric focus to the process (without requiring you to register). On the main page, you select from a number of factors that are important to you and rate them on a sliding scale. For example, you could ask for a book that is mostly happy, a little safe, and very violent. The sliders are plentiful to fit any mood. Once you find out which book is for you, those in the United Kingdom have the option of borrowing it from the library (via the library’s Website).

whichbook

Websites: BookLamp.org and Whichbook.net

Advertisements

Episode 62: Building Characters from Scratch

The best characters are the ones who make us uncomfortable, inspire us, and turn our stomachs. These are the literary creations who come so close that we can’t look away. They breathe life into dim rooms and shine an intense beam of light from page to reader with nothing more than motes of dust between us and our aspirations and flaws.

Personality alone does not prove utility. An interesting minor character may add comedy or drama, but the purpose of any character is to push a story forward. Consider these points carefully as you revise:

  • Need to be: I confess to minimalism, so I’m biased. But always weigh each character. Could some of the minor roles be combined into one character? Combining allows you to create one stronger individual that the reader recognizes. But don’t stop there. Make sure that your main characters are necessary. Janika may talk in every chapter, but does she have to be there? Don’t be afraid to cut anyone.
  • Reader concern: Concern is not limited to protagonists—even antagonists need to have motivation enough to draw the reader in. On the other hand, just being the “good guy” doesn’t guarantee that we care. Boring characters who are too perfect, too static, or too whiny turn the audience off (there are always exceptions, but this is a good place to start). Show us their scars, but show us why we need to know what happens to them. Tell us what drives them (the whales they’re chasing); reveal the quirks that make them endearing or memorable; open our eyes to what they tell us about the human condition.
  • Contributors: Some characters are dead weight. They may make us laugh or cry or whatever, but they do nothing for the story. Characters are plot—they are the agents who make conflict happen and solve problems. If you want a reader to invest time and emotional energy into any character, there needs to be a payoff. Try removing a character hypothetically to see what that does to the plot. If nothing changes, either change the character or send her packing.

How do you come up with characters? Any favorite characters from movies, books, short stories, etc.?

Episode 61: The Mysterious Case of Thinking Too Much

It’s really a magical moment. Hours and weeks of preparation have given you the background you need to write with clarity and wit. You’ve outlined, inlined, prelined, and whatever else you could do to make the words flow from idea to finished work.

But as soon as you start to type, conflicting ideas start popping up. The longer you write, the more doubts proliferate. And after a few pages the whole premise collapses. Instead of capturing the idea, you crawl back to your notes—discouraged and ready to rethink everything again.

Perhaps this isn’t exactly how it happens for you, but there is an anxiety that goes with turning an abstract idea into concrete prose. The idea is huge—maybe even gargantuan—but the writing doesn’t quite capture the concept the way you want. The characters aren’t talking correctly; the points aren’t working like you want; the flow just isn’t there.

In my experience, there’s a definite progression:

  • The exciting idea phase
  • The still exciting planning phase
  • The unrealistic expectations phase
  • The underwhelming initial draft
  • The death of excitement and/or inability to continue

Now, if you’re wondering how the title of this post comes into play, this is where. Great ideas can die because of too much thought.

This may seem counterintuitive. After all, the more thought that’s poured into something, the better the finished product. Right? While that’s true to an extent, the reality is that at some point the thinking and ideas have to go from amorphous to solid. The writer has to decide what structure to go with—and then go. Is this structure going to be perfect? No. Will there be massive changes? Yes.

I always recommend that writers put in enough preparation to feel comfortable. After that, just write. And keep plugging away—even if that voice in your head says, “Are you sure Hal needs to go to Target here?” or “Is the gross domestic product of Zimbabwe really important to point A?”

If you let that voice dominate, you’ll likely feel more and more as if the draft is failing. And here’s the truth: Maybe it is failing. But drafts weren’t meant to be perfection on a page.

The more that internal nag points out how your writing is not on par with your idea, the more discouraged you’ll become. No writer can live up to a grandiose vision on the first try. The skill of writing is just as much about working flawed drafts into realized final products as it is having the idea in the first place.

Stop thinking; start writing. Address the doubts later.

The Writer’s Checkup: Goals

Successful writing isn’t all about the words. Craft is at the top of the list, but skill and talent by themselves will not make paragraphs morph into a completed project.

The last four days, we’ve covered the tough questions about time, commitment, passion, and voice. Focusing on those areas consistently will raise the level of your writing.

But there’s one more thing all writers must do: set goals.

Sure, you could make the ethereal idea of publication the focus of all your creative pursuits. But that’s an understood. The goals that drive your writing forward when you’d rather give up are much more immediate (as long as they don’t lead to burnout). Realistic goals—the ones you set for each day and for each project—can be the motivation that makes you turn on the computer. Don’t be afraid to adjust them if needed, but, on the other hand, don’t go into a project without setting milestones.

Writing with an amorphous idea of someday completing something maybe often means exactly what it sounds like. Instead of ever following through, the easier route is to write a bit here and there when the mood hits. These projects rarely reach a solid conclusion.

Establish a timetable with clear waypoints: Research researched; outline outlined; prose prosed. Break these into bite-sized chunks so that you accomplish something almost daily. Checking things off always feels good.

The best method I’ve found is to make a hierarchy of tasks. The top goal is to complete the project; the next level down consists of the main tasks that lead to completion (e.g., editing); below that fill in the specific steps needed to knock those tasks out (e.g., revising for grammar). Keep getting more and more specific as your hierarchy grows.

Feel free to set and keep track of goals in whatever way works for you. The point is to put together a concrete scheme for showing progress.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are your long-term and short-term goals as a writer?
  • Have goals and expectations ever caused burnout with your writing?
  • How do you keep track of your progress toward your goals?
  • How effective is this method? Be honest.
  • What and/or who motivates you throughout a project?
  • In what ways do you hold yourself accountable to reach your goals.

The Writer’s Checkup

Read the intro for background.

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals

The Writer’s Checkup: Style and Voice

Most people learn to write by emulating other writers. Creative writing classes often include assignments in which the student copies a particular style or even the introduction of some famous short story or poem.

Beyond this, one of the most repeated pieces of writing advice for aspiring authors is to read whatever they can get their hands on to learn what works and doesn’t. This is solid advice, and I certainly don’t disagree.

There comes a point, however, when the nascent writer has to take down the scaffolding of other voices. The question is this: What voice is left after the scaffolding disappears?

By voice, I mean the characteristic style of your writing that lets the reader know you are the author—the lyric rhythm, the straightforward prose, the sardonic wit. Your voice is the point of contact between you and the worlds and words you create.

Getting out from the shadow of other writers is a complicated process. The more you write; the more confidence you gain in making the writing sound the way you want it to. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be influenced by others. That’s unavoidable. And, in fact, your individuality as a unique content creator comes through because of your background, not in spite of it.

But make sure that you aren’t drowning yourself out because you want your writing to sound more like [insert famous writer here]. This isn’t always a conscious process, but when you review what you’ve written, you’ll likely see the places you’ve leaned on others instead of speaking as you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Did you learn to write by emulating others? What impact do you think this had?
  • Who are your influences as a writer?
  • Which characteristics of their writing do you enjoy the most? Which do you hope to capture in your own writing?
  • How would you describe the way your writing comes across? Sarcastic? Lean? Flowing?
  • Does this style seem natural?
  • How does your background make you unique?
  • After reviewing your writing, how does it compare to the writing of those who have influenced you?

The Writer’s Checkup

Read the intro for background.

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals

The Writer’s Checkup: Passion

I’ve spent nearly ten years trying to figure out what kinds of writing I’m passionate enough about to do well. After jaunts into poetry, short stories, historical accounts, science writing, technical writing, news reporting, blogging, and novel writing, I still haven’t decided. I just love to write.

But I have found areas in which my writing is better than others—as much as I sometimes don’t want to admit it.

To fully evaluate yourself as a writer, one of the most difficult aspects is deciding which types of writing are your strengths. I don’t mean that you should just settle into one type of writing and be stagnant. Experiment with every genre, style, and mode. Instead, I mean that you should discover what you enjoy and are best at so that you can build up your strengths to a publishable level.

Passion is a tricky beast. Some of the interests that I have do not translate into good writing. History fascinates me; historical writing (fiction or nonfiction) does not. I also love fantasy novels and have grand visions of writing a series; however, my fantasy writing has—so far—not come together as well as my contemporary fiction.

You have limited time to write. Often, the best use of that time is to focus on the style of writing you both enjoy and do well. Someday you may expand into other areas, but don’t avoid the style of writing you do well because you’d prefer to write something else.

Here are some questions to ask to check your passion:

  • What types of writing interest you? What topics are you passionate about?
  • What interests and passions have not translated into successful writing?
  • Does your writing critique group consistently praise you on one type of writing or genre?
  • Are you writing up to the level you’d like in the mode or genre you prefer?
  • Have you neglected a type of writing that people have commended you on?

The Writer’s Checkup

Read the intro for background.

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals

The Writer’s Checkup: Consistency

A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but a productive consistency is the foundation upon which rests solid writing. Plus, Emerson wasn’t talking about writers.

First, let’s swallow a hard truth: Most of your writing will be unusable in its raw form. Even when I write these blog posts, I delete and revise (or even completely discard) 60% of what I write. With my formal writing, the numbers are worse.

But great final products are built upon a mountain of discarded words. To get there, you have to experiment, tease, rummage through your brain, and just generally enjoy the craft. That won’t happen without a commitment to writing—a lot.

Don’t sit down to write with the belief that you have to use whatever you type. You’ll likely be frustrated. But do sit down with the goal to get something written each day. False starts and unusable bits often generate ideas that you can develop later.

If you’re working on a longer project, make sure that you have the time to dedicate to it consistently. For example, a draft of a novel could take weeks or months to complete. Do your best to work on the draft each morning, night, or whenever your writing time is. Picking back up after a hiatus often means losing your mindset and flow.

Don’t just put your toes in the water; get immersed and stay immersed.

Here are some questions for evaluation:

  • Are you writing each day?
  • Are you making excuses for not getting in front of the computer?
  • Do you feel like you have to use whatever you write?
  • Is frustration with unusable drafts causing you to avoid trying?
  • Do you have time to commit to a long-term writing project on a consistent basis?
  • Who holds you accountable?

The Writer’s Checkup

Read the intro for background.

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals