The World’s Largest Pumpkin Festival

We had a lovely weekend visiting with my cousin and her wife in Wiesbaden, Germany, and they took us to the World’s Largest Pumpkin Festival in Ludwigburg near Stuttgart.

I love pumpkins, so it was a perfect outing. The sugar-chili roasted pumpkin seeds were my favorite treat on offer, but they had pumpkin churros, pumpkin balls, pumpkin ice cream, and pumpkin pasta to name a few. It was pumpkin heaven! And the ornamental displays were super impressive.

According to the Internet, this festival makes use of 400,000 pumpkins per year.

A statue of an old man with long hair sits at the base of stone stairs leading up into the woods. A 12-15 foot high red Phoenix made out of small gourds. The enormous figure of a man (made of many types of gourds) lays on the ground, held down by ropes, a pumpkin version of the scene from Gulliver’s Travels. A 15-20 foot tall Pikachu made with yellow gourds is tall and angry looking with dramatic tilted eyebrows and an open red mouth.

The theme of this year’s festival was Fantasy, and while I’m not sure how an angry Pikachu fits in the fantasy genre, he was my favorite pumpkin creature for sure. 🎃

Nano Prep #2: Structure

Hello, internet buddies! Let’s continue our NaNoWriMo prep today with this question: What is a story? Well, even if you can’t verbalize the answer, you know it intuitively because you’ve been hearing stories all your life! Stories are narratives that follow a familiar structure, and coming up with your story structure is your nanowrimo homework of the week.

Here’s one example of a story structure. This one is called the Story Circle , and it’s been popularized over the last few years by television writer Dan Harmon.

The Story Circle

1. Character begins in a zone of comfort.
2. But they want something.
3. So they enter an unfamiliar situation.
4. They adapt to it.
5. And get what they wanted.
6. But pay a heavy price.
7. Then they return to a familiar situation.
8. Having changed.

In my most recent novel, The Assistant , what Jessica Warne wants more than anything is to gain respect, stability, and financial security. She’s somewhat representative of the Millennial generation, in that she’s smart and hard working while also being deeply in debt, underutilized, and stuck in a shitty job with few prospects. So when she gets a job offer from a high end staffing firm that offers her huge pay, big challenges, and an all-expenses paid makeover, she’s over the moon! Finally, she’s been given the opportunity to prove her skills and become a successful adult. The Duke Agency offers Jessica a path to what she wants, but what will joining the agency cost her? That question is the entry point to the Emerald City Spies series.

In fact, I wrote one story circle for that series as a whole, and smaller story circles for each novel within the series. The story circles fit together like LEGO blocks, and I find that to be a satisfying way of holding a narrative together.

Not a fan of the story circle? Here’s another sample story structure that I found online and jotted down a while ago. (I don’t know who came up with it, but I’ll update this post if I can find the original source.)

In order to [Avoid Problem] a [Flawed Character] must [Try To Achieve Goal] but when [Complication] they realize they must overcome [Antagonist] and [Personal Flaw] by [Action] before [Deadline].

Nice and compact, right? But you can see how all the big elements of the story are contained within that structure. Have you noticed that stories usually contain both an antagonist (external enemy) and a character flaw (internal enemy)? Perfect characters are dull, and stories that moralize about personal growth without real-world consequences are also dull. That’s why most stories contain both character growth and an external threat of some kind. Those elements work together to create a satisfying story.

For those who like lots of detail, you can find [story spreadsheets on Jami Gold’s website][5] that contain more detailed templates for story structures. They’re a great resource, but personally I prefer to keep my structure loose at this stage to give myself lots of room to play as I’m drafting the story. But feel free to check the worksheets out if the structures I laid out above feel too vague. I’m also a big fan of Libby Hawker’s short book on structure: Take Off Your Pants.

It might feel too early to outline your book, and that’s fine. For now, I want you thinking big picture.

Things to Keep in Mind

A few general tips as you add some backbone to your story: Stories are built on conflict. So one way to think about a story is that your job as a writer is to get your character up in a tree, throw rocks a them, and have them figure out how to get out of that tree. Your character will probably have a goal of some kind, and they’ll try multiple times to achieve that goal, failing at first, but eventually succeeding. It’s normal for your characters to have multiple cycles of trying to reach the goal, failing, then trying again. If it’s too easy for them, it might not be an interesting story. If you like, you can brainstorm some ideas now. Or not! It’s entirely up to you.

Character tries X, but is blocked by A.
Character tries Y, but is blocked by B.
Character tries Z, and succeeds.

And here’s an important bit: you don’t need to follow any story structure template to the letter! You might use the story circle, for example, but skip one of the steps. This isn’t paint by number, so feel free to go outside the lines so long as what you’re making takes the general shape of a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Let’s Get Ready for Nano!

To recap, here’s your suggested homework for the week: Take your story idea from last week and apply some structure to it. Use big, broad strokes, and think about how your story will flow. Where does your main character begin? What is their goal? What will be their main plan to reach that goal? Where will they fall down? And how will they be changed by the time your reader reaches the final page?

Think it through, and jot down some notes, but don’t stress if you feel it’s too early to make these decisions. Some writers like to go into their story completely planless, and you might be one of them. But for me, having a loose structure defined stops me from flailing too much during the first draft, so I encourage you to think those questions through.

Next time, we’ll do some time-saving prep work as we tackle Characters, Point of View, and Setting.

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The Cozy Experiment, Part Two

Hey there! It’s time for an update on my Cozy Experiment, which I wrote about here . Overall, I have three cozy goals: Have More Fun, Write More Books, and Publish More Frequently. And to test out new writing processes I decided to write a cozy mystery during the month of September.

Oops! A Miscalculation

I started writing in early September, and it was all ticking along nicely until I realized that I’d miscalculated. I knew that I’d be busy the first few weeks of October, but I’d forgotten that the last week of September was taken up with an impromptu family reunion for my father-in-law’s eighty fifth birthday.

My month of writing time had just become three weeks, and I was almost two weeks in. Yikes!

I should have thrown up my hands and finished the book in October. But like a crazy person I decided I’d haul ass and finish the book before the family reunion. I told P that I’d be “living inside the book” for the next week and I did exactly that.

Drafting a Cozy Mystery in Three Weeks

So my September went like this:

  • I spent one week (plus a few days) outlining the story and preparing to write.
  • Plus two weeks writing the first draft, finishing at 10:30pm the evening of my revised deadline.

All in all, I averaged 4,000 words per day across ten writing days. In actuality, though, my numbers started off low (1200/day) and built up higher, ending with a marathon 9000 word session on the last day.

So I met my goal! But as I’ll discuss below, it came with some ups and downs, and I won’t be repeating this craziness anytime soon.

What it was Like to Write Faster

Writing quickly was surprisingly fun! Because I spent so many continuous hours in “the zone,” the creative process felt immersive and put me in a daydream-like state that carried over from day to day. Emotionally, it was like living inside a movie.

To my surprise, writing quickly was in some ways easier than writing slowly.  It was easier to hold the entire story in my head, I didn’t feel like I was losing track of my story threads, and there was less angst about next steps.

Now for the bad news. Writing quickly was exhausting, especially for my hands. I didn’t handwrite this draft, but even then my hands ached after a few steady hours of typing. I survived by setting an hourly alarm to remind myself to get up, stretch, and shake out my hands. I also took mid-day walks to clear my head. Even then, I used up all my mental energy on my long writing days. I felt wiped, like I’d just run a brain marathon.

Admittedly, I got big confidence boost from this exercise. Writing a book in three weeks sounds impossible, and doing something I thought was impossible made me feel pretty spiffy. I may have strutted around the house for a few days.

But What About Quality?

The million dollar question is this: Is the story any good? I do harbor concerns that a book written quickly might be schlock, and I really don’t want to write schlock! But my hunch is that I did just fine. I’ll know more when I pick it back up for editing in a few weeks.

Speed may contribute to quality in a few ways, at least. Writing quickly made it easier for me to keep track of continuity as I went through the story. And because I was having a lot of fun, and the process didn’t feel sloggy, my hunch is that the fun-quotient will carry through to the reader. But this is an experiment, so we’ll see how it goes, right? I guess we’ll see.

My Thoughts Thus Far

In summary, my initial impression of “writing fast” is that it’s a lot more fun than I thought it would be (yay!), but it was also a huge energy drain (boo!) Would this method allow me to meet my three cozy goals of Have More Fun, Write More Books, and Publish More Frequently? Yes! But is drafting a novel in fifteen days something I can do repeatedly? Probably not.

Doing it once was a fun challenge, but doing it over and over would be too difficult.  The writing life will lose it’s luster if it costs me all my energy and my ability to enjoy my non-work life.

That’s why, for my next round of the cozy experiment, I’ll slow down and search for the sweet spot between speed and sustainability. I’ll do all my book prep in October, and then give myself the full month of November to write the draft. That’s still plenty fast, but not so fast I’ll burst into flames.

I’ll check back in December and let you know how that goes.

Berlin Street Art

Street Art: A beautiful woman with a floral headdress. Her body is in black and white and her clothing and flowers are in bright colors. Yellow paint forms a mask over her eyes. The pose is determined. A tall apartment building is blocky and industrial looking. Doodled street art decorates every brick surface, including a suspicious-looking face in black and white looking at you as you pass by. Alien-looking blue ornamentation crawls up the side of the building. An enormous rectangular slab of apartment buildlings. Balconies cover the front, and two streets run beneath the buildling as if cut into the lower part of the edifice. A set of painted eyes peer out froom beneath a green tree, their depth and realism is due to the fact that the irises are actually windows, painted black as to disguise their nature.  A tall concrete bunker has been abandoned. It is covered with colorful graffiti and crawling green ivy plants. A staircase leads up toward a door. No entry is permitted.

We’re hanging out in Berlin for a few days, and I’m loving the big, blocky, concrete buildings, the fabulous art, and the 80s music everywhere.

Nano Prep #1: The Idea

Happy Friday! Today’s post is about preparing for National Novel Writing Month . Our first step in preparation is to come up with an idea for the story. Your idea doesn’t have to be detailed at this point, but it does help to have a basic notion of what your story will be about.

Choosing a Story Idea

How do you know you’ve got a good story idea? Well, it’s less about originality than it is about the way it makes you feel. The truth is, there are a zillion different stories you might write, and very few stories are based on an original concept. Two authors could choose an identical idea, but in the process of writing, their books would differ because their life experiences, preferences, and inner voice are all different. The trick to picking a good story idea is finding one that makes you feel excited and curious. You’ll be spending lots of time on your story, so you want it to be the kind of story that will continue to draw you in.

Here are a handful of story ideas that I pulled out of my brain:

Halfway into a three-year journey, the leader of a colony ship discovers the planet they’re headed toward has been destroyed. In fact, several planets have disappeared off the charts over the last twelve months. And whatever is taking out planets is moving slowly toward Earth. Unfortunately, this colony ship is full of criminals, and the Earth Defense Forces will blow them out of the sky if they dare to turn back…

A teenage girl falls in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, and he with her. But her best friend is very sick with a terminal disease, and the love besotted teens are determined to give their sick friend the best senior year possible.

Take the basic story from Romeo and Juliet and write it from the perspective of an envious servant who deviously pushes the pair toward suicide while making them think it was their own idea. But they fake their deaths as a way of catching her in the act, and the servant goes to prison. Then the Romeo and Juliet characters live happily ever after.

Tell a poltergeist story but it’s a coffee roasting facility that’s haunted and all the beans that go out are cursed. Whenever someone drinks coffee made from the cursed beans they make bad choices that echo the terrible crimes committed in the coffee roasting facility many years prior.

I jotted down those ideas above at random. But the first story idea on my list is probably the best one. Why? Because it invokes my curiosity. Who are these criminals? Where were they headed? What is destroying planets? What will they decide to do? Any idea that opens a lot of doors is usually a fun one to write about. But all those ideas above are workable. Because I’m continuing an existing series, I did the brainstorming process with my current heroine, and came up with an idea for her next mystery: The Case of the Karaoke Killer.  That’ll be my book for November, unless I change my mind between now and then.

So if you’re [half-assing Nano with me next month][1], I suggest you spend time this week writing out story ideas. Cast a wide net! Make a list of five or ten ideas, then pick one that you’ll enjoy spending time with.

If you’re feeling stuck, you could do worse than to put a new twist on a story you already know and love. Want to write a story that’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer IN SPACE? Or how about some Game of Thrones-style political intrigue but with cyberpunk war machines instead of dragons? Mixing and matching can be a fun way to brainstorm new ideas.

Next week, we’ll take your idea a step further.

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Let’s Half-Ass NaNoWriMo Together

Happy October!

If you’re a writer, or if you’d like to be, you’re  hereby invited to half-ass National Novel Writing Month with me. Nanowrimo is an annual event where writers all over the world attempt to finish a novel (or 50,000 words) in the month of November. It’s a fun time to work on a writing project because there are several thousand other people working towards the same goal.

I’ve never officially “won” Nano, but it’s fun to participate, and most of my Nano projects were completed and published after the fact. The only problem with Nanowrimo (in my opinion) is that the standard goal of 50k words in 30 days isn’t practical for most people- especially those with full-time jobs, family obligations, and the all the writers who feel creatively blocked under rising pressure. Falling behind on your word count is super discouraging if you believe the 50,000 word number is all that matters, and it sucks when new writers feel discouraged for no good reason.

My solution? Let’s half-ass Nanowrimo! We can set our own goals, have fun, participate, and hold the whole thing lightly.

I think I’ll write my second cruise ship mystery in November. I estimate it will be a 40,000 word project, but in the end it will be as long as it needs to be. And for the rest of October I’ll send out a short blog post each week about preparing for Nanowrimo. If you want to, you’re welcome to follow along. Then in November we’ll be ready to half-ass our dreams.

When it comes to the arts, there’s this really tricky line between taking your art seriously and being so regimented that you smother the joy right out of it. The former is good, and the latter is bad, but too often they feel like the same thing. My hope for this Nanowrimo is that we can give ourselves permission to take our writing aspirations seriously without smothering the flame under too many expectations.

So consider yourself invited. ☺️

More posts in this series: Nano Prep #1: The Idea , Nano Prep #2: Structure, Nano Prep #3: Character, POV, & Setting , Nano Prep #4: Beat Sheets

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