Book Reviews and More

Hi! This blog is for my classes at Texas Woman's University.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Outliner or Pantster?

Hi everyone! As I've been working on my latest novel, I've been thinking a lot about being an outliner (someone who plans the novel ahead of time) versus a pantster (someone who makes it up as they go along, aka by the seat of their pants). I've always been a pantster, but in my recent attempt to become more efficient in my writing, I've been wondering if outlining can improve my productivity.

On the one hand, I enjoy the spontaneous nature of making things up as I go along, letting my characters constantly surprise me on the page. But for me, that means a lot of meandering as I tell the story. I'm starting to feel like that might not be the most efficient use of my writing time.

I think that outlining has always reminded my of school - with it's organized system of numbers and letters. While I actually like the inherent structure of an outline in some areas of life, in my fiction writing, having to know what happens next in a story intimidates me. I generally don't know the exact details of what my characters are going to do, and I only have a very vague idea of the ending of my story beyond "happily ever after". How I will get to that point is a mystery.

So I recently tried a very loose outline of my current work-in-progress. I took each character and wrote an overall arc for their individual growth and for the overall story growth. Then I wrote one or two phrases for the next 10 chapters or so and what direction I thought the story would take. My very first (and very loose) outline!

So how's it going? Well, I pretty much stuck to the plan for the first four chapters or so, but then, a fight broke out (literally) between a few of my characters that I didn't see coming! Luckily, since my outline was so loose, I just updated it to deal with the consequences of the new plot twist. I kept the original outline as well to help me remember how I thought things were going to happen, so I can attempt to get back to those points somewhere along the way.

Despite the changes, I found the outline was still helpful. I think part of this was because I didn't spend a lot of time on my outline. I know that some people spend almost as much time on their outline as they do on their novel, and that works great for them. But for me, the fluidity of my outline gives me more of the freedom I desire. If I had spent days or weeks on my outline, then I'd feel too attached to its trajectory and not willing to veer from the course.

So am I an outliner now? I'm sure that to a lot of outliners out there, the answer would be no - I didn't even stick to the basic one I had. But I am seeing some of the benefits already of having a semi-plan in my writing. It is helpful when I see where I left off each day, and then be able to look at my notes and say "okay, now for this chapter I write where X finds out Y". It gives me a sense of direction so I don't waste as much of my precious writing time; but it still leaves me lots of room for the characters to take over.

So what does all of this mean? Maybe it's an encouragement for those who don't outline to try it even in the loosest form. It doesn't have to be the kind of outlines we learned in high school - I give you permission to break the rules! Or maybe for those of you that are strict outliners, try mixing it up a bit by writing some unplanned chapters. While I know we all have systems that seem to work best for us, challenging ourselves in our craft will always lead to more inventive and creative work.

Would you like to join our summer writing and reading challenge? My group has been making great progress and saying that accountability really helps! Read the details of the challenge here and let's see what we can accomplish together this summer!

Take care, McCourt

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer challenge check-in #4

Hi everyone!

  I'm so proud of all the progress our group is making. Even with summer activities, vacations, and unexpected delays, we are keeping our writing and reading in the forefront of our responsibilities.

  Way to go! Keep up the good work.
  If you'd like to join our group email for accountability, here's information about our challenge.

  Take care, McCourt

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Making Writing a Priority

“You cannot plow a field by turning it over in your mind.” - Gordon B. Hinckley

“You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working, and just so, you learn to love by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves.” - St. Francis de Sales 

“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” - Albert Einstein

I’m a collector of quotes and I often discover a similar theme running through the ones that I save. Lately, one of them seems to be my need to spend less time dreaming about a project or idea and more time actually putting it down to paper. I think as writers we are often full of inspiration, but need more perspiration to get the job done.

Of course, many of my writing friends don’t seem to have this problem; they wake up ready to write and take advantage of any opportunity to do so. I, however, have a tendency to let other things take priority over my writing time. I volunteer, overcommit, and procrastinate away the time that I have delegated for writing. I wonder why I do this. At times I’ve even asked myself - do I really want to keep writing?

I know that the answer is yes. I enjoy writing. I enjoy meeting my characters and discovering their story. In fact, my time writing is almost always one of the most pleasant parts of my day. So why do I let everything else come first and bump writing down my list of priorities?

I think it’s because I’m not selfish enough about my writing time. Perhaps because I’m not published and I’m not contributing financially to my family’s income with my writing, I feel like other things should come first. Family commitments, volunteer commitments, graduate school homework, kids' activities, household chores, etc. always feel like they have to come first - and then I’ll squeeze in the writing around those things. Unfortunately, those things never seem to end and my writing goals rarely get accomplished.

I think it will ultimately come down to me making the decision that writing is a priority for me, especially if I’d like to earn even a meager income from it some day. If I don’t start putting it first, then who else will? While my family is very supportive, it is still up to me to move writing up my list of priorities.

After all: “They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” - Andy Warhol

Accountability and deadlines help me a lot to try and achieve those writing goals. If you’d like to join our summer reading and writing challenge, please do!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer Challenge Check-In #3

Hello everyone!

  To all of y'all playing along at home, it's time to check-in. How did it go this week?

  Travel put a kink in my writing and reading plans, but it was a wonderful trip to remember :) so I'm not bemoaning the lost time. Just means I'll have to get back in the game this week!

  If you'd like to join our challenge email list - here's the details of our summer challenge. Join anytime!

  Keep reading and writing!
  Take care, McCourt

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Inspiration from a Master

 Recently at an exhibit of Vincent van Gogh in Paris, I came across a quote that really struck me:

“What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? Since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently.”
-       letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo van Gogh, October 22, 1882

I know Van Gogh was talking about drawing (so I bet it especially rings true to all of you illustrators out there), but I immediately saw the connection between this quote and the writing process. How many times do we as writers or illustrators struggle to get what is in our mind on to the page. We may imagine witty dialogue between two characters, and even ‘hear’ it in our heads, but when we write in on the page, it comes across as flat and quite boring. How many times do we hit that invisible iron wall?

One of the things I keep reminding myself during this summer writing challenge is the benefits of practice. If I only sit down once a week or even once a month, and expect amazing prose to pore from my mind on to the page, then I am kidding myself. Not only that, I’m actually letting myself down. Because if I only write infrequently, it may be “okay” or “pretty good”, but how much better could I be by practicing my skills every day?

I know that writing every day doesn’t guarantee that I’ll write brilliantly each day. In fact, I am sure there will be many days that I will write very little that may be salvageable. But the important thing is that I will be moving forward. As the quote states, “… one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently.” Slowly and patiently grinding through it. That’s what daily writing and illustrating is all about. And eventually, we will all have our own masterpieces.

Want to join the summer writing challenge? Click here for details. We’d love to have you!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Summer Challenge Check-In #2

Bonjour everyone!

 I hope that your summer challenge is going well this week. I will be checking in with the group by email today to find out everyone's status.

Remember if you want to join the challenge, it's going on all summer long. Just click here for details - the more the merrier!

 Au revoir,

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What can I accomplish?

Hi everyone! Thanks for stopping by.

I could have called this post, Doing the Math, but I thought that might scare some of y’all off :). I have been musing about how much I should be able to accomplish this summer with my goal of 500 words a day at least five days a week.

I am currently working on a middle grade novel. Although there is variation in word counts, I would say an average word count for the first draft of a middle grade novel is about 50,000 words. (Wondering about word counts? Here’s a post from Chuck Sambuchino that gives a good head start on the subject.).

So, I started doing the math - if I wrote 500 words a day, 5 days a week (2500 words a week), it should take me about 20 weeks to write a first draft of my middle grade novel. Wait… that can’t be right. So I did the math again: 50,000 words / 2500 words a week = 20 weeks, which is only about 4 ½ months. If I wrote 500 words every day - my non-summer goal - then I could hit 50,000 words in 14 ½ weeks, which is a little more than three months. 

I looked back at my documents. I wrote the first page of this particular novel on September 4th, 2012. As of today, that was 21 months ago. That’s 91 weeks!  In theory, if I would have been consistently writing at my 500 word, five day a week goal, I could have written four middle grade novels in that time. Wow.

I know, I know, life doesn’t always work out that way. With all that’s been going on the past few years, I’m not really thinking that I could have written four novels.

But… maybe.

So I started timing myself. Most days, I can write 500 words on a first draft in about 45 minutes. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but that is a reasonable estimate. So it makes me think - have I had a free 45 minutes each day over the past 21 months? Some days - honestly no. Many days our family’s schedule, especially now that I’ve gone back to graduate school, is filled to the brim. But other days, do I waste 45 minutes on the internet (even if it’s on writing related articles), on my iPhone, checking email, or watching House Hunters International? You bet.

What does this all mean? I’m choosing not to use this information to beat myself up over my lack of progress. I have worked on other writing projects, picture book manuscripts and lots of graduate school homework during this time. But I have to admit it has been eye-opening for me to look at my statistics. And in a way, it has been inspirational. It makes this never-ending goal of writing a novel seem achievable. Just the fact that if I can write 2500 words a week, I can have a first draft in about 4 ½ months (as opposed to 21+ months) motivates me. That seems like an attainable goal.

What do y’all think? Does this inspire or discourage you? I know some writers have even larger word count goals each day - just think what you can accomplish!

Do you want to join my summer reading and writing challenge? The directions are here on my previous post. Set your own goals and let’s work together to make these writing dreams a reality!

Take care, McCourt


June SCBWI Houston Book Reports

Hi everyone!

Now that it's starting to feel like summer here in Houston, it's the perfect time to enjoy the air conditioning and a good book.

Here's the books from this month's SCBWI meeting:

Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf (PB) Schwartz and Wade ISBN 9780307978967

Ungifted by Gordon Korman (MG) Balzar + Bray ISBN 9780061742675

Writer's First Aid and More Writer's First Aid: Getting the Writing Done by Kristi Holl (writing guides) Writer's Institute Publications ISBN 9781889715315 and 9781889715636



Monday, June 2, 2014

Summer Reading and Writing Check-in #1

Hi everyone!

  How did everyone do on the first week of the challenge? I had a productive week around the house, but not as productive as I would like for my writing. I did work toward my reading goal and finished the Texas Bluebonnet book Ungifted by Gordon Korman.

  Remember to 'reply all' to the challenge email that I send out on Mondays so we can keep accountable to each other.

  Also, each Wednesday, I plan to post on the blog with a musing about the writing/reading life - hopefully it will spark some conversation and motivation on ways we can accomplish our writing goals, while we try and balance all our other activities and obligations.

  It's not too late to join the challenge - in fact, it's open all summer long, so if you'd like to join just follow the directions on my previous post titled: Summer Reading and Writing Challenge.

  Summer school starts for me today so I will be working even more on balance!

  Take care, McCourt