NaNoWriMo is a Tool. Use it. Love it. Learn.

IMG_20171129_090726_063I won NaNoWriMo! 50,296 words in 30 days. Celebration mode activated.

To those who didn’t get to 50k this year, everyone wins if they play it right. And I don’t mean participation ribbons and a half-hearted hurrah. NaNoWriMo is like golf. (Didn’t see that one coming, did ya?) You’re a lone athlete, always trying to improve your swing and put under par. It’s a mental game and, no matter how much competition is around you, you’re still playing against yourself.

Even if you stop at 10k, you might get more out of the month than someone who wrote 75k. The difference is in how much you challenged yourself. I tried NaNoWriMo during a few of my college years and burned out between 20k and 30k. Each time I learned a little more about my writing process. With the help of a few big failures and many small victories, 50k doesn’t feel impossible anymore. As long as nothing drastic comes up in my life, surviving November is just a matter of focusing. This year especially, I won because I learned. November was my chance for introspection.

The Rogue Participant

Introspection isn’t something that many would link with NaNoWriMo, the month from hell, when you type until your fingers bleed. But this year I played the game differently. I was halfway through draft 2 of my WIP, so I didn’t have a new novel write. I held onto the key rule of the challenge, 50,000 new words, and went rogue in all else. I titled my novel “Experiments in Pantsing” and wrote this summary:

A variety of (hopefully dynamic) protagonists fight their limitations, traveling across genres the way high fantasy elves traverse forests and shivering through POV shifts as quickly as the weather changes in their imaginary land. Their pain is the writer’s gain. It’s time to storm through comfort zones and confront qualms, because why else would I force myself to write 50k in one month?

I had a number of inhibitions that I needed to break through. This was my chance. On day one I wasn’t sure where to start, because my project was so nebulous, but what ended up spilling into my document was most perfect mess I could ask for.

  • 24,000 went to a rewrite of my current novel’s act 3.
  • 10,000 went to short stories.
  • 16,000 went to brainstorming, analysis, research, and outlines.

Some out there will see this as a copout, because I did not write 50,000 words of one novel, but that’s okay. I usually over-prescribe shoulds and oughts, establishing rules that keep me linear, keep me focused, and keep me from the creative freedom that I would otherwise enjoy. This year I told myself to cut it out. I granted myself permission to write what I actually wanted to write. Stream of conscious pages led to character creation, plot formation, and, best of all, problem solving. My best ah-ha moments came from three realizations:

  1. Stream of consciousness helps silence your inner editor.

NaNoWriMo tells us not to edit as we go. However hard we try to follow that advice, most of us filter our thoughts even before our fingers tap the keys. When I wrote 50,000 last year, I was the perfect rule-following participant. I didn’t waste words on anything that wasn’t narrative, and that was my biggest mistake. I didn’t step aside from narrative to make room for brainstorming. My scenes were mushy and directionless. This year, I listened to those nagging questions. When they came up, I let stream of consciousness guide me. Once I even stopped half-way through a paragraph and yelled at myself in all caps:

WHY CAN’T I JUST GET ON WITH THIS SCENE? I’VE GOT THIS BLOCK AGAINST SUCH DEEP CONFLICT. HOW CAN I WRITE REAL TENSION? REAL CONSEQUENCES? REAL MISTAKES? REAL ANGER? REAL HURT?

Aren’t caps obnoxious? Somehow it felt necessary. I needed to knock something loose in my brain. This freedom let it rip came from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s hard to get to the heart of your issues if cloak them in narrative. Your characters can wait. Sometimes you’ve got to drop the act and see what comes out. Be honest with yourself. Your narrative, when you get back to it, will be so much better for it.

  1. Stop and ask for directions; your characters are happy to help.

Sometimes you’ve just got to write through the pain, but I couldn’t do that this year. It wasn’t helpful or productive. Instead of relying on intuition and sheer force of will to push me through the scene, I stopped—my intuition isn’t the greatest, anyway—and considered my options.

This is where the 16,000 words of brainstorming became very very helpful. I listed out all of my characters’ options, even the ones that seemed super duper dumb. (Dumb is kind of my favorite word right now. I don’t even know why.) I set every thought loose. I highlighted the ones that didn’t work and clicked strikethrough. Soon there was only one left. It felt right, even though it was toward the bottom of the list. I’ve heard someone give this type of advice before, maybe one of the Writing Excuses podcasts, but I’d never put it into practice before. About time, right? It was so very helpful.

  1. Short stories are good punching bags.

Apologies to short story and flash fiction writers everywhere, but I used your art form as rough-it-up training. It was a low-risk way for me to test out the story elements that scare me spitless.

My current WIP had a weak, soft-focus ending. It was a flabby first draft. I knew that it needed to change, but I was too afraid to get it wrong. So I wrote a little story. The story was okay, but for some reason I didn’t feel like finishing it. Instead of jumping ship, I asked myself why:

I’m getting bored with this. The set up does not match the fallout, and it’s still very internal. The threats are in the distance, rather than in her face. If she was just told the truth then it would be able to amp up more quickly. Here I am veiling the threat, and I really don’t have a true threat in mind. That is not enough. That is not enough.

As I wrote, I discovered an undercover habit, the elusive type that’s way too good at playing ding dong ditch. My storytelling needed a boost. My process needed to change. To fix these issues, I had to finish my WIP by the end of NaNoWriMo and punch my antagonist in the face. And so I did.

Are You a Rogue?

While I don’t want to encourage rule bending/breaking for its own sake, I want you to find the unnecessary shoulds and oughts that are weighing you down. Yours probably look different than mine, but we’ve all got them.

As you write over the next 11 months, be aware of the emotional barriers that hold you back from forming good stories, or the psychological disconnects between you and your characters. Consider why you avoid certain genres, personalities, conflicts, etc. Gather up all of those issues and use NaNoWriMo 2018 to help you process. 50,000 words is plenty of space to spill it all out and see what you can change. Be vulnerable, get introspective, and learn.

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A Surprisingly Fond Good Riddance to 2016

nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_participant-150I’m sure most Americans will agree that 2016 was crazy. Stressful. Jaw dropping. Anger inducing. On the political side of things, we can barely cope right now. However, the state of politics, government, or our favorite social justice moment doesn’t have to dictate how our year went on a personal level. While everything around us is crappy, we still can grow.

This year was a big year of growth for me. My husband and I took on a level of stress we’d never faced together (big building project + 2.5 months of live-in in-laws) and we have learned to communicate and hug our way through it. For my writing, I confronted some deep issues in my first WIP, Dead Girl Swimming, that made me rethink how I tell stories and create characters.

DGS is the book that taught me how to write. I came up with the concept for it in high school and all through college I wrote and rewrote. It taught me to be a ruthless editor, a constant learner, a planner, and so much more. About two years ago I finally had a full first draft, I worked for months on a second draft, and then bam. My writing group gave me the bad, but very necessary news. It sucked. They didn’t use those words exactly, but, still, they were honest. I needed to break through my barriers and write something that was open, rich, and lifelike.

In 2016 I set that WIP aside and different story took hold. I gathered all that DGS taught me, plus the help of several writing books that I wish I had read years ago, and let the story simmer. I didn’t write it for about 6 months. I collected scraps of story, tucked them away for a while, then pounded out an outline. I let that outline sit until I had plenty of emotional distance, then I rewrote the outline.

When NaNoWriMo hit, I was ready. I wrote 50,000 words in 17 days.

I’m thankful to NaNoWriMo for forcing me to create a regular writing schedule. As a stay-at-home mom, time and energy to write is pretty hit and miss. But if I focus, I can regularly set aside 2-4 hours a day. So now, in December, I’m aiming to finish my draft at 90,000–currently on track at 65,000. The only reason I can produce so many words and power through the story like this is because of a few realizations:

  • Draft 1 is a throwaway draft. I don’t need to worry about having all the scenes right. I know that I’m going to cut whole chunks out of the middle, and I’m probably going to rewrite the entire ending. But that doesn’t matter. As I write, I learn more about my characters and my world, which will inform my draft 2 rewrite (I won’t even call it an edit).
  • Write what you’re excited about. I outlined thoroughly, and I’m very glad that I did, but I gave myself the freedom to bust out and write what I wanted. The further I got into the draft, what came out became more honest and character driven than before.
  • Find daily satisfaction in your progress. I found that I was highly motivated by NaNo’s word count tool. Now that NaNo is over, I found a tool to replace it. I also started a writing log, as is mentioned in “How I Went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to Writing 10,000 Words a Day.” The collected information, while helpful for analysis, mostly helps me feel that I accomplished something. That sense of satisfaction is very very hard to get when you’re working at home.
  • Find what works for you. My sense of organization doesn’t make me or my writing passionless–quite the opposite. People sometimes call me crazy for being so driven, but that just shows that I’m on the right track. I need to be disciplined and ever growing. Often that means using charts and graphs and outlines and binder tabs and all those beautiful things.

With that said, how have you grown this year? 

 

On NaNoWriMo, Productivity, & Anne Lamott

I hit 50k last week. I did a fist pump or two and promised myself that I’d keep writing 1k a day until Christmas. I’d have a full 90k draft to celebrate on Christmas morning, in the midst of stockings and cinnamon rolls.

Guess what? I haven’t written anything since then. Instead,  I spent a week editing on super speed for a client and, despite the super speed, it was super fun. So I’m a little off track, but I still have my eye on that 90k. Why? Writing has become part of my DNA. If I’m not writing a story, I’m editing one. If I’m not editing, I’m outlining. Brainstorming. Researching. Etc.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to keep moving forward. Keep writing, creating, playing, reading, dreaming, researching, and–believe me–analyzing. When you stay productive, the habitual cycle of consuming and creating will help you grow.

Stephen King’s On Writing encourages (almost demands) that you write every day. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott also encourages a productivity-centric mindset, but in a more poetic way.

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual act of writing–turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward (xxvi).

While I am still very publication/end goal/word count focused, it’s good to be reminded that the messy and challenging process is worth cherishing. Productivity isn’t just a means to an end, just as my life isn’t just a means to an end. Every day, even with all the mush and mundanity, is valuable. Those moments when I stare at the wall, wondering how the heck I’m going to get my character out of this life-and-death situation, I’m still doing valuable work. It’s all part of the process.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to extend my writing break for another day and read the next chapter of Bird by Bird. 

 

NaNo Day 2: Face That Monster

It’s only day 2 and I’m already seeing discouragement in some WriMos. Maybe that’s the fate of a pantser (says the perfectionist-overkill-planner) or maybe that’s just life for you right now. It’s busy!

There are many obstacles between you and 50k: time limitations, mental distractions, unclear writing goals, underdeveloped characters…etc etc etc.

Your job is to realize what your obstacles are before they block you for good. What is making 1667 per day so agonizing? Dig into your own psyche, schedule, or novel outline. If you can face that monster, then you can face 50k. You can do this.

I shared this article with my writing group a while back, and I’d like to share it with you too: “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a to 10,000 Words a Day.” It’s all about analyzing your own process, knowing how you work best, and running with it. Seriously, if you’re struggling at all, check it out.

My day 2 so far: I knocked out 1k this morning and I hope to write 1.5 more later today, which means finishing scene 2 and starting scene 3. I have the content all ready; I just need to be okay with it spilling out on the page in an unappealing pile of words. Mess is okay? Mess is okay. Mess is OKAY. (My mantra for the month, haha)

 

NaNo Day 1: Loving the Process, Hating the Gross

I had a hard time getting to sleep last night. Hubby and I watched the 2016 Ghostbusters that evening and the movie romped about my head, along with all the jokes, the characters, and the plot points that rattled like loose change if you shook them too hard. Ghostbusters, however, was only background noise. NaNoWriMo was really what kept me up. In only a few hours I would join thousands in the great migration from November 1st + 0 words, to November 30th + 50,000 words.

If you aren’t familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) the goal is to write 50,000 words, which comes down to an average of 1,667 words per day. If you’ve got 12 pt Times New Roman font and 1.5 spacing like me, that’s about 4 pages.

The month is full of people complaining, chugging coffee, writing crap, and loving every minute.

I prepped like crazy for this writing marathon. The first draft of my outline poured out of my head in April. I let it rest over the summer and reworked it in October. Now I have a 28 page outline that is laid out scene by scene. I have mapped my plot threads, my visual themes, my character arcs, my beats, and I am ready to go.

But still. Last night I worried. As I readjusted my pillow for the millionth time, I asked myself: Will these bullet point scenes survive the process? Do I have the skill to make it not only to 50k, but to the end of the story? Will I need to rewrite a lot later, or will all of this material be worthwhile?

I have analyzed my craft enough to know that it is technically possible to write a worthwhile 50k in 30 days, but the unmeasurable part of storytelling bothers me. I can’t quantify the heart of the story. Character psychology doesn’t fit into a chart; it needs to be set free. My story needs to unfold with the crackling of an old map. I can’t treat it like a graph on a scientific calculator. I need to let loose.

As I wrote this morning, on day 1 of NaNoWriMo, I turned 200 words of outline into 1690 words of manuscript. It is full of exposition, awkward transitions, ugly sentences, and notes-to-self (in parentheses). But it is written. And that is good. I’m hoping that NaNoWriMo’s whirlwind nature will save me from my perfectionism. I need to accept the gross first draft and learn to love the process. It’s go time and I am up for the challenge.

Fellow WriMos! How is Day 1 treating you? 

 

 

Crafting a Practicable Plan for the Editing Process

Editing is eternally fascinating. When you approach the second draft of your novel, you’re a lioness crouching in the grass, watching her prey, biding her time, and planning the kill. For a successful hunt, you must analyze the situation thoroughly.

In “3 Steps to a Sustainable and Streamlined Editing Process,” I help you start the process of crafting a practicable plan. And to my nerdy glee, I get to dig into three main editing stages over the next two weeks. The editing process is complex, messy, and exhausting–but completely worthwhile.

Stay tuned, and visit StoryForge Productions to keep up!

Fall is Here. Watch out, NaNoWriMo!

DSC00689There’s something enormously refreshing about fall–yes, I live in CA. I’m keenly aware that we don’t really get fall–but the air gets a crisp edge, gourds and pumpkins arrive in markets, and I get to make as much tea as I want. It’s nostalgic and cozy. Plus, sweaters!

On top of all that, I love the surge of energy that November brings to the entire writing community. We unite for a month of sleepless, semi-stressful crunch time. And we love it.

Even though I’m not one to jump in for the 50k, I tailor the month to fit what my writing projects need. This year that means getting ahead on my novel’s 2nd draft by writing my 3rd POV scenes. If I’m going to meet my New Years goal, I’d better use the NaNo energy to help me stay on track

Maybe my next novel’s 1st draft will coincide with NaNoWriMo and I’ll truly go for the 50k. I’d love to be able to say that I actually won, but that’s just a pride thing.

What goals are you setting? Are you a NaNo rebel or do you go straight for the win? StoryForge has a full November of encouragement and writing tips coming up, and I can’t wait to dive in.

Friday Reflections – Tips on Fight Scenes and Characterization

Recently I’ve moved toward non-fiction side: writing articles, posting blogs, and editing everything. And I mean everything. This week I was even promoted to Lead Writer at StoryForge–which I’m really excited about. But as a result of all my freelance activity, my fiction is getting shoved in the corner. It’s time to pick up the pace. My novel is so very close to the finis. So, for some inspiration and instruction, here are some articles on scene work:

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I’m so happy with my new business cards! Freelancing is an adventure; however, I’ll dive into another world this afternoon and engage in an oceanic battle.

The Gospel of Combat: How Fight Scenes Feed your Story” – Chuck Sambuchino from Writer’s Digest introduces Marie Brennan’s book on fight scenes. Instead of writing for “pure spectacle,” let the fight create rich ground for character growth. Every person has a unique reaction to violence that reveals deeply psychological desires or inhibitions.  This advice is surprisingly timely for me, since I’m going to tackle a fight scene very very soon.

How do you create realistic feeling characters?” – Author Marivi Solvien answers an aspiring writer’s question on NaNoWriMo. To create rounded, relational characters, you need to draw on associations–observations of strangers, friends, family, even actors. Read her answer for more details.

I hope you have a restful weekend and a productive week! Got any plans in the making? Any goals to keep you chugging? 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just before NaNoWriMo ends, I like to say congratulations to those who stuck it out!

And for those who weren’t able to this year, be encouraged that you got as far as you did, and keep writing that novel! November isn’t the only time of the year that we’re allowed to write copiously 🙂 

I put a pause on my novel a while ago so that I could finish up a grad school writing sample. And since I’m almost done with that, I’ll start again soon and finish it up!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!