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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3 Types of Motivation and 1 Type of Irony

20150616_071256Life with a Little is the busiest I have ever experienced. College got pretty busy, but my homework didn’t wake me up at night unless I had a high-pressure exam the next day. So now that I’m sleeping much less than I would like (thank you, Little’s lower central incisors) I have set some pretty high goals for myself: finish the second draft of my novel. Soon. If I’m going to succeed, I need as much motivation as I can get. Thankfully, I have three types:

Now or Never

One good thing about being so busy is that my mindset is always “work now, or else you’ll never get to it.” There is no room for procrastination. It’s ironic, but I just might get more written now that I don’t have free time.

My goal is to finish editing my first act by New Years (or by Christmas if at all possible) and the next two acts by March. If I don’t work on it every day, I will fall behind. So I can at least take some time during Little’s naps or while he plays happily in the morning. There is time, I just need to find it and steal it away from other tasks like dishes and laundry.

Competition

These goals are also part of a competition. Even though ‘now or never’ gets me going pretty well, my internal motivation isn’t strong enough to withstand sleep deprivation. To battle this, I am competing with a writing group friend. We both set the same two due dates and we’ll trade our works by the end.

Expectant Readers

As if this wasn’t enough, another friend demanded that I let her read the novel at the end. If I didn’t trust her to handle my novel well I wouldn’t even consider sending it to her, but she is a conscientious person who I’m sure will be able to give a thoughtful critique. This also gives me a good excuse to print off the whole manuscript, which is always satisfying. Having few readers will help me meet my deadlines, and their notes will give me clearer direction for draft three.

Though each form of motivation helps keep me going, I still have some serious time restrictions no matter how determined I am to write. So wish me luck! I’m going to need it.

A Freelancing Mom’s Game Plan

20150711_094550A lot of mothers have gone before me as stay-at-home moms. And a lot of professionals have gone before me as stay-at-home freelancers. I am thankful for all of them, their advice and their example. But I am also thankful for those who combined the two and lived to tell the tale.

As I type, my son grunts and squeaks his way through tummy time, lifting his head and then dropping it in frustration. He’ll build those muscles soon enough, and I get to stay home and watch it happen.

Motherhood is a challenge. Even as I write that, I have to start typing one handed as I scoop little Yoon up and distract him with a toy. Baby attention spans are short, and babies are still developing the skills necessary for, well, everything. With that in mind, freelancing in the midst of motherhood is a double challenge. But it’s one worth taking. In order to really get my work done, and done well, I have to develop new tactics:

  • Babysitters. Knowing who I can ask, and when they’re available. One lesson I’m still learning is to accept offers of free babysitting from friends and family without feeling guilty.
  • Naps. Using the baby’s naps for either focused work or genuine rest. Sometimes I’ve got to get a nap of my own in order to function.
  • Flexibility. Using those 10 and 15 minute windows instead of waiting for a whole hour. As Maria from The Sound of Music so sweetly says, “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” (Thank you Julie Andrews!)
  • Grace. Forgiving myself for being tired and less productive than I’d like. It’s a work in progress, and I’ve got to remember how much I’ve already progressed over the last 3 months.

It’ll take time to get used to everything, especially since children develop at an amazing rate during their first year. So, fellow freelancers and fellow mothers, how do you make it work? 

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!

Friday Reflections: Challenge Yourself to be the Best

DSC00489After spring break with the hubby, it’s been a little difficult getting back into the rhythm of life. And if you’re struggling with time or motivation, these are the perfect articles for you:

When You Should (and Shouldn’t) Emulate Famous Creative Routines” – Whitson Gordon writes from LifeHacker, reminding us of the pros and cons of those famous routines that we–or may be just I?–obsess over. It’s a comfort to remember that I don’t need to copy some secret formula for success from other creatives; I can cultivate my own habits and schedules.

So you want to be a writer…” – From the Guardian, Philip Hensher, Jeanette Winterson, Rachel Cusk, Michael Cunningham, etc. share their teaching process and their advice about creative writing. They set high standards and accept no excuses. The tone of each challenge makes me want to learn, grow, and never stop pushing toward excellence.

This article is long, and So. Damn. Perfect. I’m not even going to bother finding a third. Dive in and enjoy!

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? 

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A work in progress quickly becomes feral….As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

StoryForge Productions: Our 2014 Rocket to the Moon

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In this video, StoryForge introduces many of the new projects that are coming out this year! Please watch, and keep an eye on the website and Facebook page for updates!

As you can probably tell, the people working on StoryForge are passionate about their craft and excited to help you actualize your dreams. And yes, I am in this video. I haven’t done much filming before, so it’s always an interesting experience. And fun, because the StoryForge peoples are always fun.

A Writer’s New Years Resolution

New years resolutions are an annual joke. We trip up so often that we might as well kick the year off by asking “what sort of good intentions can I fail at this year?”

Putting pessimism aside, whether we fail or not depends on our mindsets as we start the year.

I personally want to have good morning habits. From the stereotypical resolution of exercising, to writing my novel and reading the Bible with my morning tea. But instead of assuming that I’m going to start off the bat with a perfectly formed habit, my resolution is simply to build upward. Failure is acceptable as long as I pick myself up, forgive myself for failing, and start again.

As my husband commented, life shouldn’t get in the way of your resolutions because your good habits should be a part of life.

What are your resolutions? How are you going to keep them?