NaNoWriMo: The End of the Line

November 30th is here, and around the world, those who aren’t finished yet are writing like the wind to complete their novels for National Novel Writing Month.

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For those who finished early: Congratulations! There is nothing like taking on an impossible task with an intimidating deadline and hitting your goal before you needed to. You were blessed with words and ideas and creative flow and plenty of time to write.

For those who finished today: Congratulations! You did it! 50K words in 30 days! You are awesome. You were blessed with tenacity and determination (also know in some circles as stubbornness) and you beat the odds.

For those who are nowhere near finished: Congratulations! You took on this crazy challenge and did what you could. You wrote something, even if it wasn’t what you’d hoped for. You were blessed with important lessons. Maybe you learned you need to use an outline. Maybe you learned you can’t write with an outline. Maybe you learned you really aren’t actually interested in writing after all. Whatever the lesson, this insane experiment has taught you something you didn’t know about yourself. Pat yourself on the back and hold on to what you learned.

The Pain of Discipline OR The Pain of Regret?

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Discipline: is it an ugly word or a good thing?

Sometimes our discipline requires extreme effort on our part (early morning workouts, I’m looking at you); sometimes, it requires sacrifice. Anything we choose to do right now means there is something else we can’t do with this moment.

I prefer to think of discipline as remembering: I remember that I want to be fit and healthy in the long run, so I exercise today. Or that I want to have 50,000 words written by the end of November, and will be doing myself a favor if I write at least 1,667 of them today.

And when I find discipline an uncomfortable, painful thing, I remember:

We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret and disappointment. — Jim Rohn

The pain of discipline is usually short-lived. The pain of regret is not. That makes the choice a tiny bit easier.

Do you like the idea of discipline, or is it an ugly word?

Big Creative Projects Take a Leap of Faith

It’s Day 3 of NaNoWriMo (the challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days), and I am having the usual early day struggles. Because I don’t plan ahead, I have to do a lot of brainstorming and heavy thinking between writing sessions. In the past, I’ve had my story idea arrive as late as November 1st, and found myself scrambling to catch up.

This year is no different. All through October, I was happily looking forward to the creative chaos I knew was coming in November. I was hoping to plan ahead a little, but whenever I looked over my list of story ideas, nothing spoke to me. I had to dig through old notes regarding stray ideas until I finally found one that made me go “Hmmmm”. By then of course it was Halloween night, and November was mere hours away.

The first days of a big project are always hard. I stare at the computer screen and realize I have no idea what I am doing. I remind myself of what little I know (I’m writing science fiction, and I’m stealing some details from Grimm’s version of Brier Rose, aka Sleeping Beauty, to generate a story.)

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I pick a name out of the air and start writing.

The words come slowly at first. My ideas are hesitant to show themselves, but I keep typing. I ignore the bad wording, the clichés, and the unoriginal ideas. I try not to listen too closely to the argument the teenage girl is having with her parents. It’s about evolution. I’m pretty sure everyone has their facts wrong and that it’s mind-bogglingly dull. But I don’t stop.

Starting a new writing project requires a huge leap of faith for me. All through October I kept thinking “I have no idea what I’m going to write this year” which was followed almost immediately by the thought “No worries! I’ll figure it out when I get there. Something always turns up.” It’s astonishing to me that I have reached this level of faith in my muse, that I can count down the days to the moment of starting, totally uncertain as to what I will be writing about, and still start.

Experience tells me it will get easier. As long as I keep showing up every day and writing whatever comes into my head, all will be well. Eventually, the ideas will fly like feathers in a pillow fight while I type as fast I can to keep from losing a single one.

But those days are not today. Today I have to leap again into the Dark Unknown of my story and take pictures with a flash as I fall. I hope I get some interesting images.

In case you didn’t get the earworm from this post, here’s C+C music Factory performing Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…. A nice dance tune for Monday. Enjoy!

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In Defense of NaNoWriMo — Writers Need Practice, Too

For most people, Halloween is a day for costumes, candy, and a good scare. For me, Halloween is the last day before November arrives and my last chance to prepare for the challenge that is National Novel Writing Month. (For those who don’t know, the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.) Every year, I see the same posts pop up. Some people are all for picking up the NaNoWriMo gauntlet, while others scoff and sneer. Originally posted in November of 2010, the following is my argument for participating in NaNoWriMo.

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Any labor honestly rendered is sacred. — Kurt Fristrup

I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts and comments about NaNoWriMo and I’ve found some of them disheartening. Many people seem to think that, if they are going to spend enough time writing to generate 50,000 words, they better have something of value when they are done. If they don’t start with an outline, well-developed characters, and a scintillating plot, then they believe that their time will be wasted. They’re afraid of writing material they will have to cut later. They’d rather be writing something worthy, something solid, something that they can publish. Otherwise, they ask, why bother?

I understand their concern. But I don’t agree that NaNo’s approach to writing is a waste of time.

Insisting that every bit of writing we do must be something we can publish at a future date is unrealistic. Think of professional musicians. If they only played when it was finally time to give a performance, they would stink. They spend thousands of hours learning their instrument and practicing scales without producing music worth recording. They play the same pieces repeatedly without any audience but themselves, and make a myriad of mistakes along the way. They wouldn’t dream of exposing others to their flawed practice performances and they can’t hope to perform flawlessly without some practice first.

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As a writer, I am no different. I need a lot of practice before I will have something worthy of publishing and I can count on throwing away a lot of writing before I reach that point.

In her CD lecture “The Creative Fire”, Clarissa Pinkola Estés talks about the myth of Persephone and how the young girl symbolizes the creative spark in us all. In Estés’ interpretation, Persephone’s whole job in life is to wander, explore, and play. Sometimes she makes things, but the product is not what she is interested in. She lives for the process, the fun of discovery.

The word wander resonates for me, because I do a lot of wandering when I am writing. With nonfiction, I have to get all the ideas in my head on paper, then see how best to fit them together to suit my purpose. With fiction, I need to discover who my characters really are, rather than who I expect them to be, and find out what happens to them. In both cases, I write a lot of words that don’t make the final cut. But I could never get to my final product without having wandered down a lot of dead ends along the way.

The great thing NaNoWriMo has taught me is how to let it rip in the first draft. Not only is it fun — I get to do whatever I want, follow any idea, no matter how quirky, and see where it leads — but the results are fertile. Sure, big chunks of what I write may be discarded. But amongst the muck I will find lots of seeds, and those will sprout and grow into an amazing story if I just collect and nurture them.

NaNoWriMo is not about the product, even though we are all counting every word and racing to have 50,000 of them written by November 30th. It’s about wandering in the dark, looking under rocks and in caves, digging out the gems and bringing them back into the light to share with others. We’ll probably find some rusty cans and old tires along the way, but if we’re not willing to wander, how can we hope to bring home the truly precious things we dream of?

Are you taking on the NaNoWriMo challenge this year? If so, find me on the NaNoWriMo site. I’m dappled_pony.

Planning for Novelists Who Hate Outlines

My story is out there... somewhere!
My story is out there… somewhere!

As a writer, I am a panster*, not a planner. The fun in being a pantser is I find out about the story as my characters do. I’m as surprised as anyone that the witch is a princess or that the sorcerer has a lion for a familiar. On the other hand, I ride off into the wilderness chasing my exciting story and there’s no guarantee I’ll discover a decent middle, let alone come to a good ending. As a result, I’ve got lots of half-novels full of potential, books that start off with gusto, then run off into the woods and vanish.

For this year’s NaNoWriMo**, I decided to push myself by adding something to the usual word-count goal. As I was gearing up for November, I came across two ideas that inspired me. One was the suggestion that the point of NaNoWriMo is to experiment. According to Chris Baty, if you aren’t doing something new, you aren’t really doing NaNoWriMo. The second was that planning your novel doesn’t mean you have to write an outline that’s 20 pages long. A short list of plot points or even a single log-line that tells the main thrust of the story can qualify as a plan.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a love-hate relationship with planning. I love the idea of outlining my novel. It sounds so organized and efficient, and who doesn’t want to be organized and efficient? In October 2012, I tried to plan ahead for NaNoWriMo. The more I did, the worse things got. A good story idea grows; new possibilities keep popping up and each option generates more ideas. But this story was heavy, wilting, dragging, dead. I wound up chucking the entire thing at the last minute. Having my story curl up and die made me even more gun-shy of outlining and planning.

Still, the idea haunted me. Planning would be trying something new, and given my history, also a major challenge. I decided to pick up the gauntlet. The various methods for structuring a novel all require you to know what happens before you begin, so those were out. I hoped to come up with a log-line to use as a target, but even that was something I couldn’t flesh out until I finished my draft. In the end, I listed the three life-changing plot points that occur 25, 50, and 75% of the way through the story, and forgot about everything else. I made sure that these guidepost scenes would be big, traumatic events for my character. I also paced my writing so that these scenes came at the right time. I kept a close eye on both my word count and the calendar as I wrote.

Because of my goals, I was forced to make things happen quickly. 12,500 words (about 40 typed pages) sound like a lot when you have to write a term paper. But when you are introducing an unknown world and have a tendency to wander, 12,500 words goes by in a flash. Fortunately, summarizing the boring parts and making lists instead of writing detailed descriptions saved me words as well as time.

Despite my tricks to keep me from being too verbose, I reached my guidepost scenes later than I intended. For each of them, I did the same thing: recalculated my final word count goal based on my actual word count, made a list of what had to happen before the next guidepost scene, calculated how many words I had to work with, and then decided what needed to be written as scenes and what should be summarized.

My complete draft is 63,000 words long and contains a complete story arc, so this simple guidepost plan worked for me. The story grew more complicated, richer, and deeper along the way, thanks to my generous muse (who is also a big NaNoWriMo fan). In fact, some of the wonderful gifts she brought me suggest I’ll be writing a sequel. First, though, I’ll have to figure out how to re-write what I have so that my complete draft is no longer sketchy as well.

*Pantser = someone who writes by the seat of their pants. Some people make charts, spreadsheets, and outlines before writing a novel. Others just wing it, and I am one of these.
**NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month, aka November. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Tools I Used Writing My 8th NaNoWriMo Novel

My magic NaNoWriMo hoodie. I wore this every time I wrote.
My magic NaNoWriMo hoodie. I wore this every time I wrote.

 

November is over and I’ve won NaNoWriMo* for the 8th year in a row. By this time, you’d think I’d be bored or feel like writing 50,000 words in 30 days was getting routine. I was worried that might happen, so I made a point of trying some new things this year, with surprising results.

The first thing I did was add a goal of producing a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Most of my previous endings were quick summaries of where I wanted everything to wind up, coming hard on the heels of an overly long beginning with little to no middle. This year, I was determined to produce a draft with all the components of my story and I did it, mainly because of some new techniques I tried.

First, I tried a little planning. I do not like outlines and too much planning kills my stories dead, so I kept it simple. I decided on three major events and used them as guideposts for the 25, 50, and 75% points in the story. Then I made a point of writing to each scene with the allotted word count by including only the most important moments leading up to it and sketching in the rest. I had to adjust my word count goals because I wrote more than I needed to (15,200 words instead of 12,500 for 25%, for example), but I kept working to hit the scenes on schedule.

The “sketching” was done using two handy tricks. First, I summarized the boring parts. When people needed to get from one place to another, I didn’t bother writing real scenes. I just wrote a few paragraphs about what needed to happen on the way. Second, I followed some great advice I got from Judy Fort Brenneman: I skimped on description. I found this challenging, because I enjoy writing description. I had to force myself to list the things I wanted to include in a scene instead of describing things in detail, but it really worked. Not only did I save words for the critical story stuff, but it also saved time, because crafting vivid descriptions requires thought. If there is one thing I mustn’t do during NaNoWriMo, it’s think too much. I’ll never finish otherwise.

The other big challenge for me was coming up with the complications and obstacles that happen in the middle of the story. I fed my muse with a list I made of all the things I thought would be great to have in my fantasy, adventurous things I always enjoyed reading about as a teen. Whenever I was feeling stuck and wondering what was going to happen next, I’d read my list. Something on it would jump out (like “kidnapping” or “prince in disguise”) and get lodged in my head. Then, overnight, my magical muse would take my threadbare idea and turn it into a stunning ball gown complete with jewelry and shoes.

The other thing I tried that was more help than I expected was drawing my story ideas on paper. When I had to plot out a journey, I drew little scenes to make a map. At first, they were disconnected. Then I added tracks and paths, and places in between. The events were still vague when I was done, but an inspiring detail came from that drawing. The mountains they were heading for wound up on an island instead of the mainland, which gave me a chance to add a sailing ship and a voyage, and that generated some great complications and dire circumstances.

Thanks to these techniques, I achieved my goals. My 2013 NaNoWriMo draft is over 63,000 words long, but it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even more surprising, it’s a complex and interesting story that has already given me ideas for a sequel. However, I think the most important thing that happened in November was that I learned some new ways to approach draft writing. Staring down the blank page is one of the hardest parts of being a writer, so I am grateful to have found some new ways to feed my muse and help move my story through the dark reaches of the unknown.

*NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month, aka November. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Why To Participate in NaNoWriMo in Seven Easy Reasons

Here I go AGAIN.
Here I go AGAIN.

On Friday, I will be starting my 8th NaNoWriMo * novel. On Twitter, I’m seeing lots of people debating — Should I? Shouldn’t I? — and I decided I should examine my own reasons for taking the challenge yet again. You could argue that I already have seven novel drafts to play with and don’t need any fresh material (although only four of them are worth editing), but I have seven good reasons for diving in, one for each of my previous NaNoWriMo novels.

1) A word count goal plus a crazy deadline means you value quantity over quality, something many writers blast NaNoWriMo for. However, it has been shown that focusing on quantity can lead to higher quality with time. A great story in Art & Fear** illustrates this point perfectly. At their first class, a ceramics teacher told his students that half of the group would be graded strictly on the mass of their output (50 lbs or more earned an A) while the other half would be graded solely on the quality of the work they produced. In the end, the best quality work was produced by those being graded for quantity. In their anxious push to do enough, they made lots of pots and learned from their mistakes. Those who knew they would be graded on quality were paralyzed by perfectionism. They spent more time thinking than throwing. Result: their work was far from great, and there wasn’t much of it, either. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in quantity that has improved my writing quality as well.

2) I need a change of pace. I spend most of my writing time working on a single project, and since it’s a novel that requires a lot of research, it’s taking me a long time to complete. I deserve a break but I hate to abandon writing for any length of time. So I let myself switch to writing a jet-propelled three-ring-circus draft and by the end of the month, I’m ready to go back to plodding along with my “serious” project, rejuvenated by my busman’s holiday.

3) It’s hard. I like to get to the end of the month and say, “Hey! I did it!” about this crazy goal. As I’ve noted, I’m intrigued by the audacious nature of the challenge and have to really push myself because I am not normally a write-every-day sort of person. I have to be disciplined enough to keep writing nearly daily even while living away from home and spending the holidays with family.

4) It’s an educational crucible. Concentrated writing at top speed condenses my creative process, making it much easier for me to recognize my own patterns. I know now that my process is cyclical and includes lots of standing on the edge of the cliff and wondering what’s next. Fortunately, I’ve also learned that as soon as I show up and write, no matter how lost I think I am, I will find my story again.

5) It’s a muse magnet. Even when I had lost all faith in myself as a writer, all I had to do was cut myself some slack and sign on for NaNoWriMo. My muse came running, her arms full of wonderful gifts.

6) You may not buy the idea it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. You may scoff at the writer rule of thumb that you have to write 1,000,000 words to find your voice or become a great writer. But skills improve with practice, and this is a great chance to hone your fast writing skills as well as your ability to think creatively on your feet.

7) Last and by far the most important reason: it’s fun. Letting myself write a silly story as fast as I can with my only goal to be at 50,000 words by November 30th has given me all sorts of pleasure. And if we aren’t enjoying ourselves at least some of the time, then what in the heck are we here for?

How about you? Will you be tackling NaNoWriMo this year? If so, be my writing buddy! I’m dappled_pony on the NaNoWriMo site.

*National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I’ve “won” seven times so far.
** by David Bayles and Ted Orland, p. 29.